The Hermetic Composer’s Dream

Four Tet, Ghost Funk Orchestra and the power of splendid isolation

Four Tet and Ghost Funk Orchestra (Art: Ron Hart)

While searching for the proper adjective to describe the style and qualities of the words someone writes in a diary, I stumbled upon the term “diaritic.” This sounds a lot like “diuretic,” which I fear is no coincidence. What follows is an exercise in expulsion of waste, in, as L. Cohen sang when he covered the old Dick Blakesee number, “passing through.”

Has it really been two weeks already, have I already been 14 days a hermit? Do those of us given the choice to work from home finally realize our privilege? And if you’ve been holed up in your apartment for 14 days (only emerging scarcely to visit your bodega, collect non-perishables from the Dollar General, and go into the office two Mondays back to grab a beer with a colleague), have you been adequately social distancing?

We all deal with uncertainty in different ways, but if the last week has made anything clear, it’s that unknowing is the greatest unraveler, a surefire trigger of latent psychoses, a dose of reality too potent for patients with pre-existing anxieties.

There’s solace, though. As the stalwart scenesters in my orbit lament the cancellation of their friend’s shows, we’re reminded that a near-instantly defunct touring economy for musicians is not (and never was) sustainable, and start to learn more about how to support artists properly. You can buy their work directly from them, dontcha know. Stream the music if it’s easier, but pay them on Bandcamp first. 

Social distancing has been the phrase of the past two weeks, and two albums were released that illuminate the power of sound as shared experience. Not just the healing, calming or spiritually soothing qualities of music, but its practical function—the survival energy. It feels like no coincidence that Four Tet’s Sixteen Oceans came out this past Friday, but first let’s talk a bit about Ghost Funk Orchestra.

Ghost Funk Orchestra

Brooklyn-born Seth Applebaum’s salsa-garage-psych act started as a home recording project, but with a 10-piece band and LP2 in the can, it soon morphed into a full-fledged party featuring horns, three singers, and plenty of cut-time groovers.

Applebaum decided to use this social distancing to remix GFO songs, starting with “Blood Moon.” Taking to Instagram Stories to document the process, he explained that this tune was originally planned as an acoustic remix but had to change when “my acoustic guitar [didn’t] play nice with other instruments.” 

You can hear the “Blood Moon” remix on GFO’s Bandcamp, the first track of his impromptu “Songs from Quarantine” album. The remix is very good, but I’m mostly fascinated by how quickly he snapped into gear here— no hesitation, no trepidation, just a kid who does what he can because he can’t imagine himself doing anything else (isn’t that what writers always say about why they write, too?)

“On one hand, being creative during a time of self-quarantine is merely a way to keep from going stir crazy,” he told me.  “On the other hand, it’s an opportunity to connect with fans and provide some entertainment while all nightlife is being banned. It would be easy for me to just make music on my own as normal, but given the circumstances I felt compelled to document and share all the steps of my creative process in real-time. In a way, I feel even more connected with our followers now than I did before.”

Applebaum doesn’t have his band locked in his basement with him, hence the impulse to remix, which got me thinking about electronic music’s power  to generate remote intimacy. That’s a quality my favorite electronic composers have always exuded—I used to just classify this as IDM, but maybe what was really intelligent about the dance music in the first place was its power to make me feel right there, even without the subwoofer and ecstasy and body glitter and light show to dupe my synapses into feeling like I was experiencing something real.

Among those composers, Four Tet (the nom de guerre of Kieran Hebden) has always stood out for his similar mastery of such sonic intimacies. He shed the folktronica label years ago, embracing more digital methods of production and delving deeper into dance music while keeping warmth a priority.

Four Tet song titles have always evoked a specific place, action, sentiment or mood (“Parks,” “Sing,” “’She Just Likes to Fight,” ”Everything is Alright,” and the new album is a continuation of that stylistic decision. There are 16 tracks on “Sixteen Oceans,” implying each song contains a vastness that their simple titles imply they may betray (“Baby,” “Green,” “Romantics,” “Hi Hello”).

Four Tet (Art: Ron Hart)

But it’s in the seemingly sampled found sound of the minute-long “Bubbles at Overlook 25 March 2009” where I’m reminded that Hebden doesn’t see any line between organic sounds and electronic sounds. Sounds exist to him in function of feeling, and feeling is immortalized when those sounds are recorded in a way that allows the feeling to resonate. 

Those immortalized feelings, labeled by Hebden as specific words and phrases that may only ever be fully deciphered by him, sound almost anthropological.

You must have at least considered that this was it, you being stuck wherever you are, just you and your hand sanitizer, toilet paper and nonperishables, socially isolated until the end of civilization. Where would a record of the art we’ve made here together even exist? In the 1’s and 0’s of cloud storage, or on your streaming services?

Four Tet’s music is primarily consumed in digital form, but it exudes a warmth that invites physicality, whether that physically manifests as vinyl or your awkward, downtempo dance moves. If Sixteen Oceans did in fact mark some page turn in the cosmic ledger of humanity’s travails, we would be remembered as beings who felt, beings who moved. The time capsule of our years on this planet would surely vibrate, or at least hum, on its own accord.

Maybe this is the hermetic composer’s dream. Here in isolation, distanced from the rest of humanity, these sounds send up a digital flare into the air—not of emergency distress, but of hopeful recognition. There’s life over there, and we can still feel it.

For now, that’s got to be enough. 






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Justin Joffe

Justin Joffe writes about music, art, technology, and other cultural treasures. Reach him on Twitter @joffaloff.

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