For as magical as that album was, it was disarming to see Barwick's set up inside the White Columns gallery last winter, seated at a desk across from former no-wave drumming legend turned master Powerbook sound warper, Ikue Mori. Barwick looked like a fresh-faced new hire getting Excel spreadsheet tutorials from Mori, the lifelong employee of the company, their every move and sound captured not just by digital video but also by a looming lathe-cutter.
Previous editions of RVNG's ambitious FRKWYS series have featured artists working with icons that seem to make sense. (Psychic Ills with Gibby Haynes, Excepter with Chris & Cosey.) Here, the two parties seem to share very little in common. One would be hard-pressed to hear any strand of DNA or Mori's other work in the gentle vocals of Barwick and I'm hard-pressed to think of times when I've seen Ikue Mori collaborate with singers (rather than, say, freewheeling instrumentalists).
At first, the juxtaposition between Barwick's placid soundworld and Mori's fractured one makes for discombobulated listening. "Dream Sequence," the 13-minute opener, pulls between Barwick's tendency to weave lullabies and Mori's knack for unraveling anything resembling coherence. Rather than think of it as a dream, the piece instead is like that in-between consciousness before sleep when reality begins to come apart at the seams. Mori makes shrill bird sounds chortle around Barwick, and uses a shattering crystal sound that evokes Iannis Xenakis's electronic music forays from the '60s. Slowly, though, a middle ground is reached.
Nonetheless, the ethereal sounds of "Rain and Shine at Lotus Pond" and the sparse rhythmic aspects of "Rejoinder" are not for casual listeners. Pockets of serenity are soon scattered by Mori. The album always favors abstraction over ambience. In fact, Mori's palette tends towards the earliest avant-garde sounds of the '50s and '60s, when breakthroughs in alien electronics often led to composers pitting them against the warmth of human vocalists. So Mori plays Luciano Berio to Barwick's Cathy Berberian, Stockhausen to sung national anthems, David Tudor to John Cage's voice, making for an album of flummoxing indeterminacy.