The Portland, Oregon–based musician Marcus Fischer invited me to write liner notes for his album Monocoastal on the 10th anniversary of its release by the 12k Records label, run by Taylor Deupree. The reissue, on glorious vinyl for the first time, with a cover image by Gregory Euclide, will be released later this month, on June 18.
1. This Second Hum
There is music that one might hum, and there is another musical hum entirely. The latter is music as hum, music that approaches the quality, the substance, of hum itself — music that both envisions and enacts a deeper hum, something that the listener is not merely entranced by but ensconced within.
The first hum can feel intimate, certainly. It forges a bond between the original musician and the person who picks up the tune, who comes into sync with the source material through the process of exhaling melody. The subject music needn’t be intimate. One can hum a ballad, a symphony warhorse — even, and perhaps this is most often the case, a half-remembered song just at the edge of memory. This sort of humming often occurs involuntarily at first, and then the listener-hummer encourages the sense of connection by doing so consciously.
This second hum, however, isn’t mere connection. It is embrace. This second hum, the music that is itself hum, is music as environment, as atmosphere. It is music as activated soundscape, wherein the given aspects of a physical space (reverberation, warmth, size, shape, air current, noise from adjoining spaces, structural emanations such as creaks and groans) are enhanced, even usurped, through compositional intent. It is music that aims to amplify this essence of space, to reconstitute sonic spatial awareness into a higher order of sensorial experience.
Played aloud on speakers, music that aspires to this second hum slowly seeks out the contours of the room in which it is heard, and then it layers the enclosing walls as if with thick wool, with soft felt, with accumulated dust, pulling the world in close, making the setting ever more finite, cozy, personal than it was to begin with. Played on headphones, this second hum expands one’s mental space to another place, turns the headphone experience inside out, trading insularity for transportation, isolation for sanctum.
This second hum is the music of Marcus Fischer’s Monocoastal, a quiet beacon of an album released toward the end of 2010.
2. Life After Dust
Marcus Fischer began 2009 with a new website and ended 2010 with an album, twin exertions that exercised his skills and secured his voice as an exceptional musician of ambient and adjacent modes. Fischer’s site, which he titled Dust Breeding, opened with a simple plan: the goal was, he wrote, “to try and post one thing a day for the next year.” He proceeded to do exactly that. There was all manner of creative pursuit as 2009 unfolded, some figurative, some abstract, some practical, all handcrafted — and there was music, lots and lots of music, short bits of experimental sound that included tweaked field recordings and adventurous explorations of his equipment’s capabilities and restraints.
Often this equipment was bought secondhand and then put to use beyond its initial intent, notably tape recorders, the surface noise of which was exploited for its textural qualities. Even the newer utilities Fischer engaged with, such as granular synthesis — a process by which nano-slices of audio, measured in milliseconds, can be digitally extracted, looped, and layered so as to situate the listener as if within a frozen moment of time — were employed with a graceful hand.
True to the website’s name, the sounds Fischer created often had the quality of dust, sometimes of accumulated detritus, often specifically the dust as caught by a beam of light cast through a sliver of drawn curtain. The music of Monocoastal is fragments of sound slowly dancing, dangling, floating in a room cast upon wherever its listeners might find themselves. The accumulated creative tasks Fischer assigned himself daily on Dust Breeding were an autodidact’s curriculum. It cemented skills, and workflow, and processes. It refined techniques and contributed, step by step, to the accomplishment of unique artistic expression, and a deeply personal one at that.
All those happenstance moments were then put to work toward a formal document, not a collection of chance snapshots of off-hour woodshedding, but quite the contrary, a proper album.
Monocoastal arrived in mid-November 2010. Where before, on his website, there were short bursts of creativity, the sonic equivalent of sketchbook entries, this was finely honed, each of its eight pieces stretching out for extended periods of time, the shortest track three and a half minutes, the longest six and a half. In each, a deep underlying sonic foundation sets the stage for a cautiously choreographed procedural of interstitial elements: a squeak here, a piece of paper seemingly crumpled there, a knocked piece of wood elsewhere in the stereo spectrum. At times you might think it’s Fischer’s own bones creaking, so patient is his practice.
There are more traditionally understood musical sounds on Monocoastal, as well: strummed guitar strings, single notes enacted on electric keyboards, rung bells. But often as not, the sounds heard are offhand ones, not the perfectly fretted chord, but the fissure where feedback splits the air; not the initial physical ringing of a bell, but what comes after, the tremulous sine wave of decaying oscillation. And they are all recorded as if the microphone is as close as can be. They are heard as if in a room where the room’s sound is as important as what resounds within it. Monocoastal is like a house of eight rooms, each with its own tonally unique, subtle qualities.
3. Hypothetical Territory
If Dust Breeding took its name from a threadbare aesthetic, Monocoastal took its from a vast stretch of geography. Fischer was raised in Los Angeles, California, and has long been based in Portland, Oregon, and he is used to touring even further still both up and down the edge of the Pacific Ocean. As the album came together throughout 2010, he came to conceive of it as a representation of the land that he loved, often despite itself.
Monocoastal is an anthem for a hypothetical territory, and it is appropriately as expansive and dreamlike as the imagined region; it is sound at the edge of music for a land at the edge of the world. The zone he celebrates is one even more sizable (as well as more environmentally and ethnically diverse) than the Cascadia that many Northwest social visionaries have come to triumph. Cascadia is merely a subset of the mass that Monocoastal elects to map.
Taking a cue from that utopian ecological movement, there’s a track on Monocoastal titled “Cascadia Obscura,” its blurry beauty lingering like thumbprints on a window. The piece hints, at times, at an earlier revolution in quiet music, Miles Davis’ 1969 album In a Silent Way, much as another track, “Mossbank,” echoes the naturalist inclinations in Brian Eno’s 1970s recordings.
But while nods to such precedents can be discerned, the hazy throughline is Fischer’s and Fischer’s alone. His is a light touch that sets the dust spinning. Listen for the way tiny pin pricks move around the stereo spectrum as “Between Narrow and Small” comes to a close. Listen for the upper-register pings of “Monocoastal (Part 2),” bringing to mind retro-futuristic exotica, scifi promise rewritten with ukulele and wind chimes, lap harp and tuning forks. Listen for the gear-like motivation that churns quietly through “Wind and Wake.” Listen for the frayed timbres of “Shape to Shore.” Then get lost in the hum that is Monocoastal, succumb to its embrace, and let it fill the room where you are sitting right now.