Review – Kim Cascone, Anti-Musical Celestial Forces

23/09/2009

Kim Cascone

Anti-Musical Celestial Forces [27:47]


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For any finite series of shots (‘film’) whatsoever there exists in real time a rational narrative, such that every term in the series, together with its position, duration, partition and reference shall be perfectly and entirely accounted for.

Stan Brakhage (from the sleeve notes to Anti-Musical Celestial Forces)

Approaches

Grabbing quotations by well known artists is a tactic often used to gain prestige by association – the throwaway quotation attracts kudos. In the case of Anti-Musical Celestial Forces however, the reference to the work of experimental film-maker Stan Brakhage Brakhage sits at the very heart of Cascone’s underlying concept. We are given a clue as to how we might navigate the work – this gives me something to go on till I come up with something better.


I wanted to review this CD because I’m interested in examining what a well established artist does with field recordings, more specifically how he combines the recordings with musical textures (or vice-versa) and how he works the material conceptually.


There are many ways to write a review. There’s the blow-by-blow account, the constant reference to an assumed canon, the academic musicological approach. And there are many unresolved issues around the value of reviews focusing on new works which roam around the boundaries of sound art and music. From my perspective it matters little whether I actually like the work (as it happens I do like this one), but rather that I should attempt to gauge the composer’s intentions and to comment on how successfully he carries them out. So here I want to take account of the Brakhage citation and to look at how Cascone works the concept. In the end we’ll find that he works it very well indeed.


I know a few things about Cascone and about his work. He is often associated with microsound and ambient music, both unstable categories in my opinion. I also think that the association doesn’t do his work any great favours – his output stands well enough on its own terms. This over-categorisation seems to be an undesirable by-product of the inevitable drift towards a particular commercial model’s domination over all media art forms.


I’m aware of his contribution to contemporary electronic and computer generated music over many years, in both writing and recorded output. Kim Cascone is a major figure on the scene. At Sound Café 2008 I was delighted to host The Language of Ghosts, a 4 channel installation consisting of two stereo layers of unsynchronised loops – effective and engaging. I also received a copy of Statistically Improbable Phrases, again an engaging and rather gentle ambient work – very listenable indeed.


We’ve corresponded privately a few times to share findings on field recording techniques and to cross reference our respective writing on aspects of environmental sound art, from which I’ve been able to appreciate his research and his growing commitment towards working creatively with field recordings. I narrowly missed one of his workshops at Aberdeen where he worked with a mutual acquaintance, composer and cellist Claire Singer, who appears on the album under review. And I like to keep an eye on his steady and consistent stream of contributions to Facebook. Here he comes over as coffee lover, an enthusiast of politics of the left, a generous burrower and sharer of research, an avid Linux user. He is committed (am I right in thinking he has a son called Cage?), knows what he wants to do and gets it done. So when I read Brakhage’s ‘theorem’ on the sleeve notes I can safely conclude that it’s there for a good reason and I can feel confident that one useful approach to the work will be to examine it in terms of a narrative of sorts arising from a series of sharp cuts, much like the spliced manipulated film cuts of an experimental film-maker such as Brakhage.


 

 

 

The Music


The album opens with a piece which would stand well on its own; a text sound piece, a work of literature accompanied by field recordings and electronic textures. The bold opening statement, sounds of static, distortion and interference, sets the mood for the narrative to come. The text, presumably written by Cascone, portrays or suggests a dystopic world with shades of the oneiric (resonances of David Lynch and of Sin City), a Chandleresque setting which stirs up memories of highly stylised noir movies. Overall the piece is a strong opener, successful in its unusual combination of forward motion and restraint. There is nothing innovative here (and nothing wrong with that) – it follows a respectable tradition of similar work in the electroacoustic tradition, longer works by various French and Quebecois composers, the likes of Francis Dhomont, Annette Vande Gorne, Christian Calon.


At this point I’d like to offer an observation rather than a criticism. The American voice reading a first person narrative monologue is highly coded, perhaps overcoded. I assume that this is a serious piece and that the text and its reading are to be taken seriously. Stepping out on to thin ice here, my feeling is that what a US listener might take as a serious narrative risks being taken as a parody by (some) UK listeners over-exposed to Hollywood’s ubiquitous output. To my ears there is an underlying risk that for some non-US listeners the seriousness of the piece will be compromised. But none of this should overshadow the highlights – a narrative which is always to the fore, a tasteful, balanced and beautifully mixed background which behaves like a background, never intruding and always allowing us to hear and appreciate the connotations and legitimacy of the accompaniment, the whole functioning like a well worked film score.


The spoken text gives way to a two part counterpoint, gentle sea waves and the crescendo of a synthetic pitched drone, embellished gradually by a series of emerging harmonics, and finally a chord.


Following this prelude, at 9:56 we hear the first of several important sharp cuts. As the work unfolds we will come to realise that these abrupt breaks, narrative anchors, are the key to the success of the overall work. They fulfill two important functions: first they establish the structural pillars of the work, and secondly they carry forward the underlying analogy with film sound. As the sound of an unidentifiable rattling machine cuts sharply to voices washed in the distinctive reverberation of a particular interior space, the reference to Brakhage becomes clearer.


After only one or two listenings I began to piece together my own somewhat abstract or open ended narrative and in my opinion this invitation to navigate and interact creatively with the representational material is the most enjoyable aspect of the work. Some reviewers might resent invitations to adopt specific listening strategies, usually delivered on sleeve notes, perhaps feeling over-patronised or at risk of stepping out of their safety zone. I warmly welcome the challenges.


Cascone’s skill lies across several technical areas: in juxtaposing a variety of ‘classic electroacaoustic sounds, gristly and liquid sounds, in merging seemingly disparate sound sources (a technique introduced at the end of the opening piece), in constructing transitions between sharply contrasting material, rapid changes of space and location, constantly challenging the listener to piece together the story.


More abrupt cut and paste begins at 13:00. We have in quick succession the sound of German voices, a snap to flamenco guitar snippets, to what sounds like an oud tuning up, lift (elevator) sounds, then more voices, this time less distinctive. The same harsh cut and paste technique is used to introduce synthetic textures (or possibly highly processed field recordings, or even hybrids). Here the sudden shift to ‘bleep and squelch’ heralds a return to territory more representative of Cascone’s work in purely electronic music. This is no bad thing – as well as offering contrast it can be rewarding to play to established strengths, to sound like yourself from time to time.


More rapid cuts follow – a return to field recordings: a bridging section with an indistinct low midrange lowering to a bass drone, possibly dynamically filtered, reminding me of the work of Francois Bayle; song, speech (which language?), birds, which pop up everywhere but are nonetheless always welcome. I particularly like the way that the field recordings work in context, in their musical surroundings, and how, as the work proceeds, they begin to offer up their connotative and associative properties. The changes highlight the Brakhage theorem as a firm working concept. There are skillful passages where the balance between contrasting sounds demonstrates a dynamic compositional technique. In one key passage, bird calls, possibly swifts, compete with the recording of a plangent call to prayer laden with echo and rich spatial information. In this case the call to prayer wins. We hear second and third voices calling – are they diegetic, within the actual recording, or added in the mix? Is this a fabricated soundscape? Whatever the case and despite the ever-present risk of cliché, it is a convincing and beautifully shaped passage.


We finish with another sharp cut to inside voices, to rain, bells, and finally to a saxophonist, a busker or a lounge soloist, playing snatches of a jazz standard melody (Cole Porter?). A fitting end to the work.


So in all of this, for what it’s worth, my narrative had the American ‘doing Europe’ (and some of Asia Minor), conjuring up memories, pulling them together in a half sleep, wakening suddenly to new spaces and places. There is a documentary fleeting aspect to the work and no doubt some underlying archival intentions (not so obvious to the listener, but I’d wager important to the artist himself). I would suggest that Cascone hasn’t exhausted the exploitation of his archive in this one CD.


 

 

 

The sleeve notes


This release continues a series of CDs based on field recordings: Astrum Argentum (anechoic), Pharmacie: Red and Green (anechoic) and Music for Dagger and Guitar (aural terrains). The working description, ‘a thirty minute cinematic montage of field recordings, gathered in the fall of 2008 while on tour in Europe, mixed with computer generated textures and spoken word’, is accurate enough, though I’d have welcomed more on the cinema sound concept because I think we have an important topic under consideration.


The listener, then, is invited to construct his or her own narrative, to consider the field recording as a snapshot, a souvenir, an imaginary place (the locations of the recordings are given on the sleeve notes). As material the recordings are to be considered as foreign and synthetic artifacts. I wonder about this, about times when the two might be mutually exclusive. It can be hard to get the material to work as both – the topic might be a fruitful avenue for a deeper investigation of the work, something I’ll leave to the listener.


Finally, although I get the drift and the connection with Baudrillard, the reference to a recording as a ‘poor simulacra’ of the original opens up a sizeable can of worms. After many years of struggling with recorded sound in art I’ve come to the conclusion that the recording, the ‘artside’ element, has precious little to do with the original ‘lifeside’ event. I use the word ‘precious’ deliberately because what we end up with is indeed a treasure. I’m therefore on the side of Rick Altman when he maintains that it is the nature of recordings to represent, not to reproduce:-


Considered as a reproduction, recording seems to fall under the aegis of technology and engineering. Construed as a representation however, sound inherits the double mantle of art. Simultaneously capable of misrepresentation and of artistically using all the possibilities of representation, sound thus recovers some of the fascination lost to its reputation as handmaiden of the image. Indeed, it is recording’s very ability to manipulate sound that makes it so amply worthy of our interest.


I rather suspect that’s what the sleeve notes mean to say and that here is perhaps not the best place to go into great depth. But all good food for thought.


 

 

Conclusion


The Brakhage citation is quite apt, but I’m also favouring a consideration of Cascone’s work in relation to Brakhage’s practice of carrying out material manipulations or interventions directly on the material of the film itself. Brakhage added to filmstrip, creating extra layers so one might also draw a tentative analogy with the process whereby abstract computer textures, created by the artist’s own hand, are added to the field recordings.


Yet there is much more in this CD than a bundle of concepts. This is down to Cascone’s innate musicality and keen sense of the vitality of the representational resources at his disposal, allied to an intuitive awareness of the strategies and tactics of film sound composition. It’s all in there – we find many of Vertov’s disorientation techniques: disembodied sound, sound superimposition (from various sound spaces), abrupt sound breaks, abrupt tonal contrasts, synthetic sound collage. And we can also identify Chion’s ambient or territory sounds which envelop a scene and inhabit its space, materialising sound indices which pull a ‘scene’ towards the material and concrete, even textual speech, which, as I pointed out, often has a ‘strict quota’ on its power.


I’d buy this CD for several reasons. The work sets out to achieve specific artistic goals and does so very well. There are no extravagant claims here about field recordings and innovation which comes as a great relief given the (unwarranted) conceit shown by some contemporary practitioners. Instead we have clear intentions, based on an understanding of film sound discourse, structurally powerful narrative anchors skilfully laid down, and an end product, an aesthetically robust work replete with well wrought sonic detail.


Where many works in a similar idiom fail to appreciate the inherent strengths and weaknesses of the material, Cascone never exhausts the potential of the field recordings, inviting us to repeated and deeper listening.


And to conclude, a quotation from my own research into film sound which seems appropriate:-


It is the business of the sound film to reveal for us our acoustic environment, the acoustic landscape in which we live, the speech of things and the intimate whisperings of nature; all that has speech beyond human speech, and speaks to us with the vast conversational powers of life and incessantly influences and directs our thoughts and emotions, from the muttering of the sea to the din of a great city….


Bela Balazs (1945 – Theory of the Film) on the sound film.


Anti-Musical Celestial Forces is released on the Storung label.


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