Essential New Music: Tucker Dulin/Ben Owen’s “Cat Guarding Geese”

If you adhere to the rule of thumb that the right cover compels you to purchase a record, take a good look at the image above, which adorns Cat Guarding Geese’s digipak. Then do what your heart tells you that you must do. But if you need to know about the album’s contents, read on. 

Cat Guarding Geese is the product of a partnership between Tucker Dulin and Ben Owen, a pair of American experimental musicians who recorded four sessions in 2015 and 2016. Most of those encounters took place on Roosevelt Island, a narrow strip of land in New York’s East River; one occurred in a Brooklyn studio. But a mere fraction of this piece—one 68-minute track—comes directly from the actions of the musicians.

Most of the sounds on this LP derive from environmental recordings, including traffic passing over the Queensboro Bridge, airplanes and the titular geese, who, with a fearlessness typical of their species, get a lot closer to the microphones than any of the machines do. Every once in a while, you can hear Owen or Dulin putting metal against metal or obtaining low-volume tones from an amplifier. Such actions function like insects landing on a still body of water, focusing your attention on a meniscus that you might otherwise never notice. 

Skeptics could raise the question, what do you do with a record like this? It would be fair to tell them that humanity has a long, honorable tradition of just looking at the pictures. But if you accept that art is completed by the beholder, there’s plenty to perceive in this deceptively simple expanse of sound. Whatever production processes the two men used to wed field and performance recordings yielded sounds that have been polished just right in order to be inherently pleasing. And the closer you listen, the more you will hear, which is both a reward in itself and a challenge—what else have you been missing while you weren’t paying attention?

Finally, it proposes a reversal of the self-deluding perspective promoted by most music recording. Sure, you might think you’re the star when you make a record, but how important is it in the grand scheme of things? It’s humbling but inarguable to acknowledge that most recordings make no bigger a ripple in the human consciousness than Tucker and Dulin’s occasional actions make upon the soundscape their microphones collected on Roosevelt Island. They’re just telling you the truth.

—Bill Meyer