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claire rousay transforms the mundane into sonic abundance

In claire rousay's music, moments of personal anguish are flanked by mundane snapshots of daily life, drawing out the similarities between the two extremes.
Felix Walworth
Courtesy of the artist
In claire rousay's music, moments of personal anguish are flanked by mundane snapshots of daily life, drawing out the similarities between the two extremes.

On March 8, claire rousay heard something beautiful. The sound of routine yardwork drifted through the open windows of her house in San Antonio, Texas, drawing the composer out to the front yard where she switched on her recorder. She sat there for just under three minutes and listened in wonderment, thinking, as she would write on her Bandcamp page, "How lucky am I to be here? The sun, my ears, the wind." Listening to the recording, we can hear the hum of a leaf blower as it goes in and out of phase with the low growl of a lawnmower, punctuated by the exclamations of crows and a belching truck. We hear the banal suburban soundscape anew, sinking in until we glimpse rousay's joy and feel a trace of the warm Texas sun.

Listening to rousay's music often feels like experiencing the world through someone else's ears, instilled with tenderness. Over the course of several dozen releases from the past few years, moments of personal anguish are flanked by snapshots of daily life, drawing out the similarities between the two extremes. The experimental musician and composer's new album, everything perfect is already here, is largely wordless, stitching together field recordings, translucent ripples of synthesizer and ruminating melodies played on harp and keyboard — everything gestures towards big feelings without fully succumbing to them. The album's two pieces move through passages of elegance and dissonance, from shimmering drones to an extended passage of what sounds like wet fingers being dragged across the surface of a balloon.

everything perfect distills and refracts many of the techniques rousay first developed as a drummer and percussionist. Her earliest tapes (2019's Aerophobia and 2020's Specifically the Water) were released by Texas-based free-jazz label Astral Spirits. On those releases, she placed the microphone as close to her drums as possible, giving the impression of being hit or scraped right next to the listener's ear; often scraps from her daily life (aluminum cans, coins, steel wool) would be included. The sonic characteristics of these objects, typically discarded or disregarded, come alive. This fascination with texture coincided with her first forays into field recording, which quickly came to dominate her compositions as they took on more atmospheric qualities.

More direct, autobiographical explorations of insecurity and heartbreak became the focus of her work just after the beginning of the pandemic. "I love all of you, even the unfunny and occasionally ugly parts," sputters a text-to-speech program on 2020's "it was always worth it," recorded in the wake of a grim breakup. The 20-minute piece features digitized recitations of love letters rousay had received from her former partner interspersed with candid recordings from their time together. On "sometimes i feel like i have no friends," rousay confronts the listener: "Who is going to be there for you? Are you enough for yourself?" Hearing rousay work through these spasms of existential despair, publicly tending to her wounds, gives context to these misplaced sounds and immersive environments.

As rousay has explored the complexities and challenges of interpersonal relationships, her music has also grown richer through collaboration. Her friends often make appearances on her recordings as she uses snippets of their voices from car rides or invites them to provide instrumental counterpoint to a half-finished song. Her albums with Mari Maurice, who records as More Eaze, are clearly made by two people exchanging not only their darkest secrets but also a deep well of inside jokes. Never Stop Texting Me, their most recent duo album, throws back to their shared history in pop-punk bands — the pair trades Auto-Tuned quips about the money earned on Bandcamp Day and how much they miss their crushes. When rousay mentions Maurice on Twitter, she'll often make sure to qualify that she's her best friend.

The door to rousay's inner life is still cracked open on everything perfect is already here. The huff of wind, objects rustling, tentative footsteps, a dense crackle of unidentifiable origin — these sounds in succession create the illusion of moving through space, developing a sense of setting like a novelist might. But the instrumental elements — performed by Alex Cunningham (violin), Maurice (electronics, violin), Marilu Donovan (harp), Theodore Cale Schafer (piano) — offer little in the form of resolution or narrative. Even the bright, triumphant piano line at the end of "it feels foolish to care" unceremoniously drops off.

rousay listens, understands, and offers a musical path through the sonic abundance. These sounds around us, this everything, is as poignant and as rich with character and texture as anything conceived as music has ever been or could ever be. Her music teaches us how to listen more deeply to moments monumental, silly and mundane in our own lives as well as others. What our conscious brain filters out, hers amplifies, allowing the latent emotional qualities of these incidental sounds to shine through.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jonathan Williger