A line in the sand is meant to separate two items and to define them by their separation. The impetus for Line Drawings was to make a statement on behalf of experimental musicians: to separate the bland from the authentic. As the idea caught on, attracting not only musicians but artists, Line Drawings surreptitiously succeeded by sheer breadth, before a single note had been played. The project as it now stands includes a cassette of musical ideas from four separate musicians (Alice Sketches), an LP that defines these sketches (Line Drawings) and a series of five 7″ records in which five additional musicians and an illustrator are invited to join the conversation (Studies). As the project has taken on a life of its own, we suspect it won’t end there. The possibilities are endless: reinterpretations, remixes, collaborations, inspired continuations.
So what now is the line in the sand? The clearest line, that of quality, is typically difficult to define. Cody Yantis, Josh Mason, Joe Houpert, and Nathan McLaughlin set out to make “purposeful music” as opposed to “aimless experimental music” which they believe was “flooding the airwaves”. One’s immediate reaction is, “What airwaves?” Experimental music holds such a tiny piece of the market that even a flood of experimental music – any experimental music – seems like a drip of a faucet. But in terms of the experimental music market, the point is well-taken. As the person who reads all of the submissions to this site, I can attest that a couple things are clear: 1) Experimental music is not popular music; and 2) The word experimental is extremely popular. For proof, start checking the tags at the bottom of Bandcamp pages. If everything is experimental, then nothing is experimental. The term “experimental” is about to go the way of the term “alternative”, which once implied an alternative to the mainstream but eventually became the mainstream. This still leads to headaches among those who remember the earlier usage: if the alternative is mainstream, then the alternative to the alternative should be what was mainstream, but it’s not. One thing is clear: while most artists shy away from genre tags, these very same artists yearn to be considered experimental. Fortunately, Line Drawings is not only authentically experimental, it’s well executed, which brings us back to the line in the sand ~ these musicians offer creativity and variety without losing the average listener, demonstrating that experimentalism need not be esoteric in order to succeed.
Alice Drawings is the purest, rawest expression of experimentalism in the batch. Despite being the work of four musicians, it flows like a single suite. Ironically, the more polished Line Drawings comes across as less accessible, perhaps as the musicians had more time to consider composition. Mason’s murky guitar drones unfurl like soundscapes, while McLaughlin’s forays topple into abrasion and warp, scattering percussive pieces in their wake. Houpert offers shifting tempos and beats, albeit in a non-dancefloor fashion; his use of static links his work to that of the others, while his atonal strings help him to stand apart. Yantis is the darkest of the quartet, often content to form abstractions in silt. But trumpet connects him to the purity of Houpert, percussive bells to McLaughlin, squall to Mason.
By Line Drawings, the differences are clearer, the timbres further removed. The music seems more deliberate, almost refined, like a dry wine. Those who prefer their music sparse will be drawn to the latter. The musicians will have one more go-round on the 7″ series, and here they shine, challenged by new blood: Mary Lattimore, Anne Guthrie, Olli Aarni, Norm Chambers, Brad Rose, even illustrator Chris Koelle. Each combination seems instinctive, and the retro format is wonderful, the past and the future converging on the present.
In the end, the line in the sand has been drawn. First by ambition, second by scope, and third by execution, Line Drawings achieves what it set out to do. The project is one of 2014’s defining statements in experimental music. (Richard Allen)