Six Degrees of Nicolas Jaar’s Space Is Only Noise

Philip Sherburne

By Philip Sherburne

on 04.27.12 in Six Degrees

It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it’s not. It’s the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we’ve deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.

The Album

If Nicolas Jaar didn't exist, someone like Don DeLillo or William Gibson probably would have invented him. With Chilean and French ancestry, and the son of the prominent contemporary artist Alfredo Jaar, the young New Yorker released his first record, appropriately titled The Student, when he was just 17 years old; he dropped his debut album, 2011's Space Is Only Noise, in between writing semiotics papers at Brown University. (Clearly, there was some bleed-through between his studies and his musical moonlighting, as attested by titles like "Marks and Angles.") Jaar's rapidly developing career continues to play out like a contemporary novel, complete with multi-media museum happenings, cryptic art objects and the inevitable celebrity collaboration (with his classmate Scout Larue, daughter of Demi Moore and Bruce Willis).

What's most remarkable, though, is how fully formed Jaar's vision has been from the beginning. His first record established the particulars of his sound, with processed acoustic piano burbling over a rustling bed of clicks; on subsequent recordings, he fleshed out his music with elements of disco, jazz, classical minimalism, tango and French chanson. He cites Erik Satie, Ethiopia's Mulatu Astatke and Ricardo Villalobos as influences, and he brought them all to bear on Space Is Only Noise, where Rhodes, guitars and African strings swirl in gentle eddies against rhythms that shuffle like rustling leaves. Along the way, he draws upon a wide array of inspirations, from Brian Eno's wallpaper sonics to Chris Isaak's bedroom balladry; "Specters of the Future" heralds the second coming of trip-hop, while the warbly vocals of "Colomb" take a page straight from Kanye West's 808s & Heartbreak playbook.

Like James Blake and Burial, two other nominally "electronic" musicians who have found a passionate fan base stretching far beyond the club scene, Jaar's music is tailor made for brooders and sensitive types, but it's a feel-good kind of melancholy, fleshed out with narcotic vocals and slowed-down beats that go straight to more sensual pleasure centers.

The Architect

Penguin Café Orchestra

The Penguin Cafe Orchestra

Jaar's association with house-music labels like Wolf + Lamb and Circus Company has gotten him classed in the "electronic" camp, but that description only tells part of the story. It's true that he assembles the pieces of his music on a computer (as does practically everyone these days) and that sampling and other digital methods comprise an important, if subtle, part of Jaar's aesthetic. But his palette relies less upon self-evidently "electronic" elements like synthesizers and drum machines than on acoustic piano, Rhodes, exotic string instruments and electric guitar suffused in vintage reverb. It's a palette informed by the jazz and Ethiopian music that Jaar grew up listening to, and it often scans like a contemporary adaptation of the downy chamber folk of the Penguin Café Orchestra, a collective of instrumentalists that formed around the British composer Simon Jeffes. Their debut album Music from the Penguin Café, released in 1976 on Brian Eno's Obscure Records, might be described as ambient by another means, with glistening strands of folk, minimalism and neo-classical spun into a warm, limpid sound — background music brimming with verve.

The Designer

Like many members of his generation, Jaar is something of an agnostic, when it comes to musical formats. His very first EP, 2008's The Student, was a digital-only release on Wolf + Lamb, a New York imprint that began as a free net-label and eventually moved into physical formats; since then, Jaar has often selected different formats according to the particulars of a given release: vinyl-only for unlicensed edits, or the vinyl/CD/digi gamut for his debut album. To set his own Clown and Sunset imprint apart from run-of-the-mill record labels, he put out its first release as a memory stick. His latest such venture is The Prism, a 12-track compilation in the form of a fist-sized aluminum cube with two headphone jacks and four unlabeled buttons. He's not the first musician to attempt to free music from its commodity status by turning it into an art object. The most extreme example might be Merzbow's Noisembryo, a Mercedes Benz automobile outfitted with a modified CD player rigged to play the Japanese noise musician's music whenever the car was running. (Edition: 1. It went unsold.) Closer to Jaar's home-spun aesthetic, the Buddha Machine is a mass-produced plastic box, modeled on a Chinese gadget for playing back Buddhist prayers, that plays nine infinitely looping ambient tracks. Lo-fi in sound and kitschy in aspect, it's a novelty item that can really tie the room together, especially when multiple machines are deployed to roll out a rippling carpet of sound. In 2006, Berin's Staubgold label invited 15 artists to re-interpret the Buddha Machine's output; their remixes range from Sunn O)))'s eerie drones to Adrian Sherwood + Doug Wimbish's placid ambient dub.

The Road-Tripper

Paris, Texas - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

Paris, Texas Soundtrack/Ry Cooder

Part of the appeal of Jaar's music, particularly for American listeners, may be its bluesy cast: "Too Many Kids Finding Rain in the Dust," "Keep Me There" and "Problem with the Sun" evoke a dreamy retro sound that stretches from Elvis to Chris Isaak, right down to the twangy guitar and basso purr; "Variations" nods to acoustic blues. Jaar's dubby roots music has some precedent in Ry Cooder, particularly his soundtrack to Wim Wenders' 1984 film Paris, Texas. While the pedal steel and plucked acoustic guitar are pure Americana, Cooder's meditative compositions also suggest drone-based music like Indian ragas; swimming in reverb, it's a profoundly naturalistic take on ambient music. "I Knew These People" begins with an extended sample of dialogue from Harry Dean Stanton's character, a melancholy wanderer in the desert; you can hear a similar kind of cinematic affect at work in the opening minute of "Être," the lead track on Jaar's Space Is Only Noise.

The Time-Traveler


Ricardo Villalobos

You may not immediately hear much of the minimal-techno icon Ricardo Villalobos in Jaar's work. As a DJ, Villalobos plays epic, brain-scrambling sets of percussive house and techno, and his productions tap a similar energy, even at their most cerebral; Jaar's music, meanwhile, rarely makes it all the way up to a conventional club tempo, even on 12-inch. But Jaar often cites Villalobos as a formative influence, and not just because of their shared Chilean heritage. Early on, he was struck by the elastic nature of Villalobos' timekeeping, where hypnotic repetition and morphing sound design warp the listener's temporal perception. It was Villalobos' 2004 album Thé Au Harem D'Archimède that originally blew Jaar's 14-year-old mind, but Villalobos and Max Loderbauer's Re: ECM, from 2011, delves even further into the tangled harmonies and glassy timbres that excite Jaar. A double-album set of remixes of Germany's legendary ECM label, it approaches jazz somewhat in the way that Jaar does: grasping gingerly at strands and twisting them into a loose, rippling weave.

The Extended Family

There's no doubt that Jaar is a self-made talent, but his career certainly wouldn't have developed in the way that it has were it not for the guiding influence of Wolf + Lamb. Masterminded by New Yorkers Gadi Mizrahi and Zev Eisenberg, Wolf + Lamb is simultaneously their musical duo, a record label, and a series of parties held at their own private venue, dubbed the Marcy Hotel, that became famous for their late hours, slow tempos and intimate vibes. After encountering Wolf + Lamb on a local radio show, Jaar sent the duo his music; they provided not only feedback but also the venue for his first live show, as well as the platform for his debut release. But Jaar remains something of an outlier within the Wolf + Lamb community, where house and R&B influences keep the music moving in time to a slowly spinning disco ball. On the duo's DJ-KiCKS mix, a collaboration with their frequent co-conspirators Soul Clap, they show how the Wolf + Lamb aesthetic plays out on the dance floor, sketching the outline of a particularly woozy night in shuffling house beats and lascivious electro funk touched up with hints of early '90s hip-hop. Jaar's here, too, with a pair of short, pithy tracks that find him kicking it up a notch past his normally languid pace, all for the benefit of the rug-cutters.