The radiant summer sidewalk outside a cafe seems too exposed an environment to be talking with Portland experimental duo Golden Retriever. The contents of the music created by Jonathan Sielaff and Matt Carlson are dark, cerebral, and brooding. One imagines they make the kind of sounds that must be conjured from deep, contemplative wellsprings, originating from somewhere buried or hidden. A listen to Rotations—Golden Retriever’s ninth release, and the third for Thrill Jockey Records—does little to assuage this notion.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sielaff and Carlson’s sunny dispositions belie, but also mimic, the dramatic arcs of their music, and the bright weather, cold drinks, and steady procession of street traffic morphs into an ambiance more fitting than first suspected.
“We play weird music, in one sense,” offers Sielaff. “But we’re never trying to alienate people. It’s very much about engaging anyone who’s listening in any way we can.”
“We both like art that has extreme contrasts in it,” adds Carlson. “A simple, beautiful melody is more profound when juxtaposed with something that’s harsh and dissonant, where you can really feel the tension and resolution happening.”
Rotations acts as an end product for a project Sielaff and Carlson began in 2015. Enabled by a grant from Portland’s Regional Arts and Culture Council, Golden Retriever found themselves able to fund a more expansive vision of their experimental ideas by incorporating a full chamber ensemble for a live performance at the Old Church. Prior to the performance, the two improvised and built musical structures from acoustic piano and bass clarinet, and then transcribed notations of string and percussion arrangements for the larger ensemble to perform live. They then took the recordings of their pre-performance sketches, and added post-production improvisation and collage layering to create something entirely new.
The musical language and the chemistry generated between Sielaff and Carlson over the years reveal themselves in myriad ways on Rotations. There is a jarring, challenging nature to compositions like “Thirty-Six Stratagems”—a nightmarish, haunting piece that tests the depths of your sanity in intriguing ways. Conversely, the meditative finale “Sunsight” meanders in bleary piano plunks, weeping violins, and twinkling vibraphone in what amounts to a soft farewell.
For Sielaff and Carlson, the methods they use to conjure their expansive soundscapes, however inventive, are less important for their artistic satisfaction than the lassoing of the emotional, spiritual, and cathartic currents that gurgle in every corner of their music. “As human beings, we have all those things going on inside of us at all times anyway,” says Sielaff. “We’re making human music.”
“It’s an interesting critical challenge with instrumental music: What is it talking about?” says Carlson. “How is it saying what it’s saying? I don’t have answers. That’s why I like to work in the area I do. We’re at a stage where, to us, it’s out in the world landing in people’s brains, and that’s what’s interesting to me.”
“Even when people don’t like it, it’s really interesting to hear why,” says Sielaff. “Usually those people volunteer those opinions.”
A story is both told and heard, with equal parts given and received. The humanism of any art exposes the recipient as the final ingredient to its magic. With Rotations, Golden Retriever has once again made you an equal partner in their craft.