Marley Starskey Butler – Opposites (avant-pop)

Entr’acte E112, 2012, CD album, 45m 6s

£10 (edition of 200)

Like all Entr’acte releases, Opposites arrives in a hermetically perfect, vacuum sealed package, simple metallic grey plastic with one colour printing in the exact same typeface and layout as the rest of their catalogue. There is something disturbing about its severity and its integrity; I have never been so reluctant to open an album sent to me for review, and had I been able to download the tracks I probably wouldn’t have. In the end I took a scalpel to it, and attempted to open it as subtly as possible, from the back, but ended up scoring a very visible line across the front as well. This moment of rupture inevitably contributes to the readings of the work, but it seems mostly representative of the irruption of the distributor’s agenda into the music, given that Marley Starskey Butler did not design the packaging, and probably didn’t have a relationship with Entr’acte when he recorded it (in 2009). To restore some expressive urgency to the physical presentation, the album is distributed with a colour postcard: it appears to show a very young Butler on the front step of a modest house, probably in the early to mid 90s, smiling, but slightly slumped, slightly exasperated, as if to say ‘surely you’re not taking another photo?’

This certainly seems to relate directly to the musical contents of the package, which sample (at length) what sounds like the author’s childhood. Memory and nostalgia figure prominently in the most readily available interpretations of the album, with very specific field recordings of informal, demotic speech, rendered distant by processing, their relationship to the other sounds in the tracks, the reverberant spaces they are positioned in, and presumably by their own character as audio snapshots. They are contextualised in fields of simple loops, acoustic instrumental motifs, and electronic sounds, all originated and manipulated by Butler himself. The one exception is the drum part on ‘Papa’, the opening track, an improvisation of some subtlety and commitment, performed by Cedric Monzali. Whether this was laid down in response to a completed track, or if Butler responded to the drums in his composition, there is a complex and meaningful relationship between the dynamics and timbres of the improvisation and the sounds that surround it. Elsewhere the approach is less ‘musicianly’, and more compositional, with an approach that is both collagist and narrative. Some tracks are built to wind around a single central element, and others are more episodic, most notably ‘21 Opposites’. In ‘Rowlands Avenue’, against the laughter of a child that we are clearly invited to identify as Butler, simultaneous guitar loops begin to interfere with one another, generating jarring dissonances, before they fall into silence, and the child goes on to discuss the conceptual possibilities of the sandwich (‘you can put vegetables in a sandwich, but… in fact, nah… not, not vegetables…’)

Butler states explicitly (on its Bandcamp page) that Opposites was made while he ‘was thinking a lot about the notion of opposites and how they need each other to exist … [he] wanted to put together opposing sounds’. I suspect he was analysing his practice, rather than working programmatically, if only because I doubt the resulting work would have sounded this compelling in the latter case. He talks about giving painful experiences a positive valuation, and exploring the paradox or contradiction of positive experiences co-existing with negative ones ‘like a blanket of nails’. This is consistent with the ongoing relationship with his own past represented in the speech recordings, and in the accompanying postcard, although there are few notes of dissonance there, and pain really only enters the picture at a well anaesthetised remove, sublimed into melancholy or a vague sense of regret. As far as the overt investigation of the ‘notion of opposites’ is concerned, it’s harder to read that out of these sounds. A principal difficulty is that sounds do not have literal opposites, although any categoric system is dualistic; so sounds can be categorised in pairs like ‘natural/ artificial’, ‘acoustic/ electronic’, ‘loud/ quiet’, ‘sonorous/ keening’ or whatever, but there are no stark contrasts in this album to make such oppositions seem central to its meanings. Consonant harmonies are not juxtaposed to harsh dissonances, very quiet passages to very loud ones, or dense textures to open ones. Acoustic sounds often rub shoulders with electronic ones, and recordings of informal speech with conventionally musical elements, but such combinations are too commonplace to clash or jar.

What we have instead is a mellow, moody representation of personal reflection and memory, a moving and evocative series of meditations on the relationship of the past to the present, and of history to geography – as evidenced in titles like ‘Rowlands Avenue’ and ‘Arnold Southfield’. The cyclicity of much of the musical material, and its episodic structures, point to the kinds of dream-like narrative that are readily constructed from personal experience, in contrast to the closures and apotheoses of conventional songwriting’s more contrived scenarios. There are subtle and open-ended experiences to be had from this music; nostalgia is certainly a part of it, but it is fruitfully ambiguous, inviting as personal a response as the kinds of introspection it evokes. The music is never ambient in the sense of lacking rhythm or structure, but it evokes atmospheres as much as it utters any statements or tells any stories. I’m unable to hear how Opposites fulfills Butler’s stated creative intentions: it certainly doesn’t represent the concept of ‘opposites’ in any way that I could decode. But as an album, taken on its merits, it’s a remarkably powerful and absorbing essay in the aesthetics of memory, that marshals an array of sonic resources with great sensitivity, intelligence and skill.

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