In Death Bag, Chris Wiersema (half of the ambient doom duo Lwa) plays electronics gizmos and Gabi Vanek, a veteran performer in the experimental live music scene who has grown up in the shadows of the University of Iowa School of Music, plays live and electronically altered bassoon.
If you hear “experimental live electronic music” and shout “where do I sign up?” then this recording is right in your wheelhouse. If not, it can be a challenge. Melodies and steady rhythms are mostly absent here. Wiersema and Vanek construct their own audio vocabulary separate from, but related to, more conventional musical forms. It’s abstract the way Jackson Pollock’s paintings are abstract. The sound itself is the subject, in the same way as Pollock’s loops and spatters of the paint are their own justification.
“Stray Voltage” stutters into life with the crackle and moans of damaged audio gear. Altered bassoon loops in short fragments as Vanek adds a layer of live playing. Raw frequency-modulated square wave oscillators provide squeals and rough, digital noise bursts. It sounds like street-level recordings of urban warfare, with sirens and alarms mixing with distant gunfire and explosions.
“Morphemes” follows with slightly more tranquil sustained drones. Vanek bends the pitch of her bassoon slightly to interact and interfere with the electronic drone. Playing two sounds with very close pitches as she does produces the audio equivalent of moire patterns. The combined sound shimmers and writhes. The live bassoon intertwines with Wiersema’s samples and processed bassoon to arrive where the listener can’t distinguish live and electronic sound.
“Hue and Cry (Derecho)” is based around recordings Wiersema made of the winds during the 2021 derecho. It isn’t clear what makes the piercing cries that float in the storm noise, but that estrangement in the sound is what keeps it unsettling and interesting. It’s as close to being music with a definite subject as Death Bag gets, without just being that. The listener hears the chaos and fear of a natural disaster, but also the sound of the performance in the moment as pure sensation.
“Slavering Filth Pig” blooms in sustained string orchestra chords out of the hysteria of “Hue and Cry,” as Vanek improvises melodic lines around Wiersema’s unreal orchestra. It’s lush, romantic music with reassuringly conventional sounds, but still connects to the glitches and explosions of distortion that surround it. It flows seamlessly into “Terminal Burrowing” where the chords are displaced by harsh noise bursts. Any concept of conventional musicality disappears in a fat wash of digital noise, with looming drone notes simmering in the mix.
This is a recording of a live performance, the goal of which was a shared experience — something that’s been rare in the last two years. On the musical continuum from the inhuman perfection and artifice of (for example) the Carpenters to the perfect disorder of white noise, Death Bag lingers at the point where ordered music and chaos are equally possible. If you surrender to it, it can be scary or blissful, or both at the same time.
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 304.