The opening track of Three Exercises ends with a brief statement: "It's August 9th, 2014. Devin DiSanto and Nick Hoffman, St. Thomas the Apostle Elementary School." Yet before we're told this, certain sounds help to establish the environment we're in—tables squeak loudly across tile floors, doors with push bars reverberate as they close, and both a parent and child talk in the distance. Even if one hadn't glanced at the photos that decorate the CD's packaging, one could likely deduce that these performances took place inside a school gymnasium. But more than just an unveiling of the sounds and location that characterize Three Exercises, "preparation / introduction" reveals a very important component to the album: transparency.
Two writers, Justin Palmer and Sharon Glassburn, are tasked with recording notes out loud into a tape recorder. And throughout the album, we get an understanding, albeit a vague one, of the ensuing sounds. The actual three exercises that take place are hard to parse, however, and an overlap of sounds between tracks diminishes any sense of clarity regarding when each activity took place relative to one another. In "sequence 1" and "exercise 3", we hear Devin playing with a Boggle game—the container is shaken, an hourglass is flipped, and a list of words is recited. Interestingly, a portion of the former is replayed over speakers in "sequence 2", and DiSanto performs a variation of this process that replaces the Boggle game with Bingo, cage and all.
The first and second "exercise" tracks and "sequence 1.2" seem to be interrelated. From piecing the tracks together and viewing the images on the cover, one can somewhat figure out what's going on here: duct tape is measured and placed on the gymnasium floor, DiSanto walks along the duct tape foot-to-foot with a collapsible table that's placed on a moving dolly, ping pong balls fall off that table and their end point is numbered and marked with duct tape. An interlude entitled "recreation" also occurs midway through the album which, appropriately, features basketballs being dribbled and shot into the gym's hoop.
For many, the task-driven nature of Three Exercises will be reminiscent of DiSanto's Tracing a Boundary. On that record, numerous sounds—namely the folding of paper and the soft hum of wind—were heard in an open space. The piece channeled the calming nature of working on a project or doing housework on a Sunday afternoon. Instruments were occasionally played and announcements with specific times (e.g. "13 minutes") periodically interjected but they never detracted from the overall mood. Three Exercises isn't exactly meditative but it feels very much like the product of DiSanto's approach there with Nick Hoffman's texturally-minded works via different types of synthesis (on this recording, frequency modulation and dynamic stochastic synthesis). It never gets too noisy, but it's a clear combined effort and the interplay between both musicians is harmonious and engaging, often helping to pace the record effectively.
There's a lot happening in Three Exercises but the beauty of the recording is that its mysteries don't need to be thoroughly decoded to enjoy. At times, the reveal is delightful—knowing that the terrifying crunch that opens "sequence 2" comes from a spinning Bingo ball cage is hilarious. But more often than not, a play-by-play isn't necessary to be fixated by what's present on these eight tracks; the juxtaposition between the twirling Bingo ball cage and the silence that follows is potent and affecting whether or not we recognize the source. And because of that, the record holds a fascinating paradox of sorts—the semi-acousmatic nature of the work affirms how nonessential it is to see and know the source of any given sound to appreciate it.
During my initial listens of Three Exercises, I made sure to pay close attention to Palmer and Glassburn's notes. At first, they functioned solely as guides who helped me unearth what DiSanto and Hoffman were doing. But after my "need" for them was presumably finished, their roles shifted from somewhat auxiliary to indispensable—their voices, usually signified with tape feedback, were important elements that contributed just as much as anything else to the sonic make-up of these tracks. In other words, the very things that exposed these sounds were better appreciated as pure aural elements. Three Exercises is transparent but the innate qualities of the sounds therein, and our visceral engagement with them, take precedence. And the record manages to point out that exact phenomenon. That the alluring mystique of the record's production is sustained after its literal unveiling is at the heart of what makes Three Exercises a masterpiece.