It is sometimes said that you can’t really understand a thing until you are out of it. Think of any relationship you ever had, and the perspective you gained with the benefit of hindsight. Certainly we learn as we progress through any experience; lifelong learning is a genuinely meaningful goal. But all we can really hope to do in the midst of an experience is to be attentive and strive to keep learning. Sometime later, we gain the perspective required to have something more than a superficial understanding.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a prime example. We have lived more or less in a kind of shared bewilderment this last year and a half. At various times, we have been frightened, misinformed and misdirected by authorities, not all of whom have the community’s best interests at heart. Our trust in institutions and in each other has been profoundly shaken. In this sense, the virus has been more than a public health issue. It has made the world around us even more difficult to understand than it was before.
German electronic artist Sonia Güttler – who makes music and DJs under the name Sonae – has produced an exceptional new LP that can be enjoyed as both a reflection of the state of things and an advanced sound art composition. Summer ranks among this year’s best electronic works.
“Summer is not a warning,” writes Leah Kardos in the notes that accompany the release. “It is not an explanation or an argument. It offers no answers. Summer simply holds up a mirror and asks us to experience and behold both the beauty and the brutality of our present reality. It is a work of protest, grief and hope, and it functions as a space for the listener to reckon with these truths and sensations for themselves.”
Sonae’s portrayal of the here and now was developed during the initial weeks of the pandemic. It is not solely informed by that time; its scope is much larger (environmentalism is a primary theme). But there is a connection, in my mind at least, between this work and the physical isolation we all lived with in 2020. For as much as it has been conceived as a representation of the outside world, it is also a portrayal of how we have internalized the stressors of this particular time in modern society. It is about what we feel more than it is what we see and hear.
And to be sure, we’re feeling things pretty deeply these days. Yes, Sonae’s work features multiple examples of electronic interpretations of natural sounds – water, insects and the like. But her genius is in producing sound art that surpasses literal interpretations. Summer feels anxious. It is tense and restless. More than that, it captures the scale of just how sideways things have gone and our inability to conceive of what happens next. This makes the album entirely relatable, despite (and perhaps because of) its unconventionality.
Sonae has succeeded in her effort to present us an artful interpretation of the world today and its unknowability. To the extent that listeners hear their own sense of unease in this powerful work, they will gain comfort in knowing that they’re not alone in this. A useful learning, even if it does fall short of complete understanding.