Among my favorite records are the happy accidents. Out of some mistake, some fluke in the studio or some miscalculation, emerges an unduplicatable miracle. It happened with William Basinski's The Disintegration Loops (that's worth a discussion all its own), and it happened with Nurse With Wound's Soliloquy for Lilith, an album far, far out of gamut even for those purveyors of the cheekily strange. Steve Stapleton and his revolving crew of merry pranksters had long been making bunny ears and funny faces behind the heads of noise, experimental music and prog-rock. Now they ventured into a dreamtime with no sky above, no floor below, just an abyss unrolling without end in all directions.
How it all got started was the happy accident. Stapleton is known for horsing around with studio equipment in ways that would make the engineers weep and the custodians grind their teeth — e.g., scrunching up tape into balls and seeing if they still played back, or what they sounded like when they did. This time, he had a set of guitar stomp pedals all plugged into each other in a circle, essentially creating a feedback loop from the mains hum. To his amazement, he found that simply waving one's hands over the pedals, a la the theremin, caused other sounds to emerge — perhaps due to the ambient electrical discharge from the human nervous system. (The notes to the album read: "Our thanks to Electricity for making this recording possible.")
Stapleton wasted no time capturing many of the resulting sounds on tape, and assembled them into the six LP-side-long tracks that made up the original three-LP and later two-CD incarnation of the set. (Two more tracks were later added to create a three-CD set.) I've grown used to the idea of unusual sound sources being employed in the making of a record, but on first hearing Soliloquy — back when my copy was the triple-LP box set — I was honestly at sea as to what was being recorded. My speculations varied between treatments of whale songs, Indian instruments like the tabla, or simple guitar feedback. If it really was the latter, I thought, we might well have here the absolute obverse of Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, as spacious and open-ended and quiet as that album wasn't.
Each of the tracks employs two to three different basic tones that fade in and out, or rise and ebb in intensity over time. It's hard to tell if all the sounds were generated at the same time, or if they were generated separately and then mixed together later, but they are all of a piece. They may have begun as a happy accident, but the end result is not merely the meticulous documentation of a fluke phenomenon; it's a composition as deliberate as the split-second tape edits that comprised Nurse With Wound's headspinning Sylvie & Babs.
My original exposure to Lilith was one of shock, not just because of the audacity of the concept but the contrast it made with previous Nurse With Wound work. Stapleton had ventured into drone/dark-ambient territory before — there were passages of Homotopy to Marie (a favorite album of mine by him) that are immensely dark, and individual tracks like "Fastened to a Device behind a Tree" combine drone with eerie musique concrète elements, mainly snippets of human voices. But none of that was preparation for Lilith, something one previously only found by way of the likes of Lustmørd, grand master of the resonating abyss. Even his relatively primitive earlier works can still make you feel like you're being dangled feet-first over the lip of the universe. Nurse with Wound, I associated more with tongue-in-cheek surrealism and sinister absurdity.
Maybe it's perverse of me, but the records I find myself most fascinated by are the ones that look like someone stuck them in a given artist's catalog for a laugh: Neil Young's Trans, Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, Swans's Children of God (actually a pivotal moment in their career, and only a fluke on first glance). Of the bunch, Soliloquy is far from being the strangest, but easily the most beautiful, and the one I come back to most often to find beauty.