Happiness in the Homeland

Christina Kubisch is an internationally renowned and prize-winning German sound artist, currently living in Berlin where she’s a member of the Akademie der Künste. Although classically trained, she was a radical experimenter in sound art in the 1980s, working with magnetic induction techniques, and using directed light as a sound source in her installations. The record Mosaïque Mosaic (GRUENREKORDER GRUEN 131) is not a record of her installation work, but is an aural snapshot of her 2010 residency and exchange trip in Cameroon, where she also conducted a workshop with Eckehard Güther. At the workshop, she lent out her recording equipments and allowed the Cameroonians the chance to capture some of their local sounds. The participants in the workshop surprised her somewhat, because they knew exactly where to go and where to find unusual sounds; it’s just that they’d never thought of capturing them on tape before. Accordingly, as Professor Kubisch puts it, the planned cultural exchange took place and “we got a little bit of their ears”. Kubisch, Güther and Dieter Scheyhing set out on their road trip soon after this, and their sound diary is represented on the field recordings you will hear – such things as street markets, choir rehearsals, train rides, processions, speeches, music in the streets, and other snippets of local colour. Every recording is pretty much unprocessed, though there is some post-production editing and mixing to frame the work. It’s all highly evocative, but also understated; revealing the beauties of another country without resorting to bludgeoning the listener over the head about how “foreign” it is. The most effective piece in this regard is the 17-minute “Night and morning atmosphere” piece taken at Kribi, a coastal town on the Gulf of Guinea. Just one listen to this serene and calming sound is all the therapy you’ll need to salve your headache-ridden life.


Unusual and inventive piece of sampling work is 52º 46′ North 13º 29′ East – Music For Wax-Cylinders (GRUENREKORDER GRUEN 124) by Merzouga. This is the pairing of Eva Popplein and Janko Hanushevsky, who between them sampled various pieces of ethnological recordings captured on wax cylinders since 1900. These cylinders represent the collection of Erich Moritz von Hornbostel, the Austrian scholar who (according to Marcus Gammel’s notes) was unable to travel much himself, but co-ordinated the gathering of field recordings on a grand scale, in the pursuit of what was then called “comparative musicology”. There are now over 16,000 recordings stored at the Berlin Phonogram Archive, an institution which happens to be situated at the map reference given in the title of this work, and it was here that the Merzouga duo – fresh from their Indian and SE Asian travels, as documented on the releases Mekong Morning Glory and Good Morning Rickshaw – were invited to make their selections. There’s a list of 11 headings to help us orient this part of the process; from it, we can work out that the dates of the recordings range from 1905 to 1931, and the countries represented include Hungary, Egypt, Abyssinia, Southern Bali, Samoa, Mexico, China, and Tierre del Fuego. This aside, I don’t know if there was any underlying structure or theme to their sampling procedures. Having assembled their quilt of ethnological sounds, the duo used them as the basis for a concert performance in Cologne in 2012, where they added live electronics and a prepared bass, interpolating their instrumental contributions into the ever-changing fabric of alien voices, bizarre singing, and crackling wax surfaces. The resulting 38 minute piece is very striking, and when it really takes off we hear the voices of the past flickering into life in a very dream-like fashion. It’s also very nice when Merzouga are able to play along in sympathy with an ancient voice from a vanished world, accompanying their song with a gently appropriate chord or two, but such moments are few in the overall fabric. There are a few lulls; at times it does seem to sink into an uncertain miasma of “process crackling”, letting the sample process itself dominate, and the actual playing they perform is extremely dour, brittle, and melancholic. At one level we can respond to the contrast between the modern, digital, ultra-clean sound of their playing and the crackly, faint, impressions left by the old recordings. A unique and fascinating release.


The Hebrides Suite (GRUENREKORDER GRUEN 127) from composer and sound artist Cathy Lane is head and shoulders above most average field recordings…she’s very good at editing and arranging her materials, not afraid to let things overlap…we don’t get a rush of information, but just the right amount of it, in order to reveal the truth of the place she’s trying to document. It’s almost like impressionist painting, done on tape. I think this is how she approaches most of her projects, and she always has a strong connection to the environment in question. This comes across very clearly on these Hebrides recordings; she says the “compositions…have grown out of a long standing love affair with the landscape and the people there.” Although the actual source material may seem mundane if we trot it out like a shopping list – wind, weather, rain, oceans, local wildlife, church bells, ferries, and people talking about their work as crofters or fishermen – the cumulative effect is very touching and deep, presenting a truly vivid and resonant documentary through these overlapping and fading sounds. What’s best of all is that it’s totally free from “editorialising”, which is what would happen if someone from the BBC ever got their hands on the project. The work is complemented by a booklet of full colour photos and notes from the artist. I’m beginning to think Gruenrekorder are currently presenting some of the best statements in the “genre” of field recording today.

All the above received 17 December 2013.