Fallow Heart: Truth in Dissonance: Don Anderson (Sculptured, ex-Agalloch) On the Objectives of Art

I wanted to talk to Don Anderson. That was really the long and short of it. Sculptured’s third album played a prominent role in Fallow Heart’s Heavy Meta suite, (actually, far more than the lonesome piece I wrote about the record would imply.) The Intermezzo portion of that series was a methodical exercise in radical openness that altered the way that I perceive music—particularly music that might initially strike me as faulty or disappointing.

Time. “Unwavering immersion and time”—as I put it in the article—is the panacea for the gulf of separation between oneself and most any sonic work. After much melodramatic breast-beating, this is my professional diagnosis.

So yeah, I wanted to talk to Don Anderson but I also wanted a ‘date-buffer’ to bridge the gulf of our personal unfamiliarity, so I asked him to pick a musician or a piece of music to discuss for our chat. Something particularly consequential to him—whatever that might be—and I would use that as a kind of hatchway hopefully leading to an insight into his process. To be fair, he replied with the concern that his choice might not be exactly palatable to a Decibel audience. He wasn’t interested in being pinioned to expectation or to formula. But then, that’s Don Anderson for you, ain’t it? I told him don’t worry. Choose a selection from Rent, choose Smash Mouth, I couldn’t care less so long as the selection is made honestly. I only wanted to chew on the piece in question for a bit, fire up the party-line and hopefully come to know Don Anderson and Sculptured better by the end of our jaw-session. (Except—you know—please don’t pick Smash Mouth…)

Don selected Anton Webern’s Opus 21.

Let me ask you something: do you like weird shit?


“Behind every work of art lies an uncommitted crime”—Theodor Adorno

To approach a serialist, (or dodecaphonic,) piece for the first time is like peering at your toothbrush or a fingernail clipping or a groove in your cutting board or any other such unquestionably uncosmic item through an electron microscope. You’ll probably find it fascinating and grisly at the same time. Or maybe its fucking impenitent weirdness will completely beguile you, who knows? It’s like your native tongue folded in on itself so that the phonics that constitute your absolutely fondest things are abstracted within a pan-tonal turnstile. It’s the sound of wearing your ulcers on your outsides. And though the technique appears to be deliberately discarded on their most current release, The Liminal Phase, it’s generously applied throughout Sculptured’s third record, Embodiment: Collapsing Under the Weight of God making the contrast between those two records—separated by more than a decade of time but sequential within the band’s cannon—as violent as a yellow rain-slicker. The family tree has pronged.

Serialism’s framework is arguably just a means to an end, though. The terrible autocracy of its compositional requirements—if you apply them strictly—is just a lever meant to nudge the composer and their audience into corners they’d otherwise never deign to poke their jejune little noses into. We are—after all—creatures of routine. We demand that things resolve in routine ways. We want the slope of our evolutionary path to be almost imperceptible so that our breath never hitches as we clamber up it. But serialism holds no truck for baby fat and it unhesitatingly refuses us our pacifiers. It nudges a composition out the hatch of terrestrial physics onto a marginless spacewalk without a tether. Ah, and there it goes… the melody no longer belongs to our world. We must merely observe it as it weirds its way along within its own extrinsic orbit.

And how does it work? Easy. Serialism works by arranging a series of notes, (commonly the twelve chromatic tones of the Western scale,) in an order that prevents any one note from repeating itself before every other note within its melodic queue has been sounded. You can take that order and invert it, or reverse it, or reverse and invert it. And you can play the sequence in any rhythm you like but what you cannot do is imbue any favoritism to any one tone in particular. To do that would be to defy the laws of serialism. Here, every note’s equally valid.

And what’s the point of the technique in the first place?

“To free all notes from the tyranny of the key signature,” Don Anderson explains. “(For example,) if you’re in the key of C Major, then obviously the C Major chord’s the most important one. I mean, everything has to resolve on it. And then the fifth chord, G Major is absolutely vital. It’s called The Dominant and moving from a C Major to a G Major and then back again is the most common chord progression. You know,” he sighs, dismissively, “they just go well together. Those notes are considered to be so important whereas the F isn’t that important or the 6th isn’t that important. So I think that serialism was developed because there was too much tyranny in the key. What 12-tone does is try to pry itself from the tyranny of order.”

“Ah, “I replied, stupidly.


Go and listen to Op. 21. What do you hear?

I hear an orchestra tuning up in the operating theatre of an abandoned hospital with nothing but the protuberance of its dead corridors to appreciate it. I hear impromptu apostasy. Like most people trained to listen to music in a particular way, I hear troubling irresolution akin to a half-forgotten film-noir score. I hear what sounds like chaos. However, chaos is rarely crystallized like this or recited so faithfully, note-for-note, again and again like this. Then this cannot be chaos, (or perhaps I’ve never known what chaos actually is.) This music elicits horror in the way that few outside of, say, Béla Bartók are capable of. It reminds me a bit of hearing Asphyx and Autopsy for the first time as a kid. The Rack and Fiend for Blood were especially ghastly to my ears because I immediately recognized that there was absolutely no U-turn leading back to innocence after entertaining their jeopardous abstractions. It was like emerging from a listening session with not only some nascent, radiating trauma but also an insatiable taste for Vicodin and bootleg-whiskey. You are now officially ensured to never again warrant your mother’s love. (Nice going, freak.) Opus 21 has that sort of élan but is even wilder and far more remote. When I hear Autopsy for example, I experience the insane, orgiastic bubbling of fermentation. When I hear Asphyx, I feel the pulse of lichen salivating over barrel-vaulted cellars in 16th century Antwerp. But when I hear Op. 21, I tremble before the mechanistic disassembly of vital covenants and the conflagration of essential formulas. It’s the disbandment of contours; the disbandment of meaning. It’s the sound I’d imagine escaping from The Bull of Phalaris’ nostrils, (look that shit up.) And yet, Webern supposedly wrote the piece for his daughter; a sentimentality that I find fascinating but cannot reconcile. Like a Passion of the Christ themed pizza party or an open-concept concentration camp, this work violently perplexes. I listen to it again and again and try to assemble it into something familiar. Something that I could come to like (presumably by the dent of its equivalence to something else that I already like.) But Op. 21 will not cooperate. So what exactly attracts Don Anderson to this inimical, sonic Babelism?


Freedom would be not to choose between black and white but to abjure such prescribed choices.” ―Theodor W. Adorno

“[When I was a kid] my sister took piano lessons, and I would see sheet music sitting open on the piano. I knew music looked like that staff with all the dots and the flags and…it all kind of looked the same, you know what I mean?” Don laughs. “So when I finally started studying the guitar, I really wanted to learn how to read notes, so I studied note reading. And then I started applying, (not just heavy metal riffs,) but learning Bach inventions and fugues and playing them with my guitar teacher before eventually moving on to jazz standards and things like that. What I mean is, I became really familiar with the way notes look. So one day, a buddy—who was older than me—was going through the music theory program at the local community college and he had the second year textbook. I was looking through it and I came to this sheet music. It was Webern’s symphony [Opus 21]. And I remember looking at it and thinking, ‘Oh my god, there’s a note here, and way over here there’s another note. And over here is another note. What does this sound like, you know? How does this even work?’

I think it’s a virtue that when you find something you don’t understand, you give it the benefit of the doubt,” he continues. “So I was driven by the desire to understand it; I was attracted to it. It looked kind of beautiful because it was much more minimal and vast in a way that, you know, a Bach cantata or a fugue -where there’s just a flurry of notes- simply isn’t. On the sheet-paper, it seemed really, really withdrawn. I was just mesmerized by the look of it and I wanted to hear it. And this is in the early ’90s so I couldn’t hear it. I mean, It’s not like I could pull it up on YouTube. I didn’t know where I could find a recording of it. The library in the town I lived in had Bach, Beethoven and Mozart but certainly didn’t have Webern or anything 20th century. So I had to wait a long time and by the time that I finally got to hear it I’d been formally introduced to 12-Tone and Surrealism and I began to analyze the music using colored pencils, which really made it even more aesthetically beautiful because you would track into the rows of tones with a specific color so you have reds and blues and I was just fascinated by it.”

Op. 21 notation

This notion—almost like synesthesia in analogue—of being attracted to the physical expression of a melodic work, years before having the opportunity to ever actually hear it is painted in incredibly romantic hues. It implies the sort of intimacy that goes leagues beyond merely enjoying a tune. It evokes letters smuggled over borders and between the bars of foreign gates festooned with razor wire. It evokes the wild impatience sewn into correspondences with far-flung parties. And it makes me wonder how I’d feel about Op. 21 if this had also been my introduction to it.

The closest experience that I’ve had to this one would be my desperate, 12-year-old desire to hear Carcass based on a couple of promotional photos and nebulous characterizations. Yet there was no way for me to hear them at that time and the sheer thirst to possess one of their records and count myself a true and verifiable Carcass fan afflicted me like the thirst of a Dionysian cultist in a dry county. I haunted every record store in the city at every opportunity for months, haranguing their staff, pleading for a special order but, frustratingly, the injunctions of a trebly tween were not to be prioritized. In the vacuum of my Carcass-less day-to-day, the band achieved a personal significance to me that their output alone likely never could. Would I have been more open to Op. 21 if I had made a similar emotional investment?


Fallow Heart: You mentioned that you feel it’s a virtue to approach new concepts and techniques with a degree of curiosity. Have you always operated with that level of openness to new ideas?

Anderson: No, not at all. I think that just comes with age and the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know. Also, just encounters with people who influenced my thinking, like the composer John Cage and the writer [Henry David] Thoreau. Both of those people have a sort of Buddhist philosophy. Kind of like ‘everything is great if you don’t have an idea of good and bad.’ So it led me to think that maybe there’s nothing that I don’t like, there’s only things I don’t know how to like. Like everything is perfect in its own self and I just have to reach its level.

Ultimately, I began to introduce this idea into my classes whenever I teach an intro to Lit. I’ll put in a challenging piece of literature and essentially argue, ‘here’s how we learn to appreciate things like stream of consciousness writing or any other kind of postmodern writing that’s trying to do something we don’t yet have an understanding of.’ And still, (every now and then,) I’ll run into something… even pretty recently when I was living in New York City visiting The Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was in the 20th Century wing and I remember seeing a couple of paintings where it’s just really hard for me to exercise this sort of [open-minded] approach. I feel like I could’ve done this, (or anyone could have, really…) You know there’s plenty of paintings where we’ve all said that sort of thing, whether it’s Jackson Pollock or something else and you think, ‘am I missing something? What is this?’ So no, I definitely haven’t always had that kind of attitude and it remains a bit of a struggle.

Fallow Heart: So, as you know, Fallow Heart’s whole Heavy Meta series was intended to explore the idea of ethics as they may or may not pertain to music and album reviews. I interviewed several people including other journalists, musicians and a couple of label heads for their take and towards the end a couple of the contributors began asking me like, ‘well, what’s the conclusion? What did you decide?’ And I don’t think that was the point, exactly. But the one thing I did come to was that I decided that if a musician is putting out an album and it’s really honest to who they are and honest to their vision, I no longer really believe in a good or a bad album in the traditional sense. I basically think that there is appreciation and there’s the lack of appreciation and then there’s all the little fractions that lie in between and that it basically comes down to the ability of the receiver to accept the album’s value. (Which is a concept that can make critique in-and-of-itself, kind of difficult…)

Anderson: That’s because art has its own objectives. I used to work at a classical record store here in Portland and (of course,) we’d always play music in the store and I’d often play modern music like Anton Webern. And you would have these traditionalists come in and be like, ‘Oh, what is this nonsense you’re playing?’ and I would always joke, like, ‘you’re listening to it with Mozart ears,’ you know? Webern isn’t doing what Mozart wanted to do. There’s a different objective there. They’re not doing the same thing. It’s the same with any art form, whether it be music or film or literature. If you’re reading James Joyce, it just doesn’t have the same objectives as Stephen King. So a lot of it is just readjusting. It’s putting on those right ears. And there’s a sort of humility there that we have to adopt. It’s our fault that we don’t like something. I tell my students that if they didn’t like a story they read then it says more about them than it does the actual story.

“The splinter in your eye is the best magnifying-glass available.”―Theodor W. Adorno

Fallow Heart: So, is there any way for you to quantify what the proper mindset for listening to Opus 21 is as opposed to the necessary headspace for listening to a more consonant piece? Is there like a map that can direct me to the proper attitude?

Anderson: Well, it’s hard because the philosophy of the 12-tone approach is that every note’s as important as every other note, right? It’s the radical democratization of melodic values. And that’s especially true with Webern. The reason why I like his music is because it’s so economical and so spaced out, as opposed to someone like [Austro-American composer] Arnold Schönberg or the later Serialist’s stuff. You get to appreciate each and every note and, (partly because I live in an age of social media and 24/7 news,) I’ve really had to retrain myself to be able to just sit and not do anything. Just to sit and drink my coffee and think about my coffee and really taste it, (or even better, whiskey.) Really appreciate how it tastes and smells and try to eke out more from less. That’s my approach with Webern: getting much more from less. Really hearing the timbre of each instrument and the way he distributes his notes from a bassoon to a violin to everything else—you have the opportunity to really appreciate the quality of each one. No note is any more important than the other and that’s what I like about it. And I think that that was one of his objectives.

Fallow Heart: So that’s what you’d say dodecaphonic music accomplishes particularly skillfully? An invitation to mindfulness?

Anderson: Oh, yeah! And some people complain that it loses all meaning because there isn’t this ‘narrative’ or a distinct ‘good guy’ and ‘bad guy.’ But it just opens up your whole conception of sound and what sound means and I can appreciate everything as opposed to just one particular riff or a particularly catchy theme.

Fallow Heart: I can appreciate that. But for me, I feel like the technique has so much more punch when it’s provided contrast like—for example—the way that you apply it in Sculptured or the occasional dodecaphonic passages I’ve caught in Dream Theater or Spastic Ink or Blotted Science. You will weave these measures of serialism into the body of a piece but then the song afterwards quickly becomes more melodic and… I don’t know… harmonically reconciled, I guess. And then you go and just pull it all apart again with more serialism. Which is great.

Anderson: Yeah, I like that push and pull that I’ve done in Sculptured.

Fallow Heart: But Webern clearly didn’t appreciate that sort of contrast. From 1924 onwards he just threw himself completely into serialism and explored it for the rest of his life. Do you think that he threw himself so fully into it out of frustration with traditional melodic values or do you think that it was just being completely enthralled by these new sonic possibilities? I mean, do you think that it all came down to joy or to dissatisfaction for him?

Anderson: Hmm. Well, I know that he was very deeply committed to it. You know, a lot of people describe him and Schönberg, (who was like the teacher,) and [Webern’s peer/composer] Alban Berg, as being almost a kind of cult, (Schönberg did have this cult of personality.) You think about it, Schönberg had managed to usher in this new system of music that would finally get us out of harmony and tonality and into the future. And look, every art movement of the 20th century evoked dramatic assertions about the future but ultimately, we’re still making perfectly tonal music today. But I think Webern was definitely the most committed to the study of it; the most committed pupil. For example, he orchestrated a Bach fugue [in which he] based tone-rows off of the letters in Bach’s name. But I don’t recall him being hostile to tonality in the way that you might get a lot of people later on in the 1950s who would scoff at the idea of still listening to Mozart or something…

Fallow Heart: Have you ever read John Powell’s book How Music Works?

Anderson: I haven’t. I’ve heard of it.

Fallow Heart: Well, it’s great for someone like me that needs to be spoken to like a child. It breaks down fairly complex ideas in a way that I can at least grasp. Early on in the book he’s discussing vibration and what does and what doesn’t create a musical note and he describes a tree whose branches are rustling in the wind and he’s explaining that since the branches are creating a non-repeating pattern, we hear what we associate as branches rustling as opposed to a melody. I guess that I already understood that principle but it never occurred to me to consider walking outside into a world where every grove is just like this chaos of impromptu melody because of the fucking flora creating a redundant pattern that we recognize as a melodic tone. I think we actually might have evolved as a species very differently if that had been the case. Op. 21 made me think about that. You know, the potential of these natural elements creating their own symphonies with absolutely zero oversight from a conductor or consideration of melodic traditions…

Anderson: Well, what we consider to be ‘melodic traditions’ definitely would’ve evolved differently if that had been the case.

Fallow Heart: Right! And so the piece had me thinking about that. You recently listened to Op. 21 again in preparation for our conversation. What does it evoke for you—if anything—or do you just think about the process when you listen to it?

Anderson: I know I listened to it purely for ‘process’ when I was a student. And nowadays, I catch myself thinking along the lines of, ‘maybe I should just listen to it as it is as opposed to thinking about it as, ‘oh, this is a tone-row that I’m hearing. This is 12-tone music.’ I also feel that in the second movement—you mentioned that ‘push and pull’ with Sculptured—there’s a little bit of that in the second movement where things sound almost melodic. If you try to hum anything [in this piece] you’ll probably hum that passage. There’s like two parts that sound nearly—for lack of a better word—‘normal.’ And those are the ones that I remember and I almost feel guilty because it’s like I haven’t truly liberated myself from harmony because here I am, focusing on these two parts because they most closely resemble traditional harmony. Meanwhile I can’t remember much of any of the first movement. And so, I’m listening to it with a kind of unceasing curiosity because it just doesn’t stick in my head.

Fallow Heart: But isn’t that essentially just part-and-parcel of the nature of something that’s intentionally skirting harmony? Doesn’t it give it a kind of ephemeral quality, like those branches rustling in the wind?

Anderson: Yeah, I like that ephemera idea. I also think—and there’s no way for me to prove this—that if we grew up listening to 12-tone music… I mean, would that become our commercial ditties? Would that be our pop music? Would we be able to whistle it? And then, what we call ‘harmony,’ would that sound awful to us? It’s the ‘nurture versus nature’ debate in that sense. And you can hear it with Eastern scales. You know, if you’re in a Japanese restaurant, sometimes you’ll hear Japanese folk music and they use a totally different scale system which sounds kind of alien to me personally because I’m not used to hearing those sort of interval steps. But to someone who’s well steeped in Japanese folk music it sounds perfectly traditional. So part of me is wondering if it’s just my upbringing. I mean, the reason why there’s this ‘push and pull’ in Sculptured is because I can’t shake the fact that I grew up on pop music, (I mean mainstream music and verse-chorus-verse-chorus stuff.) Ultimately, my favorite band of all time is Iron Maiden, and they’re about as melodic and tonal as you can get. And that’s just part of my DNA but there’s a kind of liberation in the attempt to break free of all of that.

Fallow Heart: Right and also, I suppose it’s taking something that you love and—in its way—serialism is like a hex wrench that you can use to finally break into it, pry it apart and explore its components. So I guess looking at it like that, there is a real intimacy in exploring atonal music. It doesn’t have to be an abnegation of harmony, necessarily. It might actually represent a deeper fealty to it because you want to really go in deeper and explore it by virtue of its absence.

Anderson: Yeah, I like that!

Fallow Heart: Like, you want to see what it sounds like to really turn a piece inside out because you love it so much that you would absolutely cannibalize it, you know? It reminds me of something Alan Watts said about people when they talk about love. A lot of that sort of talk sounds so dishwater and disingenuous but when you actually allude to the selfishness inherent in it, then it’s something that rings a little more true. Like ‘I love you so much that I could eat you.’ People can grasp that. Here it’s like, ‘Well, I love chromatic melody so much that I want to turn it inside-out and see what the stuffing’s made of. I have to perform this vivisection.’

Anderson: I like that interpretation a lot. I think, too, a lot of it is when I’m listening to something like that or something really new and really experimental, I’m also being forced to question my own desires. As in: why would I want it to be this instead of that? Why do I want that note to go there? And I start to question, (not just the desire itself but,) where is this desire actually coming from? Why do I feel like I need resolution? Why do I yearn for that kind of melody? And so it’s also a way of really interrogating your own desire for something to be a certain way rather than appreciating it for what it is.

Fallow Heart: Do you feel like that kind of music appreciation is something that’s simply destined to be exercised in a vacuum? (I mean, in the vacuum of your own interests and discipline as opposed to a generally accepted principle.) This just isn’t how most people engage with music. They’re out jogging or shopping with their earbuds in. As much as I appreciate what you just described, that’s a hard sell for the general public, right?

Anderson: Yeah. I think it is a hard sell because most people don’t want to… It’s like going into therapy, you know? If you really want to benefit from therapy or counseling or psychoanalysis then you have to be willing to be vulnerable and to deconstruct yourself and to be torn down and built back up again. But for most people—when they listen to music—it’s because they want to escape. And I think the world encourages us to escape because the desire is so general and therefore so profitable. I mean, everyone right now is binging on Netflix or reading The Lord of the Rings. They have no interest in interrogating their own tastes or subjectivity or desires. And I think that makes a lot of sense. Like, when I jog, I mostly listen to hardcore punk or to black metal. I wouldn’t listen to Webern when jogging but I think everything has a unique value. I love modern music and experimental music because it forces me to question myself. But if I want to relax, I put on a jazz record or a classical record. I don’t listen to Morbid Angel with the same ears that I listen to Miles Davis. They just have wildly different ways of conceptualizing music. It would be really perverse to advocate that everyone—whenever they’re engaging with art—always be deconstructing themselves, right? That’s a big ask of anybody. Now, I do it in class because I feel like in academia, that’s a good place to explore these concepts, you know? But then when my students go home -let’s be honest- they’re still gonna binge on Netflix.”


We’ll take a brief pit-stop here in order to interrogate our tastes, subjectivity and desires. Always a worthy exercise but admittedly one targeting the kind of musculature that we tend to shirk in favor of ‘leg day’ or, (more likely,) ‘Lager day’. To anatomize yourself, now that is frontier work. Why are you attracted to the things that you are? Is it really you manning the rudder of your preferences or are you winched helplessly to the gravitational chassis of your genetic predispositions and the underdeveloped palate of the public’s imagination? Who are you outside of your factory presets? Who are you, really?

Dim the lights. Listen to Op. 21. Let the waves of repeating patterns engulf you. Be still. Listen again. What is music? Ask yourself. Who are you, really?

“Dissonance is the truth about harmony.”― Theodor W. Adorno

“…as the colors continued to shift I made another realization: that melody as I knew it wasn’t part of what was going on here. The concerto seemed composed entirely of these brief, atomic gestures. As I watched them spill across the pages of the score, the effect was thrilling.” —Mark Wallace (on first hearing Webern) Finding the Tune

The root is really nothing other than the stalk, the stalk nothing other than the leaf, the leaf again nothing other than the blossom: variations of the same idea.”—Anton Webern