Shadow World

Kristen Gallerneaux - Strung Figures

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After making and scoring her own experimental short films (The Hum, 2018 & Echomaking, 2020), publishing her first monograph High Static, Dead Lines (Strange Attractor Press)—all while working full-time as museum curator of technology and researching how Q*bert learned to cuss from a phonetic synthesizer developed by an auto parts company in Detroit—Kristen Gallerneaux took a break. She plucked her beloved cat Forrest J. Ackerman off her synths, dunked her head in a tub of reverb and made an album. Bring on the 808 bleed and 19th Century conchs. The granular processors and spectral resonators.  The “gnarled-up drum sample kit,” the bells from Arcosanti, and the random chunk of driftwood that washed ashore, ruing the cannonball that sank its mothership. EMBELLISHMENT ALERT. To be clear, this album had me at “Russian meteor run through a contact mic.”

The work of a folklorist/unrepentant homebody who enjoys quietly making bangers and a mean peach cobbler, Strung Figures was recorded in Kristen’s home studio in Metro Detroit during fall of 2020 and into winter 2021, and eventually mastered by Miles Whittaker in Manchester in the spring. In pandemic conditions of temporal drag and border decay, the terms of reverb and time stretch find their way outside, field recordings that echo the woods in Belle Isle, Detroit, or Kristen’s rural Ontario childhood haunts. If desperate for a label, try “Smoking Backwoods Industrial.” Strung Figures is listening through the modular (fogging up the glass case that holds the Moog prototype in the basement of her day job) and the analog (see driftwood), often processed through her experiences with Meniere’s Disease, an inner ear affliction that submarines her hearing, unexpectedly taking the afternoon on a pressure dive. “A constant underlying internal filter,” Kristen treats her condition with more reverb—and us with Strung Figures.  

The album and most track titles draw from Caroline Furness Jayne’s 1962 book String Figures & How to Make Them: A Study of Cat’s Cradle in Many Lands. Kristen describes it as “a visual archive and how-to guide for looping string games played on hands. Furness went deep, took an anthropological approach, travelling around the world to discover their Indigenous origins and to reconnect the stories, lore, and rituals behind the games. While I identify closely with my Métis-Wendat ancestry, during my childhood, these games were divorced from their narrative potential, disconnected from an Indigenous perspective. Each track sets out to assign a sonic space to these storytelling patterns, blending the processes of recovery and attention toward increasingly complicated networks of sounds and metaphorical strings, passed from one set of hands to another.”

While the word strung can evoke frayed nerves and pandemic fatigue, it can signal to how different histories relate and rethink each other. While recording the album, Kristen joined a small virtual beading circle. “I reconnected with a craftway that had been lost generations ago among the Native folks in my family. There’s a hyper-focused clarity that comes with beading, which helped me feel rooted and calm in isolation. I also learned a lot, firsthand from people in the circle, about how COVID was affecting places far from Detroit, especially the hard-hit Navajo Nation.”  Beading became a key element of the Kristen’s creative process, to the extent that a special edition of the Strung Figures release will include beaded versions of selected string figure diagrams from the Furness book.

Samples can be sonifications of material geography, transductions from Kristen’s walks in Berlin, Miami, the Sonoran Desert, the Domes of Casa Grande in Arizona, rural Ontario where she grew up, and her backyard window in Dearborn. “White Noise” drifts into a chance encounter with a choral aria in the Teufelsberg Domes, a cold war listening station in West Berlin, then Dynamix II filtered from phone through discarded metal tubing in the rubble. A gang of throaty starlings by the window, sounding off for spring thaw, disrupted a morning’s writing, so Kristen switched mediums and hit record. Samples of historic instruments recorded during a commission from the Bennington Museum in Vermont seep into other tracks. “Two Chiefs” includes mollusk intonations from 1840. Granular rumbles can be credited to meteor shard from Chelyabinsk, rubbed on a contact mic.  At other times, Kristen versions home. “Invisible Residents” recalls a sighting of a family fetch at a shopping mall.  On “Dressing a Skin,” a bag of soil from the site of an early 19th Century poltergeist outbreak in Ontario is amplified, summoning internal voices from marshland spaces where she wandered as a child. Handclaps are defamiliarized in these landscapes, as if heard in a concrete underpass. The bass puddles. Forrest J. deserves a co-production credit for “Closed Loop,” constantly launching himself at Kristen’s synth table during its making, interference that begat distortion and the ruination of the speakers in my mom’s Subaru Forester. (In full transparency, Kristen once re-edited an E-40/Sadat X track for me—I can’t not hear the words “I squat a Cutlass” in a Bob George bog squat at 78 rpm.)  

- Dave Tompkins, 2021