Music

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and the Secret Life of Synths

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Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s wondrous new album, The Kid, was hatched in a sound garden attached to her home in Glendale, California. A compact chamber that appears to be a converted garage, the studio is crammed with vintage analog synthesizers. There’s a Prophet 5 and a Eurorack, but the pride of place goes to a Buchla, the modular synth that first sparked her passion for electronic sounds.

Alongside technology, the room teems with vegetation. Smith has often talked about how her creative process requires the presence of “a plant nearby.” Look closer, though, and the tendrils of ivy strewn everywhere turn out to be plastic. So are the plants in little hanging pots. “I’ve tried to put real plants in here,” says Smith, sighing. “I even tried pretending I have this ‘pet plant’ that goes everywhere with me and I’d bring it in here from outside. But plants just don’t like it in here.” Her other artistic prerequisite, natural light, is also poorly supplied by the near-windowless space. So Smith came up with solutions: Fairy lights pulse through a translucent sheet tacked to the ceiling, while foot-level bulbs flicker, creating an effect like light reflecting off water.

All plastic and wires, synthesizers seem about as far as you can get from the organic. But Smith has a different view, preferring to see synths as just as Gaia-given as a redwood or a pond. Using a machine like the Buchla, she’s always felt “like I’m getting this rare opportunity to sculpt electricity.” And electricity, she points out, is a natural phenomenon, from the messages flickering through our nervous systems to the lightning sparked by the colliding of clouds.

Smith has no interest in making the kind of forbiddingly abstract electronic music that fills the mind’s eye with images of cold, inhospitable regions of outer space. Her sounds are terrestrial; these electronics are fully Earthed. Instead of stark angularity, Smith emulates nature’s undulating ornamentalism, its baroque splendor of curlicues and folds. Waxing a little mystical, Smith enthuses about the way her synths run on alternating current: “With A/C, there already is that breathing feeling — you feel that there’s life in there.” She returns to this idea when exalting the Buchla’s operational mode, which lets the user “set up all these environments for unpredictability and movement.… It makes things have a lot of life.”

Surrounded by living things is how Smith grew up. She was raised on Orcas, one of the San Juan Islands in Washington State’s Puget Sound. Thanks to the rainy Pacific Northwest, it overflows with moss and wildlife. Every year, the village of Eastsound elects an animal as mayor, usually a dog, though the current officeholder is an actual orca, a killer whale named Granny. This all sounds more than a bit hippie, but Smith prefers to characterize the inhabitants of Orcas as “people with a deep appreciation for nature.”

Smith worked on a farm when she was young. “I also worked at a raw goat dairy,” she says. “And there were always horses around. Living in L.A. is the first time I’ve not had a connection at all times to a living thing.” In her twenties, when she returned to Orcas after studying composition and sound engineering at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Smith became involved in homesteading, a hardcore form of do-it-yourself in which you make everything you need in life — food, clothes. Smith even went as far as trying to make her own pencils. She also abandoned money. “I would go to the doctor and say, ‘I’ll give you this round of cheese I’ve made in exchange for a checkup,’ ” she recalls. She relied on barter for a full year. “That’s one of my happiest memories, that time — I was learning so many new things I just felt overwhelmed with joy.”

Most people on Orcas are agrarians or artists, and it was during her homesteading period that Smith was introduced to the Buchla by a neighbor. That opened up a different kind of do-it-yourself — electronic sound-molding — which bore fruit with early Bandcamp releases like Cows Will Eat the Weeds and Useful Trees. As the titles indicate, these were direct responses to her surroundings, what she could see out of her window. Eighteen months ago, between the release of 2015’s Euclid and last year’s EARS, she moved to Los Angeles and began to amass some serious critical acclaim, profuse with imagery of flora and foliage, prompted in part by tracks named “Wetlands,” “Rare Things Grow,” and “Existence in the Unfurling,” and in part by the succulent panoply of her textures.

Along with natural ecosystems, Smith’s music can also make the listener imagine a children’s play environment: an inflatable bouncy castle, or a kindergarten flooded with iridescent bubble bath foam. That’s intentional on The Kid, a concept album that tracks an individual life across four stages, from birth to death; on double vinyl, each album side corresponds to one stage of life. There’s a faintly New Age aura to the project. Many of the song titles resemble affirmations (“I Am Curious, I Care,” “I Will Make Room for You,” “I Am Learning”); Smith says they are meant to be read sequentially “like a poem.” As well as a celebration of life in general, the album is a celebration of a particular, and particularly dear, life now lost.

“Through growing up farming and being close to the life cycle,” says Smith, mortality “has always been on my mind. But when I lost this person, it was a big slap of that, and it kind of burst with this really intense urgency in me to not waste a moment.” She says the most important lesson of her loss was “realizing that I want to play — that’s a really big part of who I am, and it was also a real big part of the person I lost. So I really wanted to just encapsulate that playful energy and put it in other people’s environments, if they want it.”

Another influence on The Kid was composer Henry Cowell’s 1930 book, New Musical Resources, which tracks our evolving ability to cope with dissonance. “It really turned my wheels in terms of thinking about where are we at now, in terms of the evolution of our hearing,” Smith says. “We’re totally fine now with atonality — there isn’t really a shocking interval anymore of the kind that once caused riots in audiences, like with Stravinsky.” Smith sought a new cutting edge in simultaneity and stereophony: the audio equivalent of Bowie’s alien character in The Man Who Fell to Earth, who is so advanced he can watch a dozen TV channels at the same time. “One of my favorite things to play with when I’m in a group of people is listening to multiple conversations at once and really trying to hold on to each one. So on The Kid, I’m really playing with the left and right channels. Because so many people listen to music on headphones now. I had to keep rewriting the music so many times in the beginning because it just sounded annoying!”

Smith has zero interest in annoying the listener, or otherwise subjecting him to an extreme experience. The term avant-garde came from the military originally and still retains an aura of ruthlessness, envisioning artistic innovation in terms of ambushes on middlebrow sensibility and daring maneuvers that outflank bourgeois complacency. Smith’s approach could not be more different. She uses the phrase “comfort and novelty” to describe the inspiration she gleaned from minimalist composers like Terry Riley and Steve Reich: the way their rippling patterns gently propel the listener ever forward, as opposed to the terrifying leaps into the abstract unknown proposed by other forms of experimental music.

Smith’s project centers on naturalizing the unfamiliar (electronic sounds) while also bending the known a little out of shape. Where in the past she’s made synths sound organic, much of The Kid involves making so-called natural instruments like bassoon and cello sound like synths. (She processes her vocals even more than in the past; sometimes they function as another synth, sometimes as a choral multitude.) One focus of these experiments was the trumpet, a sound she’s always found grating. Smith decided to conquer that aversion, which required softening the trumpet’s stabbing attack and muting its military peal. “There was a lot of blending. Sending it through the synth and breaking up the harmonics to slightly delay them, so that the trumpet sound has a softer onset.” Smith adds, “Whatever I’m frightened of or I’m bad at, I love stepping closer to that to see what’s there.”

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