Jason Zeh: Heraclitus
Label: Crippled Intellect Productions
"A man in the quiet of the night
is kindled like a fire soon quenched."
The thought of Heraclitus survives only in rather enigmatic fragments and was a source for speculation and study by many of the leading lights of 20th-century continental philosophy (Heidegger immediately comes to mind). There is something very enticing about his fragments, for even though they are incredibly elusive in terms of meaning, after repeated readings, one feels closer and closer to reaching some kind of deeper, intuitive understanding that ALMOST makes it into language but doesn't quite get there. His images, much like the one encased within the fragment that Jason Zeh included in his new CD on Crippled Intellect Productions, strain against the easy dichotomies within which we often frame and shape our own experiences (i.e. good/bad, hot/cold, white/black, etc.); in this particular image, the second part of the metaphor, working with fire, is where the straining takes place. If a fire is kindled (the obvious read here on kindled would probably be started or begun, as with kindling) yet soon to be quenched, it may seem, at first glance, that the fire is started with the idea that it will soon go out; however, it seems more likely to me that quenched is meant more here as "satisfied", which may mean that the fire goes out, but it has also served its purpose. If we take it back a step further, then, thinking about the first part of the metaphor, if a man sitting quietly is able to be kindled like a fire, one might think of the fire as a sudden epiphany or insight, the spark of inspiration, which can definitely bring satisfaction, but the fire cannot and often does not burn indefinitely; the epiphany occurs and then subsides; there is no persistent dwelling in the epiphany over long measurable periods of time (even though within the space of the epiphany, time may suddenly shift). Of course, even as I construct this reading, I find myself drawn to other equally valid readings which take me off on other intellectual trajectories only loosely related to the one I have just laid out, but, again, this speaks more to the richness of his work than anything else; I can find a kind of satisfaction with one reading for some time and then return to the same deceptively simple fragment moments later and find some other meaning that is equally satisfying.
Losing one's self in such abstract language while attempting to engage with enigmatic text is comparable to my attempt to translate the kind of experience I have with Zeh's newest work, which I think of as a kind of "dwelling-in", inhabiting a sonic space which, as in my reading of Heraclitus' quote, creeps out of the quiet of a night of recording, sparks itself into existence, burns and burns and burns, and then extinguishes itself. I won't overemphasize the context of and mechanisms employed for the construction of this recording (all of which is detailed in Zeh's liner notes). Suffice it to say that most of Zeh's work is cassette-based, and this composition is no exception; fire and water (the potentially quenching force here?) are both employed as manipulation devices or sound reconstructors, and tape is recorded on and rerecorded on, layered and stripped away, dissected and reconnected, stretched and swollen. The recording pushes against genre or sub-genre-defined spaces, finding itself somewhere in between minimalist composition and DIY drone/noise without fully inhabiting either space comfortably, much like Heraclitus' images strain against the dichotomies which we employ to define ourselves and our world. Furthermore, as in Heraclitus' fragments, the end results of these processes and manipulations have a kind of elusiveness to them; you never quite know where he's going or where he will end up. Zeh, in certain respects, bucks the logic established by the majority of folk working in drone environments; most approach it from one of two perspectives: starting with a wide variety of layers and slowly stripping everything away to nothing or starting with one sound or layer and piling up to some brain-melting crescendo that then either melts away or simply ends. Zeh builds multiple narratives within his piece, stories which depend upon each other for cohesion but do not always dovetail each other in the almost mathematical fashion that one sees in a good deal of drone music. There are four or five distinct movements in the piece, each connected to one another by a sound either in the foreground or the background serving as the thread that binds all movements together; in this sense, it reminds me of Boggs-era Aaron Dilloway, less abrasive but equally as abrupt at times in the way Zeh transitions from movement to movement.
The beginning centers around what sounds like a primitive, quiet field recording, with bare glimpses of sound, clicks, clacks and hums. The second part comes out of animalistic squealing that spirals out and around the initial hum, building into a fleshy, fluid, slippery squall which is then itself enveloped in the warbling, thunderous, wider hum of the third section. As the fourth part begins, Zeh employs a transitional device that he often uses when playing live, where all of the raging blaze which has dominated the fire he has generated is suddenly swept away to reveal a quiet smouldering source which, unbeknownst to the listener, was stoking the blaze all along; the contrast can be somewhat disorienting (particularly live) because the relative loudness of sound is so drastically different when moving from one level of sound to the other, and it often has a physical effect as well, like a sudden shift in altitude has taken place without any of the potential nausea that can ensue. Orchestrally-speaking, it would be like moving from a brash horn section to one solo violin; thinking imagistically, it's like transposing the image of a candle behind a mansion on fire, with the picture of the mansion fading quickly into oblivion, leaving only the single flickering flame. On this recording, though, Zeh takes this process a step further, sweeping away the whistles, whispers, and moans of the fourth part to reveal an even deeper source which, sonically, reveals itself as cassettes slowly dying, stretched out over nearly ten minutes of time, as warbles and rumbles are enveloped in silence. It is a captivating piece, one that rewards time and time again on repeated listening, revealing new layers and meanings as one dwells in its flickers, flames, ashes, and remnants.