Tagged: sound art

Reflexion Interior

The item Eins Bis Sechzehn (CRONICA 069-2012) is by the sound artist Ephraim Wegner and the visual artist Julia Weinmann, with their audio and visual snapshots of old ruined hotels. Presumably they wander about these collapsing edifices while no-one is looking and operate their capture devices before a wedge of plaster falls on their heads. They present the finished work as a fairly short CD – just six tracks of field recordings – and a portfolio of full-colour photographs, very well printed and some of them folding out into friezes. Although at first glance / listen we may think we’re facing a rather empty and desolate set of surroundings, in fact there are minimal traces of human endeavour and past lives embedded in the recordings. We can hear something bumping about like the ghost of a portly man settling into a sofa or furniture removers operating a service lift. Also other signs of life, like birds twittering outside or the distant seashore. Evocative and airy, it’s quite a benign undertone here, and clearly not directed by Stanley Kubrick in the ruins of the Overlook Hotel while furrowing his beetling brow. I’m very much reminded of Michael J. Schumacher and his 2003 release Room Pieces – this one seems to be poking around in similar enigmatic blank zones. I haven’t read their lengthy explanation in the notes though, as I suspect it’s trying to overstretch a simple idea with one too many “resonances”.

Another nice printed book + CD package is GROC 1912-2012 (SONORIDAD AMARILLA) and may have emerged from a music festival in Sant Sebastia. Mostly printed in Spanish with English translations. Miguel A Garcia is involved, and so are Artur Vidal, Coco Moya and Alicia Grueso. The book is a puzzling set of fragmented texts, alongside equally baffling but very direct monochrome images, making me feel I’m wandering through a conceptual art exhibit from 1970s England rather than flipping the pages of a book. The CD is even more opaque, short tracks where nothing is really explained but which sound like captured output from the most avant-garde radio station ever to have escaped the attention of the authorities. There’s a gorgeous “distant” quality; you can almost see tiny figures moving about inside a small surreal TV set glowing with yellow light. Things may become clearer if you read the texts while listening. The book is a libretto, structured like scenes from a play (with very strange stage directions), and it’s possible to interpret everything as the soundtrack to a performance of a gently absurd drama, almost as empty as a Beckett drama, but without the despair. The creators are aiming at a certain open-ended framework so that the performance can “project into the viewer’s imagination”, and there are hints at painterly sensibilities at work what with the fleeting Kandinsky reference, and the fact that Groc translates from Catalan as “yellow”. It’s to everyone’s credit here that so much can be expressed in a small, compacted package, and this beguiling little gem will grow on all those who own it and live with it.

Segments (EM002) is the second release from Emitter Micro, the German label who sent us the 2 (3) Incomplete Triptychs cassette in a clear box. As HiFi / LoNoise, the trumpeter Louis Laurain is joined by the electronics of Pierce Warnecke for 21 minutes of thoroughly abstracted sound – starting as puffy blankets of “reduced improv” minimalism, then exploding into a more full-bodied broth of amplified buzziness. Evidence of strong concentration and focus from both players here. Has a refreshing “raw” quality; untreated surfaces which you could use as building blocks in modular self-assembly furniture, and transform your living quarters.

I’ll confess I’m struggling slightly to derive much meat from the wispy melodic bones of Twilight Peaks (SMERALDINA-RIMA 20), a Robbie Basho release which was reissued by the Belgian Smeraldina-Rima label in 2012. This may be because it was originally an unabashed New Age release, issued in 1985 by a New York organisation called The Relaxation Company on their Vital Body Marketing label, and existed as a cassette with a bland cover of soothing dimensions and packaged as “Rich & lyrical solo guitar”. Basho had his own reasons for treading the New Age music path; one possible motivation could have been that his music didn’t catch on as expected with the “folk music” audience, and by the mid-1980s when it seemed that New Age music was in the ascendancy, he decided to hitch his wagon to that twinkly star. Maybe it’s time for this overlooked genre to undergo some form of reappraisal. The writers Richard Osborn and Glenn Jones, who provide the notes to this release, need no such persuading and they write from the depths of their own experience; Jones, who produced this reissue from original tapes, was a friend of Basho and articulates the beauty and value of this music well, making a good case in a sympathetic manner. After all it’s fair to say that Basho has not sacrificed an iota of his skill or artistry here, and there’s still the focus and precision in the playing that characterises his earlier music. The overall saminess of the sound, and its rather thin over-processed patina, may start to grow wearisome to the ears after a while, but that’s the central paradox of this item; it might be a rare case of high art hidden within a bland and commercialised genre. This reissue adds three tracks not on the original cassette, including two live cuts; these live recordings have escaped the cosseting effects of the original studio production and have a slightly rougher edge; these extra 12 minutes may make all the difference to you if you’re considering adding this to your Basho collection. Tremendous cover art, but it’s a little bit misleading as to the musical content.

Wash Your Ears Out

End Of Silence
Auditorium
Ecocentric Records E.R.#177CD / Heart & Crossbone HCB039CD

The first release in 16 years from this German trio, which started as a spin-off from the grind-noise band Seven Minutes of Nausea. The roots of the band are apparent in the use of traditional musical instruments (guitar, bass, drums), however instead of short bursts of Anal Cunt-ish noise blurr, instead this album presents three long-ish tracks hybridising the genres of noise, dark ambient and drone.

The first track gets off to a frustratingly hesitant start, as an isolated cymbal crashes once every few seconds. The effect is not unlike Chinese Water Torture, as the listener waits desperately for something to happen. After about five minutes of this a distant warbling of guitar feedback enters. The drums become more varied, with plenty of frantic rolling toms, and a sort of droning duel between guitar and drums ensues. Interestingly, at one point, the drums even kick into blast beats, giving this the air of a noise/grindcore jam session, and perhaps the album’s only throwback to the sound of Seven Minutes of Nausea.

Track two is more on the dark ambient side, with a tremolo guitar sound playing against the backing of what sounds like a rusty garden gate. Minimal computery squelches lurk in the background, like grasshoppers hiding in undergrowth. The stereo-delayed tremolo feedback eventually becomes the sound of someone manically scraping their wet thumb against glass, with rain pattering in the form of cymbal hits. The feedback eventually builds into one single note – a thumb describing an endless circle on the rim of a wine glass. Halfway between hypnotic and maddening, depending on your personal preference for repetition. As always, the devil is in the details, and the slight sonic differences as the sounds rub up against each other are what provide the interest.

The final track opens with jittery static storms. Guitar feedback swells in and out, while a snare drum patters along randomly. Brooding and Lynchian ambience suddenly gives way to the harsh noise of squealing distorted synth. Bass wind gusts through the howling storm in what is the noisiest of the three pieces. Towards the latter stages of the track, watery blurbles of sound give the impression of a Kraken rising through the depths, or just possibly that the listener has fallen into the washing machine and is being given a thorough rinsing.

For the genre purists, this might be too busy and noisy to succeed as dark ambient drone, whilst the harsh noise heads might find elements of this too brooding and minimal. If you like a bit of variety in your non-musical sound however, you’ll find plenty to interest your ears here.

Strata: documenting sound worlds within nooks and crannies of urban landscapes

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Tarab, Strata, Unfathomless, CD U18 (2013)

For years the Australian artist Eamonn Sprod, working under the project title of Tarab, has been collecting field recordings and turning them into albums that explore and document the secret audio histories of vacant spaces in and among urban landscapes where ecosystems of plants and animals arise and thrive unseen and unnoticed by the dominant human inhabitants. His most recent album “Strata” focuses on the sounds of vacant and deserted lots and their surroundings in an area in northern Melbourne. Factories and warehouses back onto these forgotten areas on one side and on the other there is a small creek. A highway overpass runs overhead. Photographs, admittedly treated, of these places in the album sleeve design show a forlorn, almost post-apocalyptic desolate landscape in which feral grasses threaten to cover over evidence of a past human civilisation. The detritus of culture, discolouring and rotting and reverting slowly into scraps and dust, lie strewn over the ground, lacking any function and meaning for whichever life-forms still survive in this barrenness.

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The album has a very dark and foreboding air and the sounds therein intimate that the natural world is biding its time until such time as when it can reclaim the city-scape for itself again. There is a sculptural and dynamic quality to the noises that appear: among other things, we hear wind, the crackle of dry leaves, rusting industrial machinery ambience, distant thunder, aeroplanes buzzing in the distance, the vibrations of pylons and of what cables may be found beneath the concrete epidermis. The border between man-made and natural dissolves, everything inanimate takes on an animated quality and aspects of the natural world seem as machine-like and forbidding as does the traffic on the roads and in the sky. The microphones used to record the sounds are themselves featured on the album as they were often dragged around the ground and over the garbage and rubble or buried within pylons.

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It feels quite intimate and the entire tone of the recording for the most part is very soothing with few abrupt or jarring moments (one major exception occurring about the 22nd minute when a hail-storm suddenly erupts).  The production is clear which allows the sounds, even quite distant ones such as a choir of barking dogs, to be heard with great and precise clarity. The album has an amazingly polished feel without seeming to be precious. Even though individual field recordings are carefully spaced apart so you tend to hear one or maybe a couple of things happening, the album seems very rich in terms of texture, mood and volume dynamics.

This isn’t simply a collection of sounds from a particular small set of forgotten or spurned locations in Melbourne; “Strata” is as much an artistic composition as it is a document.

Metal Birds

I’m warming to the music of Noteherder & McCloud, an English duo who are really growing on me with their odd and inscrutable noise-filled approach to saxophone and electronics. Chris Parfitt does the strained hooting with his brassy soprano while Geoff Reader supplies the crackly boxes, and they both add voice elements too. We haven’t reviewed them since 2011 (their mini CDR Field Log), and I have the sense they can be pretty raucous and outspoken when the circumstances deem fit, but The Bottle Loose In The Drawer (SLIGHTLY OFF KILTER sok043) is slightly more reflective, subtle, and drawn-out; the full length album format gives a bit more space to their unique qualities, and each track stretches out into a puff-driven event showcasing the yowlage of the human throat or the metallic bell of a ghostly sax, accompanied with requisite doses of strange alien drone or bizarre electric twittering. The duo have a very eccentric and personal approach to instant music creation which I like very much. It would probably be a mistake to characterise N&M’s music as “jazz” or “improv” in any way, and to me it feels more like they are creating spontaneous sound-art installations, doing so in any environment in need of such an artistic statement. They change things for the better, wherever they play. To my mind, local councillors should sponsor musicians like this and send them out to any given spot in the city in need of attention, and give them free rein to cure the problem with sound art. Urban blight would soon be a thing of the past. From 24 January 2013.

Label boss of above release is Paul Khimasia Morgan, who walks everywhere in crepe sole shoes, so that none may anticipate his silent advance. He’s released a short performance piece called Eaves Drop (AURAL DETRITUS audet001) and it’s the first item on his own Aural Detritus sub-label. It’s taken from a Brighton concert where he performed with Jason Kahn, who also recorded it using the spindly tubes that grow from his forehead. 17 minutes of highly minimal slow music; there’s a piercing high tone at the start, overlaid in the middle with additional elements which might have been generated by a slow-motion underwater guitar played backwards with electro-magnets by dying turtles. Then we enter a realm of uncertainty, with small boxes being rearranged on an imaginary supermarket shelf of the mind. In a short space of time this impenetrably blanked-out sound art works itself through at least three or four timbral changes, which if closely attended will assume a certain dramatic flair. We’d hesitate to describe it as a “composition”; perhaps it’s more like the outline for a composition, presented in a short pamphlet where the pages consist of pencil notations that have been 90% rubbed out using a Staedtler Mars Plastic Eraser. From 24 January 2013.

Fancy cover, quality pressing, clever titles and grand ideas on Extant (THE GEOGRAPHY TRIP TRIP 002) the vinyl offering from OH/EX/OH, but only rather ordinary ambient drones within. Their musical plan is to offer a bleak and depressing experience on side one, with a slightly more hopeful message delivered on side two; this means we hear flat monochrome ambient music, interrupted only by a spoken-word quote which I suspect is a sample from a Planet of the Apes movie (it’s about a post-nuclear disaster), and a general sense that we are living through the last days of humanity with solemn music that proceeds at a leaden pace. The “Utopian Tones” of the B side make more prominent use of sequencers walking along at a brisk pace on ‘Close Encounters’, while on ‘With Nova A New Beginning’ we finally hear the identikit synth droning resolve itself into chords of some sort, instead of the usual nondescript blancmange. However, even this track is blighted with cliché, and feels like it should appear in a fourth-rate arthouse cinema film to coincide with a corny sunrise shot and a life-defining moment for the lead character. One would like to encourage this relatively new Manchester-based label (this is their second release), but this entire album is bogged down with over-familiar sounds and scant ideas. However the packaging, as indicated, is first-rate.

American players Steve D’Agostino and Ted Lee form the core duo of Zebu!, who have had their most recent record released by Feeding Tube Records – home to all that is currently bizarre in US underground rock noise. On Chill Wave (FEEDING TUBE RECORDS FTR 082), Zebu! are clearly influenced by early 1960s surf music, a genre which was looked down on for a long time on account of its supposed naivete, but which has I think since been reclaimed into cultural appreciation, a process which may have begun with the Rhino Records compilations (The History Of Surf Music) in 1982. I’ll admit Zebu! exhibit plenty of energy in their rough music and evoke a suitably amateurish garage-rock feel through the flat recording, but I don’t like it much. They have no gift for a memorable melody, and their sloppy guitar work is an insult to the precision and care of The Surfaris, Dick Dale, The Challengers and Santo & Johnny (the creators of ‘Sleep Walk’), all of whom struck their guitar notes with a purposeful simplicity that these boys can’t hope to match. The saxophone work of guest player Peter Van Siclen is nauseating to my ears, and the band’s lapses into 1980s punk rock are embarrassing. “Classicist American instrumental ho-daddyism”, indeed!

Home Installation

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Various / Curated by Francisco López
A Tasty Swarm Of Small Signals
STÖRUNG STR008 DVD (2010)

The mathematical structure of this toothsome flock of diminutive electronic compositions is 7 (sound artists) x 13 (tracks) x 2 (minutes), amounting to 3 hours of sound art miniatures best enjoyed through ‘good speakers’ or headphones. Compiler, Francisco López answered the call of the Puertas de Castilla Cultural Centre in Barcelona, which houses the ‘Experimental Music Sound Archive’, consisting of his own vast accumulation of years’ worth of tapes, records and CDs; the goal being to promote experimental sound art more widely. It’s a noble enough cause, and ratified by a number of illustrious participants such as Lawrence English, Asmus Tietchens, Zbigniew Karkowski and notable others. Ordinarily, the nebulous designation of ‘sound art’ designates nothing to my ears so much as cold art galleries and audio wallpaper, but I’m pleased to find that the contents of this DVD – while unlikely to rank among any of the artists’ most staggering achievements – provide a solid listen from start to finish.

Expectations thrown swiftly into abeyance, work begins with the work of James Webb (hitherto unknown to me). His thirteen pieces proceed in a decidedly non-linear manner, from electro-crackling darkness to surveys of sub-oceanic pressure, and much in between. It’s like looking at a white wall, arrayed upon which one finds a cross-section of lesser-known Expressionist miniatures, which are pleasing enough to the eye, if minor in stature. Louis Dufort (also unknown to me) reprises Webb’s eclectic aural splatter approach, except with larger canvases, which are plastered with frenetic activity: sound bounces between expansive electroacoustic, organ drone and mildly abrasive noise. It’s largely stimulating, though once again, the abrupt transitions are both jarring and annoying reminder of the small servings being served.

Lawrence English delivers a baker’s dozen entitled ‘Densities in Air’, offering a more streamlined set of aural experiences, subtly penetrating: like a dentist’s drill to the eardrum. Sounds like there are a lot of natural locational recordings processed to sound more alien. Francisco López notches things up a few Hz, with near-visible aural settings that include trains grinding to a halt at space station and an filtered assortment of industrial warehouse ambiences. Nothing groundbreaking, granted (which would be out of place here), but warm, womblike throbs and gradual textural refinement should eventually bring relief to any headphone-equipped listener. Alan Courtis serves up similarly sinister scenery consisting of black sandpaper walls, skittering insectoid mechanics and hints of flickering, low (and uncomfortably high) frequency radio signals. If you lack a wide-open listening space, this might just be of help to you.

From agitated granules, Tietchens’s ‘Vektors’ snowball (or pearl) into and from earshot and distance, the resulting moments of near-silence resulting in some of the only seamless continuity on offer here; over time the atmosphere acquires the torrential texture of an underwater sandstorm: abrasive, but in a pleasantly exfoliating way. I was about to recommend close listening through headphones, but then some kind of extra-terrestrial insect invaded my ear canal. Also unconcerned with guest’s etiquette, Zbigniew Karkowski (alas, one of our more recent musical losses) zaps ostentatiously into last place with his 13 ‘Polyphases’, which range from thought-drowning lazer-fests, to trance-inducing, deep-core drilling. While Karkowski plays with a single theme, his sonic range is perhaps the greatest, and quite perceivable is his subtle frequency modulation, and near-sentient metallic shape shifting.

Track by track, there’s not a dull moment here, and while possibilities are inevitably limited (unlikely the artists sweated blood to produce this material), you get plenty for your money. With the proper sound system (which I lack), rewards will be much richer I daresay. That said, while the flaws barely require explanation, I’ll proceed anyway: the chief inconvenience with the format is evident from the outset: sound snippets too teasing at two minutes and stopping too suddenly. Ordinarily, this would mean structural development is inhibited by such a characteristic, but the brief duration is a congenital consideration, and the brief lifespan of each piece ensures that each is its own audio microenvironment. At the same time, it strikes me as odd that the effort has gone into compiling so curiously bodied a specimen as this, but perhaps Mr López (and assuming it was his say-so) fancied trying something a little more unusual (and affordable) than a more conventional multi-CD set. Perhaps it is simply intended, as stated, as ‘the beginning of a number of future projects’; the present document amounting to a sampler or a CV that will in turn lead to more substantial work. In any event, if you fancy turning your regular listening space into an installation space, then the portable (and reliable) means can now be yours for a nominal fee.

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Masking, Tape

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Andrea Borghi
Musica per Nastro (Tape Music)
ITALY SPECTROPOL RECORDS SPECT16 CD (2012)

This is the helpful, if brief, information Spectropol have seen fit to include on the sleeve notes of Musica per Nastro: “…Originally intended to be released on cassette, this work is also a tribute to composition methods used in electronic tape music of the 1960s. Every track is processed in real-time by a patch built with the Max application and is based on cut-up, sovraposition, sound stretching, loop, echo and feedback.” I’m not sure what “sovraposition” is or what it is for. Answers on a postcard please. Everything else sounds familiar, I’m sure you’ll agree.

There are some mildly unhelpful sleevenotes as well, in which we are told that in addition to electric bass, like many practitioners at work today, Andrea Borghi uses “…microphones, computer, effects, samples and field recordings”. Who doesn’t? This doesn’t really help me understand his process. Or motivation. Or compositional strategies. So there is a kind of shroud of mystery enveloping this work, intentional or otherwise.

However, what we are presented with here is ten pieces covering half an hour of fairly faithful-to-the-concept electronic-derived composition which reminded me of software/system generated works such as Mileage Reimbursement by Koji Asano or Aspect or Cry Of This Earth by Konrad Boehmer which I’ve been listening to recently. Although I just can’t shake the confusion of calling an album of music Tape Music when not one piece of tape has been employed in its creation. I suppose calling it Max MSP Music is not quite so evocative? The sleeve (creator uncredited) features images of different kinds of masking tape stuck to canvas to deliver a visual pun, so perhaps here we learn that the composer at least has a sense of humour.

A couple of pieces included here appear to be culled from art installations or events of some sort; ‘Suss’ was created for dia*foria no.1, whatever that is/was and ‘Entertainment – Omaggio a D. F. Wallace’, a veritable smorgasbord of digital clicks, whirrs and chuckles, is part of a live recording made in 2009 during an installation of the same name on show at La Versiliana, Pietrasanta in Luca, Italy.

A somewhat watery device with a premature and perfunctory fade out at only one minute 56 seconds, ‘Suss’ sets the tone for what reveals itself to be a very truncated set of pieces. The longest track in this collection is the penultimate ‘Clema#2′ at a smudge under five minutes; most others hover around the three to four minute mark. That the disc in its entirety is only 31:15 in duration and contains ten pieces of music is remarkable to me, and a little disappointing. Overall, I feel this gives a sense not of wanting to hear more, but instead a feeling of anti-climax at not really being able to engage properly with each piece over such short durations. I would have far preferred to live inside Andrea Borghi’s sound worlds for much longer, because they are appealing, but longer durations for this kind of music pay dividends in terms of listener engagement in my view. I’d happily immerse myself for far longer in the pixelated anti-venom of ‘Aent’ (a scant 02:07) or the metallic plains of ‘Mandiba’ (little better at 02:14) for example. If, on the other hand, Borghi is attempting to compose his digital études specifically to short durations rather than simply editing/fading them down to size (which is what I suspect is happening here – there’s little evidence of structure in these brief little vignettes, particularly for a work which professes to be in thrall to “…composition methods used in electronic tape music of the 1960s…”) then I think he has been unsuccessful, which is a pity. Presenting two or three much longer duration pieces would have made for a stronger, more cohesive disc, in my opinion. ‘Nodore\Visore’ is a sonic tarpit threatening to dispose of any unsuspecting late-night viewers; its insectile clicks and blurps lulling the unwary into fatal relaxation. And final track ‘Emissions’ is, perhaps, closest in feel to some of the spacier examples of tape manipulation/composition by certain Radiophonic Workshop employees in the late 1960s. But ‘Emissions’ has a very abrupt ending at 4:24; an unnecessary jolt to the senses – I can’t for the life of me understand why the composer would want to do that.

Putting aside my reservations, overall, Musica per Nastro (Tape Music) seems to be to be almost modern-day mood music; kinetic new age sounds for stressed-out automatons or a robotic Reiki soundtrack bereft of the irrelevance of nature sounds or bells. And its editing certainly lets you know when your session is over. At least, it’s the kind of music I’d rather be listening to while being soothed and smoothed by alternative therapy any day of the week. And I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t intrigued as to where Andrea Borghi is going to go next.

9 Inches of 1000 Feet

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Now 20 releases strong, the Berlin-based 1000füssler label specialises in intriguing, small edition 3” CDR recordings of sound art, which are and likely the sort of articles you’ll find for sale on a small table at the back of a cold, tiny basement venue after a quiet laptop performance you’re not sure if you liked or not. Visually and sonically, each of these releases expresses an initial remoteness, amply compensated for by a duration that invites the all-important careful listening.

The four ‘studies’ that add up to Adam Asnan’s FBFC offer varied tempos of rotor-bladed whirr and grind drawn from ‘a single speaker driver, amplification feedback and the lid of a 35mm nitrate film canister, that once contained reel 13/16 of Henry V’. Perhaps one of the Bard’s tragedies would have added a little more weight to proceedings, which resemble a tamer take on the whirling clawed intro to Boredoms’ Super Roots 6, though with episodes of corrosion rather like that seen on the cover image. From the diminutive format to the arbitrary track durations, a somewhat fatal indecision is the implicit driving force here, and though the sounds are not unattractive by any measure, a single, cohesive piece might have constituted a more engaging artefact.

Gregory Büttner’s Scherenschnitt (either ‘silhouette’, ‘cut out’ or ’paper cut’) is just this, and seven minutes shorter than Asnan’s. Paper, scissors and tape – sonic and stationery – are the stated sound sources here: lots of snipping, slicing and tearing away, with snippet of processing and editing that culminate in expanding clouds of crystalline hiss. Drawn from the artist’s 2012 sound installation, Büttner’s inspired arts and crafts antics – carefully miked and reassembled – yield a less mysterious composition than Asnan’s, but one that is quite satisfying; revealing the essence of his materials, while whetting my appetite for a bit of collage construction of my own.

The sketched sleeve of Olaf Hochherz’s rooms to carry books through also suggests a human hand and do I detect a note of whimsy? The composer’s set-up consists of ‘two parts of an electronic instrument and ten speakers’, the former comprising ‘piezoelectric contact microphones and speakers placed inside a book’, which acts as both a resonator and a filter. The sounds that emanate from this chaotic construction are apparently accidental in nature, with Hochherz shepherding as best he can. Sound-wise, we’re initially presented with a similar proposition to the Asnan effort: a whirring grind of a squeakier species that drops in and out like something from the Schimpfluch set or one of Lucas Abela’s mirthful meanderings; ribbed with ballooney rasps and all sorts of locked-door workshop fumbling that leave the listener firmly outside of the theatre of operations. If intrigue and bafflement are your cup of tea, you’re in good company with Hochherz.

La Marque Jaune

I’m about as ill-equipped as I ever am to take pen in hand, even as my typewriter keys get gummed up with my own mental whitewash…soon after we published a post about Staaltape in October 2012, three more Staaltape cassette tapes arrived 17 January 2013, presenting the same enigmatic puzzles – anonymous packages, hand-written information, blank imagery. At first coup d’oeil, it’s hard to know what to even call the items by name, as the titles and artists are far from clear. There are lots of layers to the packages, like layers of semiotic meaning, and it takes patience to even get to the cassettes through pieces of tissue paper, rubber bands, inserts, masking tape and such. And once again the parcel itself is wrapped up in a strange collage made by the label owner Rinus Van Alebeek. I am suitably bewildered already. So let’s take the cassette Zanstones Für Berlin first of all. The cover is hand-painted with poster paint with the letter S, because every copy had one of the title’s letters on the cover, so if they were all laid out in a shop or gallery I suppose it would spell itself out. As fate would have it, it’s already in its second (small) edition of 18 copies. The American audio artist Zan Hoffman had a show called Zanstones held at Staalplaat Berlin in 2011, and he gathered all the sounds on this tape in a single day. The little pictures printed on this piece of Kodak Extralife paper don’t really explain very much about that process, though some of them they show him in the open air in that city pointing his microphones in unusual places, including up towards a municipal traffic light. The late Hugh Davies made sound recordings of different types of pedestrian crossings across the world; I think he was a connoisseur in that area.

This cassette is a fairly puzzling audio experience too. I ought to start off saying it is fascinating to listen to and in places has a primitive beauty that is almost incandescent (especially the eerie, insistent drones on side two). But it’s eccentric and strange too. It’s quite some way from the usual things that city-dwelling field recordists bring us back from the city when they create their well-meaning but ultimately rather boring documentary snapshots. By contrast, Zanstones Fur Berlin is full of highly surprising incident, and amounts to some sort of day-dreaming, ambulatory episode – the recognisable sounds we hear always being undercut or overlaid with very non-familiar things. Hoffman has found a world within a world, or else he doesn’t live in the same place as most normal men. It’s a portable audio installation, a tour around a private art gallery. He somehow remakes the world into his own private space and beholds everything with wonder. The strangest elements on this tape are provided by Hoffman’s muttering, chanting and whispering voice, which cloaks everything in mystery. It might be possible to read these utterances as aural captions for the vitrines in this aural art exhibit. It’s as though we’re having the outside world explained to us by a certifiable madman, speaking urgently in his own private language. Then it dawns on us that he’s not mad at all. The label regards this recording as a surrealist journey, and I’m all for that.

I am surprised I never heard of this talented and prolific creator before, considering he’s been around since the 1980s, has his own ZH27 tape label, and has released a large amount of material under his own name and within several groups – including Ambient Complot, Aquabatic Bubble Gum, Bodycocktail, Crow White, Here Be Monsters, JaJa HoLe, Kozan, Masters Of The Ungentlemanly Art, Second Violin, and many more. He claims to be on a 27-year mission “to explore new audio realms”, leaving behind the effluvia of recorded artefacts to mark his journey’s progress. As such he is a cassette hero and fits perfectly into the loose affiliation of Staaltape geniuses, and also owns the sort of unclassifiable mindset that neatly escapes categorisation, always leaping over eighteen hurdles and staying ten kilometres ahead of all the competition. Very high recommendation for this uncanny recording. Now I would like to hear a lot more from Hoffman and ZH27.

Now we have an item clipped in a shiny black box. On the front is a murky image which I take to be an x-ray of a spinal column. The interior is disguised as an old Sacha Distel tape on a budget label. This AudioZine #1: Glenn Branca item is the work of Rinus Van Alebeek, who composed the A side ‘City Of Music’ using location recordings from New York City – there are numerous edits and strange treatments, including some echo and backwards tapes perhaps, and the music of Glenn Branca may appear here also. Spoken word elements there be, isolated remarks from an American companion (playing Virgil to Van Alebeek’s Dante), leaking into the chaotic and vivid sounds of the gigantic metal monster that is NYC. What a living breathing creature he transforms it into. I sometimes wonder why other “artistic” field recordists tend to produce such dead documents of the environment: sedate, minimal, almost inhuman in their clinical beauty. Then you hear an ugly but vital document like this one, almost scary in the way it depicts and totally embraces the raw and bleeding inhospitality of modern urban life. This is not a question of looking among “the garbage and the flowers”, but allowing yourself to be run over by an entire fleet of garbage trucks and very possibly eaten alive by the giant rats of Manhattan. From these edits and treatments, there emerges a glorious roar of abstract noise which makes you glad to be alive. On the B side we have further recordings from Paris, New York and Washington D.C.; for parts of these aural journeys, Van Alebeek is assisted by Harold Schellinx and Emmanuel Rebus. Schellinx is an important creator (musician, writer and artist) from the Dutch underground who played in post-punk bands in the 1970s, and has been creating sonic diaries for about 13 years with his portable Walkman recorder and tiny mic clipped to his jacket lapel. This side is largely more straightforward and non-composed, it includes a long (bootleg-quality) recording of Glenn Branca’s guitar music being played at a venue and we also eavesdrop on a conversation between an American (probably Branca himself) and our European friends; some of this has been used as raw material for the A side. Branca’s contribution is such that he even has his own name loosely inserted in the release on a small piece of orange paper. Would he appreciate being visually compared to Sacha Distel? N.B.: I wrote the above without knowing the actual story, which is here.

The last item is titled Groetjes Uit Brussel and features contributions from four Belgian sound artists – Flavien Gillié, Jean Jacques Duerinckx, Margarida Guia and the strangely-named Patate. The artistic brief handed down to them was to “depict one moment or fragment of the town they live in”. They came up with these lovely miniaturist statements which glisten like a jewel for precious seconds, then vanish in a drifty manner. I don’t know a great deal about these Belgians although Duerinckx appears to be a jazz saxophonist and Margarida Guia is a performance artist / comedienne who has appeared in films and has composed radiophonic works. Of the three tapes, this one might not be as outright strange or shocking as the two items noted above, but it is extremely beguiling; the individual contributions are listed, but not divided up or signposted in the programme, and the accumulated listening experience reveals a misty and slightly warped view of the city of Brussels. Moving from shopping mall to church, we are in a highly fluid zone where even the most fleeting and banal sound has the potential to be a sign of some import. Signs are taken for wonders. We don’t know where we are or where we might be going next, and the effect is like floating through an evanescent dream-world on winged shoes, passing overheard and drifting through walls like a wispy ghost.

If the aim of Van Alebeek and these artists is to create unusual maps of the world, they are succeeding. The tapes themselves are the maps, finding aids to allow us to locate our own zones of importance, and in the final analysis enabling us to perform our own personal dérives of the city. These tapes do more than just present interesting glimpses of overlooked corners of the world, they perform certain artistic operations on the mind and help us to rewire our brains.

Staaltape

Black and Blue Blues

Simon Balestrazzi sent us a copy of Hashima’s record from Italy – Simon may not actually appear on this 47-minute stretch of doom-laden rattling noise, but he is credited with the mastering and I venture to say that it’s a project laced with a palpable dose of the characteristic Balestrazzi traits, including that sense of blackened occultism and semi-magickal ceremony in the enactment of the mysterious sounds. Collapsing New Buildings (SANTOS PRODUCTIONS SNTSR08) echoes its way into infinity; it resounds with such ominous natural echo that it might as well have been performed in a long, old-fashioned corridor some several hundred metres in length and lined with civil-service styled wooden panelling decorating the drably-painted walls. One is reminded of the anecdote often told about the recording of Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘The Boxer’ and how the dramatic percussion effect on that record was achieved by setting up an enormous bass drum at the end of a studio corridor for Hal Blaine to bash 1. Hashima’s intentions are far from benign, and this darkened record reeks with fugged-out screams and tortured feedback effects – much like prising open an enormous door in this ‘new building’, and the entire record is characterised by ferocious percussion work reminiscent of the demolition crew hammering down walls with sledgehammers, or ripping apart metal siding inside an elevator shaft. The other part of the puzzle is that Hashima Island is a real-life location (off the coast of Japan) and a notorious site of dereliction and ruined buildings – what was once a prosperous coal mining town in the first half of the 20th century is now a major symbol of serious neglect. Two other artists who have been intrigued by this world-famous “ghost town” are CM Von Hausswolff and Thomas Nordanstad, whose response was to make a video “installation” out of the place. I have seen this video, and believe me, it’s a haunting and harrowing experience. Perhaps Hashima is another alias for Balestrazzi? Perhaps the work was actually recorded in one of the decaying buildings on that bleak atoll? Speculation aside, I would imagine the cover art for this release is a genuine Hashima photo, and you couldn’t wish for a more palpable image of extreme urban decay. The record itself more than lives up to that visual promise! Arrived 3rd January 2013, but may have been released in October 2012.

Blue Poles (SLIGHTLY OFF KILTER sok046) is a collection of aural experiments by Paul Khimasia Morgan, recorded in various locations during 2011 and 2012. They don’t seem to have any theme or connection and are related only by appearing together on this album. They comprise field recordings, pieces where he’s working with musical instruments in various combinations, or more abstract experiments in sound art using feedback and white noise through a mixing desk. Morgan restricts himself by only allowing an interpretative dimension to appear inside his titles, some of which are like isolated fragments from poetry or the opening lines of mysterious short stories. For the rest, all description is stony-faced: he delivers only a completely factual shopping list of the objects and bric-a-brac used to create each track, noting the location and place where he did it. On this outing at least, Morgan shows himself as a devotee of the “small objects and small sounds” school of sound art, creating curious creaky episodes of rather dry rattling and rustling like a slightly more fulsome version of the later Jeph Jerman. The work may occasionally produce some odd musical notes or drones from a guitar or zither, or some low-key electro-acoustic effects where a microphone or mixing desk may interact with the activities. Largely though, Blue Poles takes a non-musical and documentary approach; the musician’s own work is treated as though it were an event taking place in the countryside, and recorded as though he were making a field recording of it. This lends a diffuse quality to each piece; it’s not clear where it begins or ends, if indeed it can be said to occupy such certain ground. Rather than finished compositions, it might be more apt to regard these as fleeting snapshots of unusual phenomena in progress. (24/01/2013)

Piatcions are an Italian psychedelic rock group who made an LP called Senseless Sense in 2011; we received an advance copy of their 12-incher, Heaven’s Sins (FC009V12), from the London label Fuzz Club Records. Three tracks in fifteen minutes, including a remix of ‘Reel Loop’ by Atom Eye. I won’t pretend that any of this music is particularly “experimental”, but I like it. It brings home the bacon in terms of solid, trancey avant-rock with all the desirable qualities – a solid beat, fuzzed guitars, trippy keyboard drones. Not as self-consciously proggy or kosmische as the retro items we often get from Sulatron Records, this is good treacly dark-drug music that’ll keep a few Spacemen 3 diehards happier for a bit longer. Allegedly, they’re great in a live situation too. (22/01/2013)

The three-inch offering by Vile Plumage is another odd ‘un sent in by Filthy Turd. The Plan Be Vile, Conceived In Shame (NO LABEL CDR) is described as a “metaphysical journey…through Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent”, and consists of lo-fi field recordings made around that undistinguished locale. The recordings have been layered with an uncertain acoustic guitar plucking the idle music of the damned like a diabolical busker in the streets of Hades. Plus menacing whispers and grunts which are occasionally dropped into the continuum. The gentle noise grows into more alarming proportions, with echoed chants, strange howling effects, and gasping women victims; all the while that relentless acoustic guitar keeps on trotting out its implacable rhythm, as though its player was grinning at us with the sinful smile of the fallen. Vile Plumage is the team of Filthy Turd and Andy Jarvis, but in true magus fashion (shape-shifting like a witch’s familiar) even their very name can change at will and they are sometimes called Vile Goldenn Plumage or Goldenn Viles. The actual surface of this recording may not strike you as especially inventive at first, but persevere ye must, since a desolate and spooked vibe runs through it; it’s as though the pair shrunk themselves into small hobgoblins to capture the sounds from the “parks, tunnels and ginnels” of the area, and at length are able to transform into the hideous horned and hairy creature on the cover. Filthy Turd continues to shine his light into odd places, and you may not like what he reveals. From August 2012.

  1. Other reports say this effect was achieved with studio reverb.

Through a Pre-Memory: a heavyweight sound experience of alienation and despair from two musical heavyweights

ÄÄNIPÄÄ

ÄÄNIPÄÄ, Through A Pre-Memory, Editions Mego, CD 175 (2013)

On their own and with other collaborations, Mika Vainio and Stephen O’Malley are formidable players so one might approach this debut recording, representing three years’ worth of recordings made in Berlin, with some trepidation. This is a very solemn and heavyweight sound experience but with some very delicate and deft touches throughout. The album moves at a sure if slow pace giving listeners plenty of time to savour both SOMA’s deep guitar rumbles and Vainio’s icy crystal electronic tone poems, plus the looming space behind the sounds. You’re thrust into a very stark world in which every bit of audio information carries significant import for you personally.

The two are joined by Alan Dubin, he once of James Plotkin’s OLD and Khanate, whose distinctive screech presses out lyrics adapted from the 20th century Russian modernist poet Anna Akhmatova on “Muse” and “Watch over Stillness / Matters Principle”. Akhmatova’s work offended the Soviet state which censored her writings but she chose to stay in the USSR and experienced the pain of oppression (her first husband was killed by the secret police and her son and second partner spent time in gulags). These tracks can be very intense in delivery and have a raw sound. “Watch over Stillness …” has juddery rhythms and sections of slashing tiger guitar growls and active aggression that keep listeners off-side and uncomfortable while the track lasts.

Much of the album might be confronting the issue of alienation arising from forced isolation, even incarceration; the soundscapes of “Toward All Thresholds” evoke visions of deep cavernous labyrinths stretching far, far into Blackness. Fragments of sound, rhythm passages and steely-toned guitar make periodic appearances, as though coming up for air through the dark murk, only to fall back, lost forever. The sound world becomes quite rich as the track proceeds and its mood changes considerably throughout. In a later part of the track, the darkness almost engulfs the music and wisps of sound barely hold the piece together as it slowly disappears.

“Mirror of Mirror Dreams” features a trio of string players (Eyvind Kang, Moriah Neils, Maria Scherer Wilson) providing a layer of forlorn desolation to SOMA’s impassive drone rumbles. One thinks of the vastness of space and humanity’s relative insignificance in the cosmos while meditating on this piece.

It’s a deeply absorbing experience and after hearing this, you will find your perceptions changed: things you formerly took for granted take on a new seriousness and those issues that occupied all your attention before fade away as the superficial fluff they are.