Review – Francisco Lopez, Untitled #228

25/01/2010

Along with Anaphoria’s latest release ini itu kindly sent me a copy of Francisco Lopez’ Untitled #228, another 250 copy vinyl album. It might be my imagination, or perhaps the fact that I’m not listening to everything these days over critical studio monitors, but vinyl does seem to sound so much warmer. That’s what I enjoyed most about this album – no harsh sounds, everything well balanced and finely equalised.

I found myself on first litening doing a lot of sound source identification and singling out the techniques used to separate the various strands of material on side A. This is a 22 minute track composed from a range of representational material, field recordings in other words, carried out in Indonesia. In terms of getting the best out of his resources, selecting and combining, Lopez has an excellent technical ear. After several listens you come to appreciate what a fine musical ear he has as well.

Music made from environmental sound. The concept is very simple and Lopez keeps his work simple, this in my opinion being his greatest strength as a composer. For example he likes to let things run, to allow the material to develop itself, giving the ear time to take in the spectral and dynamic complexity of the evolving sounds. This is done with great skill – I’ve heard some fairly monotonous results from less able composers using similar approaches.

Musicality in general and in particular a sense of orchestration began to assert themselves. At times, both background and foreground layers would reveal repeated tonal figures or emphatic percussive passages. A particularly lively knitting needle click-clack sort of sound came and went throughout the mix, layered at one point with a ‘real world’ drum figure. All overshadowed by a shifting texture of recordings of  voices speaking announcements through loudspeakers, again captured from various ‘real-life’ contexts.

The music fades to a very tiny buzzing sound, a bluebottle on cocaine. This builds slowly and meticulously to reveal, again, a counterpoint of well separated layers, including a watery whooshing sound, encouraging all sorts of narrative responses in the listener, mine being a particularly stormy night in a bothy somewhere in the Scottish Highlands .

Side B is fairly straightforward for those with a background in acousmatic music. Here, according to the sleeve notes, Lopez is offering us a ‘spectral take on gamelan’. It would stand up well against other pieces in the idiom. There’s nothing original or radical here, just  a very beautiful and well considered use of the source material, offering us a slow crescendo of complex inharmonic spectra as the sounds of the processed struck metal percussion reveal their sonic riches.

So far, so good. A thoroughly enjoyable album which I’d strongly recommend to anyone. But I have some serious reservations about some of the claims made on the sleeve notes. We are told, for example, that ‘his reflection on the phenomenology of the act of listening has led him to develop a form of ‘absolute musique concrete’, paralleling the richness, complexity, slow changes and extreme level dynamics of nature. It also leads him to detach his pieces from narrative developments, referential associations of sounds with reality, and psychological resonances. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein: a sound is a sound is a sound is a sound’.

Emotion could be considered as a form of psychological resonance. Does Lopez mean that we should attempt to suppress our emotional response to music, more specifically to his music?

There are several problems here. If a sound is a sound, etc., we’d all report the same experience after listening to music made from representational material, which we don’t. We’d never be able to play Chinese whispers either. So somebody is confusing poiesis with esthesis (check it out).

There’s something Newtonian about this particular claim. Perhaps it’s an attempt at certainty, even determinism, in the very uncertain and chaotic world of the making and reception of sound and music.

I accept of course that you can have a music which parallels the richness and complexity of the sounds of nature and the environment. Although I don’t know off the top of my head what ‘absolute musique concrete’ is, I can make an informed guess. My real problem is with the bit about detaching oneself from narrative developments and so on.

I’m also prepared to accept any or all of the following: that the statement might not be from Lopez himself, but from representatives of the label, though I doubt it from what I’ve read elsewhere; that this is a piece of aesthetic rhetoric, a unique selling point to assist in marketing the product, not unexpected perhaps given such a prodigious output of recorded material; that the artist himself has indeed succeeded in listening with a level of detachment which rejects narrative and the other features mentioned. This strategic skill has been theorised and discussed intensively in academic circles for many years now.

Of course you cannot argue with someone who sees the whole world as painted brown, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of us don’t see everything in multiple shades of colour. I don’t believe that a sound is just a sound (what’s a sound anyway, a collection of sine waves?) and I don’t believe that this is the way human beings listen in the context of appreciating music. I’m particularly surprised to find such a theory, if that’s what it is, associated with music which relies on representational material as raw material. I’d have thought that the richness of the listening experience depended largely on those very associations and resonances that the composer seeks to eliminate. Furthermore, I can’t for the life of me figure out how you would begin to avoid psychological resonances in listening to organised sound. After all, ears are not microphones – they’re (usually) attached to a brain which processes the incoming stream.

In addition, why bother to mention or attribute any significance to the source of the sounds used in a given piece? Unless of course you wanted to encourage psychological resonance through the complex processes of sound source recognition.

But please don’t just take my word for it. Decide for yourself  by listening to any music made with representational material, however mimetic or abstracted. Then figure out if you can detach yourself from narrative developments, referential associations of sounds with reality, and psychological resonances, and if you find this natural, enjoyable or positive in any way. Then have a think about what ‘sound’ really is.

Next, go to the source of all the trouble, Pierre Schaeffer, and read his Traité des objets musicaux (Treatise on Musical Objects). After that have a good read of Michel Chion’s  theoretical writing on sound, most of which is available in English translation. Then have a look at Luke Windsor’s PhD thesis. Then at reception theory and then everything that’s been written in the last five years, which will take you forever. My enthusiasm for this topic stems from having been at it for about ten years and from having discussed and worked in depth with composers who have been at it for up to three decades, some going back to the source.

Why make so much of this? Well, if you want to be taken seriously, and many people do take Lopez’ work seriously, you have to be prepared for nitpickers like me who will scrutinise what you say about your work. The point I’m trying to make is that this whole discussion on the nature of sound, listening and the psychological or additional ‘baggage’ associated with sound has been researched intensively by some very clever people and has been top of the agenda in electroacoustic musicology for many years now. Hopefully one day, should our paths ever cross, I’ll be able to discuss all this with Francisco Lopez himself.

Yet, they are only sleeve notes. In appreciating good music, the theoretical stuff is probably no more than a storm in a teacup so please don’t let any of it tarnish a beautifully composed album, one that I’m delighted to have in my collection. Vinyl is very special – as an objet d’art it makes the ubiquitous CD look and feel like a beermat. And strangely, to my ears it sound warmer, as if the substance itself carries more information.

All in all I congratulate ini itu on another excellent release.

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4 Responses to “Review – Francisco Lopez, Untitled #228”


  1. […] more review for that same album, by James Wyness, on his blog. Check it out, there is a nice reflection about “absolute noise concrete“, worth […]

  2. Andi Chapple Says:

    James – thankyou for another clear, informative and well-thought-out review. I wanted to add my own ideas about why López talks about ‘absolute musique concrète’ and so on (the stuff you quote turns up a lot on his material). they are just guesses, mind you …

    first guess is, it came from trying to get people to stop “doing a lot of sound source identification”, which you mention as one of the first things you did while listening to this record, and which is of course almost impossible to stop doing if you make your own music (I can’t speak for people who don’t make music). one great thing about López is that he used field recordings to make a non-field-recording type of music and probably had a hard time getting people to stop listening to ‘what it was’.

    there seems, though, to be a level in his work that really wants us to know what the sound sources are – because he is making a point about the ecology of natural systems, for example, which would pull against that.

    my second and shakier guess is that he often wants the structure of the piece to be the thing attended to (all those long, long fades up and down, sudden drop-outs and crashes-in) almost in the spirit of Steve Reich’s ‘Music as a Gradual Process’ – and is trying to get people listening on that level sometimes. I think the drama of blindfolds at gigs and so on might be to do with that but that is only a hunch.

    whether he or his listeners could hope to achieve what he asks for is, as you say, another matter.

    obviously there are loads of other things going on in his work, most of which I haven’t even noticed, but I have really enjoyed listening to him since I started a couple of years ago and wanted to respond to your piece, which I thought was interesting and worth thinking about.

    best wishes,

    Andi

  3. James Wyness Says:

    Hi Andi. I hear what you’re saying and thanks for your thoughts. I suppose we should go along with the old cliché and let the music speak for itself, but when a high profile artist makes claims they need to be examined and in this case they don’t make much sense to me.

    There are however some artists who succeed in establishing aesthetic principles and making them work in the music. Giancarlo Toniutti is one, though it takes some time and effort to understand his ideas. His ideas on time, structure, texture and density are worth looking into.

    Cheers and good luck with your own projects.

    James.

  4. DIOGENES 23 Says:

    Each artist creates their own ‘frames’ { as a sculptor ] and if the source material is not what the artist wants the listener to focus on than they have merely to place the ‘frame’ elsewhere. In example no reference to field recording need be made.


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