Like the best works of Oulipan literature, Peter Silberman‘s first solo album, Impermanence, is a beautifully realised product of constraint. Back in 2014, Silberman experienced temporary hearing loss in one ear and severe tinnitus, to the point that it became difficult to endure everyday sounds, which he describes as sounding as though they were played through distortion. The hubbub of living in New York City was too much and he moved upstate to find quiet.
The cause of his impairment remains unexplained. It’s true that as frontman for The Antlers Silberman used to spend a fair bit of time performing next to a stack of amps, but the cracked and haunting beauty of The Antlers’ music doesn’t exactly entail My Bloody Valentine levels of volume. At one point Silberman feared that he wouldn’t be able to sing or play music again, but starting with an acoustic guitar he found he could write songs that his ears withstood. Impermanence is the result.
It inhabits a space somewhere between acoustic and ambient. Silberman’s recent EP Transcendless Summer is in some ways a clear precursor: temporary hearing impairment or not it seems likely that he might have continued to work in that ambient direction for his first full length album. The record is bookended by its most formless, abstract tracks. Opening track Karuna drifts around for half of its eight-minute duration, sending out crackling, arpeggiated signals as if uncertain of whether anyone is around to receive them. Impermanence ends with its title track, a hesitant instrumental that peters out after a couple of minutes only to reappear as the spectral whirring of tape loops.
At the other end of the spectrum is New York, essentially a guitar ballad and the song that’s most reminiscent of Silberman’s work with The Antlers. On one level it is an homage to the city that in its nocturnal tones recalls Interpol‘s similar homages in their seminal Turn On The Bright Lights. On another it is the way in which Silberman confronts his hearing loss most directly. Its refrain “Like I never heard New York” has two meanings; it addresses the fact that he could no longer stand the noises of New York while also describing those sounds in such a way that they are revealed as something new and magical. He sings of ‘hissing buses stuck’ and ‘shrieking trains barrelling berserk’, bringing to life the punishing qualities he experienced in everyday background noise.
Silberman has described running the recordings through aged tapes in an attempt to decay the songs. This calls to mind his fellow New York musician William Basinski, best known for his Disintegration Loops, in which he repeatedly played and recorded loops of fragmented ambient music on decaying tape, capturing the sound of the music disintegrating. The title of Silberman’s record of course chimes with Basinski’s experiment, and both explore the nature of impermanence, share a hauntological aesthetic and invite questions about our experience of music, memory and listening.
But both are also about New York and trauma. Basinski’s Disintegration Loops were completed in the literal shadow of the 9/11 attacks, with the project coming to an end on the morning of 11 September. Silberman’s album is about a smaller-scale, more personal trauma, but his use of ambient elements and his questioning notions of transience and impermanence indicate a desire to explore huge and pervasive ideas. Impermanence might have started out as a personal project, and it is an economical record consisting of six minimalist tracks, but self and city both run through it, giving a great sense of scale and scope.