What is it about a harsh radio broadcast, found out of context, that captivates the senses? Woven into the ambient fabric of a song (this is a good example, and of course this, and this, and even this), even the dullest, mundane broadcast takes on an almost oracular gravity. Traffic update, weather forecast, stock market report – all these monotonous sounds are loaded with the possibility of meaning, even when its actual meaning is elusive. They are small cloudy windows that open onto another world, like a breath of air that transports you to a specific beach, perhaps even to a specific afternoon, from your childhood.
The second album by Chicago cellist Lia Kohl, The Roof Rests, exploits this strange mode of transportation by weaving snippets of radio and field recordings into improvisations on his instrument, alongside a jumbled jumble of synths, piano, bells, kazoo and concertina. The overall effect is like a bird’s nest outside a spinning mill: a neat bunch of chaos interwoven with tendrils of brilliantly discordant colour.
Improvising with found sounds is, in effect, a form of collaboration for Kohl, who was born in New York and grew up in San Francisco. He began playing the cello in third grade and soon devoted his life to the instrument: youth orchestra, music camp, summer master classes in Europe, post-college moves to Berlin and New York. However, all this time she felt more like a practitioner than a creator. It was only in Chicago, where she moved in 2013 to study with a performer from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, that she found her own voice. She collaborated with dancers; played on records by Steve Gunn, Whitney, and Makaya McCraven, among others; and she released duet projects with Ohmme’s Macie Stewart and reed player Zachary Good. For her debut solo album of hers, 2022 Too small to be simple, had developed the inquisitive, abstract sensibility that also distinguishes the new album. Combining studio experiments and incidental sound bites, she approaches the recording process almost as if it were a bonsai or zen garden, cultivating suggestive forms from random assemblies of objects and shapes.
The Roof Rests is similar in spirit to Too small to be simple, but it marks a big step forward. His tonal sensibilities are bolder and more developed, his juxtapositions more provocative; its accidental collisions and slides testify to a firm belief in musical freedom. “in a specific room” opens the album with static fizz and the tiny digital chimes of a chime on the fritz. Kohl plays wide, assertive chords on the low end, multiple undertones to the sound of his fingers scraping across the strings. From a cloud of eerie, Theremin-like tones springs a light-hearted passage of radio jokes during drive-time. Halfway through, he pivots into what feels like an entirely new piece, blending new-age synth arpeggios with stinging cello tones and a passing nod to the NASDAQ crash; the piece fades into a silent delirium of birdsong.