Smithereens is yet another one of my journeys into bringing visual stimuli to sonic fruition. In this case, my prompt and inspiration was Neo-Impressionism, particularly Pointillism. Last year I created an instrumental that eventually went on to be the title track of this project. The song was so complex in nature; I couldn’t even tell you where my mind was when I was arranging it. It wasn’t even a recording that I was sure I liked at first, mostly because of its frantic and composited structure. In an unrelated instance (or maybe it was related, subconsciously) I was reading about Georges Seurat and his role in leading the French Neo-Impressionist movement in the late 1800s. It occurred to me that this style of visual art was the only way I could describe the song that would eventually go on to establish Smithereens as a project. Initially when I began to lay out supporting instrumentals, I made stringent attempts to abide by the complexity of the concept song. I found that it couldn’t be done, and that the beat was truly a moment in time. I then decided to continue studying Pointillism/Divisionism and some of its key characteristics— the progressive yet realistic use of primary colors, lighting, contrast and also very importantly, movement— as my guide in arranging new instrumentals in their own unique way, while still keeping with the prompt.
In music theory, the parallel/counterpart to Pointillism is known as Punctualism. Punctualism essentially gives unique individual life to each note in a piece. Arpeggiated notes of varying pitches, lengths and dynamics take the place of the ‘colored dots’ that you see in pieces such as Seurat’s most famous work, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” The techniques were independently established of course, i.e neither gave birth to the other. Their juxtaposition is largely interpreted perspective.
Aside from accomplishing the unity of visual and sonic cues, an important goal for me with Smithereens is to define new, deliberate ways to use the Roland/Boss SP machines. I used The SP-202, SP-303 and SP- 404 for the project, recorded all of the songs with a unique style that involved recording long, live layering takes of my hitting a note loaded onto a pad repeatedly while riding the pitch effect at various parameters. Sometimes I would use the first note of a longer loaded sample to “tease” the sample in and out of the beat, as you hear on “Televised Chocolate”. This was solely inspired by my research into punctualism. In addition to the pitch effect, I used the time stretch function often for its distorting effects and also the unique pitch parameter in the DJ-effect-looper, all to provide a texture that sounds like a bubbling, composited arrangement of independent tones. Some songs, such as “CSG x CSG”, take a more literal approach to individual tones. Others, such as “Seuratcha Sauce” utilize a more textural ode to punctualism/pointillism. Other pieces offer both approaches.
When I realized this was a sonic-visual project, it was a no-brainer that the cover artwork had to go hard, and that it had to be representative. I was fortunate enough to work with several artists for this project. When discussing the visual possibilities, I received incredible insight from Anna Szymczak, a brilliant painter and activist here in Chicago. She suggested that I also look into the work of Russian abstract expressionist Wassily Kandinski. Kandinksi was a multifaceted artist whose works and styles span many phases, including but certainly not limited to pointillist techniques. He was a pianist and proponent of the unity of sound and color, often assigning tonal and chordal identities to colors. Kandinski’s pieces were more abstract than the Impressionist styles that had been exploring, but I found his work to be so undeniably inspiring, particularly the pieces created during his time teaching at the Bauhaus school in the mid- 1920s. These works were highly geometrical and design-oriented in style, and useful visual examples of Gestalt psychology— a theory focused on our brain’s ability to perceive things as whole as opposed to various parts. Kandinsky’s Bauhaus works were characterized by shapes, lines and strategically-placed colors, appearing initially to be chaotic, but actually quite unified. I found so much similarity to what I was doing with Smithereens in Kandinsky’s paintings, and in reviewing his work I felt a feeling of closure.
RasOm, who created the artwork for my last project, Constant Elevation: Odessa Star, took the reins on one of the two “Smithereens” covers. His work in digital pixel sorting is very similar in nature to the lighting techniques seen in Pointillist arrangements. He was able to chop and screw a great photo of a leaf print on a random sign in Northwest Chicago, taken by Mike Bump, and transform it into a piece that fit the original concept perfectly. Our other artist, Fonte, is a longtime friend of mine, DJ, beatmaker and painter whose works often reflect the sentiments of a roof dwelling graffiti writer born and raised in Chicago. His “Smithereens” piece has a brilliant comic-scene feel, was more of a literal interpretation of the project title, and is surely more Kandinsky influenced. However, the concept of realistic movement that exists in Impressionism holds true for Fonte’s amazingly detailed “explosion portrait”, which is actually an 11 x 15 inch painting of a technicolor plume with depth and texture.
Thanks for listening, visualizing, and reading. Peace and enjoy.