Foregoing the self to create the illusion of something from nothing.
An oft used, though still categorized and numbered, replacement in lieu of giving an actual name to a creative work. A nomenclature some feel is birthed by lack of creativity. Yet, its ambiguity works as a tool in the digital age, muddying the normally crystal-clear waters of search engine results. “Untitled” is far from a new idea, in use longer than Alan Smithee’s infamous television and film output. But in 2011, the idea of the word, and indeed the very foundation of the concept, was embraced to the fullest.
Appearing on the music distribution website Boomkat, known for its eclectic taste and wordy album descriptions, was an unusual album simply given the name “Untitled”. The cover was nondescript brown card stock, with no track names or personnel listed anywhere on the package. Even the editors behind the site’s elaborate product descriptions claimed to be completely unaware of who was behind this blank slate. The only other content besides the album itself was a series of black and white, postcard-sized prints with no context given for them. The limited run of 90 copies sold out in time, and curious listeners took to the music to uncover the mystery.
What met their ears were grainy, intimate performances blending field recordings, pianos plucked away in stuffy rooms, and layered ambiance. Fans of such low-key tunes passed around digital copies of the album, scraping every corner of their minds to nail the sonic signature down to a name. By the time a second “Untitled” album dropped later that year, no one was any wiser as to who was behind it all. Adding to the confusion, this “Untitled” sounded very different from the first, putting most guesses back at square one.
With every release, buzz gathered and anticipation increased. What would drop next? From uplifting passages of hazy, sun-baked drone, stories told through carefully edited field recordings, grim & unsettling dark ambient, to blown out & distorted flurries of churning, dense whirlwinds of sound, “Untitled” constantly evolved and threw curveball after curveball. Castaways from lives unseen, backdrops to drama that only existed in the moment. The fragile winding-up of a music box’s clockwork mechanism transporting us to the musky attic of the mind.
As the 13th and final “Untitled” album dropped in January 2014, there were several theories attempting to explain the series of unclaimed and unnamed albums. Some insisted that each album was performed by a different artist, with names like Philip Jeck, The Humble Bee, & Richard Skelton being thrown into the hat. One posited that the entire series contained psychoacoustic tricks to induce euphoria, dizziness, confusion, among other sensations, going so far as to claim the albums were “Sound Drugs” moreso than any Binaural Beat system that the internet had fallen in love with being fooled by in the mid 00's. But, each of these attempts fell upon deaf ears, and the artists responsible have yet to reveal themselves as of this writing.
Anonymity on the internet is also not exactly a foreign concept. Even in music, hiding identities behind pseudonyms, stage names and fake fronts isn’t unheard of. Most recently, the Vaporwave movement has allowed some artists to try out drastically different sounds under different umbrella names. The difference, however, is that those acts tend to be discovered eventually. Through some telltale signs, the think-tank is able to figure out who is behind the latest “artist”. Or, in some cases, the artists come clean about what side projects belonged to them. The curious case of “Untitled” leaves a cold, rocky trail through a rainy forest instead.
And that, perhaps, is what drew me in to the series of releases. I often find myself at the fringes of musical genres, digging through to find new sounds and novel ways to experience the powerful emotions music is capable of evoking. I’m familiar with quite a few artists who would fit the sounds and styles found within the 13 entries of “Untitled.” Even armed with such knowledge, I haven’t the slightest who could be behind these unusual releases. And something about that resonates quite deeply with me.
As an artist, struggling for recognition is something I am painfully, frustratingly aware of and fighting for every time I put something out into the world. It isn’t the only thing that compels me to put word to page, but it is undoubtedly part of the reason why I’ve stubbornly refused to give up yet. This is why the dissolution of the self as displayed by the performers of the “Untitled” series interests me so much. Whoever it is could be the top performers in their respective, cozy genres, and have no need for things like recognition. Or, they could be complete unknowns (who may remain so, hence, “Untitled”) who happen to possess talent.
There’s no identity whatsoever for each of these recordings. Being able to disengage their ego and allow such beautiful works to go uncredited… it’s an impressive show of restraint, resilience and respect for the art behind the entire mystique surrounding “Untitled.” And it is a skill, a trait, that I wish I had the ability to be capable of. Time was spent and efforts expended to create audio that would simply roam the world adrift, bereft of a name to carry itself into the hearts, minds & libraries of listeners.
With any consumable media, we tend to eat up any information we can get to provide context for what we’re watching, playing, reading, or listening to. There are wikis built for almost every TV show, movie and video game released, a modernized example of our desire to categorize and contextualize as much as possible. We know about the lives of the performers, the ones who bring the respective art into existence. We read interviews, watch them perform in and out of character, soaking up everything like a sponge. There is very little true mystery left in entertainment thanks to the advent of the internet and its advanced capabilities in cataloging.
What “Untitled” does, then, is it replaces the barriers that the internet thought it tore down. We are at last fully separated from the artist, placed within a context deprivation tank with only these playful vibrations of air molecules and our imaginations. There’s no long-winded story to go alongside a concept album here, no spiteful lyrics spitting fire at the catalyst of a horrible breakup, no stage theatrics to base our projections off of. The lack of celebrity removes much that we use to define the reasons for a particular piece of art existing, while still being distinctly human and emotionally charged works.
Hell, try searching “Untitled” on your search engine of choice. Chances are, you won’t be taken to any of these 13 albums within 100 pages of results. Searching for something like “Untitled — Untitled” will also produce unspecific results. And, as complex as Wolfram’s natural speech oriented search algorithm is these days, searching for “That weird Untitled album with the brown cover” may, eventually, lead you to the Boomkat listings for the albums, each proudly proclaiming their Sold Out status.
True enigmas in the age of information. “Untitled” has found a way to defeat the laborious categorization fueled by our ravenous desire for knowledge. This may bother some, a few cautious listeners going so far as to call the entire series a “gimmick” in frustration. But we should not be so concerned with the who, which is important to understanding the point behind “Untitled”, but rather, savoring each moment as the vignette it is. The fact that there is no name, face or story attached to each release acts as a guiding hand towards what is important — the music.
There are critics who argue that the confusing origin and nature of the albums actually detracts from the experience. Fair thoughts to have, though I believe this to be a side effect of our obsession with needing to know. I won’t say someone is wrong for wishing to identify who is behind it all, I’d love to know just as much as any of them. But to turn away from the 13 albums simply because they would rather remain shrouded is, in my opinion, the wrong way to approach things. “Untitled” represents music in its purest form, without any distraction, so long as we’re willing to let go. In many ways, it is the ultimate realization of closing your eyes and putting your headphones on to soak in every intricate note and movement — this extra step removing all of the background radiation that could contaminate our thoughts on the arrangements themselves.
Ultimately, it is the selflessness of each individual involved with the production of the “Untitled” series that should be remembered, even if we’ll most likely never know whom we should be directing our appreciation towards. The songs as well deserve the same treatment, each their own powerful expression worthy of listeners who enjoy theatrical, atmospheric ambiance and all that envelopes. Personal taste aside, they’re impressive from the standpoint of having dissolved the artist completely, leaving only the music to speak for itself.
With the nearly unrestricted access to information we have in 2015, these albums managed to defy betraying anything about themselves. And if there is a page somewhere that contains the answers, spilling every secret that each song and album holds with pursed lips, I may never be able to find it. That thought both worries and elates me. But, soon, my thoughts on the origins of the music will dissipate, returning to the blank void from which the 13 “Untitled” albums appear to have come from. They’ll be keeping good company there.