Bjarni Gunnarsson – Processes & Potentials (2013)
Bjarni Gunnarsson’s Processes & Potentials is underpinned by a series of beliefs about the nature of processes, transformations and events. Although the sleeve notes explain some of what is supposed to be going on I should really say something about the composer’s mission statement. It’s possible that the simulation of chemical or biological processes is an attempt to defy linearity (or the perception of linearity), in which case gestural activity and its behaviour will be crucial, as will the complexity of relationships between different layers, their interpenetration and miscibility. This is a bold mission. On a different tack Gunnarrson would also seem to be advocating a compositional approach which is guided by the qualities and attributes of the materials to hand, allowing them to inform the work as it unfolds, instead of working from a preconceived plan or score. This much is usually expected within the contemporary electroacoustic idiom. Plenty is said then about process, some of which I don’t understand fully, but it would seem as if a process is made of events as opposed to things, which I also don’t understand because an event can also be a thing. You could of course take the view that none of this is particularly relevant to the music which has its own measure of complexity without the subtext.
As first impressions go Aukera is a dense piece, and harsh on the ears at times. It is also very loud, as are all the individual pieces in terms of high average levels and reduced dynamic range, which places the album in the same mastering domain as pop music or some electronic noise forms from the look of the squared-off waveforms. The overall impression is of a very involved and dense totality but on closer listening there’s less activity going on between the different levels of composition and more in the way of crossfading between enveloped layers. Some of the electronic blips are rather hackneyed as are some moments where the whoosh of panned broadband sound come straight out of the academic acousmatica handbook, though in the second wave of this particular piece some interesting sounds begin to develop.
Portholes offers a crackly and noisy hiss with a cacophony of metallic sounds and electronic squiggles, all somewhat familiar from the core of the concert electroacoustic idiom. The music becomes well-paced with the introduction of tonal passages and machine-like sounds. There follows a somewhat predictable return to the first sounds, then to a more static interlude which at least gives the piece a feeling of an evolving linear structure. What I don’t hear is any great effort at creating inner dynamic morphological investigation across the various micro-, meso- and macro- levels of the work, which would have convinced me that processes were indeed being investigated in depth. The piece ends with a return to the more tonal passage which then morphs slowly into machine-like sound with crackly textures.
Momentaries is even more tonal, almost orchestral as a nascent chord emerges and then recedes in different inversions. Eventually the hissy bits return, as expected, though less forcefully than in the previous pieces. Here Gunnarsson is still working with simple polyphony in crossfaded layers and, again somewhat predictably, something of the alien movie begins to creep in. More whooshing sounds reappear– is this the consistency across the work that we read about in the sleeve notes – similarity in timbres appearing and reappearing throughout? I still haven’t heard much transformation in the liquid sense – perhaps what he means is the representation of these processes as in perhaps a film score accompanying a visual presentation of the various processes. There is certainly something of the mad-scientist-in-his-lab going on and indeed there is plenty of this kind of music currently doing doing the rounds. The bump and fizzle of the ending once again presents us with a fine textbook acousmatic gesture to end the piece.
Signac – more crackle and hiss with a fine low end. If it wasn’t for the hissy crackly stuff then something more recognisably ‘musical’ might be heard to develop. The condiments run the risk of overpowering the main dish. There are some effective efforts at creating variety in the flow of the piece, with some harsh cuts and even a synthy sweep, again very sci-fi and filmic. The listener will inevitably come away with the feeling that a lot of compositional attention has gone into producing these pieces, in a conventional sense: change of pace, flow, some effort at varying dynamic range, contrast and so on, and, if this is a compositional virtue, a recurrence of similar sounds in different combinations. Many of the foregrounded sounds could be machines or simulated machine sounds. I’d guess that these are not field recordings – if they are then they are heavily processed and would benefit from having retained some of the rough edge that field recordings can offer. Again the overall structure is a fairly simple 2 – 4 part polyphony.
If one listens carefully Concomitance is not too different from the others. This leaves you, depending on your interpretation, with either a very tight sound world or lack of variety. A justifiable reason for the introductory compositional mission statement might be that Gunnarsson wants the listener to lean towards the first interpretation. Some well-shaped dynamics in the helicopter sounds take us again into the realm of solid film sound design, which (with all due respect) is where I think Gunnarsson would excel. The world of robotics, space flight, phasers, the take-off and landing envelopes, the timbres themselves, all beefed up with a good measure of well crafted reverberation where necessary to spread out the elements of the soundworld – it’s all classic stuff. Technically there are some cleverly wrought passages, for example the use of bandpass filtering to foreground low and high sounds at the expense of the the midrange. There is certainly a lot of attention given to varying the frequency range. On the downside the hiss by this point is becoming pervasive and even slightly intrusive.
Pedicel offers us more of the same which makes me wonder why Gunnarsson chose to present this album as six smaller pieces instead of one long piece. Waves of hiss and crackle play over a low drone. The restricted range of timbres forbid any deeper level morphological development which to me is the essence of progressive electroacoustic music, otherwise there’s a risk that you are simply producing linear and/or simple contrapuntal orchestral music with computers. The panoramic activity, as with all the pieces, is excellent. There is some unpredictability in a sudden break to a less frenetic and more tonal episode at around 3 ½ minutes which risks confusing the listener – is the next bit a new piece or is it a contrast as in a slow/fast or loud/soft classical movement?
A lot of hard work has gone into this album and despite my seemingly critical stance, I think that it stands a good bit above many similar works, though largely in terms of compositional craftsmanship as opposed to invention or originality. One element or quality that seems to be lacking is the incisive edge which the use of concrète sounds can bring to the textures.
Finally processes, in the sense that I think the composer wishes to have us understand them, are chemical reactions or other events that result in a transformation. One might listen to the music and imagine such events taking place, though this will depend on the individual’s imagination. For music to act as some kind of analogue to the workings of biological or chemical processes, a much higher degree of complexity would be required in the use of the sonic materials to hand.
Bjarni Gunnarsson’s Processes & Potentialsis released on 3LEAVES
Sometimes it’s very satisfying to leave behind all your prejudices about what music is or should be and listen to the amazing musical activities that people get up to. For example, take Spectropol Records who have a catalogue of albums which offer the listener a range and variety of sound worlds that you won’t hear anywhere else. There’s enough here to keep you going for months. As the sidebar explains: Spectropol Records is a friendly netlabel devoted to excellent music unbound by venue and commerce; it’s a destination for adventurous music beyond journalistic and commercial style/genre classifications
And to be honest after listening for a while I still can’t fathom what’s going on in some of this music, nor can I figure out where it should sit, which box the various artists should be stuffed into. This is in itself a very welcome breath of fresh air. All I can say is that I’ve been charmed by this catalogue and treasure and embrace its presence in a world where it’s too easy to get sidetracked by all manner of institutional and personal agendas. There is something very interesting and ultimately pleasing going on at Spectropol.
Let me begin with Vincent Bergeron’s Il y a seulement des apparitions for voice and various instruments. This work defies categorisation and is all the more loveable as a result in its blend of cabaret, sound poetry, improvisation, cinema sound and/or music for animation, with hints at contemporary classical composition. I should point out in particular the uncanny uncertainty I felt as to how seriously I should treat this work, something I haven’t felt since I saw some of Ionesco’s stage plays.
Then we have the more abstracted world of Andrew Young’s Inkplaces where field recordings and electronic music are brought together in a most idiosyncratic fashion. Every bit as entertaining and skillfully crafted as any of the more reductive music currently overexposing itself on the etherwaves.
J.C Combs Gazing stands in contrast with the two previous albums in its simple exploration of processed piano. Now this isn’t necessarily my cup of tea, nor should it be for me to mention it, but this kind of simple instrumental music is important for many listeners and I’m happy to bring it to your attention because it stands up perfectly well alongside any of the better known artists in this idiom.
Finally I’ll point you to Bruce Hamilton’s 2012 work, Drams, which offers an impressive range of different pieces held together by the notion of dreaming. The use of microtonality on some of the pieces was what first led me to theis label and to Hamilton’s earlier work.
There are others I could mention, some well known for having been around for a while, like Viv Corringham, not to mention the ridiculous talents of improvising guitarist John Bisset and the extraordinary musical and extramusical skills of Ivor Kallin. two artists who wouldn’t stay in a box if you fastened down the lid with rivets.
As they say in the adult shops, there’s something for everyone…
Released on Noise and Hate & Ultra-Mail Prod, Aseleuch Tendrradero has eleven tracks of electronic music which make use of a generous palette, most notably synthesisers and effects (analogue or digital?), recognisable musical instruments and a smattering of field recordings.
The track names are intriguing – I can’t tell what language they come from so you can consult the list here.
The music on Aseleuch Tendrradero is very loose in the sense that there’s no real perceptible form or structure to most of the individual pieces. Regardless of how the album has been put together, the over-riding plan seems to be a series of improvisations, perhaps with a basic underlying idea or concept at times to guide the players.
The sound sources are quite distinctive – a mélange of predominantly synthesised timbres many of which are quite historical (to avoid using a less respectable term). Because of the amount of material on the go at any one time, especially in tracks 1, 2, 5 and 7, the more hackneyed sounds are occasionally offset by contrasting material such as background reverberating timbres or by techniques such as fast cuts, extreme contrasts, noisy gestural crescendo or tonal ostinati. Some of the techniques bring to mind early musique concrète – whether as a retro nod of approval or resulting from a hard committed decision to work within this aesthetic framework I can’t tell for sure. Another uncertainty in this respect is the predominant glitch aesthetic common to many of the tracks, for example 5, 7, 8 and 9. Overall, taking into account all of the aforementioned, most of the sounds fall into an electroacoustic tradition or mannerism where things ‘come at you’. This could of course be a very clever nod at a specifically modernist yet already historical musical habitus.
Two of the tracks have all the makings of very well shaped science fiction soundtracks. Track 3 gives us the scary version with its big silences and synthy reverbs, characterised at times by some good panning and always offering a hint of tonality. Track 5, with the hums and clicks of its glitch aesthetic (fashionable about five years ago) and its bursts of electronic noise, would go well as a soundtrack to the late Iain M. Banks’ complex and austere science fiction novel Excession. All in all a fairly consistent narrative of sorts. Pleasant little orchestrated additions make their entries, for example bell-like sounds. This is essentially very linear music despite the occasional two and three part contrapuntal efforts to afford depth.
Three tracks offer some contrast to the prevailing sound world. Track 8 has an interesting change of pace which fairly livens up the atmosphere, the envelopes lending additional dynamism. Track 9 offers some semblance of form in its unique punctuation and restraint. Track 10 brings in some bowed string sounds with atonal screeches (again bowed strings) and other instrumental timbres on top. The last of these is markedly different and refreshing in its consistency, even if a fairly orthodox layering of sounds.
In summary this is electronic music of the sort that people who don’t listen to new music would associate with the genre. I’d say that this is probably very well-assembled electronic music, within its own limitations. It’s not a style of music making that I follow with great interest, largely because I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion that synthesisers, unless they’re generating vast dense pullulating and complex timbres, would be better put to work doing what they’re best at, which is synthesising timbres and perhaps not making music. This is however heretical and I can already hear the inquisition at the door so I’ll stop.
Ralf Wehowsky (born in 1959 in Mainz, Germany) is one in a growing group of non-academic sound artists whose work is abstract, but very focused on the possibilities of sound and very rewarding over repeated listenings and different works. Although he started his musical career in the post-industrial scene, his musical output in the ’90s resists categorization as well as casual listening. His earliest recorded work was with the post-industrial group Permutative Distortion later called P.D. and finally recording as P16.D4, and in 1981, Wehowsky and his colleagues formed the collective/label Selektion. P16.D4 is still considered one of the fundamental groups or German post-industrial period. In 1992, Wehowsky released his first solo album under the name RLW. Most of his output in the ’90s was collaborative, but he did release four additional solos (see discography below). His work in the ’90s culminated in a five-CD set, Tulpas, where he invited several leading sound artists from all over the world to participate in a transformative process, creating a reflection and commentary on his own work unparalleled in contemporary music. Ralf Wehowsky has released the solo works on labels like Trente Oiseaux, Streamline, Metamkine, Selektion, Table of the Elements, Anomalous, etc and has collaborated with artists like Walter Marchetti, Kevin Drumm, Bruce Russell, Yang-Tul, Andrew Chalk, etc.
Anla Courtis was born in 1972 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He was a founder member of Reynols. He has more than 200 solo releases and collaborations on labels like: PSF, Porter, Blossoming Noise, No-Fi, RRR, Tonschacht, MIE, Pogus, Riot Season, Antifrost, Beta-Lactam, Quasipop, Kning Disk, Sedimental, 8MM, Public Eyesore, Smittekilde, Alt.Vinyl, Mikroton, etc. He has toured extensively in Japan, Europe, USA, Australia, NZ & Latin America and has collaborated with musicians like: Pauline Oliveros, Nihilist Spasm Band, Lee Ranaldo, Yoshimi, Jim O’Rourke, Eddie Prevost, Otomo Yoshihide, BJ Nilsen, Phill Niblock, Makoto Kawabata, Daniel Menche, KK Null, Rick Bishop, Tabata, Mats Gustafsson, Toshimaru Nakamura, L.A.F.M.S., Damo Suzuki, Thomas Dimuzio, Rudolf Eb.Er, Seiichi Yamamoto, Tetuzi Akiyama, Lasse Marhaug, Rapoon, Uton, Birchville Cat Motel, The New Blockaders, Jaap Blonk, Jazkamer, C.Spencer Yeh, Okyung Lee, Avarus, & Kemialliset Ystavat. His music always has strong experimental sense and usually based on high-skilled techniques of prepared sound, tape manipulations, processing of field recordings, live electronics, objects, cymbals, synthesizers, computer tools, playing traditional (both acoustic and electric) instruments as well as self-built, strange and unusual instruments (eg. unstringed guitar).
ASELEUCH TENDRRADERO is the second collaboration album by Ralf Wehowsky & Anla Courtis. Based on abstract electronics and tape as main sources, the CD contains 11 tracks and it was co-released by Hong Kong label Ultra-Mail Prod. and Noise and Hate. It comes in a 18,5x14cm plastic wallet with full colour artwork.
On World Listening Day, 18 July 2013, I walked to the junction of the Jed Water and the Teviot to listen, record and reflect. It was several winters ago that I last stopped at this spot. Then I could approach the bank and clearly appreciate the junction of the two streams. In midsummer the banks are heavily overgrown with nettles and giant hogweed so I had to beat a path and nestle carefully into my leafy environment in order to listen.
Here the listener can barely hear the traffic, apart from the low rumble of the heavy vehicles. The river sounds are at the same time soothing and complex in their modulations. I was surprised by small fish jumping – weeks of hot weather had reduced many of the channels to trickles – hardly enough depth for fish to seek shelter. Insects made up the larger part of the foreground. A solitary kestrel flew straight at me and veered just above my head. I took this to be significant without knowing why. I’ve begun to think like this with wildlife in the same way as the Koyukon of Northern Alaska afford specific meanings to every interaction with the creatures around them, meanings based on respect for all creatures. So while I enjoy the mutual respect I just don’t know yet what each encounter means.
What I like about being obliged to go and listen is that you do just that – you go out and listen carefully and attentively. With me this tends to carry over for a few days at least. Two days after the riverside experience I was walking with my son along the leafy streets of The Grange in Edinburgh. I stopped at a garden to listen more closely and sure enough, for the first time this year, I heard with relief the intricate detail of a swarm of bees hard at work around the flowers of a Hebe plant. And to think that in our lifetimes the sound of a few dozen bees gathering nectar would be a cause for celebration.
The artists write of their work thus:
Holes/Tract documents the origin of a sound palette of bellows and electronics – the formation of our collaboration as Coppice. The four compositions highlight the widely dimensional sonic range of a strictly narrow instrumentation: shruti box/acoustic filters and modified boombox/tape loops.
So what we have here is a very tightly focused approach to music made with a carefully chosen and simple blend of acoustic and electronic instruments. A palette has been developed, flexible enough to merit a full length album, yet restricted enough, in the main, to offer the listener a very original, unique and recognisable sound world.
Before commenting on the music I have to say, in very simple and personal terms, that I find their work inspiring – hard to pigeonhole, contemporary without playing to fashionable idioms, engaging and thoroughly enjoyable. A good dig around their website is thoroughly recommended, if only to speculate on the range of influences brought to bear on the duo’s work.
Some artists work uniquely with raw field recordings, some with the processed versions. Others add dashes of recorded sound here and there for various reasons, musical and otherwise. Coppice, with their selected instruments, however, manage to make music that sounds like field recordings, a practice which adds another layer of complexity to the ‘what is music’ debate. Agate in particular sounds for all the world like some of the textile mills that I’ve been recording of late. I have no doubt that many recordists will recognise the sounds of (apparent) small industrial processes. But then one could reasonably argue that what we have here is indeed a cottage industry defined by the grit, crackles, blasts, whirrs and whines of machinery and mechanisms in motion. This onomatopoeic world is a world of agency and of physical labour.
There’s a palpable intensity to the work. Instead of measurable change in the larger structure, we have a focus on small variations in texture and density. There is no attempt to make ‘beautiful’ music in the conventional sense of, say, evoking emotional sweeps by means of dynamic gestures. Any post production is well hidden. Everything seems to be the result of performed or initiated sonic processes, lending a sense of immediacy to the music.
Mild Grey Lustre [5:28]
This piece is characterised by its strong formal arrangement: four finely shaped passages framed by periods of rest as the bellows draw breath. Always in motion, each of the main passages exhibits a blend of electronic textures with what I’d call organic sounds, human activated sounds of uncertain provenance.
Scour has more of the purr, hiss, whine and whirr of the first piece, along with crickety jungle sounds, some delicious passages of indeterminate foutering and a range of breathy sounds, presumably part of the bellows and reed mechanisms.
There are lengthy periods of what might at first be taken for relatively gentle activity, offering fine contrast with more obvious industrial processes. But these passages are as deceiving as they are clever. Whilst offering genuine contrast (a long period of apparently nothing much more than a ticking sound) a closer listen reveals a hive of small industry, as if something’s being repaired or prepared in the lab. Certain passages remind me of some field recordings I captured recently of horses in their night stables – some fidgeting and the odd snort, then silence, then more of the same.
Brim begins with a long drone which turns out to be rather complex if you listen closely for the harmonics and other ‘noise’ in the signal. One might be forgiven for drawing parallels with the darkness and austerity of a medieval processional, sackbuts and shawms in full voice. The processional is accompanied by the beating and wind of bellows which eventually give way to more recognisable dynamically filtered instrumental timbres – those of a (cleverly amplified) sruti box. As the texture becomes ever denser, and richer, interesting morphologies emerge in the combinations, becoming quasi-orchestral, like an ensemble of bowed zithers with electronic overtones. The piece ends on a very long decrescendo, one third of the total duration of the piece.
On a technical note, the track has been very well equalised. I say this because the region around 2kHz has been kept prominent in the mix, without stripping the enamel off your teeth – not an easy task.
Brim stands apart from the other three pieces. A different approach seems to be at work here, no less successful, but which risks compromising the integrity of the album, considering the nature of the other three pieces.
Finally, to complete my reading of this work, I would consider the duo’s overall approach as a following-on from the work of Harry Partch and others like him, whether conscious or not, and of course setting aside obsessions with tuning systems. Holes/Tract succeeds in contributing a dash of meaningful originality to the ever expanding field of new experimental music.
mindweeds [14:30] (2012)
from field recordings made at the Ettrick Marshes in the Scottish Borders: manifestations of rural architecture; bridge and bird hide; marsh ambience;
mindweeds is a compositional outcome from the Ettrick Marshes Project, a collaboration between sound artist James Wyness, dancer and choreographer Jenna Agate, film-maker Ronnie Johnston and the staff and young people of Rowlands in the Borders town of Selkirk. My contribution focused on field recording and producing audio for dance, movement and film.
Over the course of twelve days we visited the marshes and carried out various environmental interventions. Our activites were comprehensively documented on film. A final show completed the project, to be repeated on Friday 26 October at the Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival 2012.
The marshes in summer are damp, midge infested and quiet. Nothing happens to overwhelm the senses: the insects, birds and mammals go about their daily and seasonal routines, the water flows through the marshes and under the bridge. The listener/observer can take time to tend to the mindweeds.
Call for proposals for unfunded diy residencies
Peace, quiet and time to reflect, maybe even make some new work. I’d bring along wellies and a bottle of Scotch… and maybe some thermals.