Semantic Small Change

Record by Marc Matter here called Could Change (FUTURA RESISTENZA RESLP014), and subtitled a “word composition”. His source material was news headlines (perhaps from newspapers, or the telly) which he personally selected, then had them spoken out loud using a form of manipulated speech synthesis. This might mean we’re hearing a computer or other machine doing the “talking”, rather than a human voice. The content is then processed using a program written by Florian Zeeh (who also produced this single-sided LP). Result – loops of words, very short loops, which keep shifting and shuffling along in line with the rules of the process. We can hear recognisable words, even entire phrases perhaps, but Could Change is not intended to communicate anything of substance nor reveal hidden truths that might be lurking behind the fragmented news headlines; it’s mostly, I think, about the process.

Marc Matter explicitly aligns his work here with that of Diana Deutsch, who’s not exclusively a sound artist but a trained psychologist, one who is familiar with “sonic perception phenomena”. Her piece Phantom Words is a played-back piece of sound art comprising just two words (or sometime just syllables), to be heard over stereo speakers in the installation space slightly out of phase. As human beings, looking for patterns, we can’t help but try and make sense out of this stream of information; our brain hears things that aren’t there. What we think we perceive can be revealing about ourselves and our conditioning, which is what interests Diana Deutsch. We’ve encountered something very close to this in 1999, when Joe Banks published a short essay called ‘Rorschach Audio’ in the booklet of the CD Ghost Orchid (Ash International PARC CD1). The CD was about EVP, ghostly voices, and Raymond Cass who recorded his shortwave radio beaming private messages at him. Banks cited instances of earlier documented research cases, where listeners have been convinced that they can hear clear voices emerging from tape loops of meaningless babble.

Meanwhile, we also have the tough-minded press note here written by the feisty Angela Sawyer, an American musician whose LP On The Pedestrian Side for Feeding Tube was very favourably received in these pages. She too experiences the exact same ‘Rorschach Audio’ and ‘Phantom Words’ effect for herself when she listens to Could Change; she quite clearly hears a phrase of meaningless nonsense which isn’t really there, and what’s more she hears it being spoken in the voice of a drunken Jim Morrison. She’s well aware her brain is playing tricks, but she doesn’t care. From her enthused words, it’s clear she relishes the somewhat disruptive effect this Marc Matter record can deliver; to use her own expression, “it’s delightfully fucking annoying”. She also invokes an earlier precedent from formal avant-garde experimentation, that of Alvin Lucier and his I Am Sitting In A Room (1969). Sawyer thinks it’s about time someone put the lessons learned from Lucier to good use, or at least try and update the original idea; according to her, Marc Matter has done precisely that, to her satisfaction.

On the other hand, I think a more apt precedent would be Steve Reich’s Come Out, with two important differences – (1) it was done with a human voice (not a synthesiser) and (2) it used out-of-phase tape recorders (not a computer algorithm). I’m not saying Reich is “better”, but at least his work had real emotion and empathy, neither of which I can find in Marc Matter’s cold and clinical work. It fails to deliver any real aesthetic sublimation through its repetition and duration, and simply remains “annoying”. As to Lucier, his landmark piece is not simply about repetition or the spoken word, but is making a much broader statement about the nature of acoustics and the resonant frequencies of a room; conversely, Could Change is acoustically as flat as an oatcake, making no effort to escape from its own self-made claustrophobic trap. I hope one day to hear a successful voice-based piece from Matter, who evidently has some decent ideas; readers will recall I was bitterly disappointed by his Deconceptual Voicings LP from 2019. From 21st February 2022.