Composer Jen Kutler’s Fascinating New Album Transcends Evocations of Trauma

by delarue

As if the early days of the lockdown in New York weren’t terroristic enough, composer Jen Kutler spent them further terrorizing herself by watching a long sequence of violent movie scenes. Murder, rape, torture, verbal abuse, the works. Before exposing herself to this barrage of disturbing stimuli, she hooked herself up to electrodes to record the magnetic response time from her skin. Then she ran the data set through MIDI and orchestrated it electronically. The result is an alternately soothing and menacing new album, Sonified Physiological Indicators of Empathy, streaming at Bandcamp. It’s transcendent in the purest sense: a work of art drawn from what must have been a viscerally painful experience.

Kutler was intrigued by the prospect that human response to sounds of trauma might be an indicator of a capacity for empathy – or lack thereof. We speak of people as being warm or cold. Is there scientific evidence to back up such an observation? Kutler discovered research which suggests there is. A psychopath can feign compassion, but skin response to stimuli is a reflex action which can’t be controlled.

Research in this area is still in its infancy, especially as far as sound is concerned, and it has become clear that the wider the set of stimuli used in an experiment, the more unique an individual’s responses will be. However, there does seem to be a correlation between desensitization to traumatic sounds and self-identification with psychopathic behavior on one scale or another. Kutler is quick to point out that we need more research in this area, and is involved with a new project examining human response to various environmental and linguistic cues. And as our body of knowledge in this field grows, we need to be careful to consider individual experiences that may have desensitized us – from childhood trauma, to the environment around us. How many times does an urban dweller hear a scream and assume it’s just a crazy crackhead? What does that say about us?

The sounds on Kutler’s album drift toward the more industrial side of ambient music: Philip Blackburn‘s work often comes to mind. The six tracks here draw the listener in as Kutler’s allusive, methodically shifting timbres and tones waft through the sonic picture. Fragments of stately organ melody give way to what could be monks throat-singing in unison through a garage wall. Echoey drainpipes, wheels shedding overtones at high velocity, elevators, rainstorms and gently wobbling pulleys all come to mind. Sunlight looms in on the most shadowy moments, and vice versa.

The calmest, most enveloping track here is perhaps ironically titled Long Term Memory Loss, an atmosphere that drifts over into the next one, Fairness, although that piece grows more enigmatic. The shifts arrive faster and more uneasily in Short Term Memory Loss. Flickers of minimalistic melody take centerstage in Borders, but even there the textures remain on the cold and plasticky side. Kutler likes synthesized choir patches, which oscillate and pulse in the album’s final cut, A Piece For Amplified Children. It has a funny ending.

Kutler is also an inventor. One recent creation of hers that’s genuinely heartwarming is part of her In Loving Memory of Being Touched project. During the early part of the lockdown last year, Kutler found herself alone and discovered how, like probably billions of people around the world at the time, she missed a simple human touch. So she built a touch simulator which people can use to send each other anything from a playful tap to more emotionally complex tactile messages. Beyond the fun you could have with this, it has immense potential as a means of transmitting secret codes.