Tagged: sound art

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.

International Geographic

Vitor Joaquim
Geography
PORTUGAL CRÓNICA 117-2016 CD (2016)

Robert Lippok / Soojin Anjou / Askat Jetigen
Gletschermusik
GERMANY FOLK WISDOM FW007CD (2016)

Tom Hamilton
City Of Vorticity
USA POGUS PRODUCTIONS P21085-2 CD (2016)

Three very different releases on a vaguely geographical theme, and that’s appropriate, because geography, as a subject, is pretty vague and diverse. What is it, exactly? New towns and capital cities? Oxbow lakes? Glaciation? Alpine cattle husbandry? All of the above?

Vitor Joaquim, Porto’s celebrated laptop geomancer, tries to nail it all down with Geography, which sounds like a statement of intent. The opening title track confirms his intentions, as it arrives with sampled speech from some sort of space mission documentary. It’s as if Joaquim is pulling back to show us the planet in its entirety, before coming right back down to ground level.

The eight tracks on this release were inspired by Jared Diamond’s book “Guns, Germs and Steel”, which attempted to show how human history and culture has been shaped by environmental factors. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t comment on that, or indeed, how suitable this album is as a soundtrack. You’ll have to make your own minds up about that.

What I can comment on is the music, and it’s a satisfying set of electronic experimentalism, stitched together from countless live instrumental samples and served up with just the right amount of glitch and fizz. In that sense, it reminds me of the Jemh Circs LP, with a serious laptop face instead of a sugar-rush pop-music grin. But it’s a release that is equally worthy of your attention, I feel.

Gletschermusik has a more specific geographical focus, namely the Tujuksu Mountains of Central Asia, where the glaciers are in retreat. The album is full of the sounds of rushing meltwater, cracking ice and desolate mountain winds, recorded in the field and layered into electronic ambient and Kyrgyz folk music compositions.
This project came together under the auspices of the Goethe Institute and came to life in a series of successful concerts in the region, before coming back to Germany. The overall aim, to raise awareness of the fragile nature of the glaciers, is unimpeachable, and good work has certainly been done in this sense.

As a piece of music, some listeners may find it a bit too reminiscent of those new age CDs you used to find on sale in garden centres, with titles like “Amazonian Reiki Quest” or “Celtic Dolphin Meditation”. Personally, I’m not averse to that sort of thing, and I think there’s enough going on here to stop it becoming totally soporific. It’s certainly exquisitely played and arranged, so if you’re not totally allergic to new age connotations, buy with confidence.

Superior chill-out music, then.

Which brings us back down the mountain to join Tom Hamilton in his City of Vorticity. This is described as a “collection of electronic sound events, all occurring independently, and gradually shifting through kaleidoscopic rearrangement”, which is a description I can’t possibly improve upon.

We get two versions of this piece, the first with improvising musicians Al Margolis (violin), Alan Zimmerman (percussion and “prepared hammered dulcimer”) and Peter Zummo (trombone and didgeridoo) interpreting Hamilton’s electronic sound environment. It’s richly textured, sometimes heavy, sometimes light, often surprising with weird pulses and lopsided rhythms, and all in all, a thoroughly absorbing listen.

The second track is just the electronic sound environment itself, presented in unadorned state so you can play along at home. It’s like the ground plan for the first track. If Wyndham Lewis had designed a city, this could be its A-Z. Exploration encouraged.

Circle of Light: a low-key abstract soundtrack of beauty and imagination

Delia Derbyshire and Elsa Stansfield, Circle of Light, United Kingdom, Trunk Records, JBH061CD (2016)

From the deft fingers of Delia Derbyshire, the British electronic music pioneer who gave the world the original spooky version of the Doctor Who TV series theme music, comes this soundtrack to a half-hour film made in 1972 by photographer Pamela Bone. When first released, this film “Circle of Light” appeared in a number of film festivals around the world and was noted for Bone’s photographs placed on glass transparencies which were arranged in a slideshow structure to conform to a narrative detailing themes of nature favoured by Bone. These days the actual film itself is secondary to the abstract music soundtrack composed by Derbyshire and Stansfield, not least because the music is said to be the longest sound recording known to have been made by Derbyshire.

After a brief introductory description by film director / art collector Anthony Roland of Bone’s work and Bone’s artistic statement, the music launches on a journey that’s remarkably ethereal, controlled and restrained, and eerie and spacious. There are various spacey and alien effects and much is made of musique concrete recordings using nature-based sources, all of which contribute to the music’s strange and sometimes sinister qualities. Birdsong occasionally adds a cheerful mood in some parts but otherwise the soundtrack is a serene and steady work.

One definitely has the impression of being absorbed into a world of weird yet beautiful and quiet stately landscapes populated by exotic birds and animals that might have escaped from an imperial menagerie of unimagined rich strangeness. Long-lasting wind storms sigh through misty regions where life may be glimpsed through clouds of water vapour and thick bush. Insects sing their complex rhythmic songs. In the second half of the album the music drones become more threatening and the mood is sombre but tension eventually dissipates.

There are few recordings like this one where the music allows, even encourages listeners to run their own abstract art films behind their eyes and between their ears. This must be part of the genius of Derbyshire, that however strange or abstract her music is, her ego never dominates but instead allows the listener’s imagination to take her music and make something of it particular to that person.

Off Site

Test/Tone Documents (DRONE SWEET DRONE DSD018) is a new release from sound artist Thomas Tilly, whose work keeps growing on us here at TSP HQ. We normally associate him with field recordings as the starting point, but his work also mixes up such recordings with electronic music, and in places the whole Tilly career shades into some form of research, or investigation. On Le Cébron / Statics and Sowers, he did it with fields of broken ice at a lake in France, while on Script Geometry his starting point was the wildlife teeming in a rainforest environment. On Test/Tone Documents, his “subject” is a building in Reims, the modern arts centre La Cartonnerie, where he made this collection in 2007.

The aim appears to have been to document various sound events happening in the building, and – like many who have created similar statements – Tilly believes he has discovered the “central nervous system” of the building when he finds the electronic network that powers it, by which I suppose he covers everything from computers to lighting, lifts, air conditioning etc. We have encountered similar explorations by Francisco López (Buildings New York) and more recently Hannah Thompson and her work in Senate House, University of London. Tilly is evidently trying to make some statement about architecture and the use made of the building; he alludes to something rather intangible, suggesting that these sounds are merely traces of former activities, or “residual matter” as he would have it, and that in some way the four walls have “eroded” the sound made by these activities. This is shading into the metaphysical; I always reach for Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape as a comparison at this point, and want to ask the sound artist in question “is this what you mean?”. Kneale’s proposition was that the four walls of a building could actually record history by “capturing” the intense emotions of past violent events in the very fabric of its bricks and mortar; when these “records” of the events were replayed, we would see ghosts. It certainly terrified me as a teenager when I saw it on the telly in 1972.

Tilly’s investigations are thankfully more benign, and I found Test/Tone Documents to be a compelling listen, fascinated at the variety of textures on offer and listening with rapt attention as the building moves through its paces, like a friendly machine. If you’ve ever found yourself paying attention to an old fridge motor doing its stuff, you’ll understand why this might be of interest. Not only is it a vaguely reassuring sound, it even seems to tell a story (in an extremely abstract, bare-bones manner). The record thus succeeds in its aim to create a “listening space”; there is enough room here to wander around in, and breathe. López, in his work, made the New York building seem claustrophobic and alien; you are in no danger of that happening here. If you buy the full package (I only received a music CD and a one-sheet press handout) you get a set of documents printed on acetate (?), a poster, and a black sleeve hand-made by Jonathan Gowthorpe. From 10th August 2016.

The Payoff

Pierre-Yves Martel
Estinto
CANADA E-TRON REC ETRC025 CD (2016)

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.

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.

Fixation Pulse

Sound artist John Chantler, ex-pat Australian living in Stockholm, impressed us to no small degree with his 2015 album Still Light, Outside which I think was made during his residency in London, where he curated shows at Cafe Oto and had access to a church organ at St John’s Hackney. “A terrifyingly oppressive, fluid piece of distorted organ manipulation,” noted Paul K. Morgan at the time. His latest offering is Which Way To Leave? (RM463), released on fellow Australian’s Lawrence English’s Room 40 label (the two have worked together, as it happens). It’s a compelling album of strange electronic music, that often moves beyond simple “droning” and doesn’t just tinker with unusual digital sounds for their own sake. To put it another way, Chantler has very clear ideas about what he intends to accomplish. This record, as title indicates, may have been influence by his recent travels, and settling back in Sweden after his lengthy UK trip.

Although the record opens with ‘Falling Forward’, an alarming piece of near-noise that seems to seethe with the chaos of untamed atoms and quarks, it turns out to be uncharacteristic of the remainder. What I’m digging on today’s spin is a mysterious journey through extremely abstract areas and terrains, where it seems that every detail of the surface beneath our feet is deemed worthy of intense examination. I’m not sure if we’re amoebas squirming under the microscope, or birds drifting in slow motion over a natural landscape, checking out the geography for clues. The perplexing journey continues right up to ‘All Visible Signs’. It’s a mesmerising experience, one I’m reluctant to wake up from.

There follows another unsettling and vaguely chaotic stretch of jangling noise-music which he calls ‘First December’. If you bought the vinyl version, this monster opens side B. This has so much swarming energy at its core that I’m tempted to recall stretches of Metal Machine Music, to which it bears a slight resemblance, only it’s a far less aggressive version and with most of the extraneous layers surgically removed. It’s also like experiencing the complete works of Terry Riley piled up in a car crash, conducted by an unknown John Cage acolyte. Imagine that if you can. Personally, I’m aghast. But there’s a lot of stark and shocking beauty to be derived from this swirling morass of power. From 26 July 2016.

Alternative Angles

Nigel Samways has passed this way a couple of times, first with his Nuclear Beach record in 2014, and then with Temple Of The Swine in 2015. Both were elusive records, characterised by a very diffuse cloud of sound and much overlapping of unidentifiable sound sources. His written explanations on these only served to deepen the mystery, of course. What I have always enjoyed is the beauty and the mystery of his work; fragile atmospheres, somehow captured successfully on a recording medium, without any pretensions or over-elaborated ideas. We’re getting much the same vibe from today’s record, a collaboration with Foss Moigne called Sanyo 07.1 / Sanyo 07.2 remixes (INEVERTHINKOFYOU INTOY4). Apparently it’s derived from a set of field recordings made in Japan using a minicasette dictaphone recorder; there are two remixes which give us “two new views of the same material”, and beyond some allusion to “similar structural elements”, we’re not told very much. The choice of lo-fi recording hardware no doubt accounts for much of the surface noise, but the actual sound events captured have an uncanny air; a root drone somehow floating in the air, lots of air and space, and the distant wail of female voices singing. It’s like a vision from the past, somehow captured and made whole. It’s a short 3-inch CDR, but you will wish these 20 minutes of divine sound could go on forever. From 20 July 2016.

Will Not Split

Two more cassettes from Kassettkultur are by Maja Ratkje and Bjørn Hatterud, both made at the same time and only ever sold together as a pair; “will not split” is the familiar rallying cry of antique dealers who hold a fine pair of ancient jugs. With the jury’s permission, we will mention them here together.

The first of these, Focus Foucault Foccaci (KULT 014), is not much more than a cassingle, and contains two tunes at five mins apiece. On one side the duo – appearing here as Solveig Kjelstrup & Maskinanlegg – appear to be adopting a quasi-ethnic stance with a performance based on percussion and a shenai-like reed instrument, to produce something Sun City Girls might have belched up as an interlude on one of their earlier ethnic forgery LPs. Or maybe it’s intended to remind us of Don Cherry and his bamboo flutes when he played with Ed Blackwell in 1969. At any rate it’s recognisable as music, which is more than you can say for the puzzling flip side. A nightmarish take on a patriotic song from the 1930s that was never written, or a national anthem for the smallest non-existent country in Europe, is put through the tape-processing treatment until it acquires a nasty and vaguely disturbing patina. The singing voice especially is something that creeps up your spine like a jellyfish. Not that the singer sounds especially menacing, but you don’t want him hanging around your house for long. Limited edition of 30 copies for this surreal slice of pie. Maja Solveig Kjelstrup Ratkje, to use her full name, is a genius composer, improviser and noise maker who never ceases to surprise me with the ease, expertise, and commitment with which she takes on each new and wholly unexpected project. Bjørn Hatterud should be notorious to all as a member of the Norwegian collective Origami Republika, a sprawling project of weirdness whose aim was to overthrow the known world through subversive, absurdist antics; it’s impossible to tell how many records they made, as they kept changing their name, and so evaded the confining boundaries of officialdom, keeping everything fuzzy around the edges. It’s a strategy that always pays off.

The second tape, featuring the same personnel, is called Malleus Maleficarum Maximum, and with its monochrome cover, gothic styled lettering, and supernatural title, it may fool some Black Metal fans into buying it. Boy, will they be in for a surprise! One side is a short fragment of ingeniously compacted music, perhaps using tape loops, that feels like a distillation of all 19th century classical music and opera that ever dared to flirt with a “heroic” theme (and thus drove its composers mad or deaf, or both). It becomes a nostalgic view of an imaginary past that never existed, now somehow transplanted into our ironic modern times for hipsters to wonder at. That’s the power of time-travel with which I credit these two deadly magicians. Part 2 is even more alarming. Voice elements are detectable here and it feels like human beings made this noise at some point, but it also feels like monsters and wild beasts were involved at some point. The ingenuity lies in the simple layering together of elements that don’t fit, and relentlessly bringing the thing in for landing against all the laws of sanity. I’m feeling unhinged just thinking about it…maybe there really is a “black magic” thing going on after all. As you all know, Malleus Maleficarum refers to “The Hammer of the Witches”, a 15th century guidebook for how to expose witches and then put them on trial, supposedly issued by the Catholic church. God alone knows what your basic witch-hunter would have made of these two musicians, if he’d been forced to endure this mind-melt of a cassette.