Forms Of Energy

Lucy Railton / Max Eilbacher
Forma / Metabolist Meter (Foster, Cottin, Caetani and a Fly)
FRANCE PORTRAITS GRM SPGRM 002LP (2020)

Second item in the Portraits GRM series (the first was Shutting Down Here, by Jim O’Rourke) is an excellent split record showcasing the talents of English cellist Lucy Railton and the Baltimore artist Max Eilbacher.

Railton has performed on many recordings (we have heard her on a record by Alex Hills for Carrier), and has a few records under her own name – one with Peter Zinovieff, RFG Inventions for Cello and Computer, looks intriguing. Her side is devoted to Forma, an elaborate and complex work but also an extremely accessible one, and a highly inventive and original piece of performance/composition it be. It was commissioned by INA GRM and has been performed live in Paris (in 2019), but I’m not sure if that’s the version that’s ended up on vinyl as there are a number of pre-recorded elements, and Railton has done a final mix for this release. There’s a live recording of her cello playing, but also a Serge synth, and a church organ – various recording engineers are credited, as well as musicians. There are “other materials” too, and the finished Forma is effectively a multi-channel affair, but it’s refreshingly free from too many layers, extraneous field recordings, or over-processed digital effects that blight so much music in this genre. Conversely, Railton’s work has a starkness and clarity in its delivery which is bracing, and something I am finding very enjoyable.

On the surface, this makes for a very approachable piece of music, but at the same time it’s very hard to discern the mysterious, underlying logic of the piece. Even the press notes admit defeat, clutching at unusual metaphors of “burrowing”, “chaos”, and even “the wings of a nocturnal moth reflecting dark light”. There’s emotional truth here, and even though Forma is sombre and dark in tone, it’s certainly not steeped in melancholy or despair; rather, one senses that Railton is taking a long clear-eyed look at something quite profound and difficult, facing hard truths.

On the B side we have Max Eilbacher with the lengthy-titled piece Metabolist Meter (Foster, Cottin, Caetani And A Fly). This fellow works roughly in area of “electro-acoustic traditions”, is very capable with computer music, and is one of these intermedia fellows whose work crosses into video and performance besides sound art. I see one of his early records came out on Spectrum Spools, the Mego sublabel for “popular” electronics, and depending on which corner of the web your browser sends you to, you might find him typecast as a dance / electronica act.

Metabolist Meter is another piece with a fairly lengthy creation span, and recorded in more than one place before its final assembly; the press notes helpfully inform us exactly where in the world he made the fly recordings that constitute part of the work. Yes, there is a real fly buzzing away in here, and it might be in its death throes, although it’s just one element inside a very busy composition that crackles with activity and life. Cross-rhythms and high speeds seem to be one of Eilbacher’s stylistic signatures, along with sometimes unexpected and startling edits where he can delight in clashing together unrelated blocks of sound for maximal effect. It would be too much of a stretch to call these episodes “noisy”, but our man is certainly keen on making sure we don’t fall asleep in our chair while listening. Where Railton would like to transfix us with the solemnity and grandeur of her work, Max Eilbacher can’t wait to let loose a few cobras and scorpions into the arena just to keep us hopping about.

At a formal level, I get the thing about clashing timbres and structures together, and the “kaleidoscopic forms”, but I’ve no idea what is meant by “abstraction of the harmonic volutes”. Even so, Eilbacher produces a very original soundworld, and like Railton he has freed himself from the clichés associated with over-processing and digital workstations. Besides all this rich and hyper-busy textured electronica material, there’s also the flute playing of Ka Baird, and snatches of spoken word (mostly in French) yapped by a couple of voice artists working from texts written by the composer. And of course, that poor fly a-buzzing haplessly. It’s thoroughly perplexing, in a good way, challenging the listener to make sense of the barrages and swarms of material, to find some underlying narrative; although if you want to find connections it is just about possible to interpret the fluttering sounds at the beginning as an abstracted rendition of the fly’s pattering wings.

I anticipate future listenings and relistenings of both of these strong and original works, be it the near-monumental structure of Railton whose walls will not readily disclose their secrets, or the Chinese puzzle posed by Eilbacher’s fly, which may take years to solve. Arrived 3rd June 2020.

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