Mahler (in/a) Cage
GERMANY GRUENREKORDER Gruen 203 CD (2021)
In the Lockdown periods, I turned to recorded audio for stress-release and relaxation purposes (or simply passing time in periods of enforced isolation) whether it was Ambient music on Instagram, eurorack modular synthesis on YouTube, ASMR on Facebook or field recordings on cd. Mahler (in/a) Cage is a good example of the latter, and a welcome addition to my own personal library of what I refer to as my “relaxation devices” which also include, since you ask, works by Helene Vogelsinger, Annie Blackthorn, Warrington-Runcorn New Town Development Plan, Dhangsha, David Sylvian & Holger Czukay, Perila, Femishuga Fleming, The Colander Studio Group, David Lee Myers, T. Hakozaki and The Utopia Strong.
The premise to Mahler (in/a) Cage was to explore through active recording, the “…soundscape in which Gustav Mahler composed his last works from 1909 to 1911 and in particular The Song of the Earth (Das Lied von der Erde)…” The Song of the Earth is an opera which, like most of Mahler’s work, I am regrettably unfamiliar with, so we must proceed with that in mind, for I assume Sergio Amaroli is not only a Mahler fan, but an absolute obsessive to wish to produce a work of this nature. Ditto, presumably, John Cage, whose work Amaroli uses as a filter through which Amaroli’s premise is spun. Indeed, Marcel Duchamp’s quote about Cage’s Sculptures Musicales from 1989 is invoked within the press release; “Sounds lasting and leaving from different points and forming a sounding sculpture which lasts”.
A colossal amount of source material has been gathered, sieved, and then distilled through Amaroli’s composer-like approach to editing, propensity to storytelling, and general love of environmental sound. It is work on an impressive scale that almost feels undeserving of dissemination on a medium as limited as a cd. The accompanying booklet holds a lot of academic-style description of the nuts and bolts of the actualization of the project, but in amongst it are the following examples that go some way to clarifying Amaroli’s intentions:
“…within the structure suggested by John Cage in Sculptures Musicales…the sounds are derived (found) from Mahler’s musical material and inserted into the soundscape that has preserved Gustav Mahler’s sound imagery as a remnant of the auditory memory…” Furthermore: “…We used de-noising processing to purge it of noises from cars and machinery and recreate a soundscape closer to the one that Mahler probably heard during his stays in Dobbiaco…” And “…Finally, the material has been enriched with synthetic sounds that blend in with the natural sounds of birds but also re-propose some key pitches and thematic elements found in Das Lied von der Erde…”
For me, where Amaroli succeeds is in his construction of a subtle mirage-like narrative arc in the piece. It is this which allows the work to rise above the perils of “field recordings presented as art” which perhaps may befall the unwary amateur enthusiast. A notable exception to this was the late Ian Rawes who produced an impressive – and important – body of work; The London Sound Survey, an endeavour worthy of inclusion in any sound art gallery or museum collection yet who built it up over many years with the enthusiasm and love of a genuine enthusiast.
The journey is an absorbing one, however, and one that I have revisited on multiple occasions. The blend of environmental source materials is a compelling one and the album fits in well with the output of Gruenrekorder. The disc itself describes the piece as “Field Recording / Sound Art Essay (for Binaural Listen)” which is a good way of approaching the piece for the first listen. Subsequent listens will produce a different mindspace each time, such is the detail and density of the source material. Amaroli puts it all together in a very interesting way.