Last year, Austin-based cartoonist, archivist and sound artist Ethan Persoff was in need of a break. Between the 2016 election of President Donald Trump and 2018, he says, he was filled with nervous stress and trepidation. But after spending two years glued to the news and social media debates over the WWE Hall of Famer’s first term in the highest ovoid office in the land, something had to change. And it certainly wasn’t going to be the big man in the White House.
“It started Jan. 1, 2018, as sort of a New Year’s resolution to improve how I was spending my time,” Persoff says. “There was a lot of anxiety, I think, everywhere at that time, and so I wanted to make a project that was so difficult, but also interesting and fun, that I wouldn’t have time to let my brain fall into any of those anxious traps.”
Starting with no real outline beyond the concept of going through a full day in real time, Persoff says he let the story develop organically — spending nearly every night of 2018 scoring a track, drawing a single panel to represent it visually and giving it a title that furthered the story, in whatever order felt right to him in the moment. And thus, The Bureau was born.
Composed of a 202-track album, as well as an accompanying 88-page comic book, The Bureau takes the listener (and reader) through an entire work day in real time by way of modular music, with descriptive song titles like “9:09am, Walking Away From Your Desk to Calmly Flood Your Head in the Sink,” "2:12pm, The Active Shooter Casually Walks By, Pretending to Work in the Kitchen” and “5:51pm, A Trash Fire of Years of Carefully Collated Papers.” The whole 9½-hour experience will be aired live on Denton’s 92.9 KUZU at 8:55 a.m. on Thursday, Nov. 14, as the culminating event of Persoff’s yearlong project.
The presentation is being brought to Denton’s airwaves thanks in part to the host of KUZU’s bimonthly radio program Woods, Martin Iles. The radio host says he’s been a fan of Persoff’s work over the past decade, including the website Comics With Problems and his contributions to the zine-turned-website, Boing Boing, where The Bureau was showcased in a piecemeal fashion. Iles calls Persoff a "rule breaker" who’s geared toward challenging norms, with an oeuvre that more than backs up that statement.
“I was pretty confident that the KUZU board would appreciate the irreverence of The Bureau, and the idea of playing a 9½-hour experimental audio piece paired with a comic that you look at while listening,” Iles says. “Whatever challenges there are in execution are far outweighed by the idea of doing it. That’s why I love KUZU and the people involved. Not boring.”
At the onset of this postmodern epic, our hero arrives at work, punches the time clock and immediately begins daydreaming about life without a job before some asshole barges in on the moment to discuss invoices — and that’s just the first 12 minutes.
“It’s kind of meant to be one of the more beautiful moments of the album, and it sort of dissolves and immediately it segues into the most abrasive track of the whole record,” Persoff says of The Bureau’s opening minutes. “Having a job is sort of participating in madness with a group throughout a day. Some of those things are so silly, and they’re so sort of normalized by just the whole group doing it.”
As such, however, it’d be fair to say that The Bureau often stretches the limits of the phrase “enjoyable listening” for the sake of sticking to the contours of the day, tonally and sonically. And it should be said that Persoff doesn’t necessarily expect listeners to take in the whole day at once. It’s more of toy — one part alternative reality game, and one part office kaleidoscope.
“It’s certainly available as a nine-hour thing,” Persoff says of the work. “I think it’s more about the power of an idea and having control over your own perspective and how you perceive a day. A lot of times we need these really weird, jarring moments to say, ‘If I only had one more day in my life, what would I do with it?’ … I don’t think we spend our time very consciously.”