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In Feltbattery, Benjamin Trueblood makes music by listening to his surroundings

Pastoral noise

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A mic in the leaves: Benjamin Trueblood records what is not quite silence. - PHOTO BY REX MILLER
  • Photo by Rex Miller
  • A mic in the leaves: Benjamin Trueblood records what is not quite silence.

Benjamin Trueblood, 28, lives in a quaint Hillsborough mill house with his wife, Stephanie. White lilies bloom under the windows. On the morning when I go to meet him, the sky is raw and gray and seems overly large. The serenity of this residential area, with its tactful delineation of personal space, strikes a stark contrast to the teeming communality of Hog Days, a BBQ festival raging just a few blocks away along Hillsborough's main drag.

Trueblood meets me on his porch, and we begin a rambling walk that leads us through streets that gradually fall away into rolling lawns with uninviting wire fences and constrained arbors. Under the imposing sky, all the usual vertices on the suburban grid—mailboxes, swing sets, fire hydrants, trash cans, tree stumps, flower-growing tires, fence posts, lawn ornaments—seem charged with ineffable significance against their improbably green lawns.

The effect is akin to the feverish lucidity of a David Lynch film: We pass a rusty barrel with smoke seeping out from under its lid in a deserted yard, a hidden alcove in a stand of trees with a little impromptu shrine tucked inside, water trickling down from unseen elevations, and an accidental sculpture of rusty metal refuse on the edge of the woods.

We traverse tiny streams and larger ones, Native American trading trails dotted by discarded plastic soda bottles, gullies and hillocks and concrete pipes, a glade shot through with power lines. Trueblood pauses to point out some mushrooms to me—he's wont to interrupt one train of thought to notice a wool carder bee, the cry of a wren, a passing doe—much like devoted fungus-hunter and experimental composer John Cage might have done. Like Cage, Trueblood shares a naturalistic reverence and a process-based mind.

In a cool patch of forest, below some train tracks, we stop to sit on a fallen, mossy tree. A few yards away from our verdant perch is a rusted old car that seems to have slid down the embankment and into the woods a long time ago. It's now home to lush overgrowth and many neon-blue dragonflies. "Decay, dilapidation," Trueblood notes with simple approval as we examine our find. "These are among my primary interests."

All of this—the dreamlike state of close observation, the rapid juxtapositions between the natural and the manmade, and the cyclical elegance of decay—could just as easily describe the sound art that Trueblood creates as Feltbattery as it does our morning in the woods.

Feltbattery's most recent album, It Had Wings, draws heavily upon field-recorded birdsong to inform minimalist collage patterns. Trueblood blends his field recordings with sparse instrumentation (including flute and charango) to create layered, hypnotic loops. For him, it's a three-step process, although upon closer examination, the three steps reveal themselves as a unified yet tri-parted act of attention.

The first step involves simply listening. Trueblood teaches at Chapel Hill's Emerson Waldorf School. Waldorf curriculum is tailored by the teacher to meet the needs of individual students. In his curriculum, Trueblood stresses listening, an art, he says, that is going untaught in American public schools. One of his students was unable to be silent for even a few minutes, saying it "freaked him out" and intimating that it made him think about death.

Trueblood has no such compunction. Silence and observation are the fundamental impetus of his art, and, more pragmatically, it's necessary to be very still when recording animals. You have to give them time to forget that you're there. Even his appearance—blue jeans and a drab-colored T-shirt, close-cropped hair, and reservedly inquisitive eyes behind plain glasses—speaks of self-effacement and blending in, as if he were designed to be an unobtrusive organ of pure sense.

The second step is the actual recording of the observed phenomenon, which Trueblood regards as the mere side effect of observation. In this he follows the lead of one of his artistic icons, Joseph Beuys, whom he discovered while growing up in Chicago, where he spent a lot of time hanging out in abandoned city spaces. He remembers vagrants bow-hunting for quail.

Beuys was a fascinating character who flew a Luftwaffe plane during World War II. According to lore, he crashed over Crimea and was rescued by Tatars, who saved him from hypothermia by wrapping him in felt with an insulating layer of animal fat for several days. He emerged from this ordeal as an action artist committed to "social sculpture," wherein cultural foundations are exploited by aesthetics to create real-world effects. When asked by a German city to create a pubic art installation, Beuys placed 7,000 basalt columns around the city and told them that, for each oak tree planted, he would remove one column from its deliberately disruptive location and place it before the tree. Ultimately, 7,000 trees were planted.

Like Beuys, Trueblood believes that "the product is actually just the byproduct of the action. It isn't about having this thing to hold on to. It's just a souvenir to remember something real that happened."

Knowing that Trueblood's art always has a social dimension, it might be easy to assume that his sound art, with the thread of technological menace running through its naturalistic tableaux, is a simple lament for the vanishing natural world, with a note of scolding primitivism. This is a drastic oversimplification of Trueblood's position. His art seems less interested in didacticism than in impressionistic documentation—the sonic equivalent of a photo essay, a lyrical study of complex scenarios.

"Where I part with classic environmentalists," he explains, "is the romanticized idea about nature being something separate from everything else. It's the equivalent of the anthropology of the noble savage, this idea of some pristine natural state."

Trueblood instead regards the world, in states both "natural" and "technological," as a collaborative continuum, and in his listening, he's just as likely to contemplate the chimes of a distant ice cream truck as the footfalls of a deer. This unified (if not societally uncritical) perspective is writ large in his music, which represents the entirety of Trueblood's environs, from woodland chatter to electrical interference, and leaves the listener to make their own value judgments.

The third and final step of Trueblood's process is composition, where the collected sounds are mediated and transformed. This is another act of attention, for Trueblood always lets his sounds lead the way, listening until he understands what they demand of him. He took birdsong as his motif for It Had Wings largely because of the then-current avian influenza scare ("a human-created problem foisted onto animals," as he describes it); by the same token, he's now working on recording bee sounds for his next album, largely because of their social relevance during our current colony collapse scare. Right now, he's simply spending a lot of time with bees, learning about the social structure of the hive, and "looking forward to getting stung."

This sort of physical transaction helps Trueblood to stay rooted in the natural cycles he so closely studies, and is in fact the real meat of his project. The music is simply an emulsion. Institutionalized life, from the deadening rote of public schooling to the idea of an undeviating career-path, inhibits the growth and change that are so vital to human contentment by superimposing commercial and social benchmarks over intrinsic spiritual ones. To Trueblood, change is inevitable and necessary, but it needn't be feared: "It can actually be an acceptance of there being a natural arc to life," he explains, "the same way that birds feel that it's getting warmer, and it's time to fly north."

We leave the woods and walk along the train tracks, finding a flattened coin amid the small, bleached bones of a deer. After the lively stillness of the forest, returning to the streets feels like stepping back into the normal flow of time. We stop to eat wild blackberries growing by a fire hydrant. Green lawns roll away on all sides, and at a church holding vacation Bible school across the street, two inflatable "moonwalks" squat improbably under the wild gray sky. In his driveway, Trueblood finds the husk of a dead bee, and we look at it for a while with mute appreciation. It glows like a talisman in his palm.

For more on Feltbattery, visit www.myspace.com/thefeltbattery.

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