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.
Jeff Gburek’s The Watermark comes over as an extremely well produced album with the guitar at its heart. The signature sound of acoustic and prepared electric guitars is accompanied by Javanese rebab or spike fiddle, sitar, bass recorder, piano, voice and vocal effects, field recordings and software processing. The problem, fairly obvious, would lie in the organisation of such a variety of seemingly unrelated instruments and sound sources. Gburek has chosen not to throw everything together in a freely improvised session or two and hope that an avant-garde aesthetic excuses the results. Instead each track impresses the listener with a sense of composition, arrangement and sensitivity to the sound sources. Many of the tracks come across as folk-ish songs, without words, but with a hint of electroacoustic awareness in the background textures and flutters.
The guitar for the most part is clean, apart from touches of reverb, delay and perhaps an octaver. Several tracks, notably 1, 3 and 6, set up delicate arpeggiated chord progressions characterised by their lack of resolution or clear direction. Around these fragile foundations wander the various gnomic voices (singing into a microphone held in the mouth), whistles and crackles or rebab phrases. Track 1 in particular offers a verse and chorus structure which hints at compositional beginnings on the guitar. The preparations are straightforward and effective – what sounds like ebbing and flowing ebowed passages on track 5, guitar activated by means of a portable ventilator on track 8 and, more conventionally, slide guitar on track 6.
What I found interesting was the range of moods offered throughout the album. It would be easy to label the music as ‘ambient’ in the original sense of the word. But within this catch-all there is much variety. Some of the tracks are simply relaxing. Track 4 for example, though perhaps a bit long, would keep many a stoner happy with its lazy, droney Pink Floydish feelgood atmosphere. Track 5, hypnotic and mesmeric, leaves us hanging in space and time with a mix of high pass filtered folky vocals, a pedal on two pitches, background glitches and electronics. In introducing some new instruments, piano and bass recorder, along with a folky and disembodied voice and wolf sounds, track 7 resembles a traditional chant. The overall mood leans towards the mysterious, even disturbed, more like sound design for a film. Track 8 extends and develops this darker discourse.
For lovers of the guitar and in particular those who appreciate new approaches to embedding the guitar in fresh environments, this will be an enjoyable addition to the cd collection. Work like this always offers a challenging contrast between the recognisability of the guitar, which pins everything down, and the less recognisable accompanying instrumental, vocal or electronic gestures and textures. I would add here that Gburek has wisely avoided relying too heavily on software processing and unnecessary electronic padding. The album comes over very well, to my ears at least, as primarily an acoustic exploration which sits between popular and experimental idioms.
I would also applaud the fact that this is very peaceful music, not in a new age sense, but in the sense that there is no Mr Nasty posturing to be found anywhere. We get a sense of homeliness and gentle engagement with the artist and his collaborators.
I’ve made several references to folk and folkiness. My final comment, and this is purely personal, would be that I think the album could have gone even further in the exploration of what I’d call a conceptual folk idiom. By this I mean a music where there are allusions, hints and connotations of ‘folkiness’, from a variety of world traditions, without any predominance, a sound world in which the listener is left with a mixed feeling of familiarity (homeliness) and mystery (otherness). Although this music is possibly yet to be made, The Watermark makes gentle and positive steps in the right direction.
The Watermark is available at Orphan Sound
Bernard Herman, Mongrel Scribbler
Madder Gala, Cartomancy and Chiromancy
released on Rustle VV
This is the second of two reviews (see first review) covering the work of the Brooklyn based cassette label Rustle VV. Here I’ll look at Bernard Herman’s Mongrel Scribbler and Cartomancy and Chiromancy by Madder Gala.
Both cassettes have the same simple black and white artwork, slightly disturbing images, very distinctive. Mongrel Scribbler has the catalogue number scratched on the side of the cassette. Cartomancy and Chiromancy has only one side of music. These quirks and oddities are part and parcel of the Rustle VV artistic experience. The more essential part, the music, manages to live up to expectation.
Mongrel Scribbler’s eight tracks share a specific bundle of common features. All are characterised by the twisted, unhinged, slightly psychotic high tenor voice of the artist, presumable Bernard Herman. At various times, this voice and its various ravings brings to mind a range of possible influences: the tone and imagery of Jim Morrison’s poetic efforts (Bitten by a Snake, From Home to Home), sung in a weedy anguished NY voice; some of Beefheart’s more personal peregrinations; nuances of Robert Plant before a Zeppelin-esque explosion (Short Haired Woman); various new romantic affectations, from Bowie to Gary Numan via David Byrne (Deliverance, Outside Gates of Heaven). All of which seem to emanate from a performance in the avant-garde tradition (yes, there is one) brought together in Warhol’s sitting room.
Some of the most successful passages are held together thematically by alluding, cleverly or sensibly, to religious imagery drawing on the darker morality of the Old Testament, inviting comparisons with Blues and Gospel declamatory styles, especially in Outside Gates of Heaven in which the principal voice is layered with a deeper voice to set up something resembling a call and response liturgy.
In contrast to these songwriting strengths we have the simplicity and effectiveness of the musical accompaniment. Simple synth pads and twinkly embellishments, light effects, some sparse percussion, the occasional double tracked vocal line, used sparingly and with focus and direction – all these manifest an easy command of a few musical resources put to good use. In fact it’s the sharp focus of this album that left the strongest impression.
Madder Gala’s, Cartomancy and Chiromancy is (I think) one long piece because it begins and ends with similar material, evidence of some sort of structured composition. This work is characterised by the use of loops and short samples, from 4 note piano motifs to cello phrases, tinkly beats, looped voices, synthy or field recording instrumental sound. The vocal passages might come from an old 78 or from a random radio broadcast. A careful use of enveloping helps the different elements emerge and recede, changes of mood and direction suggest a vast dreamscape with intriguing connotations.
Some vocals and a rather obviously cheesy bass riff breaks the spell somewhat. Too much of anything can pin down a work like this and up until now it had avoided anything too concrete. This in itself is interesting – how and why does this happen and at what points does a listener switch off because of a change of direction or mood?
As with the previous work released on this label, my only question, which doesn’t apply to the Madder Gala offering, is why artists still seem to be limiting themselves to the three minute (or so) song format. It’s as if we’ve forgotten an enormous and rich cultural heritage, from both European and North American traditions, of song and balladry which creates songs to be as long as they need to be. Unless the three minutes (or so) just happens coincidentally to be the ideal length.
Nonetheless, both albums would be very good models for young aspirants with some measure of originality seeking a way out of indie-pop mediocrity.
Numen [49:19] is a 2012 release on Aural Terrains. Here we have laptop and electronics from Thanos Chrysakis, digital synthesis and field recordings from Wade Matthews. The pair have played together in a variety of outfits and combinations over the years as well as in their own solo projects. Their collective music is characterised above all by a highly developed sense of originality, inventiveness and what I’d call an irrepressible investigation into ever new combinations of sound sources. It also steers away from what I’d call an academic acousmatic idiom, largely through the use of humour in the choice of field recordings, animal sounds, vocal intrusions and the like and in the deliberate avoidance of ‘development’ in the historico-musical sense that a sonata develops previously introduced material. Any development to be found is reserved for the longer pieces, where a feeling of intensity emerges as part of the pacing and of the ebb and flow of the work.
There are six pieces, ranging in duration from less than three minutes to seventeen minutes, each adopting a characteristic approach to sound creation which leans towards the gestural and the linear. By gestural I mean that the sounds are clearly tailored, shaped and presented, each is distinctive and in general distinguishable from the other. By linear I mean that the texture is one where sounds come and go, either contrasting with or blending in well with neighbouring sounds. Any polyphonic or contrapuntal textures are clear yet incidental to the procession of highly wrought sounds. There is no focus on a deep investigation of morphology or density.
With this in mind any discussion would naturally settle on the kinds of sounds that the artists have created, digitally or otherwise, or selected, in the case of field recordings. It’s here, in my opinion, that the deepest appreciation of the album will lie. I should stress that what Chrysakis and Matthews have achieved here requires a high level of musical and technical skill. I’ve had to endure some truly horrible work which would seem to rely on throwing a bunch of gestures together from a range of acoustic and electronic instruments in the hope that something vaguely contemporary results. On first listening I thought (and was surprised, knowing the artists’ work as well as I do) that Numen was woven from a similar cloth. But, setting aside my personal taste in timbral matters, on subsequent auditions it becomes clear that many of the sounds are beautifully crafted, even deeply sensual in places, that the combinations are rigorously selected in terms of offering contrasts in frequency range, shape and movement. And all improvised to boot. This is an album that deserves close listening on a good sound system, many times over.
I’ve noticed from previous work a preference for metallic timbres and indeed these are foregrounded in several of the pieces. Track 4 in particular presents a highly effective contrast between chime and bell timbres on the one hand and churning watery sounds on the other. Of all the individual pieces this one in particular hints at some sort of timbral development. Track 5 offers similar fare at about five minutes in. The other notable feature is the manner in which electronics, digital synthesis and field recordings are brought together. None dominates the sound field, leaving the listener with an impression of integritysimilar to that found in a well balanced chamber ensemble.
Finally, the aforementioned recommended close listening will uncover the fact that very few if any of the sounds are hackneyed (meaning trite, dull or stereotyped). This is partly due to the artists’ attention to detail and largely due to the deployment of a high degree of inventiveness which can be heard at every level, from the boldest foregrounded sound to the subtlest background murmur.
Magma, Thanos Chrysakis
Magma is a 2011 release by Thanos Chrysakis on the Russian label Monochrome Vision. The work, a 30 minute piece in the electroacoustic idiom, makes extensive use of electronic devices, acoustic sounds and field recordings.
A piece of this length is a bold venture. Most electroacoustic, or if you prefer, acousmatic pieces, for fixed medium, are in the 8 – 12 minute category. Any longer and they probably wouldn’t get programmed, unless it’s a ‘classic’ like Dhomont’s Forêt Profonde. In fact last time I checked, most of the opportunities for this kind of music insist on shorter pieces, not to mention suffering from the most pathetic ageist regulations, but I digress. So releasing a longer work on a specialist label makes sense. If you want some fresh musical experiences I’d suggest that Monochrome Vision is well worth a visit.
I had forgotten how much I enjoy a good blast of acousmatic abstraction. Magma pushes all the buttons that you’d expect: inventiveness, pace, flow, expert use of a wide dynamic and spectral range. As a work based on a proliferation of gestures there is less in the way of morphological investigation by means of more sustained textures and the development of restricted resources. I put this down to the weight of the history of music in the teaching of this idiom – music has to go somewhere, has to show constant invention, keep busy, or be less so by contrast. In thinking about the whys and wherefores of acousmatic music Paul Virilio’s ideas about speed and information overload often come to mind. If music conjurs up a place or an inner space, then this isn’t a relaxing musical space or one made for reflection – it’s fast and furious most of the time, requiring an intellectual rather than an emotional response. All of which has its place.
This is a very well composed piece and I could go into great detail as to why I offer that conclusion, such as examining the complex relationships between the various strands of material. Primarily though, Magma succeeds in holding the listener’s attention for long periods, a very difficult feat in working with highly processed material of such abstraction.
I’ve always considered the core of acousmatic composition to be similar to working out in a gymnasium. You develop great strength, stamina and technique relating to an extremely focused area of endeavour. Your aural skills are honed to near perfection and your production values soar. Ultimately though, developing the analogy, there comes a time when you have to apply all this training to a sport, otherwise you end up with a big muscles, great strength and the only friends you have are in the gym. Or is that being unfair?
Thanos Chrysakis has since explored a range of new directions, in particular improvisational styles incorporating an electroacoustic sensibility. Magma in one sense is a (re-) statement of the artist’s credentials in which we are treated to his strong compositional skills – the collaborative and improvisational projects build on and extend these core strengths.