Tagged: sound art

The Masked Ball

On Before I Was Invisible (SIREN WIRE / WILD SILENCE), Welsh songstress and pianist/composer Susan Matthews teams up with the French visual artist, record collector and musician Rainier Lericolais. This multi-media fellow has hung his work in many French galleries and collaborated with a number of excellent musicians; it seems he’s released over a hundred records, with evocative titles such as Médiumnique Musique and My Song Exaggerated To Dilate Horizontally. He and Matthews have worked together before, for instance on When The Ghosts Are Within These Walls and Homothetique Ricochet, both small-run editions published in 2008 by Matthews on her own Siren Wire Records imprint. Lericolais lends his collage skills to create the cover artworks for this album. They’re a tad conventional, in thrall to Max Ernst, but that’s no bad thing – and they suit the mood of this delicate and enchanting release.

‘The Healer’s Art’ is an extended work of minimal piano trills, gently pulsating electronic tones, and a compelling mood so taut you hardly dare to breathe…occasionally interrupted by fragments of a song delivered in a hesitant voice, a plaintive whine from a woodwind instrument, and distorted found recordings that might be coming from the mouth of a mechanical doll made in the time of Benjamin Franklin. If the plan was to try and pin down the mysterious moods of a dream on tape, much as the surrealists aspired, then the collaboration can be counted a success. Some may scorn its fragile and introverted surface; not me. If you enjoy the somnambulist worlds of Joe Frawley, this eerie broadcast from the night gallery is the one for you.

‘Truth Past the Dare’ is likewise a series of long tones, presented in an unhurried and non-linear fashion…the musicians seem to bring in sounds or musical drones as needed, rather than adhere closely to a schematic plan. Intuition may be a key word here. A beautiful piece to be sure, even if at times it comes close to tipping over into romantic sentimentality.

‘Your Ghost Moves With Me’ is a piece which in title continues the preoccupation with departed souls and vanished friendships, themes alluded to on the earlier 2008 album, and is another highly beguiling work; the voice of Matthews is repeated and overlaid in short, non-logical loop patterns, producing strange overlaps and harmonies, the breathing and short phrases creating a diaphanous mosaic of sound. This translucent veil of vocal music is occasionally bolstered with percussion samples that appear like unexpected supernatural visitors, and the puzzling mood is deepened as the track develops into a quiet and meditative stretch, with very distant and muffled piano music, backwards tapes, and other foreign elements. This piece builds on the dream-like atmosphere established by track 1, and whisks us away further down the pathways of Slumberland towards an oneiric oblivion. We might never wake up again, and we feel excited by the dangerous prospect. From 17th October 2016.

RIP Erkki Kurenniemi: farewell to a major experimental / electronics music pioneer

RIP Erkki Kurenniemi (1941 – 2017)

News of Finnish experimental / electronic music pioneer Erkki Kurenniemi’s death at the age of 75 years on 1 May 2017 was a shock to me: his actual output of music has been small compared to others of his generation but that’s due to the many interesting twists and turns his life took over the decades. The news prompted me to revisit a compilation of his early works that I’d reviewed years ago for TSP: “Aanityksia / Recordings (1963 – 1973)” released by Love Records (LXCD637) way back in 2002. The compilation contains nearly everything Kurenniemi made while employed as a volunteer assistant working towards a science degree in the Department of Musicology at the University of Helsinki.

Playing that compilation again, I’m amazed at the incredible of sounds Kurenniemi achieved and the cheerful fun and playfulness emanating from these tracks. From the loud and brash tape feedback noise of “On-Off” to the skritchy craziness of “Antropoidien tanssi”, to the mellow stateliness that becomes zanily deranged on “Inventio / Outventio”, to the near-hysterical wailing of “Preludi” or the equally demented “Nimeton” which builds up to a chaotic pyromanic climax, Kurenniemi’s curiosity and mischievous sense of humour power these tracks’ sounds and melodies to their utmost and reveal the sonic universe they inhabit as fun and at the same time extraordinarily rich in its minimalism. The last two tracks on the album (one “Mix Master Universe” done in collaboration with Jukka Ruohomaki) are long montages of various tape recordings with one track featuring a sing-along by Kurenniemi’s friends; these are not quite as enthralling as the earlier, shorter tracks, and they meander quite a bit but they still have their moments of easy amusement and joy.

Those interested in reading about Erkki Kurenniemi and why his career as an electronics music pioneer and inventor of electronic musical instruments faded away in the mid-1970s can start with his entry on Wikipedia which reveals that among other things he worked for now-defunct industrial design company Rosenlew and the more famous company Nokia designing industrial robotics systems during the 1980s. As interest in his early music and film work revived in Finland and around the world in the early 2000s, Kurenniemi returned to designing and making electronic musical instruments. He also became a commentator on future trends and developments in science and technology for Finnish TV networks. An interesting aside is that Kurenniemi’s mother Marjatta is famous in her own right as a writer with her own entry on Finnish-language Wikipedia.

Kurenniemi’s films (14 in all) and some of his early musical inventions and robot designs are being archived and preserved by art galleries and museums in Helsinki and Stockholm. His reputation in different fields of art, science and technology, and Finnish media is sure to grow after his death. Years may pass before his legacy to Finnish art, music and culture is fully recognised and acknowledged. RIP Erkki Kurenniemi.

For Absent Friends

Jana Irmert is a Berlin sound artist who has mostly tended to produce audio-visual installations, using video projections, projected slides, and immersive sound environments through PA systems. A number of these are described on her website, along with notes indicating her intentions. She has now recast a number of her installations to create an audio CD, called End of Absence (FABRIQUE RECORDS FAB060CD), and it’s motivated by an explicit attempt to meet the audience halfway, so that more listeners can enjoy her work without the need for an elaborate installation set-up. There’s also the idea that by listening to the six pieces as a “unit” – her term for what we mere mortals would have called an “album” – we might learn more about the world of Jana Irmert. There is a certain unity to End of Absence, but I can’t report an unqualified success; it’s very hard to find a way in to these wispy, atmospheric pieces. However, she’s set herself a very difficult task, pursuing what she terms the “vague, irrational, less tangible” side of life, and attempting to translate her own interiority into sound art in some way, building “atmospheric…sonic spaces”. As an audience, we’re kind of left outside her strange world, and the cold exteriors to these insubstantial pieces are not exactly very inviting to the casual listener. It would help if she could at least crack open a window into one of her hermetically sealed spaces. Opaque, distant, strange. From 3rd October 2016.

Strip the Lining

Jason Kahn
Songline
SWITZERLAND EDITIONS 004 2 x LP (2015)

It must take a bit of dogged self-belief to release a weighty 2LP of one’s own vocal improvisations when a) one is not, by trade, a vocalist and b) one lacks the urgency to make as good a session of it as might happen during an adrenaline-fueled live set, but this is exactly what the prolific, multi-disciplinary journeyman Jason Kahn has done on Songline: four sides of vinyl, four GPS-free vocal improvisations that do what the tin says, or in this case the heavy card sleeve with symmetrical daubings of neon orange poster paint – a primitivist mosaic that as good as informs listeners that while Kahn’s vocal palette may be limited, his strokes are bold and appealingly rough-round-the-edges.

Hiding himself away like some hermit in the main room of a former Swisscom telephone relay station one winter evening in 2015 – the glass-sealed solitude broken only by gurgling from ‘deep in the bowels of the building’ – Kahn bulldozed his voicebox through the twilight with the tenacity of a magic(k)ian intent on invoking and capturing intact guileless, demonic beings. Sealed in the darkness of each groove is a complete idea or expression of a single ‘thematic and technical area’ as he puts it, entering swiftly with side A’s graveyard of gruelling and grievous groans, which reveal some prodigious lung capacity. Some might register death bed exhalations, but they’re more like the respiratory warm up a corpse might carry out when returning to a state of stunted animation. Trying to ‘sing’ along to it soon proves to be an effective exercise for the listener as well, which perversely introduces an audience element into an explicitly one-sided equation. Side B shapes A’s emphysemic pallor into more robust and sustained vowel chants that course through the air like stretched and flattened yodels that get right into the skull if one strays too close; beaming across space like some post-apocalyptic, long-distance communication device. Side C graduates through great globs of glottal, feline hiss and longer pauses between these attacks (on his own throat as much as the now-terrified audience) onto D, where he exhibits his widest range yet of anguished groans, growls, yowls and other tokens of his prolonged discomfort.

By Kahn’s own admission, the recording process was largely an exploration of his vocal limitations; of pushing himself ‘towards the brink of failure… exploring new ground, reaching for the cracks in my vocal chords’ with as best an approximation of the spontaneity one might achieve before and audience. And it’s this same self-aware spirit that makes Songline so easy to return to. There’s a time and a place for the developed comic strip vocalese of your Phil Mintons and Henri Chopins, but Kahn has the good grace to pursue each of his simple ideas to fruition over a full side of vinyl, investing in his performance a level of concentration only possible in a distraction-free environment, where the pursuit of novelty might otherwise derail each train of thought. Kahn makes no claims to grandeur, and in this modesty lies a dash of intrigue.

Esoterica

We have not encountered the work of sound artist Manuel Knapp before, but this Vienna and Tokyo-based fellow has a few scattered releases of electronic noise to his name dating back to around 2008, some of them in conjunction with Tim Blechmann. His LP Azoth 1 (VENTIL RECORDS V0004) does indeed contain some powerful blasts of ear-splitting, scorching noise, but he does it in a very structured and composed way, tempering the extremes with other textures, layers, and moments which are almost melodic in their approach. In this instance, he’s working entirely within the computer, radically departing from his analogue noise roots to experiment with the digital realms. Azoth is realised with freeware plugins for manipulating digital audio, by which I suppose is meant filters and processing tools and digital synths, some of which might even be downloadable from the web. It’s Knapp’s plan to push these tools to their limits, using them for purposes which their authors did not intend.

I’m happy to report Knapp does a very good job of this. While the opening moments of Azoth’s side A were rather irritating – where the limitations of the puny digital tools were clearly exposed – by the end of Side A, and throughout Side B, he’s cheerfully demolishing the world around him as we wallow in a gloriously wild and unfettered orgy of bombistas. Manuel Knapp certainly has his own authorial signature, which is not easy when we’re dealing with the many variant poisons of harsh noise that glut today’s market; it may have something to do with his attention to structure, the use of extreme dynamics, the deliberate programming of musical elements and root-note drones, and a very adventurous spirit when it comes to manipulating these chunks of digital audio and freeware tools. He’s like a bull in a paintbox, a kid in a Play-Dough factory, and a pair of eyes without a face.

I’d like to recommend this album as a product you can rush out and buy, but I’m not sure if I can. To begin with, it costs 666 Euros, a high price which reflects the fact that there are only 15 vinyl copies available for sale. Each one does have a hand-made work of art for a cover, but even so…and why invoke the “number of the beast” for a record which, although noisy, has no discernible satanic connotations? At the hour I write these lines, 5 copies of the vinyl are still available, though I’m mystified as to why the label wish to tell us that this particular pressing and retail deal was their “fastest break-even ever”. Why the heck should we care about their business plan? For those of you disinclined to spend such a high figure on one record, it is possible to hear some of Azoth on their Bandcamp page. Peter Kutin, who is well represented on this label, assisted with the mixing and mastering. From 3rd October 2016.

  1. “Azoth” is an alchemical term. See also Our Glassie Azoth, the superb Welsh noise-drone act whom we interviewed in 1998 and whose records are highly recommended.

Kutin Edge

Ambitious piece of modern sound art by Peter Kutin (last noted in these pages for a split record with Asfast) and Florian Kindlinger in the shape of Decomposition I-III (VENTIL V0001)…this particular item emerged as a double LP on Ventil in May or June 2015, but for some reason we did not receive a promo copy until 3 October 2016. In one sense this might not matter, as the complete suite of Decomposition has been growing and evolving for a few years now, its separate parts presented at various European festivals and art centres since 2014. This double LP is the best way to get the narrative of the piece though, as it leads the listener through a three-part travelogue of internalisation, self-examination, and alienation, probably leading to some profound form of metaphysical despair by the end of it.

The story is told over four sides with the titles ‘Absence’, ‘Introspection’ and ‘Illusion’, and the plan is to subject the listener to some pretty harsh and bleak environments which they must endure, forging their soul on the anvil of endurance. “Territories antagonistic to human life”, is how they would describe their choice of surroundings. It’s kind of like field recordings, because the basic sounds were captured in places like a desert, a snowy waste, a glacier, and an abandoned mining village with wind blowing a howling blast…in these extreme zones, they find the existential misery they are seeking to capture. But they also argue that “field recording” is a “moribund” genre in any case, and they’re out to change all that with their radical new approach to pushing recording gear and microphones into places they’re not supposed to go. We’ve got to admire rough-tough artistes who are prepared to throw down the gauntlet with this kind of reckless thinking, and Decomposition I-III has a lot going for it in terms of the vivid and stark nature of its sound surface. I also like the very contrasting clashes between nature and civilisation that are reduced here to extremely simplistic arguments, the better to bring home the intended messages about estrangement and the searching questions about mankind’s place in the world today.

Christina Kubisch is credited here too, though she worked only on side four, the 18-minute ‘Illusion’. For this she was commissioned to record “electromagnetic signals” from the city of Las Vegas, later to be reprocessed by Kutin in the studio using just edits and splices. The plan was to use Las Vegas as a gigantic form of synthesizer, the entire city unwittingly participating in a bizarre sound art experiment. The artists speculate on the fact that Las Vegas used to be a desert not so long ago, and presumably this makes it fair game for inclusion on the set, conceptually linked to their other recordings of hostile terrains. That den of gambling and vice certainly sounds bleak and remote here, reduced to a series of clinical robotic pulses and whirrs. Bizarrely, in places, the piece turns into something resembling 1990s glitch or avant-garde techno with its mechanical rhythms, but this may simply be a by-product of the process. ‘Illusion’ won the Karl Sczuka prize for best radiophonic composition of 2016, and well-deserved too.

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.

Tender Are The Ashes

Martin Kay is the Australian sound artist who came our way in 2014 under his Mountain Black alias. That release, Closing In, was a baffling and inscrutable piece of sound art, which may or may not have been based on field recordings. Today’s record, Stadium (AVANT WHATEVER 018), is very much based on field recordings and is also highly site-specific; it was created at Melbourne Cricket Ground, and concentrates mostly on voices. Come to that, voices are the conceptual thread running through the work, starting with the sounds of the crowd of cricket fans enjoying the game, but also including fragments of individuals, e.g. families out for the day chatting to each other, and on one track, the mechanical voice of the lift which takes the spectator from one level to another. He’s so intrigued by the workings of the building itself (a trope used by some other field recordists, though not as widespread as you might think) that he even records the ventilation system and starts exploring fences, railings, and various obscure parts of the stadium, such as the highest point in the seating bank that a human being can reach. At all times, the voices are audible – but often at a distance, or filtered through the layers of mechanical sound, or muffled by the surrounding architecture.

Kay then proceeds to follow his nose (or his ears), and takes his mics outside the stadium and into the local suburb of Richmond in Melbourne. In so doing he gets to a nearby railway station, a living room, the Yarra river, and a church – which is where the record finishes. Kay’s explanation is that he is following a “trajectory”, and that he “traces their lines of flight upwards and outwards”; he seems to be saying that the sound of these voices carries everywhere, and that if you live in Richmond there is virtually no escape from the haunting tones whenever a match is being played, so it must be hell for non-cricket fans in the summer (or whenever they play – I have no interest whatsoever in the game). In pursuing this trajectory, it has to be said Martin Kay fetches up in some quite lonely and remote sounding places, and a certain flavour of desolation creeps into these long and mysterious sounds. It may be simply because he’s so far away from the action, but there seems to be a deeper emotional pull at work here. By the time he gets to Saint Ignatius Church, all that ends up on the record is a faintly grim and empty white-noise drone, some of it caused by very distant traffic.

At one level Stadium can be read as a decent piece of process sound-art based on field recordings. Its documentary approach is reflected in its utterly prosaic titles, which are short sentences describing precisely where the recording was taken (lacking only a grid reference which Chris Watson might have supplied if he were doing this project). On another level, Stadium tells the story of a simple journey, which takes Martin Kay like a young Odysseus from the “thick of the action” into a quiet and solitary place, one associated with spiritual contemplation. Gradually the sound of the cheering cricket crowd evaporates through this journey, and the traveller ends up alone and far away from the teeming mass of humankind. From 26th September 2016.

Fields Of Debris

Source: http://farpointrecordings.com/mcs/fergus-kelly–shot-to-shreds/

Welcome return of Fergus Kelly, the Dublin-based sound artist, with his new cassette Shot To Shreds (FP057) on the lovely Farpoint Recordings label. Last heard him in 2012 with his album A Congregation Of Vapours, noted as a fairly noisy and raucous entry in the electro-acoustic arena, and we’re pleased to say his interest in ugly electronic crunchery, nasty feedback, semi-industrial gruntings and lumps of metal continues on this tape. The A side is a suite of seven abstract bursts under the heading Debris Field, a title which instantly conjures visions of a junkyard, a trash pile being remade into art in some way. Even the collage cover art, with its daubs of paint smeared over newsprint sheets, could be read as the sort of thing we’d find pasted to the hoardings near this imaginary junkyard, or scraps stuck forlornly on the corrugated iron walls around the compound. The label describe this side as “a tactile and disintegrating landscape of fractured spaces and skewed geographies”, implying strongly that Kelly continues to layer field recordings into his work. On this occasion it’s a glorious maximal bash, one that both celebrates and decries the grime and grit of urban concrete hell that continues to blight parts of the UK (and Ireland, evidently), hemming us in with its unfinished building projects, broken walkways, and unkempt roads. It’d be cool to think of Kelly as a subversive lover of the “derive”, but he doesn’t wander around these scapes like some French intellectual, and instead he takes them for what they are, producing sprawling noise with no clear beginning and end, much like the piles of trash that clearly inspire him.

The B side is more cerebral than the punk-rock inflected A side. Four diverse pieces, including ‘Impact Spatter’, ‘Discrete Oblique’, ‘Cored’ and ‘Closing The Circuit’ are more recognisable as collage and cut-up works, often using musical elements to make their ambiguous statements, and making judicious use of “time-stretching” to slow down certain layers. Taken at a sitting, this B side produces strong hallucinatory and dream-like states in short order. The cut-up voices on ‘Discrete Oblique’ border on nightmare, otherwise innocent and everyday remarks taking on a horrific tinge as they’re juxtaposed with absurdist fragments of musical snatches and chord ripped out of context. The lovely ‘Cored’, a personal favourite of mine, is dominated by a grinding heavyweight drone of metallic feedback that all but crushes the skull under its mighty weight. The “relentless sonic snowstorm”, as the press notes would have it, is a remorseless exercise in piling on an excess of noisy content, almost like Merzbow in slow motion. It includes a slowed-down sample from ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’, one of The Beatles’ finest attempts at rendering the onset of the apocalypse in music. The grotesque noise of that 12/8 guitar figure, awash with white noise from George Harrison’s Moog synth, is to a noteworthy statement of sheer doom, better even than the end of ‘A Day In The Life’. Here, in among Kelly’s intense stew of digital violence, it has found a proper home. The programme of side B – it is a well-sequenced album, for sure – means that we end with ‘Closing The Circuit’, a seven-minute composition supposedly making use of “vacated spaces”, and intended to provide aural relief to the battered listener after the onslaught of the 13-minute ‘Cored’. But it doesn’t relieve us of the sense of foreboding or doubt, and we leave the world of Fergus Kelly freighted down with more sorrow and uncertainty than before.

Multiple methods and sources were used to create this fine record, including feedback, tapes, e-bowed strings, amplification, field recordings, electronic music, and music samples. From 29th September 2016.

Driftwood Art

Real fine drone-acious richness from Californian lady Cheryl Leonard on the cassette tape Isinglass (EH? AURAL REPOSITORY EH?89). She’s known for her “found instruments”, that is objects found in nature which she picks up, takes home, and then presses into service for musical purposes. There’s an endearing photograph (not here) of her playing a large clump of pine cones with a violin bow, and you can imagine her releasing something quite palpable from the grain of that wood. Among the devices on this tape we have a flute made of kelp, a bowl of sand, some wobbly rocks, and instruments made of driftwood – including sculptures in the form of mobiles, and something intriguingly called the “driftwood pipeorgan”, which I would like to think is a row of selected hunks of driftwood found on the beach and arranged in order of size, to form a “tuned” instrument in some way.

Harry Partch woulda loved her. But he might have felt ambivalent about her academic roots, as it turns out she’s studied at Mills College with some of the grandees of 20th century avanterie, including Alvin Curran, Frederic Rzewski, and George Lewis. But her penchant for Chinese landscapes may have struck a chord with old “white-beard” Partch, and I’m sure the two of them could have shared a cup of green tea in the correct circumstances. On this release, Leonard is joined by Jeph Jerman, a man famed for his cactus-spine playing and other natural found objects being repurposed to make sound or music, so this really is a match made in the spheres. Bryan Day, label owner, adds a smidgen of electricity to the otherwise acoustic mode with his radio transceivers.

A very dense tape results, which I’m grateful for, as I have found Jerman’s previous exploits in this area a tad thin sonically, while undeniably beautiful. Isinglass murmurs and drones in a highly engaging fashion, occasionally punctuated by sounds of the seashore and domestic intrusions like a chiming clock (unless that’s part of the performance), and sits in that small patch of turf between music and sound art, transcending process with ease. Leonard has a few CDR releases on the private label Great Hoary Marmot Music, probably her own imprint, should you wish to investigate further. From 21st September 2016.