estlin usher (he/him) is a sound artist and composer based out of Chicago, IL, USA, working with synthesis, electro-acoustic techniques, and sample manipulation to create immersive and evocative listening environments. estlin’s work explores the sound of objects in the world and how they relate to history, politics, and concepts beyond the traditional notion of music, sound, and noise. In collaboration with X. A. Li as Post Consumer Material, an artificial industrial/experimental media project. In collaboration with Andy Klingensmith as Field Dept., a sound-art project exploring objects, field recordings, and process-based compositional strategies. He is a Modern Concern associate, and assists with production, design, curation, and vision for the label. He founded postcapital.club in 2020, and can be contacted through the Contact page, bandcamp, or @ex.esn (ig).
Below is a selection of recent solo releases, both self-released and on other labels. The list begins with the most recent release and moves to the oldest down the page.
Field Dept. – Room Assignment #2 (2021, Modern Concern)
Breath-terror and awareness.
A meditation on technologies of sound production from primal-natural, to object, to instrument. Airflow as a means to guide symbolic and melodic gestures, with concentrated attention to the body’s function to accomplish what should be the simplest of tasks; to breathe.
“It is a kind of stifling, that starts from below, that also starts from both sides at once. It is an encirclement of the respiratory barrel. And now something is very wrong. It is worse than strangling; an anatomical nightmare, a metaphysical anguish, a revolt…”
Room Assignment #2 is an exercise addressing the acute emotional contagions brought about by the global COVID-19 pandemic. Deep breathing is used as a therapeutic technique and in practice, we begin to recognize the potential breath has as a catalyst for change in our physical and emotional response. As we explore its effect on our bodies, our environment, and our mental state, its transformative nature is considered as a compositional device. By abstracting breath through the lips, simple wind instruments, and makeshift whistles, an attempt is made by two performers to reach a sympathetic emotional resonance using rhythm, signals, and sounds guided by breathing.
Room Assignment #2 was recorded live on July 3 and 10, 2021 in Chicago, Illinois by two fully vaccinated artists positioned in front of two stereo microphones facing opposite sides of a ventilated room. They produced all sounds with their bodies, manipulating steel tubes, flute keys, harmonica, melodica, chairs, and whistles. The sounds of a busy restaurant patio and passing subway train can be heard around the performance. For patient listening.
K.L. Stijl – New Plastic Music (2021, Gathering Wool)
Harsh textural sonic compositions on neoplasticism. Trio involving Chicago’s Rush Falknor, Andy Klingensmith, and Estlin Usher.
Xerox and colored Riso on 100% cotton paper, white cassette, and white cassette box. Edition of 35
Field Dept. – Rhiza (2021, Modern Concern)
“The wisdom of the plants: even when they have roots, there is always an outside where they form a rhizome with something else – with the wind, an animal, human beings…”
Uprooted nodes of interconnectivity. When exposed, precious water drips from the source. Between the glass-walled garden and the biome, fluid movement reaches from the abstract into the physical like a slowly rising stream.
Rhiza. Recontextualizing the practice of cultivation and the growth cycle by renegotiating the acoustic ecology of its process and properties. Growing, a system evolving, transcending action and redistributing itself throughout the listening field.
Reverberation of the grow-room mimics yawning flora, as close-mic’d irrigation and drainage simulate methods of sustaining, of supplanting, of sharing. Sharing space, sharing soil, sharing light. The crack of stems empathetically answers the soft whine of ventilation. The labor of watering, a landscape of glass, awaits the gardener. Innumerable budding branches of perpetual approach and departure, moving like seasons to shelter life.
Source material from water, dried and living grass, glass vases and pourers, plastic, acoustic feedback, and empty cassette tape. Field recordings of ventilation systems, various plants, and ambient room noise taken at the Franklin Park Conservatory in Columbus, Ohio on December 28, 2020. For patient listening. Rhiza was recorded and produced in the winter of 2020-2021 in Chicago, Illinois.
Siegfried Cut (2021, Amateur Electronics)
This release was made with contact mics and wire in place of a turntable’s needle, scraping their way through vinyl, still softly playing somehow – yet degrading the sound source with each new turn. This is Wagner cut and emasculated into an entirely new form.
Note from the artist (included as insert in physical copies):
All art is political. Siegfried Cut uses Wagner’s music recorded with contact microphones and wire in place of a turntable needle, cutting and disfiguring the wax while allowing the trace of a sound to carry through. Source material from “The Glorious Sounds of Wagner,” performed by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra (Columbia Masterworks, 1963).
Leuchtende Liebe, lachender Tod!
Leuchtende Liebe, lachender Tod:
leuchtende Liebe, lachender Tod!
Note for the listener: The specter of Wagner haunts the concert hall to this day. Despite his abhorrent history, his work continues to be performed every year by opera companies and orchestras around the world, and is eagerly attended by an audience of hundreds of thousands. Classical music is a beast cornered by its history; while it sacrifices its young—the thousands of new classical pieces composed each year rarely are performed more than once—it reifies the darkest corners of our collective Western history. A grotesque apologetics for the stain of white, Western hegemony. In trying to reconcile this for myself, I wanted to find a technique that used and criticized Wagner’s music without putting it on a pedestal or in the concert hall. Although with this release I am complicit in the re-production of Wagner’s work, the intent is to disfigure and “deturn” the music. To overcome history, a new mythology must be constructed; and every sacrifice must come at a cost. It’s time to let Wagner die.
Each of these recordings begins with music and ends with the noise of cutting wax and scraping channels. All recordings done in one long through-recorded take; no digitally-composed loops or effects were used other than equalization, balance, compression, and light pitch shifting. This work was originally conceived as an installation, where the record is played continuously over the course of the exhibit, cutting and scratching the wax over hours and days until the work is unplayable in its original form. In the isolation of 2020-2021, this installation has been postponed indefinitely.
Varsás / Klingensmith / Maloney / Usher – Alliance (2021, Modern Concern)
“Around the hearth the first groups formed; around the hearth the first groups assembled; around it, the first alliances formed; around it the first rude religious concepts were put into the customs of a cult … “
Alliance was recorded in Hungary, Chicago, Ireland, and Mexico City, respectively. Diverse methods of synthesis, musique concrète, and field recording combine in longform compositions of ambient, drone, and lowercase noise wall.
Four meditations on the nature of the passive human experience, mimicking the sacred focus around which society took order and shape.
Field Dept. – Room Assignment #1 (2021, Modern Concern)
“The home inside, the world outside; the internal workings of a mechanism and the sounds heard throughout the machine. The exterior world presents itself to our senses, the interior world is of emotion and experience that digests, finds meaning, and lives through the sensed.
Ulteriorities. Temperature and architecture. The quiet structure of mood, feeling, existing in a space. Fundamental properties of shelter. A preeminent struggle against nature. Room temperature determined by a furnace. Hot water to sanitize and cleanse. Refrigeration to store sustenance over long periods of time. All of these manipulations of heat establish important preconditions for our daily existence, yet erase themselves from our awareness when they are truly working well.”
Room Assignment #1 recontextualizes the sound of the house and the machines that occupy it in order to highlight the aural properties of shelter, domesticity, and the fundamental conditions that dictate our quality of life.
Source material from furnaces, hot water heaters, refrigerators and mini-refrigerators, hallways, and empty cassettes in both authors’ houses. Assumed isolation. Absolute minimalism. For patient headphone listening. Room Assignment #1 was recorded in November of 2020 in Chicago, Illinois.
Field Dept. – Regressor (2021, Modern Concern)
Regressor is an audio exercise exploring communication through the internal and external topographies of magnetic tape. The demonstration begins with an unmanipulated field recording which is then degraded manually through repeated transfers between both cassettes and actual physical space. These recordings document the process of those transfers by examining different variables of tape use, microphone positioning, and distance. The two authors lived separately and exchanged material only once.
The original digital file was initially recorded to tape while capturing the natural acoustics and sonic phenomena of the author’s chosen room of playback. Once recorded, it was passed between devices in the home, naturally diluting the sonic material through discrepancies in compression, saturation, and ambient noise. Four transfers were relayed to the second author by email, who then played these recordings on both old and new cassette tapes in their own home, at both large and small distances between playback and recording devices, obfuscating the original source entirely.
The summative result of these recordings has been compiled here, arranged with consideration to narrative and pace. The recordings have not been altered in any way aside from length and position, finally.
Machinic III. (2020, self-released)
Object studies using fans, heating vents, metal plates, leaves, dried grass, and contact microphones.
Machinic II. (2020, self-released)
Modified turntable using wire as a ‘dirty needle’. Piano solo by W. Malcuzynski, Angel Records (1963). Cassette.
Machinic I. (2020, self-released)
Object and repetition studies using turntable, contact microphones, and miscellaneous objects. Tapes salvaged from a basement flood; the process of drying and cleaning the cassettes results in a subtle and periodic warp of the physical tape, yielding an additional perceptual layer to the recording and drawing attention to the physicality of the medium. Cassette.
Still, (2020, Clinquant Pudendum)
Chicago-based artist Estlin Usher presents his Clinquant Pudendum debut, “Still,” – an academic, obsessively focused electro-acoustic oeuvre. Accompanied by text written by Usher explaining the process, this album is an auditory think-piece, reflecting on the relationship between the natural & the synthetic, the romance in the simple rustling of leaves, the sensation of physical contact which words fail to illustrate. This album reminds the listener of the partnership between musical composition and audience, in the way it demands your involvement in the conversation, the same way lovers must find balance in the give & take. Objects given breath, for a chance to speak their peace. How glorious the vibrations whispered by the flower petal…
Released on Cassette and CDR.
Note from the artist:
Perceived sound: our projection and imagination of the sounding object. Wind, not filtered white noise; a vowel, not a mere collection of frequencies and formants. We want to hear things as they are. There is a primal connection between sound and the world, something deeply embedded in our way of making sense of our environment.
Still, and stillness: these seven structures interlace textures created by synthesized sounds and raw electro-acoustic recordings, designed for ambient listening. Each electro-acoustic recording is achieved by structuring a collection of natural and synthetic objects—dried grass, flower petals, sheet metal, cymbal—and generating an airflow that disturbs and forces an interrelationship between the parts. This is designed to create an ecosystem of objects that defines and explores the parameters of its structure; a horizon appears between the outer limits of dried grass against metal. Each interstitial synthetic structure utilizes data from the adjoining acoustic recordings, designed to contrast in texture, sound, and approach while retaining an abstract similarity through following amplitude envelope and frequency information. If there is any intention, it is a self-consciousness and reflection at play in the selection of sounding objects. The poetics of stillness, contingency, and structure. Headphones and patience recommended.
2 contact microphones, metal table frame, cymbal, dried grass, dried flowers, foil.
Synthesizer, envelope follower, panning, delay.
Recorded in isolation (with Pipsqueak and Alice), May 2020.
Metal Spirit (2020, Structures Without Purpose)
Cameron Day: metal manipulation, tape loops, editing
Estlin Usher: metal manipulation, digital signal processing, editing
C60 – To be upon the grinding earth amongst the decrepit structures coated in dead vines, still drenched in the haunting clatter & clang of a factory line, to be a phantom plucking at broken strings inside these cavernous tombs of industry…
METAL SPIRIT presents Estlin Usher & Cameron Day coming together for two long-form movements of reprocessed tape recordings dense in mystique & movement, and approached with a deep admiration for the process of tape musik & the potential therein. There is a ghostly presence ever looming in these pieces, and still no moment passes where the duo’s precise attention to detail isn’t felt. Heavy caresses of dizzying stereo-field play, granular textures, trilling loops abundant. Laborious Electro-Acoustic. – Description by Rush Falknor
Dubbed in real time directly from source audio on HX Pro Dolby NR cassette decks. Released August 28, 2020
Rain Synthesis (2020, self-released)
Field recording from May 2020 on Side A. Synthetically generated rain simulation (noise, filters, feedback) on Side B. Each individual cassette in the release is designed to be unique, with different realizations of arbitrary processes.
A stochastically driven panning function is applied to each recording, using ambisonic encoding and reverberation to place the sound in and around the auditory field. These panning processes are designed to chart a path through the listening environment that maps out the limits of this perceptual layer, and situates it against the sense of space implied by the source material itself.
The rain simulation (Side B) is run as a unique implementation of a random/noise algorithm resulting in a minimally differential sound topography in each take.
Transparent variation within repetition. Perceptual interplay between virtual and implied environments. Synthetic ecoacoustics.
Produced as a C20 cassette with artwork and brief liner notes. Limited run of 15 copies. Rain Synthesis is recorded to cassette with randomized panning functions so that each cassette is minimally unique.
Early in the isolation of 2020, my basement studio flooded. The field recording of rain on Side A is from the same thunderstorm that decimated gear, literature, and memories. Humbling. But could have been much worse. These tapes are salvaged from the flood, dried, and repurposed for individual release. The magnetic tape is warped in places, distorting the sound from the original recordings. Nature and calamity imprinted onto this physical form.
For listening with humility and in awe of nature. Exercise patience.
As an untrained visual artist, I primarily work with simple techniques such as rubbing, tracing, and hammering, before scanning the image in at high resolution (1200 dpi). I tend to use substances such as charcoal, cigarette ash, and dirt as raw material. Below is a small selection of recent work; other images can be found on instagram.