The Arcane Cabinet

Below are three empreintes DIGITALes releases, all from 13 November 2018.

Alistair MacDonald, currently housed at the Royal Conservatoire in Scotland, composed Cabinets de curiosité (IMED 18155), to some extent attempting to depict in sound the famous “wunderkammern” of the 1700s, where the idea was to build a repository to house amazing objects to arouse scientific interest in the physical world, although mathematical cabinets also existed for those who favoured the abstract over the tangible. There are famous engravings of these which will appeal visually to anyone who loves a room full of clutter (and I’m one of them). On MacDonald’s album, it seems that only two pieces really conform to this theme though – ‘The Tincture Of Physical Things’, which depicts an alchemist’s toolkit, and ‘Wunderkammer’. The former is a prosaic series of sounds associated with the four ancient elements; so, field recordings of water, fire…and you get the idea. The latter piece is slightly more engaging, even if it jumps ahead into the 19th century and waxes lyrical about Alfred Russell Wallace and his glass jars full of birds, shells, insects and butterflies that he acquired in Indonesia. MacDonald’s combination of wildlife recordings with rattling ball-bearings somehow evokes a miniaturised view of the whole cosmos, which is ideally what a good cabinet of curios should reach for. Rest of album is fairly mundane, apart from the freaky ‘Psychedelian Streams’ which is his attempt to join the dots between academic musique concrète, the work of Delia Derbyshire, and a virtual acid-trip in sound. Everyone who tries to pay tribute to the Radiophonic Workshop usually duffs it up in some way, but Alistair MacDonald does manage to capture something of the tension and terror of 1960s Dr Who incidental music.

Adam Stanovic was born in Leeds, now has residency at Sheffield. Here he is with Ténébrisme (IMED 18153) I think it’s part of this label’s unspoken rule that every title has to be expressed in French, as they are based in Canada and also evidently wish to retain some link with IRCAM. It showcases very recent compositions 2015-2017. He exhibits the now-commonplace concerns with transforming musical instruments, pieces of metal, audio travelogues and such like, but his feisty essays indicate he is trying to challenge the received wisdom of contemporary electro-acoustic music, expressing a certain frustration with over-used tropes in the genre. A dull-witted noise-lover like me can certainly dig his roary pieces, which have a lot more fire and chaos than we’re used to in the field; plenty of tidal waves of digital information surging and rebounding around imaginary spaces like titanic forces, sometimes with quite shocking dynamics, cut-offs, and wild timbral shifts. ‘Ctrl C’, ‘Metallurgic’ and ‘Inam’ all have this rather threatening density to them, and ‘Foundry Flux’ is as alarming a portrait of Sheffield’s industrial past as you’re ever likely to hear. Bonus points too for composing a homage piece to Beatriz Ferreyra, the Argentinian wild lady of electro-acoustic music.

David Berezan was last heard by us with his 2013 collection Allusions Sonores, but he’s here today with Cycle Nautique (IMED 18154). Unlike our two English composers above, this award-winning fellow is strictly Canadian and has held residencies in Calgary and Montreal. The entire set here has a maritime theme, with titles such as ‘Lightvessels’, ‘Moorings’ and ‘Offshore’, and creates impressionistic sketches of the life on the ocean wave. However, not content with the usual viewpoint behind the wheel, Berezan also explores imaginatively what it might be like among the submerged hulls bumping about when they’re tethered along the waterfront, and tries at all times to confuse our sense of “place” by treating the ship’s exteriors like interiors, and vice versa. I’m all for letting the seawater flood inside the vessel whenever possible. One interesting experiment has been to use the clarinet improvisations of Marij von Gorkom in service of his grand plan; given the nature of the genre, her sounds are completely transformed by Berezan’s intensive digital processing, but it’s the unique action of her mouthpiece that lends ‘Offshore’ its distinctive character. I’m also taken with ‘Buoy’, which speculates about the nature of the signals (bells, whistles) used by buoys to aid navigation, producing information which can also help with scientific research to do with the tides and the weather. Field recordings of wind and oceans are thus mingled with bell sounds and impressions of data-streams whizzing through the atmosphere. I like the imaginative nature of this set.