Tagged: tapes

I Forget

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New York composer Howard Stelzer is mostly known round these parts for his fab label Intransitive Recordings, whereon he released many smouldering gems of mysterious electroacoustic composition, field recordings, tape music and noise. While a few snippets from his career have come our way, I don’t have much of his solo work to hand, so this collection The Case Against (MONOTYPE mono073) is most welcome. Title tracks indicate it’s a suite in five parts, so one might read it as a lengthy meditation on various heavy matters – the overall tone is sombre, and the music is extremely abstract for the most part, excepting some segments where recognisable fragments of real-life everyday noise seep into the mix.

Most notably this happens on ‘Rip It Up’, a brief montage where the sounds of a crowd of people take on a very puzzling hue in the context of so much droning soarage. Did I mention he does it all using cassette tapes…he calls it “cassette music” and his approach to composing with these cronky oxide lengths of magnetic hue is very maximal, using intensive processing and editing to create incredibly rich and dense fields of solid grind. What evocative track titles too…’Accumulated Background Radiation’ might almost be preparing us for a post-nuclear devastation landscape, always a popular trope with industrial musicians, while ‘The Last Scattering Surface’ contains a poignant air of finality, and serves up over 17 minutes of single-minded metal-enriched airy droning tones. When the noise ceases to make way for clouds, birdsong and the noise of the artiste fumbling with his microphones, it’s almost a shocking shift from the abstract to the real, emerging into daylight from the end of a deep pit. This moment, and other parts of the album, show how sensitive Seltzer is when it comes to contrasting timbres and deploying them for maximal effect.

The cover art is by comic strip artist Tony Millionaire and depicts a wrecked hulk on the beach, a forlorn image which is highly suitable for the somewhat lonely and desolate air of this release. From 21 June 2016.

C30 C60 C90 Go!

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Francisco López
1980-82
NO LABEL CD (2015)

Creating, recording and releasing sound and music couldn’t be easier these days. Tap a few glowing images on your Mother Box, zap the results into the magic everything machine, tell all those millions of friends-you’ve-never-actually-met about it, and Bob’s your uncle. This isn’t an unmixed blessing, of course, although I’m not suggesting that things were necessarily better in the olden days. Just pointing out that it wasn’t always this way.

This release from the venerable and prolific Spanish sound artist Francisco López is a case in point. It’s a document of a time when he had nothing to work with except cheap cassette recorders – no reel-to-reel recorders, no synthesizers, no rhythm machines or any of the other “prototypical experimental tools of the time”, as he says in the sleeve notes. All of the sounds you hear on the disc were recorded, transformed and processed entirely on cassette.

As evidence of a working method and the formative years of an artist, this is certainly fascinating. As a listening experience in its own right, my first impression was that it’s somewhat featureless collection of lower-register hums and rumbles. However, closer inspection reveals further details below the surface, like looking at the wall of a cave and realising that a prehistoric inhabitant has shaped a natural outcropping into the outline of a bison. The cave analogy is apt, because a lot of these tracks sound subterranean. Quite how López managed to uncover echoing voids in what I presume are field recordings of Madrid street life is something that can only be wondered at.

Worth a listen, then, if only to remind yourself of the paradoxically liberating nature of limitation, or, as López himself says, “the most essential tools are spiritual, not technical.”

Cultural and Educational Activity

Herewith the latest three cassette releases from Saint Petersburg’s finest underground label Spina!Rec, delivered here on 10 March 2016. As ever, the editions of physical product are tiny, and collectors of cassettes will have to move fast.

sr023

SR023 is a split betwixt Dubcore and Andrey Popovskiy. Dubcore sounds more like it ought to be the name of a label, or a genre, but here it’s an art project which experiments with found sounds and/or field recordings. They offer two pieces under the heading ‘Tea-N-Pepsi’, an endearing latterday cafe society proposal if ever there was. ‘Tuning In’ is a delicious jumble of sources, a fractured radio broadcast. Nothing spectacularly new in the approach of cutting up and random assemblage, but I happen to like the results on this occasion. The creators are genuinely capable of surprising the jaded listener with their juxtapositions and exciting cross cuts. A distinctly urban feel emerges; railway stations, media messages, street sounds, electronic noise, static, and beats. Everything is served up in aggressive micro-second slices, pandering to the minuscule attention spans of our atrophied brains. ‘Theyyam’ by Dubcore feels slightly less paranoid and tense, even admitting the possibility of some pastoral undercurrents, and quieter passages, to the overall mix of unpredictability. Here the listener is intrigued and puzzled. While not as subtle or inventive as the tapes we get from Staaltape and Rinus van Alebeek, Dubcore are operating in much the same area. “Six multilayered tracks full of sounds and changes,” is the description from the website, adding that Dubcore began life as something to do with exploring long tracts of silence. It so happens this tape is the exact opposite of that strategy, and has resulted in a glorious clutter of sonic detritus. A nice one.

Andrey Popovskiy occupies Side B with his 30-minute epic ‘Kryukov’. If credit list rings true, Popovskiy is operating various chunks of hardware for playback of pre-recorded elements (turntable, cassette player, dictaphone, CD player, etc), plus a violin, and e-bow, and additional field recordings. Hard to detect much of this equipment on the finished product, though. It comes across rather like 30 mins of a fellow stumbling about the room not really knowing what to do next, like a lethargic musician trying out ideas, opening the window, or turning the TV on. The recording doesn’t present the music, but documents the event, so that we pick up a good deal of room tone, random sounds, TV or radio in the next room, and general atmosphere of life in a Saint Petersburg apartment. This description may make it all appear infuriating and trivial, but in fact ‘Kryukov’ is a compelling listen. “Different kinds of interaction with environmental sounds,” is how the website describes this episode; “sometimes you can hear contingently appearing sounds of spaces, sometimes it’s prearranged processed recordings.” A lot to explore and get lost inside, varying textures, stories, and effects.

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Open Readings (SR024) is a high-minded attempt to reclaim historic culture from the forces of Evil: “Barbarization of content, devaluation of moral and spiritual values and denial of cultural archetypes” are the declared Enemy, though the perpetrators don’t go into more detail about how this pernicious effect is coming about, or who are the agencies wreaking this vandalism. Are they talking about the media, television, movies, newspapers, the internet? I suspect many forces are culpable when it comes to dilution and bastardisation of culture. The retaliation from the Russian underground comes in the form of the spoken word, readings from “works of the best classical writers of the Silver Age”. In Russia, the Silver Age is the beginning of the 20th century, a highly productive time for experimental poetry, modernist novels, and short stories. On the A side, it’s done by Alexander Mashanov & Ilia Belorukov, who on ‘Blok’ (most likely named for the poet Alexander Blok) belt out short phrases and paragraphs, spoken in Russian, of course, as if words were weapons, to be fired like bullets from a gun. Inevitably, this approach soon develops into a clumsy form of rap music, the rhymes chanted aggressively over a clunky drum beat and tepid electro backing. In less than 11 mins, we’re barked to death. On the B side, the readings are done by Natasha Shamina with a musical backdrop by Sergey Kostyrko. Their ‘Vvedenskiy’ is less contrived than ‘Blok’, and instead of rapping the reading is delivered with the accompaniment of a menacing electronic growl, now and then turning into a nasty squeal, and contributing to the overall tension. The sense of purpose in Natasha Shamina’s steely speaking voice is unmistakeable; she may not be firing bullets, but you sense she’s staring at you with a disapproving eye, and is capable of acting as a silent assassin if the situation demands it. I prefer this B side; it makes zero concessions to entertainment, and demands your engagement with the content.

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SR025 is another split and represents another chapter in this label’s friendly and ongoing collaboration with the Finnish underground. Umpio is the Finn, from Turku; Kryptogen Rundfunk is the Russian. Both are solo acts. Umpio turns in a typically over-baked stew of sounds on his ‘Rio De Venas, Gusanos, Pulso Insectal, Craneocapsula, Bajo Hielo’, and by typical I mean this is the sort of purposeless over-dubbed melange which the Finns have always done so well. This “cunning sound synthesis” as the website would have it is all done by electronic means, digital and analogue working together for that rich “swampy” sensation. ‘Rio De Venas’ doesn’t really progress anywhere, but as a half-realised vision of an alien world, it’s fairly convincing. Pentti Dassum is the fellow behind this pleasing gumbo, and he runs a record label called Nekorekords and was involved in the mastering of over 100 Finnish underground releases, besides the production of about 40 of his own solo records and split releases.

Kryptogen Rundfunk offer us a live recording from 2015 from a venue or event called ESG-21. Feedback and electronic noise are used to create slow and doomy textures…they lurch gradually out of the speakers like so much tar-encrusted sludge, and the outpouring won’t stop until every available surface is covered in this unpleasant morass. Some occasional nice effects are achieved by Kryptogen Rundfunk’s remorseless execution, but in the final analysis he creates the sort of environment that drives you away rather than invites exploration. Dank, grey, gloomy; saps the vitality of most humans, kills many forms of plant life, poisons the air. Artyom Ostapchuk is the creator of this dismalness, and he has made a few sporadic recordings of his brand of industrial ambient death music since 2004 onwards.

Vinyl Seven Glom Part 7

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Another exciting Le Petit Mignon release is LPM 16. Its full title is Le Petit Mignon Vs Le Cagibi and it’s a split between Vinyl-Terror & -Horror and Toys’R’Noise. It lives up to its promise of creating a horrorshow experience in sound, and what’s more is presented in a sumptuous silk-screen book with an array of contemporary graphiste artists.

The side by Vinyl-Terror & -Horror is pretty much a scrambled, cut-up version of an abstract radio play. Sound effects, fragments of voices, vari-speeded records and tapes, eerie music, ghastly drone and general strange things are all thrown together in a witch’s cauldron, leaving listener to imagine their own stories. Surreal, grisly humour abounds…but it never tries to shock the listener with intense noise. Rather ‘Inner Dialogues’ sustains a particular mood through its pop-collage method and never once descends into schlock or irony. The people behind this are Camilla Sørensen and Greta Christensen, two Danish sound artists currently agitating the gravel in Berlin, and are among the ranks of conceptual art terrorists who are “rethinking” the art of turntabling. They do it by smashing up old records, then reassembling the pieces of vinyl along with broken bits of plastic or glass junk that don’t fit. They do much the same to old record players, producing grotesque sculptures. They don’t have that many released items in their catalogue, but all of them make playful and punning references to movies and TV. They seem to be more of an art-gallery thing than full-time musicians, and you can see videos of their art installations on their website. Nearest reference point for me would be Michael Gendreau, whose been doing similar things since 1979.

‘Pachitea Aïda’ on the flip is by Toys’R’Noise, a further 4 and a half minutes of menacing, creepy noise. Sounds very mechanical, as if produced by ramshackle machines similar to those erected by Pierre Bastien, but the noise is spliced with contemporary electronic noise and nasty disco beats. Tribal clonking rhythms ensue, redolent of an imminent forward-marching doom brought about by wind-up robots. I think Toys’R’Noise are a French duo who produce all their murky noise with toys and home-made instruments, and photos of their set look like a junkyard or a car boot sale. Which is probably where they pick up their raw materials every Sunday…wouldn’t you love to be married to these two magpies? Not prolific in terms of releases, but there’s a self-titled debut on Tandori from 2013. The band remind us that the toys are just a gimmick, and their real roots remain in “ambient industrial electro”. Great clanking fun on their side, though I personally prefer the more intricate spells cast by our two Danish witches above.

The booklet is an art object in its own right. It opens in the middle like a pop-up book with a simple mountain-fold used to house the record, which incidentally happens to be pressed in blood-red vinyl. Inside are some dazzling images produced by some two dozen creators whose names are mostly new to me (though I do recognise Zven Balslev, and have published his drawings myself). Not sure if I’m intoxicated by the strong colours, the bold graphic techniques, or the shocking and surreal imagery on display, or perhaps the combination of all three. From 9th February 2015.

Update 27th September 2016: Toys’R’noise are a trio (but they sometimes play as a duo).

Guitar Body Scan

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Here’s another of Room 40’s re-editions of the work of Norman Westberg, the American guitarist well known for his work with Swans; we last noted the excellent 13 which rescued a limited edition CDR which originally came out in 2014. We now have MRI (ROOM 40 RM 474 CD), which offers three long tracks of intense and mesmerising processed drone made with guitar and tape recorder, two of which have been published on Westberg’s own CDR label in 2012.

Right away I must say it’s a somewhat less bleak proposition than 13, and while abstract and monolithic, the music here is more emotionally rich. ‘MRI’ itself was created with a Telecaster, two amplifiers, and multiple effects, captured on tape and reworked in SoundForge, although I gather it was “done as one pass” which I assume means one take and no overdubs. A sad medical tale lies behind ‘MRI’. When he noticed the gradual loss of his hearing, Westberg visited his doctor and submitted to an MRI scan to determine if there was anything else he should be worried about that might have damaged his ears (besides playing brutally loud rock on stage with Swans). The music, I suppose, represents a reflection on the experience of being examined by one of these mechanised medical machines; it doesn’t appear to have been a completely benign sensation, if the results are anything to go by.

Effects, amplifiers and tape are also the basic set-up used to create ‘410 Stairs’, but the source instrument in this instance was a 12-string acoustic guitar. You’d barely recognise that instrument in among this thick cloud of ambience, and it is possible to hear instead a forlorn electric piano drifting in a bed of cloudy synths. However, Westberg’s take on the ambient “genre” is to my mind far superior than a good deal of the automatic-pilot and pre-set keyboard mush we’re subjected to these days, and in his hands the sheer duration of the pieces is not just done for the sake of it. ‘410 Stairs’ allows us to spend 20 minutes in an exceptionally beautiful and dream-like zone, even when a vague and unnamed threat seems to be lurking at the periphery of our perception.

‘Lost Mine’ from 2015 does not appear to have been issued before, and of the three pieces here it seems the most informed by a sense of structure in the composition and execution; at any rate, there are patterns and repeated forms that are less evident in the foggy soup of the other pieces, and a sense of development to the music (albeit extremely gradual) as we delve further into the depths of this imaginary mineshaft. The label owner Lawrence English is still persuaded we should regard Norman Westberg as a composer in the direct lineage of the American Minimalists of the 1960s, a line of thought which I am not prepared to defend or contest at this time. From 24th March 2016.

Yougenji Sleep

Celer

Celer (American sound artist Will Long) builds on the idea of loop-centric ambient music with his Akagi (TWO ACORNS 2A09). It’s a single 79-minute piece made from the simplest of means, employing a couple of reel-to-reel tape recorders and two further loops made from keyboard recordings. Everything was pitched more or less in the same (incredibly slow) time signature, but designed to produce overlapping chords from the keyboards, making use of chance factors and out-of-synch playbacks. Unlike Steve Reich, who wished to call attention to the powerful effects that can be generated through repetition and mismatched synching, Celer is aiming for a soporific and hypnotic effect. In fact he notes “during the performance many people fell asleep” with a degree of satisfaction, adding this response to his register of success. As for Will Long himself, the piece has unlocked a buried memory from his childhood which means a lot to him; he spends two paragraphs detailing the circumstances of this nostalgic episode and its resonance for him, twice as long as the text describing the composition itself. Akagi was prepared for a live yoga event at a Tokyo in Temple. From 1st February 2016.

Composition Games

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Another chapter in the seemingly endless exploration of the history of the Polish Radio Experimental Studio arrives in the form of Homo Ludens (BÔŁT RECORDS BR ES20), a showcase for the work of Eugeniusz Rudnik and Krzysztof Penderecki. This particular release stresses the friendship and collaboration between these two great Polish composers, and the role of the studio itself as a meeting place for the two where they could share and discuss ideas. It’s fair to say that here is where Penderecki cut his teeth in terms of working with electronic music; apparently he was at first afraid of the equipment, and wouldn’t touch anything for fear of electric shocks from the high voltage, so he left most of the physical labour to Rudnik. Rudnik also helped him to meet deadlines for cinema soundtrack commissions, some of which are represented on this set. All the Penderecki pieces are from the early 1960s, so if experimental tape composition, film and theatre soundtracks, Poland and the 1960s are check-boxes that set your personal pulsometers throbbing, this is the set for you. As far as I can discover, none of these Penderecki pieces have ever been released previously.

Two personal favourites of mine are ‘Left Home’ from 1965 and ‘Polish Ballad’ from 1964, mostly I suppose because of the high gloom quotient – they are grey, bleak, and highly atmospheric. ‘Left Home’ was used for a theatrical piece by Tadeus Rozewicz, and comprises voice recording overdubs; the booklet invites us to see parallels with Penderecki’s more conventional choral scores from this period. You have to wonder what ‘Left Home’ was all about when you hear these intense and bleak sounds. A nondescript murmur and whine is punctuated with a slow typewriter click or metronome, creating instant gloom and tension. It feels close to the grand spiritual themes we know and love old “Penders” for. The echo chamber voice effects are juicy and weird, and the electronic music treatments are glorious.

‘Polish Ballad’ is another theatre piece, again heavy on the vocals; the erudite booklet points out things like the stereo picture being created, the “ascetic vocabulary of sounds”, and “electronics verging on brutal”. Me: it’s a gloomoid monster…heavy and ponderous groans, murmurs, passing like evil wind overhead. Some horrific vocal fragments that seem to be passing a death sentence on the listener. If this is a sound-ballad about Polish life in the 1960s, the sheer difficulty and pain of everyday life is what comes across most strongly. If you like classical electro-acoustic message to weigh heavily across your shoulders, tune in now. I do wish these cuts were mastered a bit “louder” though; maybe it’s something to do with the limitations of 1960s technology.

Another Penderecki goodie leads off the second disc, some 20 minutes of ‘Painters of Gdańsk’, realised for a cinema piece in 1964. Marian Ussorowski picked up the camera and directed this “panoramic” view of the artists working on their canvasses in her bid to do justice to the Gdań“scene”. Penders responds with a composite of nice instrumental passages, changing from one mode to another in highly fluid fashion. Organ and bass swing in a balmy jazz-like fugue. Pleasant flutes dominate a chamber music passage. Tape edits signal the changes of scene. Electronic treatments eventually kick in, shifting the balance even further towards the modernism of how I imagine these Gdansk daubers liked to work. Alternately suspenseful soundtrack music, then pastoral pleasantness, then just plain mysterious.

Also here is ‘Basilisk Encounter’, for a puppet show film made in 1961 by Lekoadia Serafinowicz. It’s a great title, but the music is not earth-shattering. Drumming fragments followed by whistles and tiny howls, slightly scary in places. Highly episodic in nature, assembled like a mosaic. Small mysterious fragments are produced by tape edits, producing that timbral cut-off so reminiscent of Schaeffer. Equally episodic is ‘Glass Enemy’, an animated film by Stefan Janik from 1961. Some jazz music fragments wander in among the sonic abstractions. The musique concrète elements were created using bits of metal and glass as a starting point; there are brief moments when the music shines like little points of light or snowflakes, but overall this is very slow and grey.

The set is top and tailed by two compositions of Eugeniusz Rudnik, neither one from the 1960s and it’s not quite clear what they’re doing here. ‘Birds And Men’ (or ‘Birds And People’) is from 1992, described as a concert etude for four artists, three violins, two nightingales, a pair of scissors and one village potter. It’s supposed to be a montage reflecting friendly disagreements and misunderstandings between the parties involved, and is humourous in intent. Electronic drones, voices jabbering and chanting weirdly, it does indeed convey the effect of a disrupted conversation about something, dialogue being blocked or interrupted.

1984’s ‘Homo Ludens’ is a radio ballet, again intended as humourous (the title is Latin for ‘Man At Play’), and laced with autobiographical elements. It’s a crazy collage of sound, voices, music and noise, whose sensibility doesn’t really travel and which has not aged well; in fact it would have felt dated even if released in the 1960s. Even John Lennon’s ‘Revolution 9’ carries more power and political weight than this stodgy melange. Songs, pop music, folk music…children’s voices, war sounds…laughter, and various stern lectures delivered in Polish. The booklet admits that the “abundance of sources carries the risk of creating Babel-like chaos”. But it does remind us of the skill in Rudnik’s editing craft, pointing to numerous witty juxtapositions in the tape (e.g. perhaps gunfire followed by laughter), and reinforces the personal and very human dimension to this composer’s work. In the end his themes are about humanity, not about abstract ideas; “humani nihil a me alienum puto” is his motto. From 12th February 2016.

Sterile Processing Technicians

SterileGarden

Sterile Garden is another obscure noise project of which I know very little. They may be a trio comprising man man Jacob DeRaadt, with later additions Eric Wangsvick, and Joseph Yonkers; Sean Devlin may once have been in their ranks. They’ve been at it since about 2006, and we have before us their current cassette Deliverance In Disturbances (GM# 39) from the German label Geräuschmanufaktur dedicated to the spread of experimental industrial sounds and harsh grindings. The first side of this monster, called ‘Derive’, is a grim trek across a landscape of supreme desolation; no way of detecting the original sources of these clanking grunts, and a general air of defeatedness hangs over the work. I’ve rarely heard such a corrupted sound, as though the very fabric of the music itself were rotted clean through, like mouldy blankets, rusted machinery, or trees afflicted by disease. Clearly all is not healthy in the Sterile Garden, a garden littered with weeds, insects, and dank ponds.

The title track is on Side B. This is slightly less horrifying than the dismalness of ‘Derive’, and in places one’s ears can make tenuous connections to more familiar tape-based experimental music, in the way that sounds are apparently processed and manipulated. Much effort is put intro creating a wonky, unnatural effect. Much distortion arises in the process, and futile meandering drones are the main output, drones which are highly abrasive and nasty in their intent. As with the A side, I sense a near-complete lack of humanity, as if DeRaadt’s plan were to efface every trace of anything recognisable from the finished product. This may all be part of a supreme effort to alienate the listener, leave us high and dry and thrown back on inner resources if we wish to survive this depressing onslaught of rubble, bad weather, and hostile machinery pounding away at the core of our being.

The cover art may continue some of these themes. The imagery is almost all abstract, with few concessions to printing a clearly identifiable image, or even allowing for simple clarity of shape. Murky reproduction creating shadows and fog further advances the notions of ambiguity and uncertainty. The front cover is a miniature art gallery from the imaginary museum of Russian Death Art from the 1920s. Inside is a collage of treated photo which may represent the aftermath of an unpleasant murder or suicide, with a barely-recognisable torso being dragged by the feet. None of this is especially brutal noise, but it is truly depressing, verging on the insufferable in its sullen opacity and determination to remain grim and impenetrable. From 14th March 2016.

Composing by Framing

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Jed Speare
The Wounds Of Returning: Sound Works II 1974-1983
IRELAND FARPOINT RECORDINGS fp054 CD (2015)

We received our copy of this Jed Speare compilation in March 2016. We now find that this unique American phonographer sadly passed away in May this year. Since there are not many compilations or instances of his work available, and you’re not fortunate enough to own Sound Works 1982-1987 released by Family Vineyard in 2008, then this collection from Farpoint Recordings deserves your immediate investigation. It’s published as a CD with a large fold-out printed in full colour with photographs and annotations.

The 1982 LP Cable Car Soundscapes, released by Folkways in America may help you situate his work in context. It appears to be a species of documentary recording crossed with journalistic tendencies, telling a story with its collage of sounds and voices. Christopher DeLaurenti has described Speare’s skill as “composing by framing” in his recent tribute; “interviews are edited with phrases carefully sequenced not only for “the story” but for the mood, humor, and the irony inherent in the then-imminent phasing out of San Francisco’s once iconic cable cars.” 1

I found that view helpful to understand ‘Écrier’, a substantial 1983 work which opens this collection. It’s a set of field recordings collected over three days, and the composer uses familiar musique concrète techniques of aural transformation and repetition. It was recorded at a French psychiatric hospital and comprises recordings of the building, with its echoey corridors and hard floors (you can almost see the linoleum or parquet flooring in these vivid recordings), but also recordings of voices of three patients. “The doctor knew that these voices were special”, reports Speare diplomatically, and with considerable empathy he deploys his recordings of these “remarkable speech patterns” in the body of the work. Without prejudice, we are drawn into the world of the institution and catch a glimpse of the innermost lives of these inmates, with their strange repetitions and murmurings. I am sure it wouldn’t be far off the mark to find parallels with Fred Wiseman’s 1967 film, Titicut Follies.

‘Mettle of Metal’ is an extract from the Cable Car LP noted above. Starting out as pure documentary of mechanical sounds, it soon enters a zone of profound transformation to create mesmerising, dream-like images of abstract cable cars. The subtlety and craft of this work is extraordinary and represents a very honest sound portrait; Speare does not call attention to himself, or his techniques, but keeps us focussed on the subject and the sounds. In his notes here Speare tells us the project was originally sponsored by a commercial company, but he sold the rights to Folkways because he knew they would keep it in print in perpetuity. 2

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Another lengthy work here is ‘White Strand’, a 1983 piece of which we hear some 22 minutes of excerpts; it’s slightly more conventionally “musical” than some of the other sound art on this collection, and documents a performance event in San Francisco with the artists Rob List and Wendelien Haveman. In these beautifully muted and muffled recordings we can make out an accordion, piano, percussion and strings playing short phrases in overlapping loops, generating a sort of spastic minimalism; like Terry Riley’s In C performed by grasshoppers. Speare may or may not have been adding his slowed-down recordings of a ferry boat to this event, but he remains largely silent and mysterious as to his exact contributions. “The sounds in my work…become obscured through the transformative process working with them.” They did it in a roomy loft space in a neon production shop in SF, and it seems important that they were able to occupy the entirety of this space. ‘White Strand’ is a compelling piece of gorgeous, naturalistic noise; I can see why Christopher DeLaurenti is inspired by Speare, and we could also see parallels with work of fellow American Jim Haynes.

In company of the above, the extraordinary ‘Crib Death of an Astronaut’ seems uncharacteristic, but it’s still an exciting three-minute mash-up of noise, produced mainly by the process of tapes passing over the playback heads at high speeds. Rehearsal tapes of 1980s band Flipper, and noises from the Moon Cresta arcade game, are layered into this heady rush of sound. It’s one part of a collaboration between Speare and the performance artist Reverend Billy, who preaches evangelistic messages against the excesses of consumerist society. I think this eventually became a multi-media theatre piece called Automystica-American Yoga, of which this ‘Astronaut’ piece, with help from film-maker Perter McCandless, was one segment.

Also here: two musical compositions for chamber instruments Speare wrote in the 1970s, ‘Canto’ and ‘Espy’; and the short but astonishing ‘Idiolect II’, a voice piece that gives us a glimpse of Speare’s work in the 1976 group Philadelphia New Language Actions; it may appear to be improvised voice work, but is in fact a carefully orchestrated set of vowel sounds and consonants prepared by Speare.

A true pleasure to be introduced to the work of this impressive phonographer and ecologist; a set like this can only hint at the depth and breadth of his work and many collaborations, but it’s a very good place to start.

  1. Source: A Tribute To Jed Speare, newmusicbox.org.
  2. You can purchase a custom CD, cassette or download from folkways.si.edu.

The Physicality Of A Tape

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15 Corners Of The World (BÔŁT RECORDS BR ES19) may be of interest to those who have been following the music of Eugeniusz Rudnik, important composer and sound engineer at the Polish Radio Experimental Studios since the mid-1950s. The Polish label Bôłt Records continues its ongoing campaign to restore Rudnik to a position of prominence, and indeed to remind the rest of the world about the importance of Polish Radio in general; previous releases in the series include the Blanc Et Rouge 3-CD set from 2014, and the selection Sounds The Body Electric from 2013, which accompanied an exhibition of the same name. 15 Corners Of The World is in fact a motion picture film, written and directed by Zuzanna Solakiewicz (maker of documentary shorts and cinematic essays) and originally released in 2014; the present CD is not exactly the soundtrack to said film, but is a selection of sounds from it, edited and re-presented in order to form a satisfying listening experience. The film is not a straightforward biography of the great man, rather it describes itself as “an attempt to hear the vision of his music”, suggesting that its arrangement and editing of images are deployed in an interpretive fashion, in sympathy with the underlying themes of Rudnik’s work. “Following the rhythms of architecture, the human body, and the throbbing pulse of nature we discover a new reality,” is how the movie website describes the process.

Over 48 minutes we hear 22 snippets of music and spoken word; the initial experience of hearing this is not exactly jarring, but it is somewhat disorienting, as though we’re almost hearing a story that doesn’t quite materialise. I do like the essay style; long passages of music are interspersed with spoken interjections from Rudnik, where he talks in a simple and unaffected manner about his methods and ideas. He is enchanted with magnetic tape, amazed that he could “hold sound in his hand”. He is genuinely surprised by his own discoveries when he transforms sound on tape, and asks himself “what is really happening?” While it’s clear that he’s mastered his techniques, a lot of the time he wants to bring things back to a human dimension, speaking of the realities of emotion, the human voice, or the landscape; he doesn’t want to become completely lost in a studio-bound world of abstraction. This may be one of the aspects that makes Polish Radio distinct from the other schools of electronic and tape music, some of whose proponents clearly preferred the coldness of dreary abstraction to any grubby human reality. Rudnik’s quotes are spoken in Polish, but the English-speaking reader is helped by the enclosed booklet with its translations.

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Through the course of this journey, whose trajectory I suppose is largely shaped by Solakiewicz, we’ll traverse many strange aural terrains – and I’ll quote some of the titles here to pique your interest, including ‘Grinding Bird Bones’, ‘Dinosaurs Walk And Roar’, ‘The Golden-Mouthed In The Mist’ and ‘The Typist’s Syncope’. Any one of these could be the title to a modernist painting in some idyllic pre-war European country, before the invention of drip painting and colourfield abstract art which ruined everything. The sonic excerpts are, on the CD at least, arranged under headings which attempt to characterise and describe Rudnik’s experiments and techniques; they include, for example, “Inventory of Listener’s Associations”, “Human Voice Distorted”, and “Repetition”. Along the way there is a train journey, a sojourn in the “Electro Meadow”, and the very evocative “Warsaw Mists – Collage”.

At the end of this one feels a bit closer to understanding something of the mind and method of Eugeniusz Rudnik; both film and CD soundtrack serve this purpose, and are clearly done with warmth and engagement, to provide a sympathetic portrait of the man and his music, even at the risk of being too subjective in its interpretations. One can’t imagine Stockhausen ever having much truck with an ambitious young film-maker approaching him with ideas about buildings and human bodies, but then Stockhausen already did a very good job of controlling just about every aspect of his work and its perception. Rudnik’s open-mindedness and sense of wonder about the possibilities of magnetic tape might be seen as refreshing. It’s also fair to say this release is making a strong bid for the assertion of Polish culture, and the CD back cover carries no fewer than 18 logos of various National Institutes, record labels and cultural establishments, endorsing its value. From 12 February 2016.