Back when Benjamin Wynn studied music at CalArts, the L.A.-based composer had a professor who shared an anecdote about sound’s violent potential. It stuck with him.
“He said that every object — in theory, anyway — has a particular resonant frequency where, if you activate it, you could make anything self-destruct,” he said. “Hypothetically, the Eiffel Tower has one where if you played the exact right frequency back you could destroy it.”
Sound as a harbinger of annihilation? That’s a theme running through his new LP, “Torn in Two.” Recorded under his composing alias Deru, Wynn uses an arsenal of avant-garde sound design techniques to make an unsettling (and often beautiful) depiction of humanity in crisis: political, ecological, existential.
“What fascinates me, and what I’m reacting to right now, is this violence on a planetary scale,” Wynn said. “Something beyond human scale making and taking life. I’ve got a kid so I have to be an optimist. But yeah, [the album] imagines a world without us.”
Out on the patio of Spoke Bicycle Cafe — an extremely un-apocalyptic coffee shop and bar overlooking the L.A. River in Frogtown — Wynn is way more congenial than that nihilism suggests. In fact, much of his career so far is built on friendly collaboration. In addition to his long film-score dossier, he co-founded the Echo Society, a composing collective and roving concert series that’s hosted live sets from Jonsi, Haxan Cloak, Mica Levi and dozens of others in offbeat, upscale locations around L.A.
Wynn takes no particular pleasure in the late-night fears that led to the ominous moods of “Torn in Two.” But with the political crises in America and elsewhere, and the dire recent climate report released by a U.N. organization predicting global catastrophe within a matter of decades, it’s easy to imagine the worst may still be yet to come. This is the sensation “Torn in Two” aims to evoke.
“Undertow” and the title track center around huge groans of distorted bass and microtonal slashes of organic noise. (Fans of Johann Johannsson’s score for “Arrival” might hear a kindred sense of something gigantic — and maybe malevolent — showing up out of nowhere.) “Pyre” squirms and seethes like a cloud of insects, and the digitally-treated drones of “Our Brief History” feel like radio transmissions from an already-dead planet.
Don’t let that dread deter you: many moments like “Refuge” are quite pretty and calming as well. But the whole LP is an exercise in disassembling sound to create new, maybe post-human, feelings of isolation and destruction.
Much of the instrumentation came from Wynn using spectral analysis of recorded sounds to isolate and chop up an instrument’s particular frequencies (a trick he gleaned from influential avant-gardists Kaija Saariaho and Gérard Grisey). Other tracks use exotic instruments like a cristal baschet, a midcentury structure of glass rods that create an eerie, spectral presence.
Wynn had been thinking and composing around these themes well before November 2016. But that fateful election night was unexpectedly clarifying. Sometimes, enormous and consequential things just seem to happen, and you’ll never really understand why.
“I was absolutely terrified that night, but I also realized that this was kind of what the record was all about,” Wynn said. “I felt all this sheer doom. But now it had a face, a symbol. At least then the record clicked,” he said, laughing darkly.
He probably wouldn’t have come out of that malaise if it hadn’t been for his peers in Echo Society, which he said was “a place to talk about dysfunction and love and using music to express all that. It’s expanded my community hugely and the record wouldn’t sound like it does without that.”
Rather than retreat into pure craft, Wynn grew more open about needing music to understand these feelings. “If a piece of music is only about escapism, I’m probably not going to be into it,” he said. “I’m growing less and less interested in art that’s not asking these broader, darker questions.”
“One thing I’ve come to love about Ben’s work is his tendency to push into the dark side,” said Rob Simonsen, the composer and Echo Society co-founder. “Ben is such a nice guy in real life, a loving husband and father, but he goes artistically dark and hard. I’ve learned how cathartic and healing it can be, that one of the best things to do with darkness and fear is to look at it intensely.”
Part of grappling with that meant getting out of his head and lending some physical presence to this music. The video accompaniments for “Torn In Two” (collaborations with director and animator Bryan Konietzko) have a Kubrick-ian scale, pairing overhead drone shots of industrial L.A. with monolithic sculptures of human forms bisected by glowing rods. He’s planning his next round of live shows, and wants to run sonic transducers through all kinds of objects that will ring and vibrate amid crowd as he performs.
As the sun starts to go down, Wynn points at the basin of the River down the concrete embankment below. He shot some of the “Torn In Two” footage around here, and the combination of human ingenuity and a near-obliterated natural world seems apropos to his album. If you want to see what the world might look like after a hundred years’ worth of climate change, the L.A. River is a decent place to start.
That afternoon, the only sounds outside were bike bells ringing on the adjacent pathway, and the ambient thrum of cars on the 5 Freeway. But if you listened closer, you could almost imagine something bigger, more all-consuming, coming our way.
“The L.A. river is so interesting to me. It connects the entire city with these industrial tentacles. It’s bigger than humans but was made by and for humans. No one would ever choose to design a city like this,” he said. “It’s so alien to me, the lack of humanity in that. I love it. L.A.’s the best place to live.”
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