Learning Alphabets with Dominic Coles

Sunday 11 June 2023

Dominic Coles has been working on music that skirts along the edges of speech for some time, but on Alphabets he also skirts along the edges of music. As with his earlier Wandelweiser release everyone thinks their dreams are interesting, dreams are once again the material but not the subject. While that set of pieces transformed speech into short bursts of electronic noise, Alphabets presents itself as a lesson in translation. Most of the album is taken up by the fifty-odd minute alphabet 1: p-u-s-h, which takes snippets of speech from a recollection of a dream and juxtaposes the phonemes with a parallel context of associated electronic sounds. The sounds are thin and astringent, functioning as symbols instead of sensory allusions. The words are repeated, clipped short or cut long. “Repeat any word over and over and listen as it gradually loses its meaning in the mouth.” The electronic sounds may substitute words by repeated association, while simultaneously occluding any semantic connection between word, sound or reference. Silences are frequent, often seeming longer than the sounds.

Is it music? Yeah. With its pedagogical structure, somewhere between rote-learning and indoctrination, meagre sound resources and emphasis on language, Coles teases that he’s testing the boundaries of what might be considered musical while retaining the essential form and content. What really confounds the listener’s appreciation of this music is that it is impossible to ignore. It’s too alienating and intrusive to leave as a background, but almost too exhausting to listen to it closely. To take the piece’s apparent expectation seriously at face value, is to buy into a deeper conundrum that Coles is implicitly raising in his music, skewering the bien-pensant notions of music and language sharing some ineffable bond. As with any diligent pursuit of the idea, the more doggedly one pursues the supposed connection the further it recedes – this thwarting of assumptions may be the most challenging part. The album ends with two shorter pieces, each presented as applied learning from the first work: two more dream fragments with more verbal context yet also with greater periods of sound alone, perversely rendering both more disorientating that what has gone before.