I’m sitting on a bench on the second floor of the Glendale Galleria in Glendale, California, facing the entrance to an enormous Target. It’s only a week and a half from Christmas, and the massive mall is adorned with miles of wreaths and red ribbons, Christmas oldies playing faintly on the loudspeakers. It’s still the afternoon, but it’s already getting dark. The holiday spirit doesn’t show on the faces of the shoppers around me; each of them has come with a distinct purpose, and there’s a creeping anxiety in the air.
I’ve chosen this place to begin the latest audio experience from Alone, who have been away from their highly acclaimed “existential haunts” for some time, instead focusing on a series of smaller-scale experimental works. Transposition Model of a Bared Blossom is their third audio-only experience, after 2016’s The Mushin of the Ashen Deer Clan and 2017’s Pre-emptied Reconstruction Index.
It also comes with a set of simple instructions:
- Wash your exposed skin in warm water.
- Go to a communal and populated location.
- Sit somewhere comfortable and settle.
- Place your headphones on.
- When arranged properly, press PLAY.
It’s difficult to classify Bared Blossom, even on the most basic level. According to the iTunes music store, where I chose to access it, it’s a podcast. That’s not an unfair label – the 57-minute audio track is, at least in its first act, a guided meditation, and the past few years have seen an explosion in meditation podcasts and apps (such as Calm and Headspace). The track description also calls it an “audio guide,” like those you might find at an art museum – only here, the museum is your chosen environment, and the artifacts on display are the strange beings surrounding you. Or maybe you’re the one who’s on display.
It’s also an immersive play, a poem, and a piece of music. Though it has much of its own agenda, Bared Blossom brings to mind John Cage’s famous silent piano piece 4’33” – in some of its stronger moments, the unpredictable, ambient sights and sounds become the work itself.
It’s worth noting that Bared Blossom also benefits from a larger reality of audio entertainment in 2018 – being free and accessible anywhere, it renders most criticism somewhat useless. Why read a review when it would take equal effort to just listen for yourself? If you don’t like it, you can turn it off. But Bared Blossom is worth your time. If you’re a fan of immersive media, read no further, and block off an hour this weekend for some existential wandering.
Done? Great. Let’s talk a little more.
The strengths of Bared Blossom lie in its more practical, structural ideas, and we can start with some great news: the concept of an audio-only immersive piece actually works. Bared Blossom is nowhere near this new genre’s final form, but on a fundamental level, the very act of choosing a location and opening yourself to whatever might follow is a powerful one that translates surprisingly well into a simple audio file. When “they” tell us to obey any and all instructions, I felt a little flutter in my stomach. Please, please don’t make me talk to any of these people. Now there’s a scary idea.
But this isn’t a scary piece (unless you’re scared by the infinite nothingness-and-everythingness of the universe, in which case, you’ll definitely want to listen). It’s a piece about you, and your experience will largely depend on your willingness to give yourself over to the ideas presented, as well as certain parts of your personality.
It’s here where Bared Blossom runs into a bit of trouble. While the instructions to perform physical actions are always effective, it’s much more difficult for your mind to obey and follow some of the more abstract assertions made by your disembodied host. Walking around a mall wearing earbuds, it was easy to find mental distractions of all kinds (especially as someone behind on their Christmas shopping). Wandering thoughts are acknowledged and accepted in traditional meditation, but here they are more detrimental to the experience. Often I would miss a key phrase in the flowery monologue and lose the thread for several minutes. Even when I was able to focus completely on the ideas being presented, some of them I simply didn’t agree with. Much of the experience centered on philosophical insights that I suspect most listeners will have had in some form already, whether in a late-night chat with good friends, or perhaps seen in a few episodes of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. When Bared Blossom goes too far in presenting its own philosophies, it feels a little silly, and fails to leave room for the more subtle experiences that are occurring more naturally in the periphery.
However, in the end, I found this constant struggle between my own mind and the intended experience to be one of the more interesting and profound results. In my life, I know that part of me wants to be led, and the other part of me wants to lead. I was fascinated by what I was willing to accept, and what I was compelled to resist.
Alone described one of their previous audio works as a “walking track,” and I find this to be my favorite descriptor of Bared Blossom. Though it is difficult to remember many of the cosmic insights I may or may not have had, what will stick with me is a beautiful moment in which I followed my unconscious path onto the roof of the Galleria. The calming synthesizer pad changed to an ominous, Merzbow-esque noise drone as I felt a cold wind on my face and looked out toward a strange, apocalyptic sunset. I had never seen Los Angeles quite that way before, and I found this moment alone to be worth the trip.
To delve into some minor spoilers, at about the halfway mark, your task turns from walking to following, and your instructions get more specific. It’s here where the piece becomes truly immersive and unique. For about twenty minutes, I found myself wandering through the bowels of the Galleria, haunting the building and a few of the people inside it. It was exciting, and at times I felt completely invisible. I wondered whether my ghostly presence was welcome in this place or not.
It’s a brilliant idea, and it’s the best part of Bared Blossom. But in its treading of new territory, it raises some important questions and concerns.
When I recounted my experience to my significant other, she immediately pointed out that, as a woman, the idea of being followed in a public place is very unpleasant no matter the context – a point that I am embarrassed to say did not cross my mind in the moment, as it all felt harmless enough. I suspect most people outside of the immersive scene, regardless of gender, would feel the same way if asked. As we continue to discuss consent in the immersive world, this piece could be a controversial one, and it could very well be argued that the consent here is one-sided. It’s a daring idea, perhaps more than the piece itself realizes.
Above all, Transposition Model of a Bared Blossom is an experiment, and I suspect its greatest achievement will be paving the way for others – or for the next iteration of this ambitious series. Though not without its flaws, there are interesting, risky, and most importantly new ideas here, many of which could be taken almost infinitely further. But on its most basic level, Bared Blossom is, as its title hints, about smelling the roses. Getting out of the apartment, and taking a look around. I can’t tell you what you’ll see, but I promise you’ll see something.