Tagged: conceptual

The Whole World Is An Enigma

Christopher Chaplin is an English composer who formed a connection with Hans-Joachim Roedelius, dating from the time when he did a live performance of his work in Austria. The pair seem to have enjoyed a number of collaborations since, starting with an appearance on the Late Junction radio show, and then the release of the King Of Hearts album in 2012. John Norman noted that release here, finding it a somewhat hit-or-miss experience, but when it did succeed the music impressed with its “secret mutterings of the insides of things” and strange juxtapositions of sonic elements. Today we have before us Je Suis Le Ténébreux (FABRIQUE RECORDS FAB58CD), a new Chaplin composition for the Viennese label Fabrique Records. That’s him on the cover looking like a strange reverse-Messiah figure, a glint of madness in his wide-eyed glare. Once again contributions are featured from the veteran Cluster-Harmonia genius, who adds piano and synths, and his voice. There’s also spoken word and narration from Christine Roedelius, the French soprano-actress Judith Chemla, and the poetess Claudia Schumann, who also supplies texts that are central to the theme of Je Suis Le Ténébreux.

As to this theme, it’s based on the so-called “Enigma of Bologna”, an epitaph written in Latin on a Roman tombstone, sometimes known as The Aelia-Laelia-Crispis Inscription. The tombstone was discovered in the 16th century (the album erroneously claims it was written in the 16th century), and since then has grown into something of a puzzle; some 18 lines of text packed with paradox and contradictions, alluding to a figure that’s neither male nor female, nor hermaphrodite. By the late 17th century, anguished scholars had already come up with 43 different solutions to the riddle, claiming variously it was a description of “the rain, the soul, Niobe, Lot’s wife, or a child promised in marriage that died before its birth.” Another view said it described an animal (a mule or donkey) rather than a human being. Later interpretations have found elements of alchemy, psychology, spiritualism and philosophy buried within this compacted text; Jung wrote about the Enigma, and so did the French writer Gerard de Nerval 1, in two tales Pandora and Le Comte de Saint-Germain; de Nerval is further referenced (however briefly) by Claudia Schumann’s poetry on this album.

As befits this “enigmatic” theme, Chaplin’s record is music that’s shrouded in darkness and layers of hinted meaning, and vague allusions scattered throughout the texts which are sung, spoken, whispered, or otherwise handed over to the listener in packages that themselves must be unwrapped and decoded. English translations of Latin and German are provided in the booklet (whose pages, by the way, are all black backgrounds) to help with the decoding process, but it’s likely that Chaplin wishes to protect the mystery of this strange riddle. The music, a studio-bound assemblage of synths and pianos, is mostly a sort of complex and progressive electronic drone with highly sinister connotations, but carefully structured to avoid any sort of conventional musical resolution. Each piece just continues to march grimly through a void, shrouded by veils of unknown blackness, with no clear end or destination in sight. Yet there’s still a sense of drama; in places, as though we’re hearing a stripped-down version of a Purcell opera, recast for post-modern times with a huge dose of irony and stripped of all context.

“Not much can be said about the enigma, other than it holds a certain fascination”, writes Chaplin in his sleeve note. I wondered why I found myself slightly disappointed with this apparent blithe indifference of his. Perhaps I’d be happier if he showed the same sort of feverish obsession with his text as those early scholars who devised 43 different interpretations of it. At times Claudia Schumann seems more engaged with meaning than he is, especially on the final track ‘The Enigma (Reprise)’, where the solemn intonations of both the Roedeliuses add a certain weight to the texts. There’s also much to be said for the other Roedelius contributor, Rosa Roedelius, who supplied the art pieces which are photographed on the covers. They resemble little raviolis of various size, and are no doubt intended as puns on the female genitalia. If The Enigma Of Bologna does indeed contain themes of sexual ambiguity, Rosa’s sculptures seem to have hit the target first time, and more effectively than Chaplin’s cautious, measured treading. Even so, this is an unusual item which you may wish to investigate. From 20 September 2016; also available as a double LP.

  1. The French romanticist who took lobsters for a walk.

The Question

A very dense and opaque piece of experimentation indeed is The Process (EVERY CONTACT LEAVES A TRACE), a record which arrives with next to nothing in terms of contextual information. I’ve got the word “mother” stamped on the card covers, an insert of a family snapshot, and the titles printed on clear acetate. It’s a collaboration between two Chicago artists, the Afro-American poet Marvin Tate, and the sound artist Joseph Clayton Mills. Actually even labels such as “poet” and “sound artist” don’t really do them any favours, as they’re both creators with many outlets – Mills also does sound installations, paintings, and is a writer; indeed some of his compositions are text-centric in nature, so he mixes things up. Tate is a sculptor, painter, maker of objects; composer of music and performer in a funk band called D-Settlement; and a performance artist. They’re pretty much overflowing with ideas. Even a glimpse at their respective websites will overload the reader with a wealth of interesting and allusive ideas. I suppose we could broadly characterise Marvin Tate as a restless and agitational creator, a declaimer of straightforward poems and texts that are not exactly confrontational, but neither are they designed to let society off the hook very easily. His visual art is building on the turf carved out by Jean-Michel Basquiat, yet also harking back to the Chicago imagists and reclaiming elements of so-called “ethnic” art into a space where he can articulate its meanings on his own terms. As for Mills, he’s composed and released a number of pieces in the trio Haptic with Steven Hess and Adam Sonderberg, one of which (Scilens) we noted in 2012.

I would make much the same sort of observation as I did then, when I was baffled by the music’s “inscrutability”. The Process does nothing to explain itself. It’s an inspired and free-wheeling mix of music, sound art, spoken word and white noise like off-tune TV sets or broken radios, with added sound effects, field recordings, and probably even more elements than I can conveniently fit in my shopping cart just now. If there’s a narrative at work here, or even a basic plan, it’s hard to fathom out; there may be titles to the nine sections of the work – assuming it is a complete work split into nine episodic parts – but they don’t reveal a great deal. Themes bubble to the surface, however, and The Process may have something to do with memory, a search for identity, an understanding of the process of artistic creation itself. If these are indeed themes, they’re posed as questions rather than set out didactically as blocks of information, and it’s incumbent on the listener to pay attention and start to do some research / thinking of their own. Fragments of information leak through, and these we must use to piece together a map. It’s probably not inept to use Marvin Tate’s poems – and other texts, which seem more like informal documentary records of him engaging in a conversation, or simply rambling to himself – as incomplete signposts to an unfamiliar city.

I am certain there are some deep messages embedded in this lumpy and confusing fabric, if I could only dig them out. Even if you have no interest in searching for buried treasure or decoding crossword clues, then The Process still remains a fascinating listen, by turns beautiful, haunting, and abrasive, and it’s a sound-art journey you’ll want to take more than once. From 29th September 2016.

Playing Golf (With My Flesh Crawling)

On The Masters (EVERY CONTACT LEAVES A TRACE), the sound artist Henry Collins has evidently taken BBC broadcast recordings of a golf game, and edited out all the audio commentary originally provided by such loquacious types as Andrew Cotter, Dan Walker, Peter Alliss, et al. What remains on Collins’ CD is almost nothing – naught but the gentle sound of golf strokes and balls being hit for long distances, occasionally interrupted by unobtrusive bird song in the background. Regular readers may recall that Henry Collins performed a similar “remove all the dialogue” trick on the Sound Of Music soundtrack, resulting in the puzzling and blank record Music Of Sound for this same label, which we noted in 2014. At least on that occasion he left us some interesting sound effects to enjoy. The Masters, taken from the 78th Masters Tournament (if that means anything to you), has very little going on the engage the curious listener. We could treat it as sort of “found” field recording, but it’s too banal in subject matter for that. The conceptual trick appears to be the central meaning of this work.

One stumbling block I personally have is that I hate the game of golf, and everything about it strikes me as absurd and pointless, its players a clutch of smug bourgeois men in preposterous outfits and bad jumpers from the Pringle catalogue; even the sound of the golf strokes here is enough to get my hackles up and remind me of the confines of the class-ridden, snobbish country that is the UK. On the other hand, perhaps I can take some comfort in the idea that said bourgeois men are conspicuously missing from this recorded artefact, bad jumpers and all, and we’re free to inhabit a stretch of greensward untroubled by their ludicrous antics. But we’re not quite free, as the presence of balls a-flying is a constant distraction as we wander about, whooshing through the air like unwanted giant insects. It’s as though the game was continuing, in some strange schematic form, dotted lines representing the path of the golf balls propelled by an unknown agency. The concept is further manifested by the cover design, featuring spherical indentations printed in white on one side and black on the other. Rather thin content overall; probably more fun to read about than to listen to. From 29 September 2016.

Secrets Of The Sun

One of three items received from the label Every Contact Leaves A Trace…the odd English micro-label from whom we last heard in 2014, specialising in quite marginal sound art with a somewhat conceptual dimension…they also continue to adhere to their weird packaging strategy of issuing CDRs in cardboard sandwiches held together with bulldog clips.

Helen White is an artist in residence at The Watershed gallery in Bristol, specifically operating in the “Pervasive Media Studio”. Her work there is something to do with the environment, and she’s interested in working with data collection to make sound. On Solar Wind Chime, the CDR we have in front of us, there are three manifestations of her experiments with satellite data. What it comes down to is that we’re hearing “energy being released by the sun”, which I naively assume is being emitted and captured as some form of radio signal (my knowledge of astro-physics is less than zero). If you went to the Watershed, you might be able to see Helen making a visual representation from the same data sources. Come to think of it, the insert showing a network of overlapping and intersecting purple lines might be just that. I see from the web page that her work received coverage from Physics World and The Weather Channel.

We could note that Disinformation / Joe Banks was doing similar things in 1996, though I hasten to add I don’t think art should be seen as a “competition” to be the first artist to use a particular method or technique. That line of thought tends to see conceptual art and sound art (and fine art) as little more than a series of “gimmicks”, where success depends on being the first – and the only – person to use such a gimmick. What interests me in this instance is how similar source data can, in different hands, create two totally distinct forms of sound art. Disinformation’s Stargate record, which presented radio emissions from the sun and noise storms associated with sunspot activity, sounds completely different to Helen White’s more soothing Solar Wind Chime. Stargate was a record of “the seashore effect” as some have called it, a somewhat threatening roaring sound, which to my demented imagination suggested the terrifying power of solar flares. Solar Wind Chime is, by contrast, a rather benign if slightly strange droning tone. Through Helen White’s vision, the sun is certainly a smiling entity shedding its warm rays upon the earth, much like the sun as drawn in a book of Renaissance science.

Solar Wind Chime is also surprisingly unengaging as a listening experience. I applaud the method: White has noted the recent growth in scientific datasets and their availability, and set herself the task of “giving form to an aesthetically bereft mass of data”. Presumably this means that the digital data by itself was not something that could really be considered art, and she found ways to reprocess it into an aesthetically pleasing shape. One method has been the processing of real-time data from the satellite into this droning sound. It comes close to being music. But it’s difficult to find much of interest in this unvarying long tone; it does change, but not in very interesting ways, and the basic inertness of the source material keeps showing through. Me, I like more sublimation, not just process for its own sake. A more successful instance of what I’m talking about is Yird Muin Starn, the 2013 record by Kaffe Matthews and Mandy McIntosh. Part of this work used data derived from star constellations to reprocess field recordings made in the Galloway Forest, and the results were far more imaginative and aesthetically pleasing. However, this is still a worthwhile and interesting experiment, and it’s nice to have these snapshots of the work published in CD form. From 29th September 2016.

Webcor, Webcor

Very good and absorbing process-art piece from Stephen Cornford and Ben Gwilliam. It’s called On Taking Things Apart (WINDS MEASURE RECORDINGS wm46). Evidently the thing they took apart was an old tape recorder, a Grundig TK5, a piece of kit which my sources indicate was manufactured in the mid-1950s. The release provides a printed list of their actions, a recipe if you will, not far apart from a set of instructions that might have been used by conceptual artists or modern composers in the 1960s. The first step was to post the tape machine to another country, then dismantle it, and do things with the separate components. If you read your way through this list you’ll see the actions start out as quite productive and experimental, using the pieces to make noise, but gradually the plan becomes more destructive, and at the end of it the poor machine has its springs heated up, all its components crushed, and finally buried in the ground. Yipes! A prisoner in a medieval torture chamber would have received kinder treatment.

Cornford and Gwilliam manage to create a hefty wodge of interesting sound from their activities. It’s far from being one of the ultra-quiet releases we used to associate with this excellent experimental small label from America. In places On Taking Things Apart does become quite agitated and noisy. I like the variety of their approaches, for instance using the fixing plate of the machine as a broadcast antenna, and using the chassis to generate feedback. One’s natural inclination, possibly, might have been to fixate on the motor action of the tape recorder and thereby create 19 variations on a scrapey, grindey noise (step forward A-F Jacques). But our plucky team have been extremely imaginative in how to repurpose this Grundig. It’s also been a very exhaustive, comprehensive piece of work; the deliberation and concentration is evident on the sounds that have been published. Incidentally I note they also state “all recorded to tape”, which might mean they used old-fashioned magnetic tape for this work rather than digital recording, a decision which would be entirely in keeping with the project, giving it a satisfying conceptual wholeness.

I see Stephen Cornford is a UK sculptor and installation artist and runs the Consumer Waste label, a project which sounds worthy of attention, and may likewise involve an emphasis on recycling. We did note a single of his many years ago, Two Works For Turntables released in 2009. We also heard Ben Gwilliam on a record with Jason Zeh around 2011, which exhibited a similar concern with the behaviour of separate components of cassette tapes and their players. Paul Morgan has also referred to “Gwilliam’s mastery of frequency manipulation” in the live situation. This release is a limited edition in a letterpress cover. From 14 September 2016.

Murder at the Disco

Here’s the latest sound missive from Rinus Van Alebeek. Although he regularly sends us things from his Staaltape label, we haven’t heard a solo tape by this fellow since January 2016. That item was quite obscure and I am still not sure what its title was, although it involved a collaging from his tape collection. The same observation might apply to the current cassette. The reason I think this is because of the note appended to the inside of the wrapper, stating “all sounds and words that are used can be found on the tapes that are part of my collection”, although this isn’t exactly a lucid or revealing statement in terms of what it indicates. It would be like me saying you can find the answer to the meaning of life on a page in a book in my library. It may well be true, but which page?

The A side is called Don’t Talk At The Disco, a 2014 composition which was put together in Italy. It apparently encloses six separate suites, with subtitles such as ‘Helmets and Gasmasks’ and ‘A romantic’s vision on death and the afterlife’. I’ve enjoyed this side enormously. It seems to be Rinus doing what he does best, assembling sounds that on the surface appear to be fitted together with a random logic. Yet the connections are there, and seem to make some kind of subconscious sense, even though I frankly own I have no idea what Don’t Talk At The Disco might be about. It proceeds at a leisurely pace, sometimes causing the listener to feel like one is floating about the grass on a sunlit day. A pleasant dream state ensues. Some identifiable sounds, some murmured speech, some intelligible speech, and sounds which are hard to name. Some piano music, near the start, injecting a sense of nostalgia. Tape manipulation, wrong-speeding, spooling sounds. Church bells, the sounds of the sea. A lot of silent passages. No outright loud noise; Rinus isn’t out to shock or confuse anyone with alarming juxtapositions.

This is a highly successful instance of audio collage which shows how it’s possible to bring out connections, meanings, allusions, and resonances in a very subtle manner, yet causing quite a powerful effect on the listener. Even feeling mystified, as I do, is surely a legitimate response. I’m always impressed how Van Alebeek achieves this strong result by such imperceptible means. I have an image of him lifting up delicate tape segments with tweezers, assembling them with the care of an entomologist handling dead insects.

“You might remember finding Don’t Talk At The Disco in your postbox”, remarks Rinus in his letter. “That was a release heavy with time-consuming collage artwork.” I don’t recall receiving anything like this in the mail, but he calculates that the price tag for each unique copy ought to have been 253 Euros (about £215 based on today’s rate), given the amount of effort he put into them. Realising he’d never recoup that money, he gave all the copies away instead. I mention this as another cryptical sideline on today’s item, hoping it might shed some light on this artist’s attitude to his work. I wish more creators would take a leaf from his book; so many are career-minded, have their eye on a main chance, or are simply too “grabby”.

While Rinus has alluded to pop music in previous releases – for instance The Beach Boys, Brian Wilson, and Buddy Holly – I can’t find any such themes on Don’t Talk At The Disco, in spite of the title promising some sort of observation on the music realised during that fascinating period that peaked around 1978. The B-side does contains flashes and fragments of disco music, however, even though it might not be part of the same theme as the A side. Entitled Elvis, Ein Volk it seems to be a very unusual meditation on the Elvis Presley phenomenon as refracted through the associative method of Van Alebeek tape assembly. It was created two years after the A side, and realised in The Netherlands, yet it has many of the same surface effects – including the sad and slow acoustic piano music, the sounds of the sea, the murmuring speech, and the squealing tape manipulation sounds. To some degree it sets up a “correspondence” with the A side, through throwing out these similar noises and themes as a kind of call-out. There are also some snippets of dialogue, spoken in drawling American accents, by pundits reflecting on the cultural importance of Elvis, though these utterances feel quite isolated in the sea of sound-art, odd field recordings, and general ambience of mystery that surrounds them.

If submitted to a conventional music radio station as a documentary collage on Elvis, this release might not be accepted by the editorial board with open arms. However, I like to imagine that (as ever) Van Alebeek has somehow gotten closer to a more profound “truth” about popular music than a million banal documentaries on the subject that begin and end with a visit to Graceland. What that truth may be, however, I’m unable to articulate for you. Can Van Alebeek’s texts help? All he will comment on this piece is that it’s “A sad tale of political power struggles, diagrams, and road accidents”, which is a highly puzzling remark. 1 From 25th August 2016.

  1. Of course, historical scholars will be quick to point out that “Ein Volk” is the start of one of Adolf Hitler’s notorious slogans – Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Fuehrer. But I think this is just a small detail; there’s no substantial evidence here that Rinus is drawing parallels between pop music culture and totalitarianism, in say the rather heavy-handed manner of The Third Reich N Roll.

Attack and Decay

Some lovely organ music played on a church organ on the record Organ Safari Lituanica (INTONEMA int019). The release is credited to Arturas Bumšteinas, the excellent Lithuanian composer and conceptualist, although the actual organ improvisations are played by Gailė Griciūtė. From what I can make out, the concept is down to Arturas Bumšteinas…it’s part of a much bigger project which he calls Organ Archipelago. Five radio programmes were commissioned by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation; these broadcasts make use of an archive of organ recordings which Bumšteinas has previously gathered from Lithuanian towns and villages, and then extended the music into improvisation, and radio drama. The improvisation part is supplied by five musicians from across the globe – Africa, Japan, and Russia are all represented. There’s also some fragmented story-telling going on, using voice actors, and some of it seems to be based on a book by Arthur Russell Wallace. So many layers. This is what we’ve come to expect of Arturas Bumšteinas…he’s a right one for mixing up many cultural sources of information into a dense wodge of conceptual spaghetti, and expecting the audience to keep up with him as they untangle the strands. Or perhaps he’d rather liken it to baking a layer cake, and we have to roll up and cut ourselves a slice, evincing surprise as each new stratum of jam and cream is exposed to our hungry eyes.

The above is not fully represented on Organ Safari Lituanica however, and I just added all that in to give you some context. For this record, Arturas Bumšteinas continues to claim “composition” as a credit, but as noted all the music is actually played by Gailė Griciūtė. I suppose it’s really a Gailė Griciūtė album, but maybe we’re entering into a John Cage / David Tudor area of similar tension, and I don’t wish to cause trouble. Gailė Griciūtė is a talented composer, visual artist and conceptualist in her own right. I’m not here to review her music to day, but if you visit her website the first thing you see is an old upright piano against a decaying plaster wall. Right on, girl! I think that image speaks volumes about her musical plan. To the left of that image you see a picture of the woman herself, and the poise and dignity with which she comports herself throughout life is evident. Some of her exhibits, as described on other pages, are highly intriguing multi-media installation pieces, involving sculpture, projections, live performances and pre-records…and seem to be based on interesting scientific ideas and observations. For instance: “Linger On Your Pale Blue Eyes explores the quest for freedom of a scientist through observing the rhizomatic unfolding of her inner monologue.” Not often we get a Lou Reed lyric and rhizomatic unfoldings together in the same sentence.

Judging by her performances here, evidently she’s also a great keyboard player and improviser, and I could happily listen to this strange curlicued music all day, if required. Really digging the weird mixed chords and unexpected explorations of melody lines. Invention just seems to pour out of her. Excellent stuff.

I’m still unsure where the Organ Archipelago concept comes in to all this. Neither can I interpret the odd cover image, which shows a detail of a hand whose fingers are picking at a piece of decayed wood. Perhaps this summarises (or even documents) what was found when they did the tour of the Lithuanian churches. Maybe all the organs are decaying. That would make a good observation about the state of the world today. Our organs are atrophying, like our brains and our hearts. From August 2016.

The Payoff

Pierre-Yves Martel

Estinto is an interesting title for this disc, as it means “extinct” or “(a debt) paid off”. However, what or whom Pierre-Yves Martel is paying off with this single 54 minute piece of music is not acknowledged. Treble viol and harmonica played simultaneously by Monsieur Martel, in a room, while sitting on a chair, probably; whilst being recorded by Ross Murray. It’s kind of like a pulsing sub-Wandelweiser silence-followed-by-signal-followed-by-silence piece; so if you imagine a guy sat there on his chair playing harmonica and treble viol simultaneously for 54 minutes. More like durational performance art, which arguably you might prefer to experience on dvd.

If you look at his website he is presenting himself more as an artist – it’s that ubiquitous term: “sound artist”, rather than “musician” although he does say that “he also works outside of instrumental music altogether, using a variety of objects rife with new sonic possibilities, from contact-mics and speakers to motors, wheels, surfaces and textures.” Like the label, he is Canadian; from Montréal I believe? The label is based not far away, in Hull, Québec. It is a piece of work that has a little trouble with its own existence outside of the artist’s head… I hesitate to use the word “conceptual” because there isn’t really much of a concept here. Clearly he’s playing with silence – the idea of using silence as a compositional tool which as I said before, is an idea I think he may have seen used by members of the Wandelweiser collective – although its equally possible that he came to this way of working in his own logical or logistical process of development – it is interesting to me (for reasons that admittedly have nothing to do with this disc before me) that Wandelweiser have gained or encouraged a reputation for using silence or quietness when quite a lot of their output is undeniably maximalist; Michael Pisaro’s A Wave And Waves for example – you couldn’t get much more maximalist than that, or at least this is the Greg Stuart rendering of it that I’m thinking of.

Pierre-Yves Martel’s work here is aimless, lacks the thrust of development and is somewhat repetitive. There are only two major changes that happen; although as an architectural tool compositionally this strategy works well. Overall, perhaps it could occupy the function of background music for an art gallery, say, were it not for the fact that sonically, it is so strident. This is a challenging piece. Do I applaud the artist’s decision to produce this piece of work? Yes. Yes, I do. Will I listen to it again at home for pleasure? I’ll let you know.

Sad Music for the End of the World

The fourth in a related series of releases from the UK small label A Year In The Country is The Quietened Bunker (Dawn Edition), which is labelled Audiological Transmission Artifact #4. As ever, it’s a showcase for contemporary electronic and ambient music. If you’ve followed the others in this AYITC series, you’ll understand these compilations are themed on notions about England and its forgotten, sometimes obscure, history; one previous release looked at the vanishing villages of the countryside, while another proposed a fanciful idea about schisms in the fabric of time, and suggested that 1973 was the year when everything went wrong in Albion. The Quietened Bunker is about military installations.

If pursuing this historical subject, it would be feasible to survey what’s left of coastal defence forts, pillboxes and other buildings from WWII, but our compilers are interested in the Cold War, and the existence of now-abandoned bunkers which were originally built in case of a nuclear attack. The compilers explain this in the insert, and they’ve also done their research into the network of underground monitoring posts, which were needed to report on such attacks; from here, they muse on the possibility of a populace living under the threat of “annihilation”, make a few mildly subversive remarks about the government and the power base that caused this catastrophe to happen, and conclude that “now it can all seem like a dream from another world”.

AYITC aren’t really troubled by hard factual data, and decline to cite dates, grid references, or even specific places in the countryside where we might find such bunkers (as Joe Banks / Disinformation might have done in the 1990s); the project is simply a cue for vague and rather banal sentiments, expressed in allusive texts and ambiguous music. I realise I make this same mean-minded quibble every time when I get these records. Even so, as a listen, The Quietened Bunker is strangely satisfying; each of the nine pieces creates a definite mood or atmosphere, and sustains it through subtle changes. Some are alarmist and paranoid in tone, some are wistful and melancholic, some are so wispy and washed-out you can barely discern their grey, fading tones. Only ‘Crush Depth’ by Unknown Heretic comes close to a watered-down form of industrial music that might seem appropriate for a record about concrete bunkers and atom bombs. The programming is very good, creating a sequence of music that “feels” right, suggesting some sort of narrative progress towards a dismal nuclear winter, and signposting several moving elegiac farewells along the way.

Featured on the comp. are such previous favourites as Polypores, Keith Seatman, Time Attendant and David Colohan, and others beside. Sad music for the end of the world, imaginary soundtracks – though probably more suitable for The Bed Sitting Room (1969) than for Threads by Barry Hines (1984). From 12 July 2016.

Beethoven: A Sonic Translation

Sébastien Roux

Quatuor is an immensely satisfying 1 and skilfully woven four movement electroacoustic suite, which yields fresh sound perspectives and connections with each subsequent listening.

How form is developed and communicated is a problem confronting any composer of electronic or electro-acoustic music. Roux has fashioned an interesting developmental method of his own, which he terms ‘sonic translation’, using pre-existing works (visual, musical or literary), as ‘scores’ for new musical pieces. This method has not only generated Quatuor, but also a piece (Inevitable Music no.1) based on Sol LeWitt’s ‘Wall Drawing no. 260’. LeWitt’s notion that ‘the idea becomes a machine that makes the art’, seems foundational to Roux’s own ‘sonic translations’, and has much in common with the methods of ‘process music’.

In Quatuor Roux has set himself overarching formal or process constrains; firstly, all of the material is drawn from Beethoven’s String Quartet No 10 in Eb Major, secondly, the structure of Quatuor follows that of the original string quartet (sonata form, rondo, scherzo, variations). Roux asked fellow composer, Mathieu Bonilla to transcribe nineteen short fragments of the quartet for an ensemble of flute, clarinet, french horn and percussion. These recordings are the material that Roux then transformed electronically into Quatuor, and Roux’s method of working locates the work within the field of musique concrète. The final overt constraints were that the transcribed fragments from the quartet should appear in the corresponding movements of Quatuor (and in the same position), and that the proportions of each part of each movement should be the same.

Whether similar ‘micro’ specifications apply to the electronic transformations that Roux applies to his acoustic material is less clear, but, on the evidence of his planning for Inevitable Music No.1, it’s certainly possible. I, for one, would love to know how – and through what – he processes his material. It’s one of my small bugbears with electronic / electroacoustic works; I can’t always work out or ‘hear’ what’s creating a sound!

Roux has placed sufficient references and signifiers around the artwork itself to lead us to the expectation that Quatuor will be a serious work of art music, even before a note of music has been heard. Such signifiers include the use both of the Beethoven quartet as ‘material’ and in his adoption of the original quartet’s Italian movement names for his own work, and also the use of the ‘traditional’ technique of transcription whereby the set of forty variations of nineteen fragments becomes, for a while, the most important element of the work; a score – an interpretable set of instructions 2 by a composer to performers (that foundational necessity of the European art music tradition).

By subtly weaving together the transcriptional and the transformational, Roux has found a method of deploying all of the elements of ‘traditional’ music, albeit in artfully re-purposed ways. Glimpses of melody, metre and harmony linger like embers throughout the arc of Quatuor due to Roux’s subtle interpolation of traces of the original ‘real’ instrumental variations with their electronic transformations. Pitch, timbre, texture, dynamics and rhythm are equally present, and these elements Roux deploys with great skill and sensitivity to create an extraordinary, and often very beautiful, flow of dynamic, textural and rhythmic accords and contrasts.

If the work of Bernard Parmegiani or John Wall or Stockhausen’s early electronic works appeals to you will almost certainly find yourself greatly taken with Quatuor. Alternatively, if you are looking for a way into the acousmatic sound world, then I would recommend this album, wholeheartedly and unhesitatingly. I hadn’t come across Sébastien Roux before this review, but I’m very pleased indeed for the introduction.

  1. The fact that seventy or so minutes of sound can be accommodated on a CD seems mesmerising to some musicians and labels, so it is good to see Sébastien Roux resisting this temptation, and producing instead a concentrated focus on a single thirty-six-minute work.
  2. Interestingly, by publishing sets of detailed instructions for the Wall Drawing series, LeWitt left open the possibility that the set of instructions for the artwork was itself the work of art, just as a score is arguably the ‘real’ work of art in European art music. Roux, on the other hand, by choosing to leave at least part of the generational process opaque, points us more directly to the artwork itself.