For most composers and audio engineers, speaker feedback is something to be ardently avoided. Not so for Lesley Flanigan, who builds her own assemblages of speakers, electronics, and wood, then carefully layers feedback from them to build hazy, beautiful soundscapes that often incorporate her own voice. She can do all this live in real time, and many of her works were conceived as site-specific installations for various museums and performing spaces, putting her somewhere in the nebulous overlapping regions of electronic composition, noise music, and performance art.
Like many people who work in that liminal space, Flanigan’s background encompasses training in fields other than music — her undergraduate degree from the Ringling College of Art and Design is in sculpture, and her Master’s from New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program is in Art Technology. She is currently based out of New York City, tho her website lists performances at places all around the United States, and she has also toured at least once in Europe. If you’re interested in reading more about her process in creating and performing her works, there are some excerpts of her describing those in her own words over at CDM as part of a review of her album Hedera.
Altho that’s her latest album, it’s not the one that today’s piece appears on. Instead, we’re featuring the title track from her 2015 release Glacier. I haven’t been able to find any program notes for this piece and I’m not super connected to this region of the music world, so my ability to serve as a guide is going to be more limited than it usually is. Still, I have my usual ears, and “Glacier” does its thing in the realm of the audible, so I’m not totally at a loss. It begins with a few soft squeals and then a dull buzzing, interrupted periodically by the sound of metal falling on wood, perhaps a coin tossed onto a rough table. This is music that evolves gradually, so instead of sharp demarcations and abrupt changes, we get a slow, continuous morphing from start to end.
Near the three minute mark, ghostly voices can be heard behind the buzzing, and these soon well up into cool, clear undulations lurking just beyond its harsh edge. They begin to fade, but echoes linger, at least until there is a dramatic rupture of shuddering that sounds not unlike some mechanical device rusting thru and rending asunder. The repercussions continue to ricochet around the sonic landscape, and in doing so, they seem to draw the voices back out from the shadows, quieting the buzzing and introducing a new plateau of calm. A new voice enters below the first (tho this is, presumably, all being done by Flanigan with speakers and loops), and suddenly it’s not clear whether the remnants of the buzzing are from feedback alone or are a distortion of Flanigan’s vocal fry.
In the end, this gentle concord glimmers mostly out of hearing, but not before resting in an expansive moment, a pure and sacred glimpse of a longed-for transcendence. The buzzing fades. The rest is silence.