In its straightforwardness, the title of the Los Angeles composer R. Girardin’s new record feels portentous: Emotional Music. The questions it opens are both existential and, for some, confrontational. On one hand, isn’t all music inherently emotional? But on the other, the album is composed of 10 tracks of instrumental synth music. And while most explorers of underground music have long since adopted the idea that electronics can be used to chart emotional landscapes, there is this lingering stereotype that those who channel electricity to produce their sounds are doing so in a manner that’s inherently unfeeling. Over email, Girardin answers all of these questions obliquely, by quoting someone who grappled with such questions decades ago. “Like Herbie Hancock said, a synthesizer is a tool,” he explains. “Just like an axe is a tool.”
It’s a toolset that Girardin is pretty familiar with. For the better part of the last ten years, he’s been making records using digital and analog electronic instruments, both in collaboration with others—he was a “satellite member” of the mind-expanding experimental act Excepter, many other group efforts—and on his own, largely under the moniker Jaws. But he says that while working on the many recordings he’s made over the past couple of years, he most often felt like he was making exercises in existing genres or otherwise “inhabit[ing] a role.”
For Emotional Music, Girardin worked differently. About halfway through making the record, he realized that he was working in a way that was atypical for him, crafting tracks “without a conceptual underpinning.” He realized that he was working more instinctually, pursuing feelings first. “I became inspired to further pursue this idea of a pure music borne of response to emotional stimuli,” he explains. “Most of these songs were composed very quickly and each one relates directly to a specific experience.”
What those exact experiences are, Girardin ultimately declines to expound upon, in favor of keeping interpretations open (“I think its more fun for the listener to take the journey without a road map as well,” he says.) But that openness is ultimately to the record’s benefit—the sounds he explores on the ten tracks are fantastical and otherworldly, suffused with a supernatural glow and an inherent bit of mystery. I’m reminded at times of the plasticine sounds that have made up the brittle world of the Hungarian composer Gábor Lázár’s last few releases, but Girardin twists those tense synthetic whooshes and whines into pieces that feel strangely warm and inviting. It’s a listening experience that’s almost paradoxical—there’s moments of chaos and tumult, like on the teeth-chattering “Splashed On,” but Girardin mostly takes sounds that could feel harsh or intensely digital sounds and finds life in them.
If we are to find our own emotions in it, for me it seems to express a complicated one, that of hard-won comfort in an era of technological chaos. We live in an era where so much emotion—or performance of emotion—is mediated and complicated by our relationships both with the supercomputers that live in our pockets and the knowledge that in the most literal of senses we are being watched at every moment. What Emotional Music seems to argue—by drawing luminous, twirling melodies with pure electricity—is that there is some way to find humanity and warmth among all the lines of code that swirl around us—that man and machine can live symbiotically.
When I ask Girardin about this element of the record, he explains that it could be a function of the environment in which it was born. Living in Los Angeles, he’s not only forced to deal with the whole smartphone thing, but also with the idea that his daily locomotion based inside a behemoth of steel, rubber, plastics and gasoline.
“I feel that Los Angeles and the relationship the city demands between citizen and automobile is the bluntest marrying of man and machine which yet exists,” he says. “Cars change people’s emotional responses in insane, and often frightening ways. People will scream, threaten your life, curse your name all over a delay of a couple minutes in their daily commutes. I think the whole process is dehumanizing, tragic and lonely. Emotional Music was made in Los Angeles in the midst of all this overpowering, frightening isolation.”
And yet, there’s still joy, which Girardin says is no accident either. In the midst of all the turmoil of the world, he says he chooses to cling to whatever “liveliness and light” he can find.
“I don’t mean always as in the other sides of a psyche need to be ignored or somehow conquered, but I think it’s important to always get happiness in mind as a concept or even as a goal,” he says. “Life is sweetest when I’m happy so if I have a choice I’m always going to try and be living it with a big smile. Beats the alternative.”