I Don’t Know Much of Anything: Circuit des Yeux’s ‘Stranger’

Circuit des Yeux is the band led by the dizzyingly talented Chicago singer-songwriter Haley Fohr. In October 2021, Fohr released -io, Circuit des Yeux’s sixth album, which is named for the innermost moon of Jupiter. Wire magazine described -io as “a suite of baroque avant-pop songs delivered in [Fohr’s] mesmerising contralto with smouldering intensity”. The Washington Post compared Fohr’s singing to Anohni, Scott Walker and solo Beth Gibbons, and in its operatic, fractured beauty, -io reminds me of all these artists and of John Cale’s haunted and heightened Music for a New Society. As I’m writing, I can hear Cale’s ground-glass voice: “If you were still around / I’d hold you / I’d hold you”.

-io’s opening track, ‘Tonglen/In Vain’, sets the tone. Tonglen (“sending and receiving”) is a Tibetan meditation practice about which Pema Chödrön wrote, “Put simply, the practitioner breathes in the bad and breathes out the good, taking on the suffering of other sentient beings”. This might sound squishy, like loving kindness practice can, sitting there wishing well to the world. But Tonglen practice is fully realised when the meditator, off the cushion, acts to alleviate suffering out in the world. For Fohr to open -io with a Tonglen meditation signals an intention to use songs to transform suffering into healing, which is what -io sets about doing.

Fohr wrote and recorded -io in the aftermath of the death of her grandmother and the death of a friend by suicide and the songs are suffused with grief and love. They are generous, expansive songs. Fohr, her band, and a 24 piece orchestra perform with grace and dynamism and Fohr sings with extraordinary intensity. She is a virtuosic singer, with a four-octave voice, and on the penultimate song ‘Stranger’ she hits the C two octaves above middle C, which, take it from me, is high.

The first song I properly connected with on -io was the song that precedes ‘Stranger’, called ‘Neutron Star’. The central image of that song is of a supergiant star that has collapsed, so that what was radiant is now dark and frozen. It can only be an elegy for Fohr’s friend as she sings “You became atrophied astronomony”. Pretty bleak, but then you learn that a neutron star, though no longer emitting light or heat, has all the mass and gravitational force of the supergiant it once was.

So Fohr’s friend has died and nothing can change that but these relationships don’t end. What one can hear in ‘Neutron Star’ is that we navigate our lives orbiting suns that continue to shine and other suns that we no longer see but that still keep us close. You can hear that the people we love who pass on are imprinted in us, epigenetically, still steadying and guiding, and that is a comforting thing for a song born out of suffering to say.

As the penultimate song, ‘Stranger’ occupies a particular space on -io. ‘Stranger’ is to -io what ‘Northern Sky’ is to Bryter Later, ‘Turn Me Down’ is to Crushing, and ‘This Woman’s Work’ is to The Sensual World: an ecstatic peak that brings the record to its emotional conclusion and cannot be followed, but also can’t end the album, because the listener would be stranded, so the record needs a settling out-breath (‘Oracle Song’, in this case). 

‘Stranger’ opens with a sustained piano chord and Fohr’s voice arrives as it dissolves: “What a woman I passed / On 21st Street”. She opens in a lower register, cradling the words. “Just passing by”, she continues, “But if our eyes did meet”. 21st Street, Chicago, is a busy neighbourhood—this must be the stranger. (And here you might in your memory hear Scott Walker harmonising: “Do I hear 21, 21, 21?”)

The melody line moves upwards and Fohr moves from observing the stranger to addressing her: “I might have tried what you tried / I might have cried what’ve cried / I might have lied what you’ve lied / I might / I might have seen what you’ve seen / And I might have known what you’ve known / But I don’t know much of anything”. Fohr elongates that final “know” across seven syllables and lands on “much of anything” with humbled resignation, as if something terrible has taught her the limits of understanding.

In the second verse, still addressing the stranger, she sings “You’re my sister / You’re my sister”. Fohr then takes a moment and again sings “What a woman I passed / On 21st street”. But when she sings “street”, this time, she can’t move on. She sings the word “street” four times—each enunciation of the word is stretched across two bars of music while Fohr calls upon her four octaves of vocal range, percussive piano races in sympathy up and down its registers, and a valiant cello grounds it all. I think why Fohr invests all this energy in an ardent repetition of the word street is because the meaning of the word isn’t the point. That word is just where she is in the song when the wave of grief, love, and longing hits her.

I mentioned the high C in ‘Stranger’ earlier and the precise pitch of a note is not normally something I would even think to check, but that high C is a moment of potent somatic connection. Every time Fohr approaches that note, I find I have to pause, straighten my back, and take a breath in till it passes. This response is not deliberate and it feels like my body independently making itself spacious enough to accommodate all the sound and feeling in Fohr’s song. It feels like being filled with light.

The song ends with Fohr vocalising wordlessly—keening, ululating, channeling sounds that are ancient and ancestral to express a fathomless grief that comes from further inwards than language can go.

So: what is going on in ‘Stranger’? Well: who knows. Everyone will bring something different to and hear something different in a song like this. But you can hear the work of healing.

As I hear it, Fohr articulates in this song both the unmooring earthquake shock of the death of friends and family and the dazzling gift of being alive alongside other people in the first place.

Fohr addresses the stranger as if she knows her and she sings “You’re my sister,” so the stranger is, paradoxically, per the rules of poetry, her sister. But how? Certainly, the singer may think that the stranger is her friend who has died. It’s so familiar: that illusory moment when you recognise a person walking past, only for the pit of your stomach to remind you one second later that it cannot, under any cirumstances, be them. Like when you wake from a thrilled relieved dream (“There you are! I heard you’d died!”) to relearn the grey fact that they are gone.

But just as possibly, the intensity of the singer’s grief has broadened and heightened her awareness of the preciousness of life; the splendour of every breath. The stranger is not a stranger because every woman alive is, in both a poetic and a concrete sense, her sister. Death’s looming imminence alerts the singer to the stupendous unlikeliness of two beings being born on the same planet at the same time who can recognise, understand, and appreciate each other; who can connect, if only for this vanishing, unrepeatable moment.

When you think how many forms the matter that makes up two people passing by in Chicago could have taken in the billions of years since the atoms that form them formed, how many light years could separate them if the Big Bang had banged slightly differently, then the distance between two humans on a street seems very small, and the use of the word ‘sister’ to describe a so-called stranger seems not so out of place. So Fohr allows the listener into her grief to remind us to rejoice because we are here, alive, together. John Cale sang “If you were still around / I’d hold you”. Circuit des Yeux sings: You are still around. Hold each other while you can.

-io is available at Circuit des Yeux’s Bandcamp page. Circuit des Yeux plays the NCH on Friday April 15th and tickets are available here.

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