I don’t know where the sun beams end
and the starlight begins
it’s all a mystery,
Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne sings in “Fight Test,” the opening track of their 2002 album Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. I like Yoshimi’s psychedelic, indie-funk sound and galactic themes, as well as the musical based on the album, about a young woman fighting cancer, which Coyne describes as taking place partially in “[an]other dimension where Yoshimi is this Japanese warrior and the pink robots are an incarnation of her disease.”
Listening to the new album from The Interplanetary Acoustic Team, “11 11 (Me, Smiling),” recorded by poet Brian Turner (and a cast of assembled talents) in honor of his late wife Ilyse Kusnetz, I was reminded of Yoshimi. There are deep preoccupations which link the albums: ideas of life, loss, and connection; consciousness and soul; and the particular, inimitable beauty of an individual person.
I’ve had the good luck to run into Turner briefly at writing conferences, mainly as an observer, but even in those short encounters I’ve gotten the sense that whether he’s leading a group or talking to an individual, the moment has his full attention. This appears to come very naturally to him; I almost feel like he’s the embodiment of the idea of presence, as if it’s his life’s work.
In “11, 11,” presence is both a state (physical, intellectual, emotional), and a quality-of: a genuineness, an attunement.
Life, ideas, words, people, music, stars, planets, dreams, the album seems to say, are all meant to be celebrated, not just mourned, and to that end the album is often upbeat and jazzy and is just terrific fun to listen to. I’ve been listening to it over and over, while cleaning my house, mostly, and it turned that chore into a pleasure.
The first song, “11 11,” opens with a synthesized heartbeat sort of sound and moves into a funky “Superstition”-style layering of guitar, horn, and bass that’s funky and irresistible. (Turner’s flugelhorn playing is a delight throughout, brightening the sound.) Partway through the song we hear Ilyse’s voice for the first time. “I think there are a number of scenarios,” she says, and I’m thinking, For what?, and it turns out she means for how the Revolution of the Machines might occur. I burst out laughing.
“Cyborg 3.0: Implant” quiets down a little as Ilyse talks about suffering and ways we might heal it through the imagination. “There are some things so horrible,” she says, “that one hopes one can counter them in a way that addresses the suffering that is necessary…some kind of transformation…otherwise there is no point in hoping.”
“In a sense I’m trying to cheat death,” Turner told author Philip Metres in a Poets and Writers interview. “I wanted to keep making art, to keep our conversation going, to somehow cross into the wide expanse of the cosmos so that we might continue to love each other.” In “Human (Looking Back),” Ilyse seems to share this desire to cheat space and time: “I’ll always be watching you go, You’ll always be heading toward me.”
I loved every track, but “Planetary Bird Engine,” track seven, hit an emotional peak for me. I’m not even entirely sure why it was so moving, except by that point I think I had warmed so much to the whole album and the sound and these unique, funny, sad thoughts about robots and space and words and time, that I was caught a little off-guard by the sudden sense of loss that hit me. The song starts with Ilyse saying, “I may have to pause briefly and refresh.” There’s a hint of vulnerability to her voice there, because she’s not reciting. Then she recounts a dream where she is a bird, flying backward through time, her words bracketed by electric guitar, and finally voices come in, followed by a beautiful refrain from Turner on horn. I was completely taken by surprise to suddenly feel a lump in my throat, thinking of Ilyse’s earlier words, “Once your consciousness was uploaded, would you want to come back down?”
There’s so much love for the world coming through the album that the answer seems to be an emphatic yes. Yes, if we could, we would want to come back. Who wouldn’t?
As I thought about it, though, I realized it’s a “yes — but.” Like the Flaming Lips sing,
There are things you can’t avoid
You have to face them when you’re not prepared to face them
If we don’t have the choice to come back, the album seems to say, then let’s think of the other ways we might communicate, the other forms of beauty we might encounter.
p.s. Yesterday I listened to the album three times over, and when I sat down to write about it, I ran into an interview with Turner and learned that Ilyse had passed away exactly two years to the day: September 13, 2016. This in itself seemed like a tiny form of communication. Here’s to Ilyse, who is present in more and more minds with time.