All At Sea

Evocative radiophonic atmospheres, some of them with a maritime flavour, abound on Somewhere A Voice Is Calling. The team of Absolute Value Of Noise, Anna Friz and Glenn Gear first collaborated for this shortwave-fest of sound art in 2008, and have since re-recorded and reworked their sounds into the present offering, using a mixture of low-frequency receivers, antennas, electronics, live transmissions, and samples from old 78 records. Glenn Gear brings his video montage skills to the picnic, and I get the impression that if you saw Somewhere…in a live setting, you’d enjoy his live mixes of video clips with appropriate imagery that enhance the minimal, dreamy soundscapes.

Reading the capsuled descriptions of each track, it’s clear this is a work whose creators are well-informed about the history of radio transmissions, and related early 20th century inventions such as Morse code, and there’s even a fantasy about the use of biomagnetism in Russia in the 1920s, an invention that allows “a link from the future to the past”. The sounds are intended to evoke mankind’s yearning, near-futile attempts to communicate across long distances by means of these broadcasts. Even marine life is included in the narrative, if track 3 ‘Sea Monster’ is anything to go by, but it’s more a fanciful portrait of the dreams of sleeping mariners who visualise the Kraken or Narwhal in their nightmares. At least four of the tracks reference the ocean, and ponder the vast distances of salty doom that must be traversed by means of radio waves.

As an audio experience, Somewhere…is quite minimal and requires close listening. It comprises mostly shortwave sounds, static, low-level hums and drones, occasionally decorated with foreign sounds and voices; Morse code signals on ‘Ship to Shore’, strange murmuring groans on ‘Sea Monster’, and the extremely poignant religious song on ‘Hymn’, clearly retrieved from an old 78 record [1. Note: for a more successful rendition of this theme, listen to The Sinking of The Titanic by Gavin Bryars, i.e. the 2007 Touch version with turntable additions from Philip Jeck.], and given an extra nostalgic patina in this context. It’s effective and mesmerising material, even though I feel it’s strangely lacking in depth; the sounds fail to create a convincing portrait of the vastness of the spaces they are trying to circumscribe in sound. When a work of art’s meaning depends on the conveyance of a sense of long distances and fathomless oceans, this feels like something of a major lapse. The record compensates by dint of duration, as if by simply extending the duration of the single flat sound-image, eventually it will create the desired illusion. While I’m grumbling, I’ll also complain about those capsuled descriptions, which may be “helpful” but also pre-empt any interpretation you or I might want to bring to the work by passing on a near-complete set of images, ideas, and resonances for each track, which takes a lot of the fun out of listening for me. I dislike artists who try and tip the balance in their favour. Again, it’s a way of bolstering any inadequacies in the actual work. Arrived 11 November 2014.