Box Three Spool Five

Still coming to terms with this impressive five CD set W. Transmission 1-5 (ZOHARUM ZOHAR 253-2) by Column One, which arrived from our friends in Poland at the Zoharum label…I guess we could call it a “reissue” of sorts since it brings together releases and recordings from 1992 up to 2001, some of which have been released as cassettes by Column One themselves. This Polish label has been performing a good service for its dedicated reissue programmes of music they like, including the catalogue of the Polish industrial hero Genetic Transmission, and for Column One they’re prepared a luxury edition inside a wooden box, which includes photos, badges, poster, signed certificate and such like, as well as the regular edition inside a card slipcase. I received my copy in January 2023, and I’m personally very glad to have it; I think the regular versions are still available but the wooden “collectible” is already sold out and fetches about 60-70 bones on Discogs…evidence I think of the loyalty inspired by this obscure and strange musical sound-art project, comparable to the loyalty of fans of Coil, P16.D4, Throbbing Gristle, or Nurse With Wound.

Column One themselves are calling this an “archive” project…on their annotations, both on the press release and the printed digipaks, these mischievous Germans do all they can to deflect common sense, reveal nothing, and express their work in conundrums and self-cancelling statements, sometimes verging on nonsense. I usually clutch for the a-word (absurdists) when attempting to account for these geniuses, but also discern echoes of German Dada in their cryptic and sometimes slightly nasty-strange aural utterances. That said, spinning W. Transmission 1 today I am relieved to find it quite approachable and listenable; I do anticipate that things will take a darker turn on later CDs in the set. I know we’ve heard Cindy, Loraine & Hank in 2016, and my post from that date may give you a little background context on the Columnsters, but I’m still deliciously puzzled by their work, finding the listening experience odd and unsettling. The “world transmissions” on this CD were mostly recorded around 1991-1993, although there appear to be some earlier 1984 experiments included here too. Portions of the CD may have appeared on a cassette called New-Re-Generation in 1992. I see from the Discogs entry that all the music was then credited to a single Column One member, Robert Schalinski, although today the credit roster has expanded to include Rene Lamp, Silke Volland, Eike Bolling, and Thorsten Kuhler – some of them playing instruments, some supplying tapes and effects. But it looks like Robert Schalinski is doing most of the heavy lifting when it comes to tape manipulation (a technique which, I suspect, accounts for a good chunk of the Column One approach), and also playing objects, samples, and “organ whistles”. I’ve commented many times on certain underground art/music projects deliberately keep their personnel as secret as possible, although on the 2016 double CD we also saw the names of Andrew Loadman, Jurgen Eckloff, Rene Lamp, and Tom Platt.

In like manner, Column One go out of their way to disguise the sources of their music and sound art. I’d better be clear on this point; this isn’t quite the same as musique concrète or electroacoustic music where the tapes and recordings undergo intensive processing and re-baking through studio methods, with the explicit aesthetic aim of transforming the sound source into something completely different. I don’t hear that degree of transformation with Column One. The sounds are plain, unadorned, untreated; rather, it’s something about the context and the presentation that is conferring this sensation of incredible strangeness and unfamiliarity. In short, they don’t tell us what they’re doing or how they’re doing it; we could be switching from field recordings to musical performances and back again, interspersed with samples and snippets captured or collected from places unknown. Lack of solid facts, and cryptic one-word titles for the pieces, are part of this strategy. And as mentioned earlier, the annotations are deliberately concocted to throw us off the scent, printed here in full capitals the better to emphasise their didactic stance and mock-academic seriousness.

Product image from label website

These texts create the impression that Column One were busying themselves creating a secret broadcast to be heard by the whole world, containing a message of huge importance; yet at the same time they were merely exploring their own process and artistic development, seeing each statement as a “stepping cone” – note the odd pun – on the way to something else. They also claimed to be operating in a “psychic space”, as if they were ghosts or spirits attempting to rethink music from the inside-out. They suggest the possibility that the very music itself is speaking in code. They pretend to be “spiritical or mystual”, as if they were monks or acolytes of a secret order even more powerful than the Knights Templar. All of this strangely-worded misinformation is, without doubt, part of the overall plan; it conceals as much as it reveals, and yet within its Burroughs-like syntax we might find some vestiges of truth, or at least a clue to set us on the right path. No wonder they claim “this work is no recording”; it’s phrases like that which are designed to perplex and make us think. If it’s not a recording, then what is it are we hearing?

Further puzzling delights await me, I am certain, on the other four discs in this set. I may or may not report back with further posts; see you on the other side. From 3rd January 2023.

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