A Deep Listening: Fiona Apple’s The Idler Wheel…
In this Olio, we’ll engage in a deep listening to The Idler Wheel… as well as pre- and post-listening conversations. We’ll kick off our session with a brief discussion of the artist and the album, followed by the listening session. Viewers are requested to use headphones, turn off video, and alter their space to enhance the experience.
The Idler Wheel Is Wiser
Than the Driver of the Screw
and Whipping Cords Will Serve You
More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
Fiona Apple is a poetic singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist whose self-expression is as gripping as it is unapologetic. Her releases, which have come infrequently, are clearly belabored, and they take into account how the album format, as medium and message, informs her sonic communications. Her 4th album, abbreviated The Idler Wheel…(2012), takes its title from one of her original poems and includes raw, unfiltered, and gritty tracks that offer an unusual view into the life of the artist who created them. In an interview about The Idler Wheel…, Apple remarked on the passing of time while creating the album, remarking that she didn’t really know where the years went, as the album was more of a passion project than a time-pressed release:
It was very casual, and I wasn’t fully admitting that I was making an album, I got to use the time in the studio to inspire me to finish other things rather than feel like I was finishing homework to hand in.
It wasn’t a lot of pressure. And the record company didn’t know I was doing it, so nobody was looking over my shoulder.
Apple’s comments engender multiple questions about the artistic process. What do time constraints do to an artist? Does a deadline help or hinder? Can we hear the difference between a passion project and a purely commercial release, and how would we even go about making such a distinction? Fionna Apple has repeatedly rejected commercial endeavors and priorities in favor of upholding the view that the art takes as long as the art needs. Her most recent release (Fetch the Bolt Cutters, released April 2020) is a tribute to this very idea: she thought it was the right time to release, and didn’t care if it was a financially viable move to make.
Like many other clever artists, Fionna is aware of the recording studio as “a voice” and has used it like an instrument within The Idler Wheel…. and her most recent release Fetch the Bolt Cutters (2020). Many of the unusual timbres and colors created in The Idler Wheel…, while using a more limited orchestral pallet than Extraordinary Machine, are noteworthy because of how the instruments were recorded: many of them are mic’ed unusually close, to also capture the mechanical sounds of the instruments. Critics were, for the most part, positive in the reception of her work, but made note of unnecessary complexities and that the album lacked variety (PopMatters’ Enio Chiola). I couldn’t disagree more: the intricacies of the album invite repeated listening (something we devalue, but ought to reconsider), and the work is a concept album, which shouldn’t have too much variety or else it starts to lack cohesion.
In this Olio, we’ll engage in a deep listening to The Idler Wheel… as well as pre- and post-listening conversations. We’ll kick off our session with a brief discussion of the artist and the album, followed by the listening session. Viewers are requested to use headphones, turn off video, and alter their space to enhance the experience. During the album, I will guide you through the listening with “cue cards” that I’ll project via Zoom. So, I won’t be talking over the music, but “writing” over it in real-time to help you understand some of the deeper musical, lyrical, and timbral details. After the album, we’ll come back and discuss some of what we heard and re-listen to tracks as requested.
Teacher: Whitney George
George holds an undergraduate degree from the California Institute of the Arts, a masters degree from Brooklyn College Conservatory, and is currently continuing her studies as a PhD candidate at the CUNY Grad Center. In addition to her composing and conducting, George teaches at Brooklyn College, works at the Hitchcock Institute of American Studies and is the Managing Director for New York’s AME.
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