Listen closely to the numerous “lockdown albums” released in the past couple of years, and you might hear shared among them the tacit understanding that the cultural reckoning is still unfinished—that anything that attempts to capture what it’s been like to live through this pandemic would be inherently incomplete, and escapism is preferred anyway. The spring of 2020 echoes constantly, but silently.
Does Spring Hide Its Joy, a newly released longform drone piece by electroacoustic composer Kali Malone performed on sine wave oscillators alongside cellist Lucy Railton and Sunn O))) guitarist Stephen O’Malley, was conceived during those haunted months nearly three years ago. Malone didn’t set out to make art that reflects the broader pandemic experience. Instead, she created a musical framework in which to explore the evolving mindspace provoked by its blunted whiplash, giving the listener space to imprint (or release) their own emotions and memories and homing in on the illusory properties of time. “Unmarked by the familiar milestones of life, the days and months dripped by, instinctively blending with no end in sight,” she explains in an accompanying statement. “Playing this music for hours on end was a profound way to digest the countless life transitions and hold time together.” The piece is performed in 60-90 minute instances, but each performance is different, allowing for an ever-shifting relationship to the material and its genesis.
Endurance is a longstanding element of Malone’s music, but Does Spring Hide Its Joy makes it a central component. Each of the three presentations of the piece featured on this release are an hour long (subdivided into 20-minute movements), and, anchored by a shared tonic drone, they easily melt into one sprawling three-hour epic. The music breathes in slow motion, with massive exhalations of bass ceding to stretches of quiet consonance before the next yawning gasp. Change is omnipresent and can be dramatic, but there’s a veneer of stillness that makes listening feel like observing the swirl of a nebula; the spectacle exists on a scale that’s difficult to grasp in one sitting. The most effective way to ground oneself in the piece is to be with the music as it exists in the moment, listening for incremental shifts as they unfold.
What Malone describes as “hold[ing] time together” involves a process of letting go of traditional musical demarcations of time and forming new ones. Drone music is often perceived to lack rhythm, but Does Spring Hide Its Joy is abundant with it, just on different scales than many listeners might be used to. You can mark time with the moments when Railton runs out of bow and changes direction, which don’t occur at regular intervals. The constant ebb and flow of volume, intensity, and dissonance, which takes place in cycles of dozens of minutes, offers another rhythmic viewpoint. But the most fascinating occurs on a much smaller spectrum of time: As the trio builds up microtonal harmonies, warbling beats caused by harmonic interference contract and expand as the frequencies fall in and out of phase with one another. Depending where the listener’s attention rests, clock time, geological time, and quantum time each become observable.