I’m listening to the longest album ever made. Well, that’s how it’s described by Terre Thaemlitz, the artist who pieced together 32 hours’ worth of music and released it under the name Soulnessless earlier this year. However, I doubt that it’s the longest anything ever made, considering the current obsession with breaking boundaries in art. And In fact, it’s not really an album at all, but rather a quite extraordinary multimedia artwork… but before we get into that, I’ll briefly explain the simple facts.
Soulnessless consists of five tracks, called ‘cantos’ by Thaemlitz. The first four last about an hour and 20 minutes in total. The fifth canto is the biggie: it will happily consume 30 hours of your aural life without blinking. What does it sound like? Cantos 1-4 are electro-acoustic ambient pieces with piano and field recordings, while Canto 5 is a minimalist solo piano piece: nothing but long sustained chords, over and over again. For 30 hours.
The scale of this thing raises a lot of technical questions. How was it made? Apparently Thaemlitz just sat in front of a piano for 4-6 hour sessions and played the chords, then edited the recordings together. How is it distributed and listened to? It comes on a 16GB SD card, which you plug into your computer. You’re advised to copy all the files onto your hard drive before attempting to hit play, and you’re warned that Thaemlitz will not send you another SD card if you accidentally wipe it, so be careful! And it’s not just audio files that you have deal with: there are lots of video files and PDFs on there too.
I imagine this will be quite off-putting for a lot of people. As listeners we’re more concerned than ever with the presentation of music as a cultural artefact; consider the on-going fetishization of vinyl, for example. We want music to be a finely-crafted aesthetic experience. In contrast with this, preparing to listen to Soulnessless feels a bit like installing a new operating system.
But make it past the set-up stage and you’ll be rewarded with something quite remarkable. It turns out that what Thaemlitz has really made is a kind of video art. Cantos 1-4 appear in full on the soundtrack, the essays in those PDFs form the narrative, and the visual content was all produced by Terre as well. These are not music videos in any normal sense, they’re highly personal, thematically-related mini documentaries/film essays about religion, gender, technology and power.
That might sound dry, and it’s true that Thaemlitz is not afraid to be academic, but there is a conviction behind all this that is quite compelling. ‘I hate religion. I hate all religions. Without exception. Yours too… I have never encountered a form of spirituality that did not involve the reification of ignorance.’ That’s a fairly unequivocal way to start, but it’s not all straight up God-bashing. It quickly becomes apparent that Thaemlitz has thought very carefully about the topics he discusses, and some of them have been affecting him since childhood.
I think it’s fair to say that the music and imagery are secondary to the ideas being presented explicitly in the text, but they are certainly evocative and unusual, propelling Soulnessless beyond video essay into a form of multimedia art. I’m not going to attempt a critical analysis of Thaemlitz’s work, but I imagine that lots of other people will want to: it will be useful for anyone studying radical ideas of (trans)gender within Catholicism; illegal immigration of Filipina(o)s in Japan; modern ghost stories; the electronic audio equipment used in convents; the ‘militarization of U.S. Catholic Schools as Army and Navy training grounds’.
In part two of this article I’ll discuss Canto 5: Meditation on Wage Labor and the Death of the Album, aka The Thirty-Hour Piano Solo that Crashed Your iTunes.