Keith Fullerton Whitman is intimidating for a variety of reasons. He’s a large, bald, bearded, grandfatherly-looking man. In most press photos he is seen hunched over a tangle of wires and machines that look unintelligible to anyone without a degree in electronic music. He happens to have one– a Bachelor’s in Music Synthesis from Berklee– but that’s not why he was asked to hold workshops and lectures at Harvard, Dartmouth, Johns Hopkins, and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Those invitations were based on his successful visit at Harvard with Matmos, when they recorded much of their breakthrough album The Civil War, and then his subsequent solo work.
In the late 90’s he recorded as Hrvatski and started the Reckankreuzungsklankewerkzeuge (RKK) label to release his own work, but what we’re focused on here are his releases under his own name– 15 full-lengths since 2002. They’re divided roughly into three types. First, there was the “Playthroughs” system, which consisted of computer-processed instrumental music. Now, he plays both what he calls “Live Electronic Music” (improvising on hardware modular synthesis equipment) and “Studio Music” (transforming acoustic and electronic music through musique concrete methods). Lisbon is particularly representative of Whitman’s work because it marks an uneasy truce between the three. By the time of its release on Kranky in 2006 Whitman was apparently done with his “Playthroughs” experiments, but this piece is evocative of them at several points. It is technically “Live Electronic Music,” as it was recorded live in Lisbon in October 2005. That said, it uses field recordings more appropriate for his “Studio Music.” This, then, is a sorting out, a marking of his entire musical territory into the boundaries into which each respective project eventually retreats.
If this all sounds rather academic, well, it is. But Whitman’s work is enjoyable even for those uninterested in the intellectual aspect of the music (which goes far more in-depth than my vague definitions above would indicate). The tension between ambience and noise and the repeated succession of one over the other is hypnotizing to those interested in the physical sensation of pure sound. Listen below: