“Are you sitting comfortably?” These were the only words uttered by the legendary master of Industrial music before his one hour performance at the COSI Planetarium on May 26. As soon as the lights were turned out, the seats began to vibrate and shake from the intense rumble of sub-bass and low-end sound frequencies. Lift off had been achieved.
My grandson Lucas was sitting next to my wife Audrey. When he said “Grandma, I’m scared” I got scared. Was it really such a wise thing to have brought a seven year old to a concert by the pioneer of the Dark Ambient sub-genre? Lustmord’s live shows are known for being very loud. Granted, we all had ear plugs in, but Lucas’ ears hadn’t yet been exposed to all the damaging noise I had already subjected mine to. With Audrey’s hand around Lucas, he quickly settled down. He might have even fallen asleep during the show. The abstract video projected on the Planetarium ceiling certainly helped to induce a state of hypnosis in myself as I let Lustmord’s vast, sonorous, and pulsing undertones flood through my body.
Part of the reason I had wanted to see this show in particular was due to the work Brian Williams, the man behind Lustmord, had done on his most recent album, Dark Matter, released on the Touch label in 2016. The sounds on that record had all been derived from an audio library of cosmological activity that he had collected for ten years between 1993 and 2003. On the liner notes he wrote, “While space is a virtual vacuum, it does not mean there is no sound in space. It exists in space as naturally occurring electromagnetic vibrations, many well within the range of human hearing while others exist at different regions of the electromagnetic spectrum and these can be adjusted with software to bring them within our audio range. The recordings of these interactions in space come from several different environments including radio, ultra violet, microwave and X-ray data and within these spectra a wide range of sources including interstellar plasma and molecules, radio galaxies, pulsars, masers and quasars, charged particle interactions and emissions, radiation, exotic astrophysical objects, cosmic jets and flares from magnetars." Brian had gathered this material from a variety of sources including NASA (Cape Canaveral, Ames, The Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Arecibo), The Very Large Array, The National Radio Astronomy Observatory alongside a number of educational institutions and private contributors throughout the USA.
To be able to hear recordings of these emissions was intriguing enough for me. To hear what an artist of Lustmord’s caliber did with them on his album was a revelation. Hearing versions of that material live in a planetarium with video projections of the cosmos was a great experience. It has often been said that the study of astronomy is a humbling experience. One of the things astronomy can teach is the smallness of man. The personal problems we so often obsess over, when seen under starlight, feel less pressing. Astronomy also builds character by showing us the transience of both our sorrows and joy in the dance of galaxies. As Lustmord puts it “Everything that has ever been observed by man, even with our most sophisticated instruments, amounts to less than five percent of the Universe.” Do what we will, our hasty minutes fly. When compared to the life of a star we our lives are just eye blinks. Meditating on the fragile mortality of the body and our place in the cosmos to me isn’t a cause of despair, but rather a tool for helping me to focus on what I do and say and think today. It is a reminder to not take for granted the limited amount of time I have been allotted for granted.
Lustmord further explains that, “approximately sixty-eight percent of the Universe is unseen dark energy and approximately twenty-seven percent is unseen dark matter. We have yet to discover what dark matter is, and only know the things it is not. Although it has not been directly observed, its existence and properties are inferred from its effects on visible matter, its influence on the Universe's large-scale structure, and its effects in the cosmic microwave background.”
The sound of the record was one of desolate rumbling. It had no high points, no low points, no climax or resolution. It is a music of celestial loneliness that gives a shape to what it might feel like to be on an interstellar voyage far away from home: there are other things out there in space, but they aren’t nearby, and the very cosmological activity we find so beautiful in pictures and imagery, when seen up close is violent and deadly. While the album does start and stop, it could have been infinite. It could have gone on forever. Listening to this places you in the void between the stars. That’s a great place to visit, but for all the wonder and majesty of the universe, I’m glad I’m not a cosmonaut. I’m thankful my place in the creation is this verdant earth.
At the concert Lustmord drew material from across the breadth of his forty year discography. I could hear elements from his various records recombined in new ways. Included in the mix were sounds and sequences I recognized from Dark Matter. Experiencing his music live was very different than when I play his albums on my home stereo. While I have good bass response in my speakers, the low-end at the show was something else altogether. One of the reasons I wanted to go was to get the full impression of his powerful subharmonics in the flesh.
Though overtones occur naturally with the physical production of music on instruments, undertones and subharmonics must be produced in unusual ways. Whereas the overtone series is based upon the multiplication of frequencies, the undertone series is based on their division. There are several different ways to create subharmonics and undertones. Composers Mari Kimura, George Crumb and Daniel James Wolf have written works for violin or string quartets that require the musicians to bow their instruments with enough pressure to create pitches below the lowest open string of the instrument. This intense pressured bowing causes the sound waves to modulate and demodulate from the resonating horn of the instrument with frequencies corresponding to subharmonics. At the Lustmord concert the subharmonics were produced by the amplification of his deep bass audio signals through the loudspeaker system.
At times during the show, it was as if I felt the shaking of the chairs and vibrations within my body to be more powerful than the tones that I heard with my ear. This had a kind of grounding effect on me. Even if some of the source material was derived from cosmic sources, and the video projections showed glittering gas nebulas and colorful fields of stars, the deepness and acute pressure of the sub-bass was a full body experience. As the music wound down to a close, the room felt stable again. We were no longer inside a super collider.
When the one hour show was over I asked Lucas how he liked it. He was nonchalant having survived the experience.
“It was boring,” he said. “The guy didn’t even sing.”