I recently saw the band Swans live for the second time. They were promoting a stellar new album (The Seer) which essentially encompasses all of the varied and challenging music that bandleader Michael Gira has made under a few different monikers over the last thirty years. In the two years since I saw them last, I had gotten to know their oeuvre better, and coming to this show with a more educated ear paid off. Swans’ allure can be difficult to explain since their output is generally pretty ugly by conventional standards, but their live show has helped me fill in a piece of that allure’s puzzle: their music is intensely physical.
Part of it has to do with the sound being produced organically, from musical instruments and non-instruments alike, and the ability of that sound to embody the physical act — from delicate precision to chaotic, flailing abandon — with which it was derived. Modern production techniques have a way of making music sound like it just happens, but one never doubts that a Swans record is the result of manual labor, and that labor is made manifest in the band’s apocalyptic live show.
But there is another not-so-secret physical ingredient that pushes a Swans show into transcendent territory: extremely high volume. How loud is it? Well, it occurred to me that a deaf person might get nearly as much out of the show as I did. It is loud enough to make your insides rumble, effectively forcing you to listen with your entire body. And this makes the experience that much more immersive: if you’re already attuned to the emotional and intellectual qualities of the music, the volume will penetrate you physically as well. A Swans show can and will overtake the whole of one’s being.
Later, I wondered if the experience was made more acute by physicality’s diminished relevance in a modern life dominated by abstract interactions with pixels behind glass.
A wide range of experiences that used to be physically distinct from each other now share the homogenous tactility of our digital devices. Not so long ago, I couldn’t possibly mistake my copy of Slaughterhouse Five for my telephone’s handset, but now, when I reach for one, I am inescapably reaching for both. Granted, these experiences do have a fundamental thing in common — the movement of ideas — and the paper and plastic that accompanied them in the past were artifacts of less efficient means of distribution than what we have now. Consolidating the material components of these experiences was the right thing to do.
But that doesn’t mean our senses of touch, taste, and smell aren’t every bit as important as their siblings. We may be living in the Information Age, but our organic matter doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Weight, shape, texture, and so many other physical properties are valuable experiential devices and information transmitters. So I’m looking forward to the day when information technology can replicate and manipulate more than just sight and sound.