Music We Care About #1

“Sounds to be Unheard: Reactions to Evan Johnson’s die bewegung der augen
by Ray Evanoff

After listening to Evan Johnson’s die bewegung der augen (“the movements of the eyes”) several times, I realized I didn’t even know what it sounded like. More than a year after my first listen, I’m still not confident that I could describe the piece in a way that gets to its core. Because that very core seems to be made of ephemerality. The single best word I could use to describe this music is “evasive.” It seems built to circumvent the mind, even while speaking directly to the ear.

When characterizing a piece, we talk about its sound world or its form or its general mode of operation, depending on what that work seems to prioritize. But how do we talk about a piece that suppresses itself? This music conceals rather than reveals its own identity. At times this elusiveness seems proactive, a purposeful obscuring, not to complicate but simply to hide. Other times this indefiniteness seems the product of a self-critique, as if the music’s self-consciousness prevents it from emerging. Awkwardness compounding itself that impedes comprehension.

My mind consistently fails to capture an image of die bewegung der augen, so that each time I listen is like hearing it anew. I have yet to benefit from the familiarity that usually comes with repeated listenings. This impression is mirrored within a single hearing: I am constantly trying and failing to find footing, almost in spite of myself. It’s as if the piece undermines the very habits of listening and retaining information. It’s disconcerting, even while making for what is clearly special art.

The percussion material, principally consisting of a white noise-ish “hiss” of unspecified origin, reflects this preoccupation with listening itself. The sound fills space without having any function. This makes its presence purposeless on the surface, although when absent it is immediately felt. The percussion’s role seems only as an antecedent to the negative space its disappearance creates. What kind of sound is employed to be unheard? And what kind of music builds itself on such unsteady ground?

Is die bewegung der augen alienating, or simply alien? It struggles to define itself, at least to the outside. Every assertion is effort laden, self-conscious. It’s a public display of a very private moment stretched thin over time. The ensemble clusters awkwardly around itself, trying to make sense of its own presence. Their purpose unresolved, they’re resigned to rustle, recede, and eventually die off. I’m left with questions I can’t quite formulate, inquiries that won’t move beyond the tongue. The music shuffles, then stills, casting its unease like a shadow. It’s hard to know what to take from a piece that seems determined not to give.

die bewegung der augen, performed by Ensemble Dal Niente.