We’re all good people here, right? We would all upright an overturned tortoise on the side of the road, but would you succor blind Bartimaeus? When the orphans of Jerusalem ask for bread, would you break it unto them? When your promised enemy collapses in the heat, would you carry water to his lips? Are you content, tuned into the jeremiad of nightly news? Doesn’t mean we’re bad, just human.
I think of everything I have done out of spite, of every time I wielded contempt as a cudgel. Worse, perhaps, a retreat to the hardness of my days, a stony construction designed to wall-in all empathy. Not even the keening of widows outside my windows breaks through. I am not an evil person, but I am myself and they are themselves. I can find myself in any book in my library, and when the shrill, burning grind of their nails against my battlements groans through, I often try:
“A well-meaning man is one who often does a great deal of mischief without any kind of malice. He means no one any harm, if it is not for his interest. He is not a knave, nor perfectly honest. He does not easily resign a good place.”
Should we suffer together? The question might be one of capability. Breathe in and breathe out, synchronize. Thread a filament from my heart to yours. Let my blood spill in place of yours.
We find a central problem in the circulation of images. It was sometime, a while ago, when the sluice was opened, but we’re still unaccustomed to the torrent. We are fatigued by images, our sentimental organs have run themselves to failure. Empathy has ruined empathy, compassion numbed compassion.
Each new war — no more or less shocking than the last — competes with each new tragedy — as impossible to predict or prevent as the last — competes with each new outrage — equally pointless as all the rest. Violence has invaded our common vocabulary. Mutilation and death have been transformed into tropes. Our visual and auditory language is overrun with metaphors of harm and violation. The ancient Greeks might have termed ours a hubristic lexicon.
She tells us, “There isn’t going to be an ecology of images. No Committee of Guardians is going to ration horror, to keep fresh its ability to shock. And the horrors themselves are not going to abate.” The world is constituted as representation; we have only images of each other to sort, juxtapose, caption, misinterpret, corrupt, and recirculate. I can never occupy the same space as you. The needle that pierces your flesh will never remark upon my skin.
Can we suffer together? Can we make nourishment out of air? As long as we remain content in our simulations of suffering — I feel for you, I really do — we can mask ourselves in innocence and impotence, deny any part in the wrongdoing inflicted on so many, so near, and so far. That little pang is a voucher to be exchanged. I open my newspaper, a piece about photographs and about the dead, and read:
We see the list in the morning paper at breakfast, but dismiss its recollection with the coffee. There is a confused mass of names, but they are all strangers; we forget the horrible significance that dwells amid the jumble of type. […] Each of these little names that the printer struck off so lightly last night, whistling over his work, and that we speak with a clip of the tongue, represents a bleeding, mangled corpse. It is a thunderbolt that will crash into some brain — a dull, dead, remorseless weight that will fall upon some heart, straining it to breaking. […] We recognize the battle-field as a reality, but it stands as a remote one. It is like a funeral next door.
Susan Sontag in Regarding the Pain of Others, an essay on representations of war and suffering, writes, “Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers.” Matthew Barnes has decided to confront this challenge as Forest Swords.
Barnes has made his name by the seamlessly blending the seemingly ancient and dusty with the nonspecifically present, melding creaking acoustics with dubby thuds and club-adjacent rhythms. Cracking together freshly excavated Irby hearthstones and sampling grating strings, he throws contemporary electronic music backwards in time, reframing his pieces as pagan rituals out on the Wirral, that same wilderness where Gawain sojourned.
However, his newest work, Compassion, attempts to blur these lines further, to not seem to occupy these two spheres, but to actually confound them. A communique for our strange times, he positions his work as Forest Swords and under the Dense Truth label, as an ameliorative for the severed synapses of modernity and a way to dispel the superfluity of things.
Prompted by the stunning velocity and circulation of images in the modern world, Barnes has claimed his latest effort seeks to mediate communication and dissolve barriers by establishing fruitful ambiguities. Ancient and modern, wordless and lyrical, honest and ersatz, sacral and profane, all operate as component qualities to be mixed and manipulated, drawn together and apart, so as to create something that resists black-and-white interpretation yet demands something be said about it.
Communication is at the heart of this record, both as a document of sound and as a thing created in reality. Back in March, Barnes distributed music not through a streaming platform, but by asking people to contact him directly by phone, joining incorporeities via the medium of a messenger app. In this instance, the direct connection is secondary to the intermediation, the convolution of exposure, the experience of something as not necessarily real or fake, but instead as an indeterminate communication to be received not in excess of its content.
Barnes’s prior project, a very under-the-radar score for a performance entitled Shrine, made its subject breathe. The force of exhale and the current of inhale were set to dance about each other, rattling loose and wheezy. On Compassion, he similarly deploys voice. Voices are nigh-omnipresent, though they are never clear; aerosolized syllables eddy and accumulate into headless choruses. It’s a language of expression without content, emotive yet underdetermined. Fragments coalesce into a swarm of unknowing, blanketing the surround. “Exalter” is built out of cut-up voices layered and let loose, while “Raw Language” mixes a melancholic sax and wheedling synth line with a host of soaring syllables.
Notably, there is only one line of recognizable language on the entire album. A terse sawing arco mixes with tinkling bells and languorous thud as an impassioned, strained voice calls out in “Panic.” “I feel something’s wrong,” dusty and distant, calls out across the gulf. A canary in the coal mine or a victim of a supersaturated neurosis?
Barnes’s production feels as modernly antiquarian as ever, leaving an impression of middle tones and sepia swathes. Indeed, on Compassion, he seems as indebted to Morricone as his dub forebears. The feathery glitch of “Knife Edge” occupies those same lonesome and grand places as the finest score. Its strident piano and lachrymose strings create a simultaneous sense of isolation and splendor. As “Border Margin Barrier” shows, Barnes is able to incorporate drifting, arrhythmic textures to great effect.
There is something martial, something insistent, to Compassion. True to his aims, Barnes has created something that denies passivity. While it is unlikely to save the world, it might start a conversation, somewhere, between two people who would otherwise never have spoken. It is an attempt, and an honest one at that, to ply art toward an aim and to not rest in detachment. It wears sublimity and austerity yet remains entirely welcoming. There is an earnestness to Barnes’s latest project, a shrugging off of cynicism, and almost even an oxymoronically informed naïveté. Just engage somewhere with someone about something; that’s it, that’s all he’s asking.
Sontag writes of the modern fashion of deafness in the wake of calamity:
Citizens of modernity, consumers of violence as spectacle, adepts of proximity without risk, are schooled to be cynical about the possibility of sincerity. Some people will do anything to keep themselves from being moved. How much easier, from one’s chair far from danger, to claim the position of superiority.
I have the feeling that Sontag would despise our earlier speaker, the cynic lamenting the impossibility of connection. That voice alone in the crowd denying any sort of authentic compassion. But is sincere cynicism really generative? Are bona fide pessimisms the only corrective in a world superabundant with signification? Sontag would certainly say no, and I’m inclined to believe Barnes would join her. He said of Compassion that, at a certain point, he was no longer totally clear on which sounds were “real” and which simulated, but that does not alter at all what the record actually is. It presents itself as anxiety shouldered alongside hope, exultancy in the face of fear, and ardor in the wake of passivity.
To paraphrase a sage: to paraphrase several sages, no one can listen and strike out at the same time.