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Coupler The City is a Lie We Tell Ourselves

Started in 2012, Coupler is the pseudonym of Ryan Norris and a rotating cast of collaborators; Rodrigo Avendano, Rollum Haas and Michael Hilger among them. It’s membership has occasionally swollen to eight but its core is Norris and a maelstrom of ideas.

Handing over the mic to artists/musicians who break down their new albums track by track/share the thought process behind the creation. Today we’ll hear from Ryan Norris aka Coupler whose new EP The City Is a Lie We Tell Ourselves is out now.

More TBTs in our archives.

The City Is a Lie We Tell Ourselves is the third of a suite of EPs Coupler released during the COVID restriction period. By the point of the initial lockdown there was quite a bit of material lying around; some tracks started with Coupler’s Nashville lineup including Rodrigo Avendaño and Rollum Haas (both now of Soccer Mommy), others that had been reworked with Chicago collaborator Michael Hilger, as well as versions of pieces that had turned up in modified form in Coupler’s live score work. Much of this music was quite old and none of it seemed to form a coherent whole. However, once my partner Mia suggested releasing the music as a series of EPs the tracks self-sorted and everything fell into place.

This third release marked a moment of transition. The first EP in the series, The Rhythm Method, though two of the tracks were started in collaboration with Avendaño and Haas in Nashville, I largely completed on my own. For EP two, The Forgotten Openness of the Closed World, Hilger was brought in for pedal steel and keyboard overdubs. Then, with The City Is a Lie We Tell Ourselves, Michael moved more explicitly into a central role; in addition to his overdubs he both helped finish production and provided final mixes for each track.

As it seemed unreasonable to expect anyone to release physical editions of three separate mini-albums in quick succession and partially out of a desire to experiment with new formats, it was decided a series of digital releases was the proper approach. Formats are always formal constraints and I’ve spent a fair amount of time considering what duration of music will sound good on a side of vinyl and tailoring accordingly. In this case however, the lack of those types of considerations created the opportunity for the 3×3 approach that was arrived at: 3 releases of 3 tracks each, a triptych of triptychs of music. This approach may come back to bite me if it’s decided to release any of this music physically. We’ll see.

Clear Concrete

This piece began its circuitous life as a sequence built with a Korg MS-20 in conjunction with the SQ-1 step sequencer. The latter is a crude device that lacks many of the absolute pitch controls one would expect from a modern sequencer (it’s a reissue). As I often do when I get a new piece of gear I was simply turning knobs until I heard something I liked. At a certain point, voila, the main melody of the opening section emerged. It reminded me a bit of the A side of Brian Eno’s Discreet Music. I left it running in the basement and recorded a very long segment that would eventually serve as a prelude for Coupler’s live score of Our Heavenly Bodies. Different iterations of “Clear Concrete” also appear in our score for Yasujirō Ozu’s Dragnet Girl. In some ways, it’s one of Coupler’s most modular pieces of music.

Soon after first moving to Chicago in 2016 I went into a studio (then called Minbal, now JAMDEK) with friend and engineer Mark Yoshizumi to work on some material. That day we adapted my sequencer track for the creaky upright piano heard on the completed version. On a close listen it’s revealed there are actually two pianos trading phrases in the stereo field. We also added a distorted drum machine and some synthesizers. Not too long after I would meet up with Mark again to capture multitracked viola improvised by Clara Takarabe (who also appears on Coupler’s “A Plain of Reeds” released on KOMPAKT’s Pop Ambient 2019).

Michael Hilger would later help me finish the track at Maestro-matic Studio and at home. He began by creating the gorgeous loops of Clara’s viola heard at the beginning. We then added more keyboards, shaker, and worked in some drum programming Rollum had created.

Blown Glass

For this I used an additive compositional technique (I forget the name now) I’d read about Philip Glass using, whereby a cycling repetitive melodic motif is constructed by adding an additional note each time the melody is cycled through. In this case, the piece’s main descending melody starts with 2 notes, then 3, 4 and so on, so that by the end the motif has 6 notes before starting over with only 2. A variety of other cycling melodies were added as compliments.

The horns were contributed by friend and early Coupler collaborator Matt Glassmeyer using an instrument he calls a buzzaphone, a tenor saxophone with the reed removed and replaced by a trumpet or trombone embouchure. The sound is familiar but also unique. The multitracked cello drones are also him.

The polyrhythmic drums were initially performed and edited by me before being de- and reconstructed by Michael. He also added the plucked electric bass, some lovely keyboard melodies, and through a clever bit of editing turned one of Glassmeyer’s mouth noises into an almost industrial snare sound.

Charm of Impossibilities

This one takes its name and some of its musical inspiration from Messiaen’s “Modes of Limited Transposition”, a list of modes which, because of their inherent symmetries, cannot be transposed the typical twelve times most others can. The included Whole Tone Scale, for example, can only be transposed twice. In this case, I used a Diminished or Half-Whole Scale, to create the ascending chord progression heard in the closing minutes of the track.

The bulk of the production and half of the writing here are the work of Rollum Haas. He and I had a duo show on the books in Nashville and decided to shake things up a bit. Rollum had just started using Ableton and was anxious to flex some newly-acquired skills. For the show he reworked what had essentially been my Coupler solo set. One of the most impressive results was “The Charm of Impossibilities”. It begins with vocals sampled from a track called “Fluß” (themselves samples of vocalist Amy Blackburn) from the first, now out-of-print Coupler LP America In the Coming Age of Electronics. He then brought in new beats and basslines that morph into my original chord progression around the midway point.

As with the previous two, Michael helped finish this one by adding more keyboards, percussion, production flourishes, and mixing.

In a last minute decision, advocated by Michael, it was decided this track would close out the series. I was skeptical at first, as “The Technocrat” from The Rhythm Method, is essentially a different version, or remix of “The Charm of Impossibilities”. Michael felt strongly that it should be the closer however, and because of my love of circles, I felt that the structural Ouroboros effect it created was a fitting end to the series.

Ryan Norris

p.s. Both “Clear Concrete” and “Blown Glass” also appear on our “Live” on Worldwide FM release, an imagined live show for one possible future.

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