018 :: PIGMENTSListen to "018 :: PIGMENTS" on Spreaker.
Pigments by Dawn Richard and Spencer Zahn, released by Merge Records in 2022. Listen / Buy direct
When does sound become music? When do we hear more than just vibrations in the air? What strange magic is it that resides in music to make us change the way we listen, attend to what's around us, and think that what we're hearing might just be art?
Most music doesn't raise these questions, but most music is not like this. Most music wears its musicality on its sleeve, signalling its status by means of familiar markers of genre, song structure, and instrumentation. But this record leaves all that behind. In this opening track, I hear what sounds to me like the genesis of music itself, a sequence of individual phrases and tones slowly accumulating on top of each other and eventually fusing into a musical soundscape. It's as if we're hearing the evolutionary emergence of complex life from single cell organisms. But at the moment, we're still in the primordial soup, and there's nowhere to get your footing. Where's the downbeat? What's the key? What kind of music is this?
But if these opening minutes seem designed to disorient, it's only to open us up, to shake us out of our preconceptions about music and force us to listen to these sounds with fresh ears and a curious mind, so as to ready us to receive something radically new.
Now there are vocals and lyrics and harmonic motion, yet still I'm left with the question, What kind of music is this? Sonically, I still feel adrift in a sea of sound, as the singer's voice sways, undulates, and ricochets off itself. Texturally, there is no recognizable ensemble; instruments appear and disappear freely, creating a variegated tonal collage. Stylistically, we're somewhere between jazz and R&B and ambient and new age and contemporary classical – which is to say, we are nowhere. This is a music unto itself, which makes it all the more remarkable that its new and unfamiliar idiom can still so easily absorb us, move us, and fill us with wonder and awe.
There's something else special and beguiling about this music. The conceit of this record is that each track is named after a different colour: sandstone, cerulean, vantablack. And although I'm not one to experience synesthesia myself, although I'm not one to see specific shades and hues in what I hear, this music does seem to me to be shot through with colour. I don't know any other way to describe it. Sounds swirl about and blend into each other, as if they were paints being mixed on a palette to create a single tone. Each song is like a tonal canvas, a tint for all its instruments to play in, a chromatic theme that unifies all its disparate elements. It's a music that's preoccupied, not with melody or harmony or lyrics or rhythm, but with timbre – with the expressive qualities inherent in every sound, and how those can be arranged to create a sonic surface that is vibrant and prismatic, and that leaves a lasting impression on all of our senses.
Dawn Richard has had quite the career, and has got to be the most interesting artist to emerge from a reality television musical competition. She got her start in 2004 on Making the Band 3, where she was plucked from the audition line to become part of the girl group Danity Kane (which, incidentally, took its name from the comic book superhero alter ego that Richard dreamed up for herself while in high school). Since 2013 her solo career has taken a hard left turn into the world of art pop, with a series of boundary-pushing concept albums.
Spencer Zahn has had a very different, though perhaps more traditional, career: trained as a bassist but now a vertiable multi-instrumentalist, Zahn has been part of the New York jazz scene since the mid-2000s, touring and performing with various acts before setting out as a solo artist in 2015.
Richard and Zahn's collaboration started in 2018, with a remix of "Cyanotype" from Zahn's album People of the Dawn – fittingly, but I assume coincidentally, yet another song named (at least in part) after a colour.