In Flux

On Robert Turman's minimalist masterpiece

The music on Flux is that, which I would expect to hear in a hypothetical place between life and death – a limbo so to speak. Robert Turman, the man behind the minimal compositions on this debut piece of his, describes the music he created for said piece as probably the most personal he has done. Armed with a xylophone, a piano and some recording equipment, he went on to create the six tracks contained on Flux.

After parting ways with Boyd Rice of NON, shortly after their collaboration titled Knife Ladder / Mode of Infection in 1978, Turman went on to develop his own artistical style. As stated by himself, he needed some distance from noise. Luckily for us listeners these events led to the delicate sounding improvisations on his solo debut, which he self-released on cassette in 1981. Circa 30 years later, the Cleveland based independent label Spectrum Spools re-earthed this classic masterpiece and packed it into a juicy limited edition double vinyl set, which you can grab here.

As mentioned before, Turman describes the work on Flux as very personal. When asked what inspired him to create his work, he reveals that there’s really no inspiration to create anything specific. Probably just a sign of the times, he further adds. He’s a man of action it seems. No aimless searching for inspiration, just pure intuition. The way nature intended it to be, I believe.

Yes, the tracks feel personal. It is after all the work of one man. Even before reading the interview in which he speaks about the meaning of Flux and his 2010 record Beyond Painting, I was certain that I could feel that Flux was just meant to be. I mean, there was no other way around this, in the sense that Turman just needed to get this off his chest. It was meant to be here with us in this universe and there couldn’t be a universe without a thing called Flux in it.

I can almost imagine Robert Turman sitting in his garage, surrounded by the oppressive heat of the California summer, layering his loops and improvising the hell out of his mind. 

After listening to Turman’s debut tape many, many times, I would describe it as a one hour and 8 minute long self-therapy session with the ability to cure everyone that engages with it too. Or at least it manages to take you to a place, beyond the veil of reality, which is free from all worldly concepts, as in a zenlike state, so to speak. 

In fact, the second track on Flux is entitled “Mu Shin”; a Zen expression, which refers to a state that is achieved when a person’s mind is free from thoughts of anger, fear or ego. The track communicates with a limited but powerful vocabulary of a few gently played xylophone notes. Enough to stimulate the mind into a state of no-mindeness. It’s impressive how accurately Turman manages to translate this concept into sound.

I stumbled across this release on YouTube in 2019, after enjoying an extensive period of listening to Brian Eno, William Basinksi and Nurse with Wound. Apparently the YouTube algorithm would be more than capable to fulfill the role of record store clerk. Feed it properly, and you’ll be rewarded I guess.

We enter Flux with the sound of Turman hitting the record button on his Tascam 3340 open-reel tape machine, instantly followed by a sequence of peculiar sounding xylophone notes and a fragment of what appears to be a kalimba tune. 

“When you crash into an african clock shop and die shortly after you open your car door.”, a YouTube commenter writes, which to me is a more than precise description of how the first five seconds of this album feel. What I particularly like about the LP is that it manages to put me into a variety of mental states. I actually use it to either relax or to engage in deep thinking. When listening to it attentively, my mind wanders into all sorts of places and occasionally it even creeps me out. 

One thing’s for sure; I cannot help but smile while absorbing the warm hissing sound of the tape static alongside the compositions. It surely adds to the overall hazy and hypnotizing atmosphere. So, to put in words the potential effect that Flux may have on the listener, I’d best refer to Brian Eno’s description of environmental music, as to be found in the Music for Airports liner notes; it is as ignorable as it is interesting.

The standout track amongst all the compositions to me personally is the third one, which on the 1981 cassette release is titled “Miao”. For some reason unknown to me on the Spectrum Spools re-releases all the tracks are untitled. 

I really love the ‘chinese ceremonial tune’ which is used as a sample for the loop on this track. The listener is slowly escorted towards the courtyard of an emperor, while the soothing sound of the xylophone carries us away into an eastern inspired soundscape. Slowed down and kind of blue – a guaranteed tearjerker to me. All of the tracks on Flux evoke some feelings of nostalgia, but “Miao” does particularly well at taking my mind on a journey to the past, revisiting faces and places long gone.

The ending of the track segues us into what I’ve seen described as the second half of the album. While it certainly takes on a different approach, I wouldn’t split the album in two because of some stylistic variations. Remember; all of this is improvised.

“Kalimba”, “Mu Shin” and “Miao”, the first three tracks on the album, define the ‘exotic fraction’. Certainly the choice of instruments lend the songs an eastern vibe and stimulate the mind in a different way than the more minimal slant does, which Turman takes on the so-called latter half of Flux, by solely utilizing the piano. Personally I believe that it is exactly that switch, that allows the listener to take off into higher planes, while making the music appear more basic superficially. To me, the less we are given in terms of sonic input, the more freedom our mind has when making up mental images. We are less constricted, but not everyone may enjoy this as much as I do.

So, in case you belong to those, who believe that Tracks 4, 5, 6 lack some sort of ‘fire’ or ‘spark’, you might want to consider lowering your expectations and then re-listening to the tracks. Simply let them sink into your mind without evaluating them. Think of it as an actual meditation, in which you merely observe your thoughts, or in this case the songs, without any form of judgment. Flux is simply mesmerizing. It feels like Turman broke free from the shackles of reality and created a microverse of its own. It’s alive and breathing. That’s why I love it so much. Containing the right amount of action and non-action, Flux carries you away into an oddly beautiful journey into the depths of your mind and the mind of Robert Turman.

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