Tagged: spoken word

The Whole World Is An Enigma

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

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

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

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

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

The Question

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

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

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

Chimie du Son / Stoeien Met Geluid: a treasure chest of obscure home recordings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Francis Jeannin / Various Artists, Chimie du Son / Stoeien Met Geluid, Australia, Creelpone, 2 x CD CP195-196 (2016)

In his quest to cram as many riches into this limited series of double-CD releases (to expire with the 200th release), the Creelpone collector has packed this twin-barrel treasure chest with all the known recordings made by Swiss sound engineer Francis Jeannin; this set includes the entire compilation “Stoeien Met Geluid, 25 Jaar Amateur-Geluidsregistratie 1951-1976″ on Disc 2 of musique concrète recordings made by various amateur sound artists, among which can be found a piece by Jeannin which turns out to be an extended version of an original work on Disc 1.

Disc 1 itself is made up of a private-press 10” vinyl release Jeannin made in the 1950s, followed by a second 30-minute recording “Mah Jong II” by composer / choreographer Emile de Ceuninck on which Jeannin contributes electronic doodlings. The longer work was created for an ensemble featuring soprano singer Adrienne Biet, jazz piano and percussion, and is quite pleasant (if of course very long!), but Jeannin plays a minor part providing some electronics and tape manipulations. The 10″ vinyl release is much more interesting and brisk, and is essentially a lesson in which Jeannin takes his audience through his techniques and methods of speeding up or slowing down sounds and chopping and cutting them up into the raw material to create music or recreate popular ditties of the day. He lets fly tunes like “Silent Night” in the most wondrous tones, so delicate in their sound and etching yet so redolent of the memories of everyday objects and their associations, of which so many have become redundant and passed into history. The sounds of car horns, screeching tyres, aeroplanes, jazz drums and other paraphernalia from the background fabric of post-World War II European society are all rich raw material for Jeannin’s tinkering. His chatty lectures (in French) give way to his amazing little musique concrete offspring who spring into our world and flit and zip joyfully through the air from the loudspeakers.

On Disc 2, amid a mind-blowing collection of the oddest of oddball home-made “amateur” tape collages and electronic dabblings from various European sound artists (and one South African fellow), an extended version of one of the “Chimie du Son” tracks, “H2O”, appears smack bang in the middle and is quite a relaxing piece with a laid-back lounge lizard tune (which I know I’ve heard elsewhere but I can’t remember the title or the original artist). If you’re really curious about this “Stoeien Met Geluid …” compilation, the real dubious glories are elsewhere on the disc: there’s a strange number “Sink Symphony” by Britisher R S King which is devoted to the sonic marvels of British hotel plumbing; and a jolly German dance tootle called “Pipsy” by Gerd H Nieckau, whose compatriot Jurgen Sprotte has an obsession with playing another ditty several different ways on “Das Tanzende Pausenzeichen”. Much later on the disc comes Manfred Eichler’s Exercise with Soundgenerator and Coffeetin” (sic). I must advise though that there are several tracks on the compilation that will make you cringe and squirm in embarrassment for their creators. But we lovers of strange music must embrace the clunky and the kitsch, the jaw-dropping what-the-f***-were-they-thinking? creations along with the quirky, the charming and the eccentric, as context changes along with the passage of time, and what is shunned during one period may become a classic in another.

Altogether these collections provide a fascinating snapshot into those aspects of popular Western culture and technology that intrigued people like Jeannin and others of his time to want to sample, shape and reproduce the sounds of this new technology, to revel in the opportunities it offers and to share what they find and create with others. The music that results becomes a historical document of the popular culture of its time and what it says or implies reflects the hopes and desires of its society.

I haven’t been able to find out very much about Francis Jeannin himself but this link to an article dated 1999 about a clockwork phonograph player made by someone of the same name living in La Chaux-de-Fonds looks promising. The same dapper gentleman inventor is also featured at this link, and is mentioned as having passed away in 2013.

¡Ahora! – a welcome reissue of wild experimental electronic music

Ivan Pequeño, ¡Ahora!, Creelpone Records, CP 203 CD(2016?)

¡Hola! Here’s a welcome reissue of a rare recording of musique concrète / experimental electronic / spoken word agitprop monologue made by Ivan Pequeño way back in the mid-1970s. The recording was released as an LP in 1977 by French label Eleven Records. Pequeño was originally from Chile and this work includes political content by famous Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, parts of Fidel Castro’s 1962 speech “Second Declaration of Havana” and excerpts of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel “The Autumn of the Patriarch” which were read by Sara Bourasseau and Francisco Zumarque for the original LP recording.

While Spanish speakers inclined towards socialism will probably best appreciate how the music and the actual spoken word recordings complement each other, the rest of us gringos can thrill to the most amazing and zestful electronic music blow-outs this side of Popocatepetl. Clear siren drones zing through the air and through your head like the sharpest of laser beam cutters. While there is plenty of room for quiet, be aware that the most restful periods can be suddenly punctuated by the most impertinent squiggle effects. The most astounding aspect of the album must surely be the way Pequeño composed and assembled the music, the various sounds and the monologues into one self-contained whole that keeps your ears and brain riveted to the speakers from start to end. Even the most terrifying moments, which come late on Track 2 (this being the B-side of the original LP)  and in which the musical soundtrack cheerfully simulates shooting and machine-gun fire, will arouse as much awe and excitement as fear and horror.

The Creelpone reissue includes a bonus piece in which Pequeño duets on synthesiser with American saxophonist Oliver Lake. This is a fun little number where the Chilean peppers Lake’s melodies with little trills and pops and the two end up hammering away at each other with sounds you’d swear synths and saxes just don’t make!

Don’t let the recording’s politics put you off: “¡Ahora!” shows that musique concrète / experimental music can be impassioned, lively and above all fun even in the service of social and political justice. For his three-year effort in finding and reissuing this work along with the only other known recording made by Pequeño, the Creelpone man deserves a great big chocolate cake to eat all by himself.

Robert Filliou Sings Marquis de Sade: oddball spoken voice recording whose rationale is unclear and deliberately ambiguous

Robert Filliou, Sings Marquis de Sade, Goaty Tapes, cassette #73 (2016?)

Here comes one of those obscure oddball recordings that’ll have most of us worrying for the state of mind of their creators, wondering whether they really are as serious as they appear to be on the recordings themselves, are performing with their tongues rooted firmly in their cheeks, or have some ulterior sinister, possibly dangerous motive behind their choices of subject matter to inform their art. Sole performer Robert Filliou’s background is as intriguing as this recording, found in someone’s old basement and until now never considered part of his corpus of works: born in France in 1926, he fought for the French Resistance during World War II and later emigrated to the US where he worked at a series of low-paid jobs while studying for a master’s degree in economics at UCLA. He worked at the UN and embarked on his artistic career in 1960 as a member of the Fluxus movement, creating theatrical and film performances, sculptures and happenings. He later moved to Canada with his wife in 1977 and spent the last three to four years of his life living in Les Eyzies in southern France where he died in 1987.

Singing completely a cappella, Filliou performs excerpts in English translation from the various writings of that notorious late 18th-century libertine novelist / theatre critic the Marquis de Sade. Filliou takes us on a tour through time and space of the divers excruciating tortures and punishments that humans have inflicted upon one another, often under the pretence of carrying out justice. The artist isn’t a bad singer at all and with some training could have led his local church choir if the rector had been prepared to overlook his former French Communist Party membership or any fascination with the more lurid apocalyptic visions of the Book of Revelations. Starting with the Irish, the Norwegians and the ancient Celts, Filliou ticks off the bucket list of nations past and present and their particular associated brutal torture specialties: be it crushing people’s skulls with thick staves, disembowelling victims and filling up the cavities with salt, or feeding prisoners to horses crazed from starvation, Filliou dutifully covers most modes of punishment (thankfully, not in much detail) in a moderately high-pitched chanting voice that’s as deadpan grim and matter-of-fact as can be for this material. (Strangely he misses out on the infamous Chinese punishment known as the Death By A Thousand Cuts or the various imaginative Japanese tortures – but then Sade died a long time before he could have heard any of Merzbow’s music.)

Hear enough of this solemn monologue and you can’t help but giggle at the ambition and determination behind it. The most remarkable aspect of the recording is that Filliou manages to plough through Sade’s exposition of the most astonishingly devious and callous punishments ever to spring out of the human imagination without collapsing in fits himself. His voice becomes ever more trance-like and somnolent as if he were reading through the daily grocery shopping list for the hundredth time.

The cassette’s packaging limits itself to Filliou’s name, the title of the work and a swirling background of pale colours such as might be seen when blowing soap bubbles, so the rationale behind performing these texts (most of which is not attributed to any particular work or works by Sade) remains unknown. Listeners must decide for themselves what to make of this recording and what to take away from it. I personally chalk it down to Filliou being mischievous, taking the mickey out of himself and confounding people’s expectations of him and his opinions. On another level, Filliou’s performance and his impassioned summary at the end about what he has just done leave listeners uncertain about his view of Sade and human nature: does he support Sade’s pessimistic view of humanity, that humans are incapable of moral or spiritual improvement, or is his performance a critique of Sade’s philosophy and outlook? One also has to admit that Sade in his own way was brutally open and honest about the extent of human depravity, above all how much it is a natural part of the human expression, however much we fear it and try to deny or justify it.

An Insect on the Other Side of the World Climbing up a Table Leg: a quirky and charming stream-of-consciousness work

Matthew Revert, An Insect on the Other Side of the World Climbing up a Table Leg, Caduc CD #CA17 (2016)

A beguiling work composed of spoken word monologues, field recordings, samples, occasional acoustic guitar noodling and off-key singing, “An Insect …” heralds a growing body of experimental music by Melbourne-based absurdist novelist / graphic designer Matthew Revert. This recording nods in the direction of improv, drone, light noise and neo-primitive folk without being captured completely by any of these categories. It’s quite a busy release with hardly any pauses or lapses in the continuous free-form patter of sound and I marvel that Revert is able to keep up the brisk pace without losing a beat. (Of course there would be have been a lot of cutting and pasting but any joins can hardly be heard.) All the sounds appear to be completely natural with very little processing and they are right at the forefront of the mix.

Listeners might feel a little too close to the action for comfort – there’s a phone conversation that they’ll be eavesdropping into, and Revert (I assume that Revert does all the monologues) mumbles under his breath and almost appears to drift into sleep – and possibly much of the intimacy feels too forced. Towards the end of the recording, sounds from the external environment – radio song, a soap opera soundtrack, half of a conversation – intrude into the musical narrative and turn it into something more forbidding and impersonal. It’s as if Revert’s private space which he has deigned to share with us is being invaded and torn apart.

Not too long for the stream-of-consciousness novelty value to turn kitschy and stale, and not too short either, this quirky work has much charm and many surprises. TSP readers need to hear it for themselves as to what meanings or messages (if any) it may have – but I need to warn you, the more you listen to it, the more you’ll wonder what it’s meant to be about. At least the cover art (done by Revert) is easy on the eye and looks as if it means something … or does it when you see the blank face and read the strange messages?

Blowing Hot and Cold

Here is CD04 in the Alessandro Bosetti box set Stille Post (BÔ?T RECORDS BR R010 / MONOTYPE RECORDS mono100). It contains two related pieces under the combined title Campanas & Whistling Republic. On The Whistling Republic, a piece for WDR from 2003, we hear another mosaic assemblage made of fragments of recording, mostly spoken word and a strange whistling language. These elements are underpinned with an electro-acoustic droning sound which grows gradually darker over the course of some 25 minutes, leaving the listener with a highly ambiguous snapshot of something. The theme of The Whistling Republic is to do with communication, a characteristic it arguably shares with all the records in this box. La Gomera is one of the Canary islands, where people sometimes communicate in whistles. This “silbo gomero” as it’s known is described as “a whistled register of Spanish”, and has been included by UNESCO on its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Bosetti may or may not be interested in protecting or preserving that heritage, but he’s certainly interested in it as a language. When he stayed on Gomera, he wrote down some texts – some of them diary records of his sojourn, a couple of them complete works of fiction – and then passed these texts to the locals, asking them to express his words using the “silbo”. He was apparently standing over a mile away at the time with his microphones, yet he still captured these amazing whistles on his tape deck, because one of the features of the “silbo” is its ability to carry a message over long distances. The spoken texts on the record are the attempts made by the Gomerans to decipher and translate these whistles back into the spoken word. As ever, I expect the lively cross-communication dynamic is what appeals to Bosetti in this situation which he has set up. I would interpret it as a metaphor for all human communication; we’re all acting as transmitters and receivers, sending out messages in one language and decoding them into another.

On Campanas, Bosetti revisits Gomera some six years after he did the Whistling Republic piece. This time he took with him some of the unprocessed recordings from the earlier piece, and replayed them back into the air as he wandered around the island, looking for “acoustically interesting spots.” Sounds layered on top of other sounds. He re-recorded these sound events, and edited them into the suite we now hear on this 2009 piece. His own voice appears on the set; he speaks of returning to the island and giving something back, after he previously took something away. He writes, in his printed text, of “putting something inside a space in order to hear it”, making an observation perhaps about the nature of acoustics, but more likely an observation about the importance of context. He also draws, in yet another attempt to make himself understood, and the tentative doodles on the cover here illustrate some of the fantastic things he saw on Gomera; some of them are re-asserted by his vocal descriptions of them on the recording, and he states with some conviction that he “wasn’t dreaming” when he saw a man with two donkeys disappear into the clouds. Other magical-realist fragments emerge through the richness and wizardy of these recordings, and it’s a record that casts a compelling spell over the listener with its imaginative recasting of field recordings, forming uncanny broken narratives and rich atmospheres. Excellent.

Stille Post: Lid of box and front cover of booklet

Previous reviews:

CD01
CD02
CD03

The Smile You Send

Another segment from the Stille Post (BÔŁT RECORDS BR R010 / MONOTYPE RECORDS mono100) box set by Alessandro Bosetti. CD03 is called A Collection Of Smiles. This is another piece for WDR, dating from 2011. Listening to this one “blind”, it seems at first like a stream of rather banal chatter from the mouths of a pan-international set of middle-class people (Australian, Europeans), not saying very much of substance to each other. In fact, the reality of the event wasn’t far from that. Bosetti set up a “situation” where a group of people would meet in the studio and told to speak to each other for one hour, without any directions as to what they should talk about. Some of these people knew each other, some of them were total strangers. Since the artist was recording every speaking voice on a separate input, at the end of this social experiment he now had in his hands a collection of voice elements which he could splice and rearrange as he saw fit. This is what ends up on A Collection Of Smiles. What may start out as something resembling a document of idle restaurant chatter soon turns into a form of vocal music (the repetitions of certain phrases become evident very quickly, creating a song-like effect with verses and choruses), or a form of abstract sound poetry as the voices pile up in rapid-fire collision edits, resulting in pleasing effects of near-gibberish. Meanings are altered subtly, as unrelated sentences are glued together. Although we might stress that there’s no processing of the sounds; Bosetti isn’t out to transform these voices into monstrous groans, for instance, which could be done by time-stretching. The rapid-fire effect, I’m slowly coming to realise, may be one of Bosetti’s trademarks; he likes a rush of information delivered in a dense parcel, and he expects us to keep up with these changes.

The other major dimension to A Collection Of Smiles is the musical score. Bosetti has noted down certain cadences and changes in timbre in the way his subjects speak, and annotated them, transforming them into a musical score. This score is then played back at certain junctures by a small chamber ensemble, in which I can hear piano, guitar, and I think some woodwinds. The precision and ingenuity with which these musical passages are matched against their spoken-word sources is uncanny, yet Bosetti doesn’t even call attention to it; he does it effortlessly, and weaves the passages into the fabric of the work without us even noticing at first that it’s even happening. The first time I heard an instance of a musician doing this was Harry Partch and his Bitter Music, where he was able to document speech patterns of people he met during his hobo years in America, and recast them as musical phrases. (See the third disc of Enclosure 2, INNOVA 401, 1995)

This leaves us with the possible task of “decoding” the content or meaning of A Collection Of Smiles. But I’m not sure if there is any. On the surface, the work feels like a 50-minute musical approximation of a Twitter stream. There’s something relentlessly upbeat about the self-satisfied tone of these individuals and their jabbering that prompts this observation, and the shallowness of their observations is only increased the more it’s repeated under Bosetti’s editing knife. As directed conversations go, this is clearly of quite a different order to the stoned freaks sitting under a tarpaulin with a piano set up by Zappa for his Lumpy Gravy album. However, the record does once again display Bosetti’s remarkable talent for fashioning dense and complex statements from his source materials, and the “different and ever-changing constellations” he is able to build in mosaic fashion clearly delights him.

We Speak From The Air

Stille Post: Radio Works 2003-2011 (BÔŁT RECORDS BR R010 / MONOTYPE RECORDS mono100) is a boxed set of radiophonic works by Italian sound artist Alessandro Bosetti which we received 21 June 2016. There are four CDs in the box. I’ll try and get through them one at a time, which means the reviews will be distributed. Arcoparlante is CD01 and dates from 2009, when Bosetti staged a game of Stille Post (Telephone) on German radio, with the help of the Klangkunst team at the station. The exact method used for this piece of live performance art isn’t crystal clear to me, but it involves sending “almost incomprehensible radio messages” over the air and having them repeated, transcribed, and re-transmitted. It’s a gigantic game of Chinese Whispers..even the simplest and most commonplace phrase is immediately misunderstood and transformed into polysyllabic nonsense, or some vaguely amusing jumble of words.

Bosetti describes the process as a “gigantic sound poetry generator” and calls Arcoparlante “an electromagnetic feast of misunderstanding on a grand scale”. You can feel the delight in his words as he writes this, pleased as Punch with having created this odd Tower of Babel situation for 50 minutes. I get the “grand misunderstanding” part of this project, some of which is to do with mistranslation between European languages, and lot of which is to do with distortion; what I don’t quite get is who was receiving the messages, how the misunderstandings were relayed back into the process, and whether anyone was even listening to the broadcast. But I don’t expect any of that matters. It’s a compelling listen, mainly because it’s so complex and happens so quickly, and the fragments of ultra-fast gibberish just whizz by like errant birds or insects in the ether. You really need to be paying attention or you’ll lose the thread in short order.

There is a structure to the work – each episode or example of the game is prefaced by an announcement which helpfully numbers the experiment in a frightfully Germanic manner – but this structure seems to break down very quickly, and the underpinning logic is hard to fathom in among the intense swirl of clipped words, phrases, static, music, distortion, and more static. Even so, it’s clear we’re intended to hear this as something “episodic”, like 300 episodes of The Archers compressed into less than an hour. I wonder if there was any post-production editing to bring about this delirious rush of information, distilling a night’s work into CD length, or if it all went down like this on the night. Souped-up John Cagean methods at work…a controlled form of chaos…a great record.

Counting Crows

Veteran composer Francis Dhomont is one of the big noises in Canadian electro-acoustic and musique concrète composition, so it’s no surprise to see him represented on the showcase label empreintes DIGITALes with his recent composition, Le Cri Du Choucas (IMED 16138). Astute readers (and viewers) will instantly recognise the piercing eyes of Franz Kafka collaged on the cover art there. Le Cri Du Choucas takes the ideas of Kafka as its theme, a pursuit which Dhomont has been following since 1997. There’s a previous chapter, Études Pour Kafka, released by this same label in 2009; I don’t recall hearing that one, but the body of it has been reworked here. The composer also positions this release as the third and final part of a grand triologie, begun in 1981 as Sous Le Regard D’un Soleil Noir (released by INA-GRM in France) and continued in the mid-1990s as Forêt Profonde. He aims at extremes of drama, enriched with ideas about psychology; he wishes to plumb the depths of a man’s mind, through sound.

You could pick no better creator who personifies “unknowable depth” than your man Kafka; I’ve been reading his short stories since about 1979, and one day I hope to understand them. I can’t claim to have studied a great deal of critical analysis of Kafka, and I’m not sure that I care to; there’s a pleasure to be had for the reader in the constant mystification he sets up with his warped visions of European vistas, his mental labyrinths and strange symbols. I’ve no doubt there are numerous interpretations and explanations of The Trial and The Penal Colony, both works which feature in this music, but Francis Dhomont emphasises one particular aspect: the Law. Dhomont takes “the law” in Kafka to be “a metaphoric representation of the impenetrable realms the human mind hits”, and explores this theme with some determination. He probably reads Kafka’s work as describing a maze which always leads back to the same inescapable place, and ascribes the tone of despair and futility to the gloomy inevitability of mankind’s fate.

Dhomont also gives us his sonic take on other significant Kafka themes, including guilt, solitude, dreams, death, the family, and “impossible messages” – the last one being an apt description of Kafka’s own short stories, for this reader. On Le Cri Du Choucas – a title which incidentally translates as “The jackdaw’s call” and makes a punning reference to the Czech word Kavka – he does it through rich and maximal fugues of abstract sound. Everything has been heavily treated and processed through a vast amount of expensive-sounding digital crunch and filter effects, yet you feel you could somehow reverse-engineer these noises into their sources if you only listened for long enough. Alien though they be, some sounds closely resemble swarms of chattering voices in a huge mass, which is how I remember parts of Frankenstein Symphony by this composer (from 1997). Often these sounds coalesce and rush forward in a massed advance which seems unstoppable; it creates a suitably nightmarish and unreal mood for the listener.

The work is further illustrated and signposted by a good deal of spoken-word narration (in French), fragments of texts and documentary recordings which I assume highlight significant milestones in the design. But these interpolations also interrupt the flow of the music, and keep reminding us of the grand abstractions that Dhomont wishes to convey, barely allowing us any space to conceive our own thoughts. This is one of the stumbling blocks for me on this otherwise exciting release, as it lends an air of didacticism to the work; it’s like being lectured by stern academics in a stuffy University where the Kafka syllabus hasn’t been updated in over 35 years. One senses that the masters at this academy would have no truck with Orson Welles’ free-spirited cinematic interpretation of The Trial. It’s also something of an old-school musique concrète technique, one which has tended to mar my enjoyment of Pierre Henry’s Apocalypse De Jean, that famed Oratorio Electronique from 1969. This aside, you can comfortably play this meticulous work at peak volumes for immersive and transporting effects, to induce profound states of mind…from 25 May 2016.