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Theodore Cale Schafer, "Patience"

cover imageThe Students of Decay label has had an impressive run of being way ahead of the curve over the years, as Alex Cobb’s imprint was responsible for the first major US releases from artists like Sarah Davachi and Natural Snow Buildings. The latest artist to be welcomed into that pantheon is Sante Fe-based composer Theodore Cale Schafer, making his vinyl debut after a handful of cassette releases and a very bizarre spoken word/conceptual album on Spain's Angoisse label. Cobb describes the album as "diaristic" and prioritizing "spontaneity and ephemerality," which seems as apt a description of Schafer's fragile, hiss-soaked vignettes as any, as the aesthetic of Patience is definitely an elusive and impressionistic one. When Schafer hits the mark just right, however, the results are strikingly beautiful, achieving a rare balance of simplicity, intimacy, and soft-focus unreality.

Students of Decay

It is a bit too early for a definitive prediction at this point, but there is a decent chance that Theodore Cale Schafer has presciently tapped into an imminent new zeitgeist in experimental music.I am basing this entirely on the fact that Schafer independently wound up in roughly the same place at the same time as Sean McCann, whose Puck was just released this week.The two artists share a very similar vision of acoustic naturalism, drifting conversations, and distracted, diffuse beauty, though they are separated by a significant difference in scope: McCann composes for ensembles, while Schafer's approach has a much more homespun, "bedroom-recording" appeal.For the most part, the eight sketchlike soundscapes that comprise Patience sound like they could have been recorded on a four-track using just a guitar, a piano, and some effects pedals.There are also some moments that seem like they have been more deliberately shaped and processed, yet the bulk of the album seems rooted in loose improvisations that have been fleshed out a bit with an additional layer or two."Blue Fleece" is the only significant aberration in that regard, as Schafer combines an Oval-style skipping guitar figure with warm ambient drones and a surreal swirl of submerged-sounding field recordings.Far more representative is the opening "Gold Chain," in which fragmented and rippling guitar and piano motifs lazily intertwine in a slow dance while distant voices creep into increased prominence.

Though they sometimes take divergent shapes, all of the pieces combine to seamlessly weave an absorbing spell that feels like a dreamlike and poetic gallery of hazy memories and lingering emotional impressions.At its best, Patience evokes a languorous cascade of moments like sleepily watching swaying curtains and the play of sunlight from the comfort of a bed or blearily watching the blurred lights of a city at night from the windows of a train.I am at a loss for a memory to match Patience's most gorgeous piece, though, as "It's Late" evokes an altered state that I have yet to experience.If I had to guess, however, I would say it probably resembles being serenaded by comforting, but lysergically distorted, wind chimes after I have just collapsed in front of a remote cabin in a feverish delirium.It is an absolutely perfect and sublime piece of music and I cannot think of anyone who has done anything similar nearly as well as Schafer does it here.

The album’s other near-masterpiece is the enigmatically titled "No Piano," which weaves a gently tumbling reverie from a warmly lovely melodic fragment that woozily loops and overlaps with itself.I would not necessary describe the remaining pieces as a significant step down in quality, as they do a fine job at sustaining the album's languorous and lovely reverie, yet they tend to be a bit less distinctive.Or they merely fall short of achieving the illusion of a lazily cascading flow of memory fragments that just organically sprang into being without the intervention of instruments, amps, pedals, or tapes.In the former category, I would place the quavering ambient haze of the closing "Hinoki."The latter is best represented by "IWYWCB," which kind of resembles a lo-fi Andrew Chalk: disjointed and pointillist guitar figures bleed together and intertwine over a field recording that sounds like a train slowly approaching a desolate seaside town in the dead of night.It is a likable piece, but a fundamentally limited one: the guitars are relatively unprocessed and the central theme eventually fades away without ever evolving into anything more.  

That "unpolished spontaneity" approach is the album's only real flaw, as Schafer's endearingly loose, organic, and casual aesthetic occasionally errs on the side of undercooked: it is very easy to imagine a better version of "IWYWCB" made from the exact same notes in the exact same places, but with added processing or effects employed to wring out a bit more texture and depth.Based on the more composed and meticulously constructed work from 2017's Debt//Duet tape, however, that simplicity and lack of embellishment was very clearly a conscious decision rather than a lack of skill.It is certainly a curious decision though.I am also surprised at how understated the non-musical elements are on this album, as field and voice recordings were the primary focus of some of Schafer's earlier releases.After hearing FaceTime (2017), Patience almost seems insufficiently diaristic: Schafer went from being extremely intimate to presenting decontextualized audio fragments of his life in a very veiled and cryptic way.Somewhere between those two poles lies the kernel of more emotionally resonant album.That said, while I have some minor issues with the details of the execution, I have none at all with Schafer’s overall vision.In fact, I kind of love it, particularly "It’s Late," which is as good anything anyone has released this year (to my ears, anyway).When he is at the peak of his game, Schafer explores an extremely precarious space between form and formlessness (and chance and intention) with unerring intuition and lightness of touch and it is a damn impressive achievement.As such, Patience is an impressively strong release with some genuine flashes of brilliance.

Samples can be found here.