“Disembodied” by Jen Kutler
I went to Jen Kutler’s record release party for “Disembodied,” and I’m still processing it. Here’s the description of the album:
Disembodied is a series of audio pieces generated by the vibrations and movements captured by an electronic ring worn on the finger of a feminine spectrum body while bringing themselves to orgasm. The ring transmits nothing but data in a spreadsheet. This is the first step in a series of de-sexualization experiments seeking to discover the amount of separation required to de-objectify a feminine spectrum body. The spreadsheet is parsed in Pure Data to create a variety of MIDI files which are given synthetic voices to generate twelve sound pieces (one for each participant’s set of data. The timbres and textures draw from pure tones, field recordings, and granular synthesis to create long drones, complex harmonies and dynamic timbral shifts. Participating artists (data providers) include Rena Anakwe, Stephanie Germaine, Sofy Yuditskaya, Quintan Ana Wikswo, Meagan Johnson, Amelia Moon, Caroline Partamian, L.Barnes, Meg Noe, Jenn Grossman, Merche Blasco and Jen Kutler.
As the record played, there was the physical experience of the music itself. Sounds bounced in the room we sat in, so that I could move my head slightly to find nodes where certain frequencies became emphasized, or where I could different echoes or reverberations off the walls made it seem like space. It was a space I could move through, if even slightly, and the experience would shift accordingly. Somehow, then, the room became relevant. The furnishings; there were some ancient sofas that absorbed sounds, and other pieces that reflected sounds. The people. The disruptive click of the heating system. The dog walking through. Murmured comments. Sighs. Jen introducing each track by name, the name of a sound source. The name of a person. “Well, this is awkward,” she said at one point. “This is my track.”
I found myself wondering about the recording process. Transduction. Translation. Abstraction. The sounds were clearly mediated, processed through electronics and sensors and codes and spreadsheets, and then on through who knows what in a recording studio. The results were ambience, experience, motions. All in space. Disembodied and sent into the listening room. Rematerialized as sound, and sound cannot be contained.
The forms of the sounds, despite all these processes and mediations and transductions, felt organic. Natural.
Which are two of the least meaningful words I could use here.
At times I was reminded of whale song. Or cricket chirps slowed down 800%. Or the sounds of astronomical phenomena as picked up via radio telescopes. Or ocean waves. Wind. In this breadth of affinities, the usual categories of organic and natural expand beyond the usual limits. Galactic sounds are for science fiction, far removed from earthly sounds of water or wind or animals. This is another layer of disembodiment, I guess, in that the boundaries of body are exploded like the boundaries of earthliness. A connection is made, or an affinity found, between human bodies and the motions of the universe.
But we are listening to a certain range of human bodies. Feminine spectrum bodies. I distrust universalisms, in my experience, universalizing discourses tend to become authoritarian. But somehow this explosion of, if not specificity, then at least a small spectrum, into space itself threw my usual distrust of universalism into doubt.
As an Indigenous person, I have studied how colonial and imperialistic discourses are used to co-opt and consume our lands, our bodies, our histories, and our experiences into a purportedly universal narrative. We are treated as a minority, a flavor, a subplot, a kink in an imposed grand narrative of humanity. Our core philosophies become turned against us, so that a concept of all life being connected or related is used to justify extraction, exploration, and experimentation on our bodies, our cultures, our philosophies, our practices, and our lands. It seems that we have been objectified and universalized through platitudes and aphorisms to make everything about us available for the enjoyment, observation, collection, imitation, or domination of others.
But “Disembodied” left me feeling the possibility of multiple universes, not even in parallel, somehow apart, but also connected or somehow relational yet autonomous. I was left with no doubt that the source of these sounds, or at least the source of the data for these sounds, was something that I could never experience, because I exist outside the particular spectrum of bodies participating in “Disembodied.” I don’t regard this as a disembodiment, because clearly my body is present in the listening to this record. But that’s all I am present for, and if the project was to try to find how much separation was necessary to de-objectify a body, I think it went far enough. I hope it did, though I know how objectification is such a deeply engrained habit.
Those bodies, as evidenced by the mediated sounds, demonstrate relationships to the universe that I can get perhaps a glimmer of in the abstract while most of those relationships are far from my experience, and almost entirely unknowable. It is a universalism that largely excludes me, which makes me think differently about the usually authoritarian impulses of universalizing moves. It’s fantastic while avoiding projected fantasies. I can react to it, but I can’t make any claim to really understand it.
Of course the music sounds organic and natural; the source is natural. But that the source is made universal, by being pushed into sounding something like sci fi and somehow also nature, is itself a challenge. A dare. An impossibility for me to share because of all the layers of mediation as well as the total inability to understand via any amount of indirect, also mediated, experience I may or may not have had with female spectrum bodies. How ironic is it to be reminded of sci fi or at least cosmological sounds made through abstraction of a bodily experience? But for me, the direct experience of a female spectrum body reaching orgasm is even further out of reach than the surface of the moon.
I also couldn’t help but think about the place of this record in musical history. How much music has been dedicated to the emulation of the sensory experience of orgasm? A comically large amount. So much so that it has long been a stereotype, a trope, seemingly universally recognizable in form and/or pattern: rumbling beginnings, maybe a bit that sounds exploratory, a buildup, an obvious climax, and then some sort of release. This is so engrained into expressive forms that the preceding sentence can apply to narrative in any genre well beyond typical guitar solos or old Prince songs. And it is highly gendered, patriarchal in all the usual ways—goal-oriented, transactional, exploratory, conquering, and oddly acquisitive.
Those masculine emulations of sensory experience are also heavily mediated. I remember talking to some Baby Boomer guitarist who told me proudly that his band used to cover “Whole Lotta Love” in its entirety live. All I could respond with was, “But…. Why?!” The echoes, the panning, the overdubs were all a part of the sensory emulation of a man imposing his definition of ultimate pleasure onto a woman, which of course centers his own voice. Without studio augmentation, that shit would just be boring as hell, and even harder to listen to much less take seriously or whatever.
“Disembodied” doesn’t flip the script or turn that on its head. It is not somehow the opposite of that ridiculous part in the middle of Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love,” which is a ridiculous part in the middle of several other ridiculous parts carried out over a ridiculous career and a ridiculous life beyond music because, at least for a time, it was toxically instructive.
“Disembodied” is a condemnation of all that. A disavowal of sensory emulation. A refusal to have bodily experience made available for consumption. In the face of “Disembodied,” all that bullshit is reduced to absurdity. Banality. Triviality. Stereotype.
Kutler’s “Disembodied” isn’t about sensory emulation. Each track is a multiply-mediated abstraction of an individual’s singular experience. Small, perhaps, but also somehow a universe unto itself. There is no pattern, no stereotypical form, no pandering to expectations. Those limitations are nowhere to be found or felt here, and that reflects a level of liberty that is almost never reached, despite all the artists who may try.
Digital Download available here: https://jenkutler.bandcamp.com/
Order 12″ vinyl here: https://eyevee.org/press/product/jen-kutler-disembodied-lp/