Tagged: minimal

Bells Never End

Andreas Usenbenz
Bells Breath
GERMANY KLANGGOLD KG021 LP (2017)

Though frequently indistinguishable from one another, drone and ambient recordings are often categorised in terms of tonality and resultant emotionality; ‘dark’, ‘blissful’, ‘atonal’ and so on. Notable for its indifference towards such niceties, Andreas Usenbenz’s Bells Breath explicitly positions itself within the frame of early 1960s Minimal Art and its abandonment of pre-existing frames of reference in order to provide a fresh experience of art as one of ‘self-awareness on behalf of the audience’. I have to confess to being confused by this description, as it sounds uncomfortably similar to the kind of rationale employed to promote bible-based ecclesiastical dogma in pre-literate societies. Is it a sly dig at the religious pretensions of self-appointed ‘experts’ in the art industry?

Deeper theological mysteries might be discerned in the two sides of this clear vinyl artefact, which are inhabited by a Holy Trinity of pieces of a cold, metallic aspect akin to Jacob Kirkegaard’s otological ilk: endless glacial, hypnotic whorl set out to either sedate and stupefy listeners into catatonic passivity (a mission it manages in mere minutes on this chilly, grey day at least) or to convey them into a realm of supra-linguistic contemplation. Either effect is complemented by the record’s situation between four black-and-cloudy ‘art print’ panels that telegraph the music’s sublime and mundane effects.

As the title suggests, Usenbenz fashioned the piece for an installation from recordings of bells tolling in the Minster church in Ulm, Germany, to mark the 125th anniversary of the church spire’s completion. He follows a familiar process of layering the decelerated tonal recordings to achieve a deepening effect – though to these ears one more akin to an opiate of the masses than the gesture of heaven-bound ascension that might better befit the piece’s architectural paradigm. That said, the Minster church is a Lutheran one, so a protestant might conceivably argue that Usenbenz’s pensive radiations are better suited to a more critical theology than that provided by the pomp and drama of Catholicism. Either way, it makes for a captivating listen, however many such records one has listened to.

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.

Lock Up The House

There Was Hardly Anybody There (SPINA!REC SR026) is the new cassette from Ilia Belorukov, still the heavyweight and principal saviour of Russian underground music at time of writing, and it’s a highly grim affair. He’s forsaken his usual improvising saxophone mode and gone for these four interminable pieces of horrifyingly monotonous and empty music of greyness and bleakitude. I think the saxophone played a part somewhere, but attenuated minimalism is the order of the day. “The reductionist sound was changed by cold synth noises and monotonic rhythms,” is how the label press sell us on this captivating episode.

The opening cut ‘He Needs Someone To Wake Him Up’ is just about survivable – a thudding, ominous, sequenced synth pulse spells out doom, but at least there are urban recordings on top to make it seem like something relatable to real life; the dog barking is one nice effect. And there’s even a minimal tune (if you can find it) passing by for a few precious seconds. Thereafter, remainder of tape is a descent into empty town-dwelling horror, including ‘If Any Man Comes…’, an emptied-out and all-bleached track which might just be the “room sound” from an underground bunker or torture chamber, or other scene of terror; ‘Ask Around, Someone Will Know’ which proceeds on its way to the beat of a remorseless military drum with a low tone moaning underneath, punctuated by occasional howls of anguish; and ‘Someone Has To Lock Up The House’, which is all-but insufferable – distorted synth purrs and buzzes which somehow create a vista of sheer emptiness and an atmosphere of futility that is hard to shake off.

Throughout, Belorukov seems determined to refuse any kind of aesthetic pleasure that might be derived from electronic music, and also stops dead the possibility of any forward movement or progress in each piece. The resulting sensation of confinement is certainly well expressed by the images of concrete walls and staircases to nowhere which adorn this release, but it goes beyond the confinement of a single body; somehow it suggests an entire society, a culture, trapped in a frustrating political deadlock where absolutely nothing is possible. Are things really that bad in Russia? Evidently so! Take note, readers in the UK, this fate awaits all of us in the post-EU world, so beware. And take this tape as a forewarning of what it’s going to feel like. From 15th August 2016.

Nelson’s Column

Over one hour of heavy drone-grind can be yours for price of First (PICA DISK PICA038), the debut “proper” album by the young American musician Benjamin Nelson. Nelson comes from Boston, a city known for breeding wild and woolly types who would smash your face in for the price of a cold beer, and his ferocious escapades have spread consternation throughout that city. Small wonder he moved to Oslo, where he currently operates, since the Norwegians are capable of processing insane, lawless behaviour without letting it trouble their benign, Nordic composure (many of them are secretly chaos wizards in disguise). In Oslo, Nelson’s black brooding countenance must have come to the attention of Lasse Marhaug, a known magnet for freaks.

This is my way of explaining the release of first on Lasse’s Pica Disk label. It’s an intense marathon of remorseless, slow, torture…somewhat like enduring a disc-grinder applied to your skin in slow motion. Yowch. Stylistically, Nelson professes an interest in “reductionistic” techniques for electronic music, which is a fancy way of saying he’s doing as little as possible and peeling away any extraneous effects, leaving nothing but a coarse and ragged bone behind. In terms of his compositional approach, his starting point involves all sorts of discomforting ideas, including “perception of time”, “interference patterns”, and “hearing fatigue”. He’s also preoccupied by the idea of rooms, in this case meaning a room which you can’t bear to be inside, and wish to leave as soon as you possibly can.

In fine, Nelson is out to punish the listener six ways from Sunday…using every possible perceptual sense against you, turning your hearing against you, and inducing states of claustrophobia and mentalhealthupdate.com psychological anxiety. Hard to credit he cites Eliane Radigue as an influence, since her minimal drones are usually so benign and meditative, where Nelson is clearly out to destroy the human frame with his pathological ways, and won’t leave you any room to think while he’s doing it. Matter of fact he’s proud to abandon all of that airy-fairy “pseudo spirituality” as he calls it, and won’t let the listener off the hook with “passive listening”. No curling up on the big cushion for you…you must face the harsh truth of this “objective listening”, which resolutely refuses to become transcendent art in any shape or form, insisting on its own coarsely textured materiality.

Nelson is also a trained cellist and lent his bowing skills to Cold Pin, a composition by fellow New Englander Eli Keszler. Since discovering his taste for severe electronic drone, he self-released a few items on his own behalf, with foreboding titles such as Life In Blue and Gray and Heat Field Modulation For Pathetic String And Electronics…there was also a very limited cassette called Two Rooms For Four Tones. But these weighed in at 30 minutes. If you want to experience the full hour of death by abrasive noise, then First is the one for you. When I put it like that, it’s hard to resist, isn’t it? All black CD presented in a near-black cover, where only the author name and title are barely visibly printed in varnish. A drone to destroy all drones…buy it now and never smile again. From 9th August 2016.

Benjamin Nelson’s Soundcloud page

Four Walls Recorded

Here is the latest release from Crustacés Tapes, sent to us from Montreal – an art-tape label whose understated releases usually arrive with a printed card that’s been hand-decorated and the minimal text has been applied on with a John Bull printing set. Ryoko Akama is a new name to these pages, but she’s a well-respected composer and sound artist who runs a label of her own, Melange Edition, and also co-edits a publication with the foreboding name of Reductive Journal. She’s extremely minimal; proud of her “almost nothing” aesthetic, her plan is to create small sound events which I suppose are taking place on the fringes of human perception, often using small everyday objects (toys, balloons, bottles) to trigger them.

In the case of Hako To Oto (CRUSTACÉS #8), the small object in question is a music box. If you spin the tape, you might hear the occasional note issuing from said box within the confines of the “rural hotel room” in Portugal where it was recorded. Mostly though, you’ll hear a lot of silence, a lot of room tone…this is also part of Akama’s plan, creating “situations that magnify temporal/spatial experience with silence, time and space.” I found this release very testing, with nothing in the way of aesthetic enjoyment to reward one’s patience. But I expect I’m approaching it all wrong. It’s very clear she has virtually no interest in the music played by that music box, and wants the sound to break up the silence, or to punctuate the silence in some way. Maybe she intends this punctuation to take place on a grand scale, as though drawing a map of the hotel room, using sound as callipers.

In a way I have to admire Ryoko Akama’s determination to refuse conventional “beauty” in this work, and it obstinately declines to become anything more than just a tiny music box making occasional sounds in a silent room; no existentialist “meaning”, no transcendence through repetition, no deep listening, not even an appreciation of the silence, which Francisco López might once have insisted on. If any of this is near the mark, then it’s possible that Ryoko Akama is setting out a new benchmark for what minimalism might mean in the area of sound art. For more of her compositions, text-scores, installation pieces and so forth, see her site; she has performed Alvin Lucier’s Music on a Long Thin Wire, but that composition seems positively eventful compared to this. Arrived 29 July 2016.

From Marne To Seine

Pascal Battus is the French performer who is renowned for “playing” his rotating surfaces and his ability to squeeze sounds out of non-musical, inanimate objects – such as lumps of plastic, styrofoam, polystyrene and paper, all substances which, as it happens, appear on Pascal Battus / Dafne Vicente-Sandoval (POTLATCH P116), his new two-disc album which features a number of duets with Dafne Vicente-Sandoval playing her bassoon. On disc 1, Marne, the small objects have contact microphones to amplify them; on disc 2, Seine, it’s a set of all-acoustic performances. Battus unplugged. I suppose the first thing to note is that this is quite some way from “conventional” free improvisation, and in addition is rather a non-musical set. Dafne Vicente-Sandoval, who we have heard on the 2013 Remoto album on this same label, makes low purring and droning sounds on her bassoon, but is not here to play tunes or demonstrate her extended technique; what she provides is one more fabric in a sea of fabrics. A minimal sea. The textures of the waters, if we can put it like that, are both viscuous and airy. In fact we’re not even talking about water, and neither Battus or Vicente-Sandoval are in a boat. Got me?

So far you may wonder what’s the appeal of this rather empty-seeming process record…well, for one thing there’s this air of exploration to the work, lending the album a slightly mysterious quality; neither of the players seem quite sure where this is going to lead. I kind of like this. It isn’t to say they are hesitant or tentative, but neither are they trotting out their well-worn riffs and tics in anticipation of familiar results. It’s clear that Battus is adept with his rotary devices (whatever they may be), yet his rotations and scrapes produce sounds quite unlike the (very few) other players who use comparable techniques in this field. One of them is A-F Jacques, the other is Alfredo Costa Monteiro. In a blindfold test, you’d easily be able to identify the inert metallic and plasticy scrapes produced by Battus. Yet he’s not playing a musical instrument. That alone may tell us something.

Another observation we could make concerns the variety in the volumes and flavours of the sounds, now loud, now soft…but that’s a totally fatuous remark…at any rate neither party is intending to bore themselves or the listener, and of course they wish to explore and push for changes wherever possible, ever given such an evidently limited set-up.

Hmm, I seem to be pushing Dafne Vicente-Sandoval to a secondary role in all this, which is not the intention…it’s harder to identify her contributions, so a more careful listen is needed. One reason for that might be her own use of mics and a mixing desk, although that isn’t to say her sounds are being filtered. Wherever there’s a trace of human breathing, even if it’s just the patterns of breathing, she will be there. I hope so anyway. It’s beginning to feel this music is so alien that we can only understand it through abstractions, through reflections, models that are drawn on a piece of plexiglass. Dafne’s contributions are more evident and apparent on the Seine disk, where the all-acoustic setting is much more natural for her bassoon’s growls, purrs, and extended sighs. Sound-generation is still her main task, probably exerting a huge amount of discipline just to avoid making recognisable notes or patterns that would make a human being feel more at home. Here, the sounds of the two players interlock much more successfully, becoming a tight wafer of rigid drones. At this point the record is starting to become like sleep-walking, a mysterious trance state – both for the players, and for us. The ultra-slow pace and the gentle, gradual movements, add to this impression; the whole body swathed in bandages, stumbling awkwardly but silently towards its unknown destination.

I was almost ready to dismiss this item on first spin (it left me infuriated), but I think it was worth persevering. From 16 May 2016.

Sound In Space

Here’s a cassette tape / download release from A Guide To Saints, a new child label of Lawrence English’s Room 40 label. White On White (SNT016) is a mega-drone special by An Infinity Room, one of the projects / aliases of Julian Day. Day is not only a composer, but also a writer, artist, and broadcaster – who has appeared on BBC Radio 3 over here, but also has his own show on ABC Classic FM, called New Music Up Late. He’s interviewed a number of important and influential contemporary musicians.

On White On White, his debut recording under this project name, we have three pieces he recorded in Sydney, made using analogue synths which are yoked together to produce rich and sumptuous drones. I think the main thing is that the work is supposed to be played in a room space, and there’s a sizeable list of various art galleries and contemporary art spaces and music venues where An Infinity Room has manifested itself. “Rooms within rooms”, is how he summarises the aim of these long-form drones; it’s something to do with charging the air around the room with “highly active vibratory fields”. As with many such large-scale, real-world art pieces, it really needs to take place in a large physical space, and might not successfully translate onto CD, let alone a cassette, but the music is still pleasing to listen to even if it doesn’t manage to “power up” your room space. On the other hand, if played loud and long enough, the desired results may yet be achieved. At over 45 minutes, the first piece ‘Intercessions’, which occupies all of side one of the tape, stands a good chance of shifting your body into the zone.

Day achieves this through something to do with geometry and numbers. The drones are generated using “simple algorithmic patterns” to trigger the notes on the synthesizers, a process which is explained here in any depth, but may involve an understanding of arithmetic or number theory. Musical historians have long understood the proposals of Pythagoras in this context, and numbers have formed the basis for the entire Western system of tuning, at least until the 20th century when various conceptual mavericks (Tony Conrad, La Monte Young, Harry Partch) challenged it. Julian Day would be happy to achieve a “turbulent geometry” in the room when he plays back his long drones, a fanciful concept which to me suggests that even the rules of architecture are being undermined in some way.

These ideas are interesting, but White On White is far from an essential listen on today’s spin. Day doesn’t improve on the work of the American Minimalists, and indeed his rather tentative and twee-sounding chords with their highly synthetic sound might be seen as something of a backward step. None of the pieces develop at all during their long duration, apart from some very subtle changes in the patterns of notes, and I’m not feeling the sublimation of transcendence, still less the “deeply embodied psychoacoustic experience” promised by the press notes. From 27 June 2016.

Lightweight Distro

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Excellent set of minimal electronica-glitch computer music things from Phil Maguire, an English musician who has been quietly seeping out the odd cassette and Bandcamp release since 2014…this this (LINEAR OBSESSIONAL LOR 078) is one of his rare physical releases and in some ways an unusual item to find in the LOR catalogue. The album collects two “suites”, the five parts of the highly alien minimal buzz-drone of “This This”, and the even more dry, desolate and stark purrings of “th at ti me wh en”, which originally emanated in 2015 on his own This This Recordings imprint.

Maguire’s sound art is notable for originating mostly in the guts of a Raspberry Pi, which is the cheap circuit-board miniature computer that’s been creating quite a stir in the world of “digital” these days…a versatile piece of kit which even I can operate (I made mine into a media player) and features in a small range of dedicated computing magazines in the high street, full of articles suggesting DIY projects and teach-yourself-coding exercises. Maguire plays the Raspberry Pi to create wholly abstract and non-human noise, but somehow this this is not a harsh or hostile release, and it doesn’t take long at all for the listener to become acclimatised to its strange tones and start to enjoy or appreciate the textures and patterns inside this tiny world. It may feel sealed off, claustrophobic even, but it’s a good zone to visit for four or five minutes at a time.

The sleeve notes refer us back to the mid-1990s when, if you recall, “glitch” music was one of the big things in vogue. What I remember of it (and I do still enjoy the “genre”), a lot of glitch was associated with European labels and artistes, particularly in Vienna and Cologne. It may have had some lineage with Techno and dance music, and its production involved hacking into synths or (if feeling more radical) experimenting with sound files on a laptop. My verdict is that Maguire owes practically nothing to dance music, and has arrived at his extremely reduced and introverted abstractions by other means, perhaps more processed based methods. If I’m right about that, then Phil Maguire’s music might fit in on the Hideous Replica label in some ways, although I’m not sure if their aesthetic choices overlap exactly. As to the hardware and production aspects of glitch, evidently Phil Maguire has taken it further by bypassing musical instruments and keyboards altogether, and even surpassing laptop music, by working with such a compact and tiny instrument as the Raspberry Pi.

If we were going to start a cultural war of one-upmanship over this, it could be argued that Maguire’s exceptionally modest set-up makes the average laptop with its weighty OS, software bloat, and hundreds of MP3 files look like the excesses of a Rick Wakeman multi-keyboard array. Recommended…this release is a 50 copies limited press CDR with a Victorian photograph inserted, and a downloadable PDF of notes from the website. From 24 June 2016.

Bindweed

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The latest item from UK’s Hideous Replica label is a CD called Bind (HR12), a collaboration between Phil Julian and John Macedo. Arrived here 24 May 2016. The front cover looks like a degraded photograph of some rocky outcrop, overprinted with a subtle green tint, suggestive of algae or lichen growing on those rocks. In like manner, the very abstract sound art we hear on the disc could be read as a form of digital micro-growth, organisms thriving on an inhospitable surface.

The prolific and highly able Phil Julian last showed up here in 2015 on Between Landing, an understated crackly record he made with Ben Owen, but he’s rattled his circuits with some of the best names on the mountainsides of avant-noise, and in many diverse contexts. John Macedo is a London sound artist who has released a few cassettes and CDRs, some on his own Black Plume Editions label, and owns himself a devotee of analogue electronics, hand-made devices, and close-miked objects to create his sounds. The pair performed together at Cafe Oto in 2015, the results issued as a live tape by Wasted Capital Since 2013, a sub-label of Hideous Replica.

Bind contains zero information as to how it was produced, other than the vague remark “recorded at various locations in South East London 2013-16”. Although generally a quiet and unobtrusive set of crackling squiggles, it offers a “continuous” experience rather than a disjointed one, continually drawing the listener in to its small confines, as we fall further down the rabbit hole and are squeezed along many narrow passages. There’s an eerie fascination to the subdued drones, the unexpected squeals and ticks; we might be watching small unknown life-forms multiplying in ways we can’t understand.

While most of the 11 track titles are utilitarian and provide few clues, I do like the title ‘Another Burden on the National Grid’, which suggests something about the excessive power consumption of this duo (despite the minimal audible output). It also passes on a wider awareness of how they see their activities plugging into a whole network of dependencies and resources. Perhaps they see their errant alien signals as ghosts in the bloodstream, humming along the cables from pylon to pylon, until they reach their intended destination.

Boxing Match

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Has it Started?

Stefan Thut
Un/even And One
RUSSIA INTONEMA int018 CD (2016)

Swiss cellist Stefan Thut debuted his score Un/Even and One in St Petersburg in 2015 with a bevy of (somewhat more) local musicians who do a top job of sounding like they aren’t there. A short Youtube clip reveals much to this theory: for the 5-strong assembly, virtue is expressed in restraint from virtually any physical movement at all; just a young lady pushing a box around in the foreground while five instruments receive attention only spasmodically. I sense that the concept behind Thut’s scoring is one of meticulous refinement; that of distilling full bars and phrases into the merest of gestures, upon the blank canvas of near-silence. We should not be surprised to learn therefore of Thut’s affiliation with the Wandelweiser group, for whom such matters are a preoccupation.

Silence is, in fact, is one of two canvases common to Thut’s work. The other is ‘the box’. There’s one drawn on on the cover, with semi-explanatory text describing how Thut ‘joined the sounds from transcribed language played through the surface of a moving cardboard box’ to add to the enigma. As I understand it, the musicians’ fingers were prerecorded rubbing words into the surface of cardboard boxes, which recordings were played back during the performance, effectively encompassing the space in conceptual cardboard. The value of the symbol of the empty-box-as-pure-potential is appended by the actual movement of the box throughout the performance, its location at any given point conferring on each musician the right to play.

Over 40 minutes, silence intersperses with sounds barely identifiable: low-volume cello massage and rummaging beneath a layer of tape hiss; a mass of slippery shadows, exhaling emphysemically and pierced by sine waves in a dark basement that yawns with an ancient hunger. What the recording may lacks in terms of immediatism, it at least makes up for by stirring the imagination.

pisaro

Is It Over?

Michael Pisaro
Mind Is Moving IX
RUSSIA INTONEMA int017 CD (2015)

Something of a go-to for less voluble composers, guitarist Denis Sorokin facilitates a recent work by another of the Wandelweiser composers, Michael Pisaro, for the novel combination of electric guitar, radio, stones and whistling. No prizes for naming the other, unnamed ingredient as silence (or a recorded approximation of) in immodest volume. The piece was refined in performances over two years (2013 to 2015) before being deemed medically fit for recording, in which: you’ve guessed it, the instruments/sound sources are addressed only sporadically between far lengthier and more considered pauses.

That the hapless listener might come unstuck is occasioned by the fact that the performer’s means of interpretation and the composer’s means of evaluation are equally nebulous. At what point is the performance deemed ‘acceptable’ and how is the listener to know when the standard has (not) been met? When the form of the piece stands so readily to baffle, it is difficult to gauge and this much is neither divulged nor easily relatable. However, one senses such judgements rely at least partially on attaining the ‘Goldilocks’ balance between pause and play that ‘the listener’ stops wondering whether the piece is contiguous and/or continuing. Reaching this sweet spot presumably necessitated a good deal of fine tuning of both composition and intuition.

Thus, the recording takes its place in Pisaro’s ever-satisfying catalogue, alongside fine companions such as 2016’s Melody, Silence by Cristián Alvear. Along with the Stefan Thut CD, it also brings further respectability to the Russian label Intonema, based in St Petersburg, where many of these performances are recorded. Limited edition run, needless to say.