AMN Reviews: Keith Fullerton Whitman – STS (2019; Bandcamp)

Two caveats to this review. One is that STS is a set of recordings from sound installations, and as such is missing the extra dimension of space – being able to control the mix of channels as you move about the installation. Second is that the release of STS contains several hours of sounds, and this review focuses on a 28-minute excerpt posted for free download. But spot-checking the excerpt against the official release suggests that the former is reasonably representative of the latter. So, onward.

Keith Fullerton Whitman is a sound designer and musician who has poked around the edges of synthesized and generative experimental music for better than 20 years. When listening to his output, you get a sense of controlled improvisation. He isn’t just noodling about, but instead is executing a master plan known only to him. He is process-oriented, and describes his technique as “the mapping of the frequency spectra of time-aligned formants to a catalog of full-range synthesizer signals yield[ing] a warm, attenuated field of sustained sound that ebbs through each space at a modest volume, inviting the listener to dwell on individual timbres, phrases, and conversations while assessing the overall sound-field.”

STS features layered drones, with varying degrees of harshness, fading in and out or moving from speaker to speaker. These constituent parts resemble everything from soft synth waves to grinding walls and sharp feedback, and each has its own character and texture. Typically at least two or three of these voices are present at any point in time. Similarities exist between STS and the musique concrète of INA-GRM in Paris (in fact, Whitman studied there for a while), but this would be more of a drone-based cousin to that loose style. Overall, this particular recording of STS is a baleful and moody amalgam that populates various points on the emotional spectrum from spooked to menacing high-tech horror (but avoiding any sudden transitions or jump scares).