During the last few years, Sufjan Stevens and his stepfather Lowell Brams liked to fool around with electronic instruments at Stevens’ home. They recorded hours of music and then would pick out the best parts and construct short songs out of the material. Stevens admitted, most of what they taped was just disposable experimental nonsense. “You know how it is with jamming: 90 percent of it is absolutely horrible, but if you’re just lucky enough, ten percent is magic,” Stevens said in the press release for the album. Aporia collects the enchanted constructions.
The album is quiet. The 21 tracks are short, slow and soothing. “For Raymond Scott”, an off-kilter tribute to the composer and pioneering creator of electronic instruments, lasts a brief 35 seconds. The longest cut, the three-minute and 35-second-long “The Runaround”, is one of the few songs with a human voice that can be heard indistinctly for about 25 seconds. What is being said seems less important than the sound of a human being in the mix. Whether the listener is literally getting “The Runaround” or the song’s title means something else altogether is also not clear.
As suggested with “The Runaround”, Stevens and Brams gave their compositions a variety of names whose purposes are not entirely obvious. Some are arcane ancient Greek references such as “Ousia”, “Agathon”, and “Ataraxia”. Others are obscure English language words, including “Misology”, “Palinodes”, and “Matronymic”. Still more offer common parlance, like “Disinheritance”, “Climb That Mountain”, and “The Red Desert”, but all of the songs are largely instrumental and sound somewhat alike. It would be impossible to match most of the track titles to the songs just by listening. The album’s title itself, Aporia, refers to an unsolvable puzzle and seems an appropriate play on the naming of the individual cuts. Please note that there is no track itself named Aporia as it stands for the contents as a whole.
Although Stevens and Brams originally recorded the material alone, they employed several contributors to create the finished product. Many of these have recorded for the Asthmatic Kitty label (originally founded in 1999 by the duo to release Stevens’ material), including Thomas Bartlett, D.M. Stith, Nick Berry), John Ringhofer, James McAlister, Steve Moore, Yuuki Matthews, and Cat Martino. It’s difficult to discern who did what here, but that is kind of the point. The music is meant to flow seamlessly. There are no stunning individual solos or collaborations. It’s just there in the way the sky is just blue, or water is wet. It doesn’t matter if there are clouds above or rocks in the river, the totality is bigger than its parts.
Aporia is ambient music meant to calm and provide a background to the quotidian aspects of one’s day. Pondering what it all means is a thankless and irrelevant task, although one can’t help but wonder what the other 90 percent Stevens referred to sounds like. One needs to listen to it without hearing it—which itself is a type of aporia—a riddle that can’t be deciphered even when one already knows the answer.