The word is now a virus. […] Modern man has lost the option of silence. Try halting sub-vocal speech. Try to achieve even ten seconds of inner silence. You will encounter a resisting organism that forces you to talk. That organism is the word.
—William Burroughs, The Ticket that Exploded
In his novel, The Ticket that Exploded, Burroughs made the claim that language is a virus. As a virus, inextricably bound were the notions of self-propagation and destruction. In order to grow, a virus must occupy a cell and the cell must detonate. Language is virulent. It’s transmitted quickly and relentlessly and language occupies us; it changes the way we conceive of our relations. Thought becomes binarized, channels of expression are narrowed into single-purpose conduits. As the virus consumes us, it leaves behind a scaffolding, a structural regime. What can be done? How can we be benefited by the extirpation of illness in our psyches? Well, several have proposed a what. Dada has long been in the business of disrupting the moribund by refusing typical modes of communication: the asemic, the ungrammatical, the neologistic, the random, the shocking. Burroughs himself used those same techniques. However, there is also an option that is less jarring: opting to lull the body out of a viral perception. Such a technique can be found in the work of Richard Chartier, as Pinkcourtesyphone, and especially so in his newest release, Sentimental Something.
If we operate from the position that all of our assumptions stem from habituation, an inuring of the mind to what has become codified as typical—conditions, relations, experiences, reactions—then we are actually given two options to shatter the monotony: havoc or meditation. Chartier’s typical methodology is one of restraint. Unlike the shocks produced by Burroughs or his Dada progenitors, Pinkcourtesyphone saturates his collage with a superabundance of signification. Gradual, glacial, slow, syrupy. His work demands attention, sorting out the elements and determining what part they play, what new forms they’ve taken on. Dada is fast; it muscles its way through the gates of perception and straight into the consciousness, but the approach Chartier takes here is gentle, understated, devoid of anything sweeping. As a listener, one must lock into this eerie milieu in order to undo the indoctrination of a sonic vocabulary.
The compositions are dense, but they never belie that density, or rather we never discover it. New sounds don’t just drift in and out, but are latent in the first seconds of the piece, legible earlier and earlier after repeated listening. Abyssal yawns, creaking synths, phantom strings, warped theremins, muted beats, static, water bowls, uncanny swirls and hums. These are all components, but the pieces exist far in excess of their baser elements.
Fortunately, Chartier’s arrangements are not just conceptual, but succeed based on the merit of their haunting and evocative approach to ambience. “Tears of Modernism” completes its opening stretches as Eva Domnitch’s lachrymal theremin begins to wend and wind its way through expansive and menacing hollows of sound, calling to mind a wailing soul lost in a cavern. Sneaking in through the bottom of the mix is some beat so miniscule it’s impossible to tell what instrument could have possibly borne it. The great success of Sentimental Something and Pinkcourtesyphone’s work in general is the degree of listener agency, allowing the auditor to draw out and refocus these sounds through close listening.
The closing cut “Casual Encounter / Formal Encounter” is probably the most clearly dynamic and the most passively engaging. Not nearly as quilted and integrated as the previous two, a churning, factory-style guitar line sinks into the foundation of the song and a bass thud finds its way to the fore of the mix. It’s a faintly dark odyssey as voices, soft and distraught, begin to fight through the gauzy production. Uncanniness is central to these songs, as they conjure half-memories, half-associations, lines of thought that may have been your own, but could just as easily belong to someone else. They’re impressions of impressions, gathered in those strange, clean, public spaces where voices and noise are transformed by the sheer expanse.
The album ends with a woman’s clear voice: “Thank you, but I’m never coming back.” Her heels click off into the distance and we are stranded. We should not do that to Sentimental Something. This is not an album to put on at a party nor an album to even listen to with friends. It’s something personal, something enveloping, a journey into the disintegration of our own structural biases, a challenge to listen fearlessly and openly and mindfully, and a way to realign ourselves to the signs and symbols that swarm us. When the phone rings, we should pick it up and listen.