Ants, eh…you can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em…at any rate, it’s always these six-legged bastards who show up in pseudo-scientific articles when some nincompoop author is clutching for a metaphor for human society. Perhaps it’s because we suppose these tiny black rogues have organised themselves into a hierarchical system, one with a monarch at its centre, and capable of productive activity on an industrial scale we puny humans can only dream about. Then there’s their elaborate communication system, which involves flopping their pathetic antennae about in some way, to relay signals throughout the entire colony. It’s only a matter of time before some smart alec compares that to “The Internet” and starts to make outlandish claims, for instance that “Ants Invented The World Wide Web” or some such nonsense.
I for one have never trusted the ant, and regard these crawling devils with the same suspicious eye as I do most of the smaller creatures who share the earth with us. They’re up to something, and I don’t like it. One interesting trend for many years has been the cultivation of a so-called “ant farm”, which I believe involves creating a mini-colony of these unpleasant monsters inside a glass box filled with sand or porous earth, allowing us to observe the ants plotting their nefarious schemes. These ant farms have proven especially popular among American school children, who proudly exhibit them as “science projects” when they wish to earn points in entomology. The truth is far more sinister, of course…any given ant farm is just a way of proving the inevitability of capitalism, perpetuating the exploitation of labour, and the “need” for a caste system that keeps us all oppressed; and where better to indoctrinate children with this poisonous ideology than at secondary school. It’s all there, in among the ants.
Some of my justifiable paranoia and bile has, I like to think, informed the record we have in front of us – titled Ant Farm (FEEDING TUBE RECORDS FTR241) and credited to the players Elliott Schwartz and Big Blood. It’s a slightly creepy and weird slab of sound art and music, not without its frequently beautiful moments, but mostly issued as a warning against the rise of the ants. The music was originally the soundtrack for an art exhibit, also called Ant Farm, an event which was held in Maine to showcase the work of The Ant Girls, a visual art group including Colleen Kinsella and Dorothy Schwartz. Right there you’ve got a strong thread of “ant-ness” detectable in the genesis of this particular record. I shouldn’t be surprised if The Ant Girls knew more than they were letting on.
Colleen Kinsella is also one half of Big Blood, along with Caleb Mulkerin, and they’ve been making records since 2006, many of them issued as CDRs on their own Don’t Trust The Ruin label. Weirdly, they’re actually a four-piece but only have two members. They probably came under the influence of the ants to arrive at that point. Elliott Schwartz is a veteran American composer whose modernistic (I assume) escapades date back to the 1960s, although he also made a remarkable record with Marion Brown called Soundways, issued in 1973 by the Bowdoin College Music Press. It’s remarkable for its combination of electronic keyboard music with free jazz sax blowing, a combination which always works for me. Schwartz has no traceable connection to the world of ants, and is just guesting.
The Ant Farm record will draw you in at first by dint of its unusual sound – lo-fi, crackly, misted-up recordings as if heard through a layer of aural fog. From these gentle rumbles and purrs, there will emerge strange tunes and eerie keyboard fugues, some of them played on gamelan instruments such as the Baliphone, or other hammered instruments like the Dulcimer. There’s more atmospheric home-brew electronics than you could fit in a shopping bag, and Schwartz plays his heart out when called upon, offering near-classical tunes of intricate delicacy, many of which have a narrative vibe very fitted to telling the stories of these darn ants. For instance, ‘The Queen’s Egg’ or ‘Winged Pile’ or ‘Swarm’. All of these uncanny musical elements – plus some occasional whispery breathy songs on side two – are blended into a seamless suite of gentle, vaguely sinister music of a supreme oddness, leading the listener through that evil maze-like warren that is the tunnel system of the ants. To top it all off, it’s packaged in some gorgeous sleeve art and inners, featuring paintings of – guess what! – ants at work. These images are uncredited on the release but are possibly provided by one of the Ant Girls. Great! From 17 May 2016.