haunted reverie: “ask sisyphus” (2022) review and interview

Ted Harper, the musician behind “haunted reverie,” is an extremely prolific experimental-folk artist from Indianapolis, Indiana, with 229 releases to date. His music is extremely creative and unassuming and his album covers often feature fascinating collages.

Harper released “ask sisyphus” on November 5 and while it bears some commonality with the rest of his discography, two differences are that it has 26 songs, a noticeable increase, and that it includes electronic and ambient songs. Every song on ask sisyphus is under one-minute long (except stepping stones at 1:04), which is in keeping with his other releases that are marked by very short 1-2 minute songs, for a total runtime of 21:23.

The title of the album is highly relevant and many of the songs are in conversation with the story of Sisyphus, so it’s worth keeping that story in the back of your mind while you listen. For example, in “near to one,” Harper sings, “On every mountain that holds the shadows / Of where never seems to be any other means / Have to let it all disappear / Don’t let it all disappear / Keep everything loved near / Near”. If you don’t know, “Sisyphus is a figure in Homer’s Iliad and other works of Greek mythology. He is reputed to be the founder of the Isthmian Games and is a trickster who receives eternal punishment for trying to cheat Death.” (https://www.britannica.com/topic/Sisyphus). The story goes that Zeus punishes Sisyphus by condemning him to an eternity of rolling a boulder up a hill and every time Sisyphus nears the summit, the boulder rolls back down to the base and so he has to start over ad infinitum. In “near to one,” Harper suggests that despite the shadow of the mountain before you and of which you have no means of overcoming, you can at least “keep everything loved near”.

In “what you know as more,” Harper sings, “These are the hands that will hold on forever / These are the hands they let you down so many times in a day / These are the hands that are always searching for what you know is more / What you know is more / What you know is more”. His rapid fingerpicking gives a sense of urgency to find that “more-ness” against the otherwise profuse calm that his voice exudes. Harper has an uncanny ability to intermingle hope and despair with honest and raw conviction comparable to Sibylle Baier and Phil Elverum. His songs are brief, concise and their unstructured lyricism aligns him more with poets than traditional songwriters who use set song structures. It’s so refreshing to not have a song dragged out for 2, 3, or 4 minutes just because the chorus needs to be repeated a set amount of times. For all their brevity, they leave a strong, lasting impression of someone with a quandary that prompts oneself to “ask sisyphus”. What does it mean to ask sisyphus?

While I don’t claim to have listened to all 229 releases from haunted reverie – I don’t recall the ones that I have listened to ever incorporating electronic elements or any instrumentation outside of his vocals and guitar, whereas ask sisyphus has quite a number of them. Songs like “at a point”, “clouded memory mountain”, “from your view”, “sacred needs”, “no stress forward”, “rough patches”, “unhinged”, “stigmatized”, “clouds of youth” are minimalist, ambient compositions that add magnificent contrast to the folk songs. In clouded memory mountain there’s what sounds like a beautiful piano almost trapped behind an incessant beat that seems to be hammering against the piano to drowned out its hushed plea.

haunted reverie is a true gem of creativity. One of my favourite haunted reverie albums is “river of bees (poems by WS Merwin),” but ask sisyphus is equally remarkable. I asked Harper some questions and he kindly agreed to answer them:

1. Why did you name the album “ask sisyphus”? What does Sisyphus mean to you? And if you yourself could ask Sisyphus one question, what would it be?
I feel that Sisyphus can be an inspiration for many. The constant formality of life. It’s constant never ending . Especially in our minds. We can learn for his experience. The question I would ask would be if there has any peace with his position in existence. 

2. Is this the first album of your 229 releases that has electronic elements? Can you talk about the electronic songs on this album?
There are other albums with electronics. Just brief interludes tho . One of my favorite artist Jónsi has a album of thrift store keyboards he found through his time and I’m obsessed  with the bizarre beautiful sounds . So I like to use them for inspiration. 

3. You write very concise songs that are quite often around one minute long or less. Why is that? Do you write the lyrics first or the music (or at the same time)? 
I make albums because when I was from the age of 18 until now. Every week I look forward to new albums by my favorite artist. The constant changing that they go through. Becoming  other people along their journey. It’s an Homage for this process. Capturing a feeling but not dwelling on it.

4. What can you tell me about your song “alexamenos”? What are your thoughts on the alexamenos graffiti (if that’s what your song is referencing)? 
It’s a very interesting subject so I was definitely attracted to this right away . Yes I was meditating on this while writing the song. Poetry and words are the main things that start the songs . I love word play and unique phrases.

5. Can you tell me about the collage artwork that you use for so many of your album covers?
Just like words and poetry visualization definitely moves the process of the music. I will take any magazine or newspaper or anything that has writing or pictures on it to try to make a collage. Robert Pollard from Guided By Voices was the master of this and still is but I love creating from scraps. Everything can be salvaged.

You can stream or purchase ask sisyphus by haunted reverie on bandcamp: https://hauntedreverie.bandcamp.com/album/ask-sisyphus

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