Still Waters Run Deep

Catastrophe Point #9 & #10

Listening now to the atmospheric interludes on records such Neu!’s debut LP, I wonder how listeners might have responded to these back in 1972. Perhaps, I overestimate the novelty; perhaps they responded as indifferently as I do now, for so commonplace are such sounds that even on that venerated debut I usually skip or filter them out. Related conundrums arise with the present recording, which consists entirely of site-specific ambience remote, lengthy and industrial in impersonality, and which sounds almost too much at home on these speakers: dirty boots on the sofa and everything. The question that quickly arises is “what? More looming ambient soundscapes captured in dark, enclosed spaces?” First world problems don’t come any more serious than this.

The matter of how to render such recordings remarkable has been handled in numerous ways, among those known to me the Burroughs/Gysin cut-up method, which has been applied by Alan Bishop in his work with Sublime Frequencies and Sun City Girls; audio-realist Chris Watson and his impeccable mic selection, placement and editing, and a recent favourite of mine: Howlround’s The Ghosts of Bush, which applies a Radiophonic methodology to the splicing and sewing of the final recordings made in and of Bush House, former home to BBC World Service, to establish a sonic picture every bit as sepia as anything Leyland Kirby’s released.

The same creative quandary was foremost to Lethe’s sound recorder, Kuwayama Kiyoharu, as he set about setting to tape the sonic environments of a pair of derelict spaces in Montreal in June 2012. Kiyoharu derived the name ‘Lethe’ from one of the five rivers in Hades in Greek mythology; the waters of which produce amnesia in those who drink from them. In fact, the name itself connotes ‘oblivion’ and ‘concealment’. An appropriate moniker in this instance, for he found his forgotten spaces – a disused silo and an abandoned tunnel – to utter few characteristic sounds. Consequently, rather than apply any of the above techniques to the revelation of the hidden voices sought, Kiyoharu injected himself into the audio picture: tapping and banging on pipes, scraping metal surfaces, using the seemingly vast space of a disused silo as a rather loud, metallic playground. It sounds much like you’d expect: drones, clanging and clattering over a seeming distance, conjuring light-footed, corner-of eye wraiths engaging in enigmatic industry behind sealed surfaces, as alluded to in Thomas Ligotti’s ‘Red Tower’, rather than evoking images of a curious audio tourist hitting stuff. It works best in small servings, though ‘Catastrophe Point #9 Part 2’ (the second of three long pieces) offers the highest ‘event’ coverage, with a depth of field that really opens up on even a half-decent pair of speakers. Whereas ‘Catastrophe Point #10’ – recorded in a long, empty tunnel over three long hours, has little to offer beyond the echo of heavy winds, jangling keys and a perpetually rolling glass bottle.

I sympathise with Kiyoharu’s quandary, and wonder how he might have approached the project had an arts council commission not been an incentive. Still, while it’s all atmosphere and little action, in his attentive survey of dark spaces he nonetheless commands a good deal more of the former than so many other would-be urban archivists. Moreover, his personal challenge of divining the hidden voice of an otherwise mute construction is one he properly succeeds in. And it’s clear, that with ten of these ‘Catastrophe’ pieces under his belt now, along with a fair number of noise recordings over the past decade, Kiyoharu’s a bit of an old hand and knows when he’s found what he’s looking for. So, if an accurate description of the endless, black ennui of a disused storage space is what you’ve been clamouring for then riches are now yours for the mining.

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