Tagged: voice

Widt Of A Circle

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The record WIDT (ZOHARUM ZOHAR 124-2) by WIDT is largely the work of Antonina Nowacka, a Polish creator who is a visual artist, painter, film-maker and photographer. But she also sings, and has been using her voice and synthesizer for some years to create atmospheric, abstract music which we can only describe as “haunting” – often to the point of being overtaken by a spirit or inhabited by a ghost. She is capable of that slightly solemn and deeply ceremonial dark music which we often associate with recent Polish musical acts to have come our way, including Hati, 23 Threads, and Tundra. Antonina is also one half of A.N.R.S., a duo with Robert Skrzyński, who released their self-titled record for Requiem Records this year. Plus she has performed with trumpeter Algirdas Dokalskiego in 2014, in an improvising context.

On WIDT, get ready to hear seven examples of her craft, where her voice is treated with some reverb and looping effects to create endless patterns and repetitions, and the whirlpools of sound suck you in as expected, down into a gently spinning slow-motion maelstrom of ancient mystery. All the songs are done without words, and it’s all about Nowacka shaping sounds and vocalising into interesting textures. She’s trying to say something about particular mental states and moods. But she also seeks a connection with the “old songs” (whatever that may mean in Poland; perhaps a reference to folk music of the Carpathians), religious music, and opera; traces of all of these can be found embedded in the fabric of her works. More than once during today’s spin, I fancied I was hearing the dark, evil twin of Yma Sumac descending from a cold mountainside, armed with a sword.

The other half of the WIDT act is Bogumiła Piotrowska, a video artist; WIDT’s complete package of son et lumière has been represented before on a CD-DVD package from Circon Int. capturing their performance at Edinburgh; and Pointless Geometry in Poland even issued a VHS cassette of their work, in 2013. The DVD here will allow you to hear all seven songs again, this time accompanied by the video art of Piotrowska. It looks like it’s exploiting video feedback effects in real time to create visuals that move in time to the voice and music; something of a familiar trope, but it’s good stuff; I like the restrained colours, the limited abstract shapes, and the highly grainy quality to the surface, which at times borders on old-school television interference. The visuals have a grittiness which some modern A/V creators have forgotten about, or deliberately try to avoid. I particularly like the black and grey blocks for ‘Joleusa’, which remind me of a test card pattern, going slightly bonkers. From June 2016.

Broken and Incoherent Society

Three items from the LF Records label in Bristol landed 6th May 2016.

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Norwegian Sindre Bjerga wows crowds everywhere through his manipulation of cassette tapes. We heard him doing it for this label in 2014 with Black Paper Wings, a highly effective combination of warped speaking voices with twisted electronic spew. We also heard him as one half of Star Turbine, on the fabbo record Inner Space / Outer Space for Attenuation Circuit, and on Invisible Paths for Zoharum. Here on For The Automatic People (LF057), we’ve got 28 minutes of him mangling tapes and machines at a live set in Nijmegen. No doubt it offers a sensationally chilling experience, pushing the listener through the other side of a distorting mirror where the once-familiar world is transformed into ugly, threatening shapes. But for most of the time Bjerga is treading water, letting the tapes unspool in suitably ambiguous droney and crackly scapes but not doing much to exert himself as a performer; I prefer the brief moments when he gets his hands stuck right in, and does something to manually retard the rotation of his own capstans, to devastating effect. Even so, this growly beast fully lives up to label claim of “magnetic tape abuse, bleak drone and dungeon crawler electronics”.

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When it comes to “hands-on” performances, you could do worse than turning your spotlight on major loon Yol, the English performer whose ugly and slightly confrontational work has crossed our path on two unforgettable CDRs. Is It Acceptable (LF056) contains four instances of his voice-centric noise, and will likely sear its way into your life in just 30 mins with as much assurance as a truckload of spoiled food or garden debris tipped onto your front lawn. Yol spits and vomits out primitive poetry right there on the stage, mauling and mangling his own larynx into hideous forms while doing so; unpleasant imagery abounds in his texts, many of them vivid descriptions of life on a bleak on a housing estate, and it’s like meeting an urbanised Stig of the Dump crossed with a heroin addict clutching a can of Special Brew in his hairy paw. To accompany these caustic, abrasive voice attacks, Yol uses broken debris as percussion – could be chains, metal tins, broken glass…as if using the remains of industrial society to make his point. Can’t help but concur with label assessment: “Yol infests speech and sound with a plague-like bubonic mass that explodes spores into the atmosphere”.

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Both the above releases tend to confirm label owner Greg Godwin’s view of contemporary British society as broken and incoherent. The next record is slightly more “musical”, though that’s probably stretching the envelope a bit more than we should. It’s a split album (LF050) between Robin Foster and Henry Collins, with both cuts mysteriously timed at exactly 18:02. Foster turns in ‘Spill Lynch Corrosiveness’, a long and brooding episode of nasty guitar noise, which he executes with a coldness of purpose that borders on malevolence. He makes that feedback hum creep along the studio floor as though it’s a slowly-seeping pool of acid, soon to be lapping around our ankles. There’s also evidence of his skill with pedal manipulation; not a second goes by but a potentially “normal” sounding guitar lick is mutated into a hideous blob of ugliness by means of distortion or delay, pushed to wild extremes. If there’s a coherent statement to be extracted from this lengthy bout of waywardness, you’d be hard pressed to find it; Robin Foster is determined to short-circuit logic and common sense at all times, pushing back and forth between the modes of twangy free-form plucking and pure noise generation.

Henry Collins’ exploits are even more insufferable. His ‘Frostlike, Neighbourly Aversion’ makes it plain, in both title and sound, that he wishes to explore his own personal sensations of alienation. His assault on the guitar, if that is indeed the instrument in question, is violent and crude; for the first seven minutes the listener is repelled rather than engaged, forced aside by an ugly chattering of coarse metal-electric filth. Things progress from that point, into insane explorations of wayward feedback apparently taking place inside an industrial metal cannister, some 30 feet high with no possibility of escape. It’s genuinely alarming to hear; this noise perfectly evokes the maddened frustration and claustrophobia of the mentally ill, clawing helplessly at the walls of their self-made cage. One of the more impressive scabs to have been torn from the gangrenous knee of the LF Records label; for those with a thirst for more Foster and Collins, they also perform as a duo under the name of Tippex.

Long Overdue Part 15

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Here’s a 2013 item from Fritz Welch. Crumbs On A Dumpster was released by the infamous Chocolate Monk label. It’s Volume 5 in a series of releases called The Well Spliced Breath, of which seven volumes surfaced in all; other contributors included Gen Ken, Mat Krefting, Bren’t Lewiis Ensemble, and Spoils & Relics. The plan was to showcase “sound-tape collage, text-sound, radiophonic horspiel-type muck”. Fritz Welch used to drum with American underground band Pee-Ess-Eye, now resides in Glasgow and sometimes surfaces as one half of With Lumps; recent releases he has inflicted on us have been impressive examples of difficult, ugly, mis-shapen noise.

What he does on Crumbs On A Dumpster may involve some serious tape mangling and malarkey with hardware that doesn’t bear thinking about…the sounds that emerge from the CDR are like nasty brown sludge pouring out of a culvert, or dead skin sloughing off the back of an unpleasant reptile. Human voices, through cut-ups, wrong speeds and backwards playback, become grotesque goblins muttering curses against the world. This chorus performs its dark murmurings in a lo-fi soup of non-musical, broken shards of nonsense, creating vague drones and percussion effects. The combined effect of all this is a surreal, indigestible nightmare of absurdity, affirmed by the ridiculous titles ‘The Triangulated Stumps’ and ‘Open The Door Doctor West!’. 30 minutes of unsettling creeping madness…60 copies were made.

Long Overdue Part 12

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Here’s one Bryan Lewis Saunders tape I overlooked, despite my best efforts to achieve comprehensive coverage of his Stream Of Unconscious series. The idea was for other sound artists to interpret and rework the dream diaries of this singular American performance artist, who leaves cassette tapes running so he can tape himself talking in his sleep. The series was intended to be collaborative, although I don’t think there was much of a back-and-forth process involved, and once the weirdness of Saunders’ brain had leaked onto the tape, the collaborating artist was left to their own devices as to what to do next. On Volume 8, it’s the turn of Lee Gamble and CM von Hausswolff.

Lee Gamble is a significant player in the field of abstract electronics, and he seems to have got to this point through the dancefloor route; I’m surprised we haven’t received or reviewed any records by this fellow. On his side of the tape, titled ‘Identity Technology’, he has done something quite ingenious with the tapes supplied to him by Bryan, using “voice re-synthesis and manipulations”, and some technology used for identity recognition. At least, that’s how I choose to interpret the cryptic credit notes printed here. At one level it may have involved a serious “deconstruction” of sound files and software, subverting the intended purposes of both, and creating a fascinating and rich noise of digital glitchery thereby. At another level, there’s an intended critique of surveillance techniques and voice-recognition software, implying subtly that Bryan Lewis Saunders is an enemy of the state who must be monitored and analysed by the authorities, even while he is asleep. The above is pure speculation on my part, but I think one or two of my random arrows may have hit the mark.

CM von Hausswolff is the Swedish maestro whose chilling ice-cold drones and process emanations have been unsettling the world (and me) since 1980. I usually associate his work with places, locations, and buildings, rather than people, so it’s uncharacteristic of him perhaps to get involved with something so intimately connected with human beings and the human voice (notwithstanding the recent effort with Leslie Winer). Under the heading N2 Collection, he turns in two pieces, enigmatically titled ‘(10c/s)’ and ‘(12c/s)’, and dedicates the results to the Association for Neuroaesthetics in Berlin. Unlike Lee Gamble, he doesn’t appear to have reworked the voice material at all, but simply overlays portions of it on top of another recording, a distracting and maddening noise that resembles a geiger counter going insane, or a piece of plastic film trapped inside a rotating blender. A less appropriate sound for a “sleep” themed record you could not imagine. Incredible tension results, but then tension is what I have come to expect from the work of this uncompromising fellow. It’s as though he’s somehow x-raying the mind of Saunders, which continues to putter away on overdrive even while he’s asleep.

In all, this is one of the better entries in the series, with its vaguely paranoid tone and dark undertones, so I feel bad for leaving it ignored for so long. Arrived here 25 June 2012.

Previous releases in the series noted here, here, and here.

Long Overdue Part 4

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From 17 July 2012, a wondrous CD by The Bohman Brothers. Adam and Jonathan Bohman are rightly regarded as saintly ministers and angels of grace in the UK experimental firmament, as a lighthouse in the dark night of spiritual desolation and decay that currently blights our fair land. Their great CD Back On The Streets (PERIPHERAL CONSERVE pH-15) has been issued by the lovely Peter Strickland, who also put up some financing and is credited with playing “walnut fingers”; other friendly collaborators and pundits ushered in from the English game reserve include Colin Fletcher, who recorded the studio cuts, Oliver Fay and Lee Gamble, and the radio station Resonance FM.

Musically, the CD alternates broadly between two modes – spoken word pieces and performance pieces. The performance pieces are the type of non-specific grinding scrapey noise made with non-musical objects, often arranged on a tabletop; some of these are detailed on the CD cover; other long-standing fans will have seen photographs of such a table top, or even seen the Bohmans doing this live. Those objects are probably carefully selected, and it would be good if one day someone interviewed Adam and Jonathan one day about this specific aspect of their selection of any given piece of plastic or metal. But then why should the magicians give away their prized secrets, thus weakening the charms? The real gift is in the five fingers of the artist who manipulates that comb or wineglass, and there’s no sense in making a fetish or votive object out of that table top.

The spoken word pieces comprise random (?) jumbles of words and found texts, often delivered by the two Bohmans mouthing together in a structured rapid-fire exchange, overlapping the words or the pages and paragraphs, giving the ear and the brain too much textual information to decode at once. There’s nothing inherently lyrical about the source material they choose, which is often trivial or utilitarian in nature. But the Bohmans have always been very good with found texts, Adam finding “everyday poetry” all the time when he walks the streets and makes an aural note into one of his cassette diary recordings. I’m sure he could read aloud a phone book and make it exciting. Here I’m very conscious of a clash between utter absurdity and profound significance; the Bohmans do their readings with the utmost seriousness, enunciating carefully, making the work into a real performance. Yet through the juxtaposition of the words, and by taking the paragraphs out of context, what results is strange, puzzling, incomprehensible, hilarious near-gibberish.

This is very striking work, and seems to me a uniquely English take on the “sound poetry” form as practised by Henri Chopin and others of the French school. The Bohmans don’t just make non-verbal sounds such as we hear on the Ur-Sonata; they choose to use specific words, coherent sentences, but want to break down the common sense of language construction through their lumpy, determined, performances. This has the effect of helping to short-circuit common sense, free our minds to the possibility of absurdist thought. It’s like a post-surrealist version of Edward Lear or Lewis Carroll.

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Speaking of surreal, how about the cover painting? This was executed by Milan Kovac and depicts the Bohmans as heroic astronauts on a hostile planet surface, defeating alien dragons; Adam has a ray gun, Jonathan has power beams issuing from his gloved fingers. It’s rendered in the style of a 1970s sci-fi paperback cover painting. It seems perhaps an unlikely cover for an avant-garde record, but don’t forget the Bohman sense of humour. The planet in space motif is picked up on the CD disc, and on the inside cover, where the planet is apparently orbited by a bowl of chickpeas.

At The Least

Guardian Weekend Remix

Here is the latest set from Martin Archer’s vocal group Juxtavoices, whose distinctive work has reached us before on Juxtanother Antichoir from Sheffield. This particular piece Guardian Weekend Remix (DISCUS 54CD/DVD) is presented here in three versions, one of them on a DVD. It seems to have its origins in a piece of visual artwork created by Michael Szpakowski, itself comprised of or making use of printed words; the choir used this as their “score”, along with some prose instructions from Archer. There are organisational rules about forming into colour-coded trios, and rules governing repetitions and duration. In both method and execution, there’s a slightly “retro” feel to Guardian Weekend Remix, and it can’t help but remind one of Luciano Berio or Stockhausen. Tom Phillips, the English painter, has also composed similar works translating his Humument paintings, themselves derived from printed texts in a book; Irma, released on Eno’s Obscure label in 1978, is one such opera.

Where the previous release was a showcase for a number of different approaches and styles which the choir are capable of, this one concentrates on Sound Poetry. I went scuttling off to check my book Text-Sound Texts edited by Richard Kostelanetz in 1980; the flap copy summarises sound poetry as “language that coheres in terms of sound rather than syntax or semantics; it is composed to be heard.” One creator spoke of “phonetic poems…we totally renounce the language that journalism has abused and corrupted. We must return to the innermost alchemy of the word, to keep poetry for its last and holiest refuge”. I mention that this since the reference to journalism seems apposite, in the context of the Guardian Weekend. On the other hand, I may be assuming quite wrongly that Szpakowski created his artwork from cut-up texts derived from that newspaper. 1 From what I can glean, most of Szpakowski’s works in the series are visual collages rather than text cut-ups; the one that appears as the cover art here is simply playing with anagrams.

There’s a lot of repetition structured into the work. This leads to tedium quite quickly and could be one reason why I find Guardian Weekend Remix such a difficult listen. But I also give short shrift to the over-dramatic manner in which some of the singers comport themselves – stressed regional accents and underlined phrases, that make them sound like ham actors belting out their lines in summer season. It’s as if they’re straining themselves to bring meaning where there is none, to compensate for the lack of content in Szpakowski’s scrambled gibberish. However, the repetition is deliberate, and Archer writes that he likes the idea of “locked loops of language” and “the meaningless ravings of a cast of characters”. He dreams that the choir are spirit voices attempting to communicate a message of vital importance to the living, and they can’t. Well and good, but I’m not sure if this insight is intended as a slight on The Guardian itself (any attack on that hideous middle-class organ would be welcome), or a more general observation on the limitations of language itself. I like to support Archer’s work, but found this release very unsatisfactory. From 14 January 2016.

  1. A gallery of images from the Remix series can be seen at Flickr.

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.

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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.

Caladrone

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The Salt Of Deformation (KLEIN Klein 05 / TUBAPEDE) is another great LP featuring the superb Dan Peck and his tuba, this time teamed up with the Belgian player Joachim Badenhorst with his bass clarinet. I’ve had a lot of time for Peck’s basso-profundo resonant growls ever since we heard the classic 2009 LP Acid Soil by the Dan Peck Trio, surpassed narrowly by his “acoustic doom metal” project The Gate. Recently I had to put Nick Hoffmann right on Twitter, when he casually asked “why no tuba improvisers?” (Other acceptable replies he received pointed him towards Robin Hayward.) Peck and Badenhorst met up in 2009 and formed this duo in 2013, sharing common interests in improv and classical music, and composing new works for their chosen instruments – a task which Welsh genius Rhodri Davies has had to take on also, finding very little in the way of modern avant-garde music scored for the harp.

Given the nature of said instruments in this instance, The Salt Of Deformation naturally exhibits a whole bundle of long deep tones which produce much vibrant rattling and resonating. Their sound fills up the room in 0-60 seconds (your mileage may vary), and the substance it fills it up with is not unlike a form of solid tapioca you could swim inside. But this fanciful image may overlook the precision with which Peck and Badenhorst deliver each measured puff, an attention to craft which gives every note a very specific weight and gravity. Each note hits the target, they land right in the pocket, but instead of firing arrows from a crossbow these two fellows are hurling lead spheres in slow motion, like shot putters who have turned that idiotic sport into a cross between performance art and ballet.

So much for the quality of the respective tones. The music itself is deliciously gloomy without being fusty, suggesting the creaks of age on an old-time sailing ship or well-seasoned beams in an old wooden house while friendly spooks tramp about upstairs. Many cuts feel like ancient rituals of some sort, primitive prayers that are little more than despairing groans to an unheeding deity which our ancestors may once have uttered. Indeed ‘Broken Stop’ is described by the press notes as following a “quasi-medieval chant form”, an analogy which makes sense to me. The sound of monks at prayer rendered as woodwind and brass; all we need to complete this conceit is for these two to record a set of Phurpa cover versions, or vice versa. However, in pursuing that line of speculation, we may simply be taking a cue from the cover art; that vague shape to the right of the tree trunk might be a sinister cowled figure escaped from a monastery of the bizarre.

Click on to ‘Aders’ if you want to hear an actual human voice alongside these sonorous puffs. On it, Badenhorst is reciting a poem in Flemish, getting back to his origins as a Flam or Floon. This is eight minutes of slowly measured cryptical hell doled out by the teaspoon; Joy Division-styled lyrics set to a deconstructed Morton Feldman composition, and sung in a deathly-pale recit by an unplugged Xasthur. Plus it has Evan Parker-like circular trills adorning the surface in places, but this evil birdsong effect does nothing to lighten the grim mood. ‘Aders’ is but one stand-out on this strong LP of black sludgy drone. Recommended! Many thanks to Dan for sending this…from 18 March 2016.

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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.

This Is Your Captain Speaking

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The album Tapes Von Unterwegs 1971-1976 (90% WASSER WVINYL 018 / MOLOKO PLUS PLUS 079) is by Jürgen Ploog, a German experimental writer…it’s extremely unusual and a fascinating document, besides being a compelling listen…at first glance, I thought it was simply a collection of interesting field recordings captured on airline flights in the 1970s, and that’s how I initially approached the strange jumble of disembodied voices, radio static, and fragments of messages.

In fact it goes a lot deeper than that. To begin with Ploog was a pilot, not a passenger – he worked for Lufthansa for 33 years. I’m assuming this means he had direct access to more radio messages than the average traveller. The tapes are partially a document of his travels, but not in a touristy manner; using his portable tape recorder, he captured radio signals, announcements on the plane, voices of passengers and crew, and also fragments from his hotel room and cities overseas – TV and radio snippets by the cartload. Foreign voices, an international survey of jabbering. Media communication, official communication. But he’s certainly not after some banal travelogue effect; rather, this is the impression of a rather restless and unhappy mind. “My life was a series of interruptions,” he writes, “both geographically (outwardly) and psychologically (state of mind) with exposure to different countries and the constant effects of jet lag.” At one level then, he succeeds in representing very successfully this near-delirious condition of his brain, unable to make sense of the multiple layers of information with which he’s bombarded.

On another level, it’s also interesting to hear these documents of assorted bits of old-school hardware – typewriters, telephone dials, aerial televisions badly tuned, interference on the radio…added to which, there’s Ploog’s own portable tape recorder and magnetic tape. Contrary to the smooth presentation offered by digital methods, we have a view of the previous generation of analogue technology and how we used it across the world. This may be just a by-product of the time it was recorded, but it’s still of interest. Ploog was probably more concerned about how these devices were failing us, not presenting clear signals, and wondered if deeper messages were embedded somewhere in the distortion.

There’s a third, more important, dimension…interspersed with the field recordings are recordings of Ploog himself speaking certain texts, perhaps his own writings. The entire assembly of Tapes is thus a sophisticated form of the cut-up, and Ploog is advancing the ideas of fellow Beat William Burroughs (they knew each other very well), looking for the truth to leak out in between the interstices of the edit, hoping to glimpse the future in snatches, and exploiting the power of the tape recorder, and the tape splice, as much as the written word. In this light, it makes sense to see Tapes as an extension of literature, rather than as pure sound art (regardless of how it may overlap with certain Sound Poetry experiments). “Cut-up as a drug that leads to a different relationship with language,” is how Ploog intended this work to function, “just as a hallucinogen leads to an altered relation with the so-called reality. The result is a fundamental shift of meaning.”

The collection before us is a selection made in 2014 by Robert Schalinski, who did further montage and editing. Schalinski is a member of the Berlin art group Column One, whose double CD we recently noted here. This is a very strong introduction to the work of Ploog, who is highly regarded as a seminal figure in the “German-language literary underground”. Along with Jorg Fauser and Carl Weissner, he was co-founder of the small-press zine Gasolin 23 which ran from 1971 to 1986, which featured contributions from avant-garde writers and artists such as Burroughs, Bukowski, Ginsberg and Warhol.

From 30 November 2015.