Lia Kohl – The Ceiling Reposes

3.17.23 by Matty McPherson

Last year, Jordan Reyes, the American Dreamer now in Paris, was offering contact and information to talk shop with Lia Kohl. You may know Kohl as the noted cello maestro, the one that appears across a galaxy of recordings that span from string tracks across Circuit des Yeux and claire rousay to kinetic, intrinsic improvisations with Macie Stewart (just to name a few). It was all but hinted that Kohl was to have a release on American Dreams, albeit one that would reveal itself a year down the line. In that time, I did have a chance to co-interview Lia Kohl and she left both me and my co-host an exceptional parting gift: a remote-performance that metaphorically took us back to the thick of 2020. We hadn’t expected such a thing in all honesty, but it was a colossal leap and new aesthetic MO for the Chicago polyglot. In the performance, strings were ancillary to the trawling of the megahertz; her dedication towards the integration of radio sounds across cello drone and feedback loops was invoking a most tantalizing, alloy-tinged sound bath. Her toolkit that included midi processing of the cello created broken, jagged translations of the instrument that recontextualized the radio and the cello as fuzzy transmissions.

Needless to say, while not reviewed for the site, I did take a keen liking to Too Small to Be a Plain. The tape released last year is though a mere stopgap; a selection of six tracks of midi processing and solo loops, on top of found recordings, that create nocturnal ambience and small scale rumbles. All six pieces suggested something larger, something akin to that shock remote performance. Finally, we have successor to these small scale endeavors! The Ceiling Repose has arrived in March of 2023 on American Dreams, a label that has oft maneuvered vinyl delays and a move one continent to the east. Reyes has emphasized that because of these delays, American Dreams releases represent a vision from fall 2021 to spring 2022; there is a set cue for what’s to come, and that might be all that is set. Reyes has hinted at a a recontextualization what this label means for the artist and network he’s built over the past few years. Although the truth is that the American Dreams vision has been joyously out-of-time. The Ceiling Repose arrives now, as out of time as it was if it arrived in 2021 or in 2024. And perhaps because the times have called for it (or because American Dreams knows I will buy it), there is a tape for a single $20 (+ nominal fees).

The Ceiling Repose is the most complete collection and structure to Lia Kohl’s keen integration and emphasis on “radio sounds.” If you’re looking for a larger lineage that this fits into, well you could point to the Books aleatoric collages as your grand starting line for this style of 21st century composition. Although I’d prefer to keep things small scale, and it so happens that Kohl slides nicely between a small group of frequencies traverses–your Bridgette Bardon’ts, Hali Palombos, and Rrill Bells. All of these artists have in the past few years worked in using radio as a vessel to convey broken connections, rejuvenate sudden archived memories, and present sudden bright blips that are caught in the ether before they disappear. All of these soundsmiths are careful not to romanticize the radio and their trawled recordings and enshrine the shebang with a talismanic quality; they seek to use it as a roadmap to reinforce their own truths. The same way one may take a jar of fortune cookie titles and convert them to lyrics. Kohl’s usage of the radio is additive in nature; constructing a new, exponential effect and character to the chamber music when it appears within her own cello soundscapes. If classical music struggles to find an audience outside of aficionados, then it’s probably because the radio rarely fails to transmit releases like this, the kinds that are human and impart a meta-characteristic to the state of affairs.

The Ceiling Reposes is delicate, modern classical music; the kind that can lumber with a tight-wire balance or drone in C as if it walks on water; the kind that should be championed from the broadcast peaks of a radio transmitter. Kohl’s concocted a particularly meditative chi within her cello (while also using synths, vocal loops, the kazoo, a wind machine, piano keys, and of course percussive flickers) that shimmers and stretches, using the radio to soothe and create deeper grooves, melodies, or counters to the chamber piece itself. There’s an inkling of a komische zones across opener “in a specific room,” a space that welcomes in Bobby Vinton to both point to the a cultural memory, an idea of a peaceful past, that matches the cut to another voice that ensures we don’t know how much time we have left. “sit on the floor and wait for storms” buzzes like bees and fridge hum, taking the cello towards a contemplative, ruminative slow(core’d) and reverberarted direction as the radio cautions of a snow storm approaching. “when glass is there, and water” is the highlight of the A-side, a piece that takes the finger-picking abstraction of Kohl’s cello playing and marries it to a reverent chorus that continues to ebb and flow with the pacing of waves upon the lake, until all that is left are layers of metallic strings and their peaceful glide. The kind that invokes birdsong and spring splendor. All of these pieces see Kohl furthering ambience and chamber music into a tangible recollections one can place themselves in. It’s open, utilitarian music that recalls Chicago’s post-rock rumblings at the turn of the century.

And I feel comfortable saying that because “or things maybe dropping” invokes late 90s Gastr del Sol during their chamber period. The piece meshes well with their old Christmas standard. Yet, the composition unlocks a kinetic, flow-state quality as an off-kilter drum beat, stoned sax, and wistful synths/wind create an almost-pop ambience; one that unfurls into piano chamber music that comes from another room over. It walks and moves akin to a human jumping between Sunday routines. “the moment a zipper” is the closet Kohl has come to straight electroacoustic David Behrman compositions, with a synthesizer bleeping and responding to the cello akin to Kim-1; the tone’s immaculate splendor imparting a bittersweet nostalgia. The piece becomes essential to the tinkles and sizzles of the B-Side, a side sequenced towards a freer sense of sound that reaches for trance or crescendoes; the kinds that have become entangled in Rachika Nayar’s work as of late. “became daily today” strongly alludes to the pop potential of this sound. Crystalline keys loop and the crackle and frizzle of the radio rushes towards a connection, an emotional peak for the album. The brief denouement, “like time (pretending it had a human body),” flashes and bleeps it’s way out akin to Moon Glyph’s psychedelic acid test ambience. And as the tape ends, you’re left a little lighter and fleeter on your feet, having ruminated on Kohl’s deft union of chamber music to the megahertz and the friendly aberrations it brings forth.

Limited Edition Cassette (with Balloon) Available at the American Dreams Bandcamp Page