Isaac Schankler’s Because Patterns Explores Human-Electronic Relationships

Beautiful, algorithmic, organic, dystopian–on their latest album, Isaac Schankler collapses a Venn diagram of concepts into a circle. Because Patterns, released May 31 on Aerocade Music, compresses four pieces by the self-described “composer etc.” into three tracks and plunges the Ray-Kallay Duo, bassist Scott Worthington, violinist Sakura Tsai, and pianist Nadia Shpachenko into electronic environments. Schankler’s programs and processes can underscore and undercut, embrace and engulf, serve and surveil. In the age of deepfakes, decimated privacy, unchecked social media influence, and softly chuckling, always-listening AIs at home, art follows life.

On the opening track, Because Patterns appears interwoven and overlapped with The Deep State, an earlier piece. The former, commissioned and here recorded by the Ray-Kallay Duo, fades in under the latter’s drone textures at three points. As Schankler clarifies through liner notes, the title of The Deep State riffs on Pauline Oliveros’ concept of deep listening. However, as news-savvy listeners will note with alarm, the phrase also constitutes a grim shout-out to internet conspiracy theories. Both pieces emerge from Schankler’s interest in the tendency to hunt for patterns amid life’s chaos. However, the chiming of Because Patterns cuts through the consuming murk of The Deep State like sun through fog.

Ray-Kallay Duo (Aron Kallay and Vicki Ray)

Ray-Kallay Duo (Aron Kallay and Vicki Ray)

Aron Kallay and Vicki Ray’s prepared pianos rise out of electronic percussion sequences that sound like chopped-up samples of fireworks. Worthington, whose bass sound glows amid the surrounding drones, follows close behind. Although easily overlooked amid the sonic flux, it pays to notice the pianists’ virtuosic interlocking near the track’s halfway point. Composed via cellular automaton, a process for repeating and expanding an idea through simple rules, Because Patterns accomplishes something unlikely. Despite–and because of–its math-y origins, and performance indications like “mechanical, clocklike,” Because Patterns becomes the hybrid track’s soul. The Deep State, meditative yet premised on the difficulty of tuning out, sounds like the ambient hum of the abyss.

Mobile I, a showpiece that also demonstrates the expressive potential of processing, pairs Tsai with a program that sings back. Schankler’s software analyzes the pitches and overtones in Tsai’s playing as she approaches and retreats from a microphone, and responds. The semi-choreographed interaction results in a virtuosic performance at first haloed by hovering sine tones and, later, nearly drowned out.

Tsai brings power, personality, and a sharply defined sense of purpose to the free-floating, fragmentary melodies in the opening. Halfway through, sliding between extremes of range, she sounds like she may magically become one of the swooping sine tones. Given an opportunity to choose a tone quality shortly after this, however, she chooses a death rattle. Her violin seems to gasp for air even as its rhythms turn to a dancelike sway, and the electronics churn. Her remarkable vision for the piece hardly comforts the listener seeking optimism about humanity’s relationship to omnipresent technology.

Isaac Schankler--Photo by Gabriel Harber

Isaac Schankler–Photo by Gabriel Harber

As Schankler shares in an interview with liner-note author Meg Wilhoite, album closer, Future Feelings, reflects thoughts about nostalgia. Gestures from early twentieth-century piano music–some modern, and others joyfully and decadently Romantic–define the piece. Schankler takes up these musical languages with startling fluency, as does Shpachenko, whose versatility has become a defining virtue. Electronic sounds purr beneath and intrude upon the piano’s visions of a sparkling past. Initially a smear of static over Shpachenko’s ecstatic melodies, they morph into telegraph-like blips and, eventually, a menacing roar.

Because Patterns has it all: killer liner notes, evocative performances from musical dream teams, and balance between coherence and variety. The impeccable recording, engineering, and mixing by Schankler, Vanessa Parr, Ben Phelps, Scott Fraser, Barry Werger, and others certainly help. Four years and eleven records into its existence, Aerocade Music can claim another victory with this release. Enjoyable as it is, however, the album finds the composer leafing through a uniquely contemporary index of anxieties. All too often, writers wield adjectives like “important” as euphemisms for boring. Because Patterns neither bores nor consoles. Yet something may happen as those sine tones descend around Tsai’s sound in Mobile I like some unnerving angel. Some truths about modern life and media may click into place. Listen and find out.