A hush overtook the room just before claire rousay performed at the small nonprofit arts space Rhizome in Washington, DC last summer. The percussionist sat quietly behind a snare and tom with two microphones placed directly above the drumheads. The beginning of her set crept out of that silence as she picked up small pieces of metal and plastic—a bowl, screws, steel wool, an unidentifiable white cylinder, an empty can of La Croix—and placed them on the taut mylar, shuffling them around, rubbing and striking them against each other and the drums. The microphones picked up the minute sounds, the soft crinkles and sudden plinks, but also rousay’s rapid, precise movements. It was a delicate chaos that emphasized the strange resonances of everyday objects and our interactions with them, foregrounding sounds usually taken for granted and making them feel vivid, intimate, and new.
That practice of locating the revelatory in the mundane is at the core of rousay’s work, which encompasses both compositions and free improvisation. In the past year, her recordings and live-streamed performances have shifted almost exclusively to utilizing the robotic voice of a text-to-speech program, her own spoken words, and manipulated field recordings. These pieces are direct and vulnerable, taking pieces of our built environment and using them to interrogate her experiences and relationships, her guilt and anxieties. “i’m not a bad person but…” recounts moments of shame and regret, while “Tuufuhhoowaah” centers around the digital audio cues of texting on an iPhone interspersed with recorded conversations with her friends—the everyday clatter of sounds and thoughts that fill a restless mind.
it was always worth it is a devastating culmination of so many of the processes rousay has been exploring over the past year. She assembled and recorded the piece after the break-up of a six-year romantic relationship, saturating the music with grief. Each passage unfolds like one of the persistent, bleak thuds of realization that come with looking back at severed connections, putting moments of both joy and pain into the context of the relationship’s inevitable collapse. She feeds letters they wrote each other into the text-to-speech program, rendering words of affirmation flat and emotionless, and intersperses recordings captured at home during the final week with her partner. Slow swells of synthesizer augment the piece’s sense of drama and weight, as well as offering a tonal center to return to; it’s rare that rousay provides such a clear sense of harmonic development instead of reveling in the indeterminate nature of found sounds.
If that harmonic development suggests a narrative, it is a non-linear one, fractured by the fallibility of memory and the unpredictability of heartache. The lines of text rousay pulls oscillate between heartfelt declarations (“You are so loved”) to tentative reassurances of security (“I know things have been rough lately, but I want to remind you that I love you, and I’m working hard to be with you”), the blunted tone of the computer echoing the numbness of shock and a feeling of alienation from one’s own memories. Nearly halfway through the 20-minute piece, the synthesizer dampens to a low growl, growing in intensity as high- pitched pulses go in and out of phase until it abruptly collapses into a recording of rousay listening to “Innocent” by Our Lady Peace. It is a surprising turn, but in grief there are moments where normal things feel out of place and absurd. The hushed conversation that follows, barely audible, could feel banal if the intensity of the situation wasn’t already made clear.
If rousay’s work typically excavates meaning from small, everyday objects, it was always worth it locates it in the smallest moments that add up to life’s most shattering experiences. Drawing attention to the mundane elements of personal trauma grounds the experience in something tangible and relatable. We’ve all stared, numb with shock, at a message on our phone, unable to believe something so life-changing could arrive via such a blank medium. rousay’s work intensifies this feeling with her mastery of texture and detail. The computer blurts out “I will always love you” as the final piece fades, the ambiguity of the phrase hanging in the air as life resumes.
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