Long, very long overdue notice for Noema (JASON KAHN EDITIONS 003), a double LP by the redoubtable Jason Kahn. Kahn is a frequent name in these pages, a prolific and very able musician active in the realms of improvisation, composition, noise, sound art, and the just plain uncategorisable, sometimes working solo or in collaboration with like-minded creators. The last time we received a double LP on his own label was the mighty Open Space record, noted here in 2014, and an astonishing composition using graphic scores it did be. Conversely, Noema is based on field recordings, but Kahn wants to stress that the 37 short pieces we hear across these two sides are “composed from source material” recorded by him. Right there we might want to earmark or footnote an important distinction. Some phonographers or field recording types are content to present the material (unadulterated) as some form of documentary statement on its own terms. Not Kahn, who on this occasion would perhaps join Chris Watson in declaring he would like the field recordings to be heard as compositions. 1
When I spun this I was also struck by (and rather grateful for) the extreme brevity of the tracks…you get about nine or ten short pieces per side, each of them a highly compressed statement, which usually starts and ends on a high note of excitement or aural interest. Again, this brevity represents a departure from one of the norms of phonography; I can point you to instances where nothing less than 45 or 60 minutes of a single continuous recording can satisfy the creator’s thirst for “authenticity” when trying to document or represent a certain locale or environment. Surely there are other ways to gather the truth than by simply leaving the tape running. Kahn has a gift for encapsulating that same essence in very brief snapshots. As I listened further, it was clear a lot of pieces have internal edits too; a single piece may be composed of micro-seconds of source material, spliced together for maximum effect. I’m won over so far; concision always scores highly with this listener.
The source material was gathered in Kyoto and environs when Kahn was on a family trip in 2012. It took him three months. Every piece is extensively annotated in the insert; it might take you longer to read each descriptive (and vivid) paragraph of text to listen to its accompanying recording. The LP starts to resemble a musical diary. Some of it is about personal memories (family memories) which may not mean much to you or I. But Kahn, Proust-like (the admission is made in his own notes) is determined to make a strong effort to convince us of their worth. By evoking precise details in word and sound, tiny episodes become fraught with deeper meaning. This is one way that he addresses one of the major themes of the work, “the idea of memory”.
He’s also doing the slightly more mundane task of “exploring social space through everyday sound”, and the temple bells, street sounds, markets, shops and people he apparently knows so well are faithfully represented. They also sound decidedly weird in places. For instance, there are natural echoes or repeats (unless these have been added post-processing) which sound like stuck CDs. Taken out of context, many snapshots accrue a patina of weirdness in short order. I am reminded of the intensely strange cassette recordings of Aki Onda, although Onda is going out of his way to amaze the listener and alert us to the deeply bizarre state of the world (and our perceptions of it). Kahn’s approach is gentler, notched down two or three points on the what-is-it meter.
The last theme passing through Kahn’s mind is to do with the term Noema itself, apparently a term used in “philosophical discourse to describe the object of thought”. To get any further with this, I suppose I’d have to perform a deep-dive into the works of Edmund Husserl, and might not emerge any the wiser, but it is another indicator of the seriousness of Kahn’s intent; and since he’s never out to baffle the listener with high-flown conceptual ideas, a full understanding of Noema is not a requirement to our enjoyment of this fine record. 250 copies were made, in silkscreened card covers. From 11 December 2014.
- We might want to note Songs For Nicolas Ross, the 2003 record where Kahn presented field recordings made from his own transatlantic flights; drones of jet engines, mostly, interrupted by short snippets of odd music and voices. ↩