One of the most perplexing instrumental pieces I’ve ever heard comes at the end of the Frank Zappa’s three-disc guitar compilation, pointedly named Shut Up ‘N Play Yer Guitar. The song, “Canard du Jour”, is a duet between Zappa on bouzouki and jazz fusion maestro Jean-Luc Ponty on violin. Knowing that all of the songs were meant to show some mastery of the guitar in a unique way, I paid very close attention to “Canard du Jour” during the first listen. What I found was not an intricate, delicate bit of bouzoki/violin interplay, but instead a surprisingly rudimentary jam, something that sounded like it needed more takes to perfect. I’ve listened to the track countless times now and I’ve still to find what exactly “it” is within the piece. I know both musicians are prodigious in their craft, but compared to their best work “Canard du Jour” is kid’s play. It’s nonetheless a fun and sprightly piece, one I continue to come back with a desire to study its eccentricities.
This is a rather oblique way for me to lead into my experience with Occupied with the Unspoken, the Thrill Jockey debut for the duo Golden Retriever (Jonathan Sielaff and Matt Carlson). Their sonic, based around the formula of “monophonic instruments making polyphonic music”, is quite obtuse. This is, as the press kit glowingly describes, “layered” and “textural”, but both are filler words at best. They accurately describe the music, whose power solely rests in how layered it is. Like Zappa and Ponty’s duo, I feel like there’s something more than what I’m hearing, but no matter how many times I try to peel apart the layers all I get are a bunch of noisy electronic sounds. We can maybe give the two points for humor, considering that they named an instrumental album Occupied with the Unspoken. Zappa himself would have been proud, even though Golden Retriever’s music isn’t as fun to listen to. I try my best to read something better into the music, but I just can’t do it.
Bass clarinet and analog synth are the key ingredients here, though the former is so heavily processed it becomes like a synth itself. On “Serene Velocity”, the effect is something like sci-fi bagpipes. This idea recalls Bass Communion’s Indicates Void, where each song was an ambient take on a particular instrument’s sound; one of these was the clarinet. In that performance, the subtleties of the instrument were the focus, which the ambience lent itself to. Here, the exploration is usually quite loud, and after awhile very monotonous. You’ll hear another layer get added every now and then, sure, but it rarely does much to spice up these compositions.
There’s that time period when a young, aspiring musician gets ProTools (or some like software) and, after finding out how many cool synth patches there are on the MIDI interface, he just goes nuts for hours playing with all the different effects. This is precisely how Occupied with the Unspoken sounds like it was recorded. One of the guys would begin playing a note, then the other would join in with a slightly similar filter on his instrument, then the other, etc, etc. It’s fun in the moment; I’ve participated in jam sessions like that myself. But when I go back later and hear what I’ve recorded, 99 percent of the time it’s dreck. And while there are some pretty cool textures on Occupied with the Unspoken, for the most part it could have benefited from some editing and focus. In a live setting, this type of give-and-take could pay off, like an electro take on free jazz, but as it’s presented here not only is it unspoken, it’s unintelligible.