Imagine music resides everywhere that sound can travel. It flows from the faucet into the sink each morning, creaks out of the loose boards on the way up and down the stairs, and, incredibly, buzzes in your sweetheart’s mouth as he or she snores noisily at 3 AM on Monday morning. The difference between music and not-music then pivots on the attention and consideration different sounds receive. Record them to tape, amplify and manipulate them, or set them into new patterns and a surprising, sometimes beautiful music can emerge. That’s the music of The Breadwinner, the first album in Graham Lambkin and Jason Lescalleet’s recently completed trilogy on Erstwhile.
Recorded in 2006 and ’07 at Graham Lambkin’s home in Poughkeepsie, New York, The Breadwinner claims to be a collection of “musical settings for common environments and domestic situations.” As it turns out, the music itself was derived almost entirely from noise captured around the house. Everything from water glasses to July 4th fireworks and squeaky hinges made the cut, so the music reflects the spaces and occasions for which it is apparently intended (tongue-in-cheek or not).
But the album isn’t just the product of two guys wondering about the kitchen, living room, and bathroom with various microphones and some magnetic tape. Besides the keyboard and piano used on “Listen, the Snow is Falling” and “Lucy Song,” the duo utilize their recordings as sound sources, deriving unearthly tones and igneous rhythms from the speeding up and slowing down of the source material. If the recording process doesn’t make itself obvious in one way or another, the quality of the various sounds still point to it. On “E5150/Body Transport,” a droning, out-of-body experience slowly resolves into a steady snore, suggesting that whole piece is actually an appropriated nightly annoyance. “Two States” compares and contrasts events that must have taken place at separate times. The mix is too solid, the balance too spot on for it to have happened without some tinkering.
Graham and Jason transform every room and make every object in those rooms new, whether by manipulation or by the arrangement of contrasting noises and complimentary sounds. Solid objects like the bedroom radiator or the fire place lose their rigid form and become malleable. That in turn gives the duo the freedom to re-contextualize everything, from mumbled voices to everyday appliances.
Mundane sources such as these typically keep emotional or communicative content well in the background. What we’re supposed to do is listen to the sounds as sounds, not look for a message from the composers. After all, how could a refrigerator possibly speak to a sane person?
Perhaps unexpectedly, Lambkin and Lescalleet have left something personal in the mix, so maybe the fridge does just that: speak. First, there’s the titles, which Graham and Jason probably understand better than the audience. But there’s a Black Sabbath reference in there, and maybe one fromThe Hobbit too, and the aforementioned “Lucy Song” sticks to the ears with its bittersweet melody. The music moves through several moods, some ominous, others calming, and the reason for either isn’t always clear. But the point is that the moods are there. So where are they coming from? “Listen, the Snow is Falling” can’t help but communicate with its stunning sense of stillness and beauty, some of which is generated by the simple presence of a flickering fire. Even if the song were called “Track One,” it would convey memories, feelings, and ideas.
And memory seems to be part of what Graham and Jason are up to with these songs. They make the lowly spoon and water glass speak to sensations usually provoked by rock ‘n’ roll songs, familiar melodies, conventional rhythms, and good books. The whole microcosm of Lambkin’s house is laid bare for those curious enough to check it out. But, what about the experience of finding those noises, or the people who were around when they were made? There are obviously human noises on the record, but the figures themselves are conspicuously missing, or at least hidden. Which brings up a good question: is the breadwinner of the title the two musicians who made the record, or is it the house itself? Could it be the world at large, or is it maybe an unnameable something else? That blank spot there between the lines, where the music echoes out from invisibly?