Jan St. Werner – Miscontinuum Album Review (Thrill Jockey Records)

Jan St. Werner - Miscontinuum Album Review

Miscontinuum is a surreal, subjective sound opera; an abstract tone poem; a stream-of-consciousness dream monologue on the nature of time and memory.
“Every memory is just a loop. Returning again to places I once was, before, things are never as I remember them. Every home is also a burning house. Loop… and if one could draw this loop differently, then what? Different lengths? Four different lengths? Changes history’s courses – places, people, and events; all of them never were. Could they be made anew with this loop? I doubt it. Is this really happening?” – Intro to Miscontinuum

Miscontinuum, from Mouse On Mars member Jan St. Werner, is the third installment in his Fiepblatter Catalogue series, was originally conceived as an operatic performance and radio play, with a very surreal, stream-of-consciousness libretti written by Oval’s Marcus Popp, and recited, wonderfully, by Earth’s Dylan Carlson, in his reedy voice.

The text revolves around the misconceptions of time and memory, inspired by unique acoustic phenomena derived through digital phasing and musical time-stretching techniques, which is punctuated with St. Werner’s tapestry of hypnotic electrical pulsing. Imagine, if you will, if Philip Glass had written an opera based on a text by Haruki Murakami, rather than illustrating Einstein standing on a beach; with Terry Riley on the keys, if it had been recorded thirty years later, and you’re getting close to imagining Miscontinuum‘s minimalist electronics.


Seeing as to how Miscontinuum was created for opera and radio play, it seems appropriate to view it in terms of sound design. After all, why create tone poems and surreal stream-of-consciousness, when you could go for the full immersive experience of cinema? There is a moment, during “Scene 1”, where Dylan Carlson, speaking about the droning repetitious sound of lawn mowers states, “And suddenly, the sound stops.” Here, the music springs suddenly to life. That’s one example, out of hundreds, of WTF moments contained on this record.

When discussing film soundtracks, there are two terms; diegesit, and non-diegesit, which means either coming from the screen, or superimposed on top of it, respectively. The rock n’ roll soundtracks of Easy Rider, and the films of Quentin Tarantino, would be examples of non-diegetic sound. But when the action clearly contradicts the sonics? A cognitive dissonance, a kind of mind-melt occurs – that is either not possible, or very, very hard to pull of, in the visual media.

The same can be said for radio plays, which are a dying artform, but a treasure trove of undreamt thoughts and thrilling, disorienting visions.

In this way, Jan St. Werner is taking electronic music back to its roots, of imagining the future, by way of the infamous BBC Radiophonic Workshop. We must remember that the Workshop, while most famous for television theme songs, like Dr. Who, began life by providing abstract electronic soundscapes for radio plays. Unheard of sounds, for words with no pictures, provided a fertile Eden for the imagination.

It seems we are entering an age where artists are choosing the best tool for each job, moving freely between media as it’s called for. Miscontinuum would make for a cool and weird movie, full of, no doubt, crumbling rooftops and shining chrome structures and plenty of fluid identity and cut-up sequencing, but it would not be nearly as personal, unsettling, and impactful, as it is as an audio document.

Miscontinuum is arranged as alternating scenes and instrumental pieces. It’s a dense and slightly overwhelming affair that can be a lot to take in in one sitting. But you can spare two hours for a movie, no? Give Miscontinuum the same investment, and you will be vastly rewarded, creating movies of your own, and rediscovering yourself, along the way.

So much of who we think we are hinges on memory and identity. “I’m this way, because this happened…” — or even our preferences, shaped by a similar set of arbitrary happenstance. What happens when you shift the gaze, elevate the viewpoint? You might hate country music with a passion, but then decide to spin vinyl. All of a sudden, those Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash records seem alive with kicking drums and wordless choruses, that would be just so, for a rapper to spit over. You can’t really say you hate country music anymore, then, can you?

Miscontinuum invites us to look very, very closely at ourselves and the world around us, and decide, for ourselves, who we want to be.

Jan St. Werner – Miscontinuum Album Stream Excerpts

Stream it in its entirety on the Thrill Jockey website!


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