Summer may not sound like summer, but that’s okay, because the season has just ended in the Northern Hemisphere. Instead, Sonae‘s album is an ode to a lost summer ~ the summer of 2020 ~ and a warning that future summers may head in the same direction. COVID is nothing compared to climate change, which is the result of human action and inaction, a point hammered home in Jennifer Trees’ powerful video installation. The partnership between Sonae (Sonia Güttler) and Trees has produced one of the year’s most stunning documents.
The cover photo implies peace, tranquility, and given the time of year, a tinge of melancholy. The emptiness implies human desertion, the story of many a pool in 2020 (and 2021). Sonae’s album was commissioned pre-pandemic, but recorded during the initial surge, which produced a convolution of seasons and reactions, including seasonal affective disorder in a time of warmth. As Leah Kardos writes in her expressive liner notes, summer has no agency or intention, but “holds up a mirror” to reflect our expectations and projections, hopes and sins.
Seldom has a piece titled “Summer” from an album of the same name sounded so foreboding. The piece starts in mid-drone, atop a wash of waves, followed by an assault of electronics. When the beats arrive, they sound like sluggish goths, enervated by the world. Visually, Trees establishes the template for the project: a split screen whose right half is sumptuous and whose left is unnerving. The ocean images are only slightly marred by the appearance of a plastic bottle. But then there are more plastic bottles, more and more; an attendant wastes water washing down chairs while tourists pack themselves in like lemmings and raise towers to the heavens. The phrase “turn a blind eye” comes to mind; cover the left image and all is well.
Then there is “Steam,” the condensation of the heavens contrasted with the factory byproducts. Sonae’s music also picks up steam, underlining the urgency. Gorgeous geysers share split screens with smokestacks. A message is conveyed without a word: low notes, dark tones, a sense of flow: but in which direction? Now city lights, accompanied by views from space: the death of natural light, robbing humans of the sight of the stars. When the stars cannot be seen, do soft wishes and humble prayers diminish as well? Look ~ the right screen is polluted as well. What is the cost of our pursuit of artificial beauty?
Trees makes even the desolate seem beautiful, in the manner of Ron Fricke’s Qatsi trilogy. While Philip Glass’ score nestled in ambience and Jeremy Bible’s score for his own excellent Human Savagery ventured into drone, Sonae’s vision is futuristic and electronic; one might even call it dystopian. “La Nuit” introduces a Bladerunner pulse over neon images; the tension builds; the flashing lights grow ever more soulless until only mechanical clicks and echoes remain.
For the first time, both images match. “Soleil Noir” displays the blinding sun, then fades to black amid rustlings and faraway notes. Do we like the sun? We do, as much as we love strip mining. Sonae mingles natural and industrial percussion until the listener is no longer able to tell them apart. And now, the sights and sounds of summer: pools, barbecues, sun bathing! Oh how happy we are, scorching the beef that kills trees in the Amazon while wildfires rage across the globe. Wait, did you not want to read, hear or see that? Simply cover the left screen, it’s safe again.
Sonae’s “Heat” turns to requiem. We’ve had our time in the sun. We’ve increased the temperature of the globe. We’ve gotten more of what we wanted and less of what we needed, and perhaps our summer as a species is over as well. No one will remember our blaze of glory. (Richard Allen)