Spirals, Ships, Nocturnes

Alva Noto has stepped out from the comfort zone of his computer suite to collaborate with Japan’s palest aesthete, Ryuichi Sakamoto, to produce the splendid utp_ (RASTER-NOTON R-N 96), a composition blending electronic and digital works with the clinical string playing of Ensemble Modern. This modernist workout sounds utterly crisp and clean to the point of generating a sort of mysterious, glacial precision. Apparently it was commissioned to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the old city of Mannheim, itself a 17th-century triumph of utopian design in its day, and the abbreviated title of this work refers in its computer-speak way to that utopian ideal. Besides the music, the happy purchaser of this item also receives a DVD whereon you can just make out, through the subdued lighting effects, the Ensemble performing this piece before a huge video backdrop which is filled with visual white noise and abstracted shapes. I can well believe this combination of dessicated, formal classicalism with the clean lines of ultra-sharp computer music is a fitting parallel to the city of Mannheim’s pre-planned grid system, and this record could shape up to be an interesting commentary on modern man’s doomed attempts to improve the life of citizens through town planning. Or perhaps a celebration of the line of thought that would eventually end up giving us the pedestrian precinct and the shopping mall.

Tarab has no qualms about urban decay, however. He ends up using the very fabric of rotting cities to make music, as you will hear on Take All Of The Ships From The Harbour, and Sail Them Straight To Hell (23FIVE INCORPORATED 014). This Melbourne-based artist made site-specific recordings in Angel Island in San Francisco, a zone with a lot of interesting 20th-century history but now apparently somewhat neglected. Combining his recordings with other similar recordings from Australia, Tarab has captured a mood and an atmosphere rather than documenting actual sounds of flaking plaster and rusting nails (although there may be some metal girders groaning in protest somewhere on this record). In like manner, C M von Hausswolff, Christopher McFall and Marc Behrens have each in their time exhibited a similar unhealthy fascination with deserted once-thriving urban areas, and like Tarab have brought some sort of melancholy, desolate process-art out of the experience.

Further images celebrating the bittersweet joys of urban horror can be revealed by simply opening the gatefold package of Reflections (MEDUSA MUSIC TSUCD027) by RMSonce, an electro-acoustic composer from Barcelona. However, Francesc Martí finds genuine beauty in these monochrome images and indeed welcomes the onset of scientific progress; his piece ‘Lullaby in a night of radioactive fallout’ is evidence of this. On this fine CD he delivers himself of nine pieces of distorted humming electronic music, sometimes rendered in multi-layers with radio samples and smothered voice fragments. A not-unpleasant minimal ambient buzz exudes from all tracks, and the CD has a warmth which Tarab lacks; maybe it’s the suggestive photographic images doing this, but Reflections really does seem to be love songs created by lonely pylons.

While RMSonce is abstract, at least his ideas seem to be rooted in some sort of physical reality, which is more than can be said for the ultra-fantastic soundwork of Irr. App. (Ext.). This Californian composer has been baffling and perplexing the ears of international listeners for not a few years now, and his new Kreiselwelle (THE HELEN SCARSDALE AGENCY HMS016), a single 45-minute work of strange process music, is a slow voyage into the unknown. Within minutes, we’re taken far beyond the relatively familiar world of “dark ambient” and enter a murky field of immersive and twisted shapes, where possible danger lurks at every corner. Conceptually rooted in an interpretation of the works of Wilhelm Reich, Kreiselwelle is the third part of a trilogy whose other episodes have so far eluded me, and to connect with the “spiral waves” of the title, derived all of its sounds from things shaped like spirals (such as metal springs, or the circular movement of the ocean). In like manner, M. S. Waldron’s composition will probably suck you into a whirlpool of doubt and ambiguity.

American composer David Rosenboom is known to me as the inventor of a method to produce electronic droning music by capturing energy from the brainwaves of human beings, but with this new release I find there are numerous other aspects to this polymath hitherto overlooked. How Much Better if Plymouth Rock had Landed on the Pilgrims (NEW WORLD RECORDS 80689-2) is a double-CD set documenting a large-scale collaborative project, originally realised around 1969-1971. On it, we have chamber music instruments in mixed set-ups (cellos, woodwinds, saxophones) playing deliciously scored minimal music, some non-Western instruments such as the tabla and Balinese drum, and assorted rogue elements emanating from the composer – field recordings, electronic drones, computer music, and pianos in unusual tunings. The subtitles to this massive, sectioned work indicate that Rosenboom’s themes are extremely ambitious – we start with ‘essential tension to universe’, and move through world, life, humanity, and culture and end up in a place called ‘unification’. This clearly belies the slightly jokey title (adapted I suspect from a Cole Porter couplet which opens his song ‘Anything Goes’), and I am greatly looking forward to hearing more, reading the hefty booklet and exploring this considerable piece in more detail.