Three Acoustical Surveys

Three new items from Lasse-Marc Riek’s label Gruenrekorder from 18 May 2020.

Enrico Coniglio has been researching the Venetian lagoon for 15 years. His latest findings are published in the form of sound art, on the CD Teredo Navalis (GRUEN188 CD). His work has evidently provided him with deep knowledge of specialist areas like tide systems, marine life, and an understanding of the nature of the territory which few of us can hope to achieve. He’s also aware of constant and profound change in the environment, and not just in the water – the “post-urban and post-industrial” landscape interests him too.

He’s conducting an ecological enquiry for sure, but on his own terms; most of us, myself included, see the “crisis” in Venice as one created by tourism, with the flooding problem and the damage to historically and culturally important buildings uppermost in our minds. But Coniglio sidesteps this particular debate, in favour of examining what he considers to be the more “marginal” parts of the lagoon, referring specifically to a location between Murano and Sant’Erasmo which is where he chose to put his hydrophones in the water, along with electromagnetic sensors. It becomes clear he’s not simply interested in creating ordinary “picture postcard” field recordings; indeed, even though much of this CD begins with recordings of the water, he has tried to move beyond the source material through his compositional process, his detailed layering of very small sounds, operating almost on a microscopic level. In this way, he hopes to bring about a “reading” of the topography of the water, if such a thing is possible, and start to engage us with some form of critical enquiry. Using the aesthetics of sound art composition and field recording, he intends to create an engaging and beautiful listen, to portray the struggle between the imperatives of nature and man-made interventions. He describes this tension as a “fragile balance”.

No denying the extent of Enrico Coniglio’s commitment to his work, and his very specialist knowledge of this area is clearly considerable. But I’m not hearing enough specificity in the sounds, despite the wealth of detail in the written notes; it’s hard, for me at least, to connect these murky submarine abstractions with the conflict that he wishes to address. Even so, it sounds unique; the mysterious aquatic gurgles of ‘Fraima’ are compelling, and the semi-musical drones of ‘Zenziva’ are very pleasing to the ear. I suppose the three parts of ‘Teredo Navalis’ come closest to illustrating his thesis, as they exhibit subtly-interlocking parts and dramatically different textures that tell a story of some sort, one with increasing menace as each track proceeds; it could be we’re hearing grinding motors or factory machinery by the final track, suggesting a sketch of the “man-made actions” which trouble this otherwise serene environment.

Michael Lightborne‘s previous record for this label was the excellent Sounds Of The Projection Box, released in 2018 as a beautifully packaged LP record with plenty of photographic illustrations of his theme. He made documentary recordings of the sounds of projection booths in UK cinemas, but also contextualised the work with his detailed, well-considered annotations and observations. That rigour is much in evidence on today’s record, Ring Road Ring (GRUEN 195). He made recordings of the ring road in Coventry, a structure that was built after the war in the hopes of allowing traffic to bypass the city, so the council could make good on its plan to build a pedestrianised centre. There are numerous concrete pillars supporting this road, and this is where Lightborne attached his microphones to collect his field recordings. These are presented on the record; first as a long (10:53) piece, the title track in fact, which collages and layers a number of the original recordings together into a mini-symphony of grey, droning sounds. There follow a number of shorter pieces, with titles such as ‘Fortran’, ‘Moebius Loop’ and ‘Shepherd Tone’, which use the original recordings but subjected to the imaginative processes of the composer; his aim is “to build a series of poetic interpretations of the lifeworld of the Ring Road”, which I find very poignant. The long track has a compelling, industrial bleakness which is hard to beat, but the shorter “poetic” tracks are just glorious; barely recognisable as traffic sound, what emerges is mostly the sense of constant vibrations and the shifting of inert building materials, transformed by the composer’s art into a form of droning process music.

Michael Lightborne evidently intends a critical side to his work, much like Enrico Coniglio above; he points out how the Ring Road project failed, and failed the city; “the Ring Road has come to be seen as a misguided Modernist project that ended up deterring pedestrians and killing the city centre.” I can personally testify to this, having spent three years in Coventry in the 1980s; as a pedestrian, I often wondered what was causing this nameless sense of dread and despair in my bones, and the Ring Road could well have been a part of it. Ironically, the project (as shown in Lightborne’s research) was full of optimism at the time, even regarded as futuristic – the design was computer-assisted, hence the Fortran reference, and full of the same spirit of adventure that led our society to build other Brutalist erections, such as the numerous tower blocks that sprung up under the Labour government in the 1960s. Lightborne’s gloomy prognosis was, he found, confirmed as soon as he heard a playback of the field recordings he had made; it sounded “melancholy”. It’s as though the architecture itself was in revolt, protesting the weight of traffic that has been passing over its surfaces for 50 years; the whole LP emerges as a Dantean portrait of a modern urban Hell, a bleak image of futility.

How many other such destructive and deleterious town planning projects are there in the UK? We need more sound artists like Lightborne to point out and express these failures, and I would argue the statements are all the more powerful for being expressed as art, instead of 200pp surveyor reports or misguided sociological studies that will never get read. Lightborne’s critique is more clearly articulated than the rather vague murmurs of Teredo Navalis, and arguably more integrated as a site-specific work; however, both artists are coming from a similar place.

Both Teredo Navalis and Ring Road Ring are examples of a single artist’s investigation of a very specific location, using sound art. By contrast, the record Next City Sounds: Interfaces (GRUEN 192) is a highly collaborative effort, involving multiple creators in its realisation, and was also a very interactive event, allowing the audience to participate in its making to some extent. I think it’s a document of what transpired on one day in Karlsruhe in August 2018, as part of a larger cultural event called KAMUNA, the Karlsruher Museumsnacht. It involved three locations in the city, one of which was the pedestrianised Kaiserstrasse; the creators involved were Lasse-Marc Riek; the electronics duo Linto + Røyk; the performance art group KITeratur; and the group No Input Ensemble.

Though separated in space, all of these people were generating sounds and contributing to the general audio data-stream – Lasse-Marc did it with field recordings to make a “live collage”, Linto + Røyk performed live electronica and modular synth music, No Input Ensemble did their act live in part of the ZKM arts lab, and so on. KITeratur win the prize for having the courage to do their thing in public – their work involves engaging unsuspecting passers-by in a participative performance. The fun doesn’t stop there, as it seems that all these sound events were being channelled into the ZKM arts space and subjected to further processing by six sound artists, then played back over speakers – thus creating instant sound installations in many locations all over the arts-lab space, including the underground car park! And just to recap, there was audience participation too – visitors to the ZKM Cube could get their hands on a specially designed interface and play around with all of these audio signals, using pedals and switches.

One has to admire the lengths that the organisers have gone to, for what sounds like it would be an absolute nightmare to co-ordinate, and I do appreciate it’s probably intended to open up the possibilities of what sound-installation can mean to an audience, extending its reach with new technologies. However, I found it a tedious listen, a jumble of conflicting signals, full of somnolent and unexciting sounds, and lacking any sense of focus or direction. There are far too many contributors, and this sprawling diffuse presentation does no favours to any of them, failing to provide a useful platform where they might shine. It’s impossible to single out any one vision or intention in this turgid swirling morass, regardless of how many “Artists Statements” are printed in the booklet. I can’t discern any content or meaning, and the record doesn’t seem to be about anything much at all, except the technology that made it possible to join up this many sound events in one place. While Enrico Coniglio and Michael Lightborne have successfully engaged with their specific locations and wish to communicate something about them, this process-heavy record fails to do so on a massive scale; it has no sense of location whatsoever, and nothing to say.