Early Summer – Wade Matthews

12/02/2011

EARLY SUMMER

Wade Matthews

Early Summer [43:49] is another fine release by conv consisting of ten tracks with very clear comprehensive sleeve notes.

A while back I reviewed Enantio Droma, an Aural Terrains release, with Wade Matthews playing as one member of an improvising trio – the musicianship was impressive throughout, so I was eager to listen to this solo offering.

Unpacking the sleeve notes, I noticed that one of the overall aims was to present non-integrated spaces simultaneously. An example of this phenomenon (unless it’s an activity) from real life would be when you listen to music recorded in a reverberant concert hall on a personal media device whilst sitting in a bus, where two different spatial sound worlds can exist in the listener’s environment at the same time, that of the hall and that of the bus. I wonder though – in the case of the mp3 player/bus situation, you are ‘really’ immersed and embedded in the bus environment, of which sound is one element in a tightly bound experiential complex, with the environment equally embedded within you. At one level your life depends on the real environment. The mp3 environment is a representation, added to which you can take it or leave it. Furthermore, listening to two or more representations of different spaces or environments in a specific listening environment (headphones or stereo system) conflates the representations more than their differences differentiate them. We might now have one starting point for judging the success of the music, most of which, by the way, I thought was excellent,in case you think I’m about to rip into the album unfairly.

Second consideration – this needs to be listened to as a live album without an audience, a showcase of what to expect in an actual concert; at the same time a demonstration of technique and a document of one possible outcome using the material to hand.

In terms of juxtaposing incongruous spaces I’ve heard some good phonographic work recently which does similar things  – field recordings, gathered as they are from a range of environments, obviously lend themselves well to this technique. The reason I mention this here is that, in my experience, spatial juxtaposition is (or was until recently) something of an unspoken taboo in some academic acousmatic circles, where the focus seemed to be on creating a convincing or ‘legitimate’ spatial universe. My problem here is that is all sorts of other illegitimate tactics seem to be acceptable: the wrong envelope on a descending aircraft, a back to front doppler effect, so why single out space as the field that demands naturalistic representation? But perhaps it’s more a matter of having clear intentions in all departments. So I welcome and appreciate Wade’s explanations and interests here.

On this album, what the the juxtaposition of non-integrated sound spaces did for me was to dissociate the less identifiable sounds in the mix from one particular interpretation, thereby encouraging more associations, and therefore increasing the connotative powers of the sounds.

Running through the tracks you’ll be struck by the variety of sounds and by the techniques used to combine them. Another  useful way of investigating the music might be to ask whether that variety is a strength or a weakness of the album. Most of the tracks are very linear, the sounds are well ‘presented’ in that they come and go in an orderly fashion. Indeed I’d have expected this limitation, if it is a limitation, given the twin computer live mixing method. Several of the pieces, track 1 and track 7 in particular, reminded me of ‘old school’ musique concrète, with their broad brush strokes and bold presentations of recorded material. These pieces also had some mystery about them.

The field recordings in general merit some attention. By track 3 the cleanliness of the recordings has become very striking. It would be revealing to find out why Matthews has leaned towards this foley-clean aesthetic in which noise and gristle seem to be eliminated – this is one of the more interesting discussions in music using field recordings, particularly with the current prestige around realistic and hyper-realistic representations, not to mention issues around the craft of processing.

But for me the importance of this album lies in how successfully field recordings and electronics are combined. Some of the electronics were too derivative for my taste, meaning that they carried too much baggage: an edgy electronic loop on track 2 which I’d say sounded like IDM (intelligent dance music) if I could get my head round ‘intelligent’ and ‘dance music’ in the same phrase (no disrespect to dance music, but you don’t go there to do much thinking do you?); a bleepy electronic loop at the beginning of track 5 which made me wonder where we were heading; the too obvious use of delay effects. At times like these I struggled to piece it all together. Then old skool wobbly intrusions, as if young Jimmy (or Grandad) had got a hold of the TR-303 for a good blast. The techno synth lines at the end of track 5 reminded me of Carl Craig and some of the excellent Detroit techno of the early ’90s, except that this is 2011…

Despite all that, some of the crunchy, gristly sounds, hard to identify, but of the ‘real’ environment, were beautifully foregrounded throughout most of the album. The less intrusive electronic pedals and softer background material contrasted perfectly, no mean feat in a live mixing environment. I was drawn towards those passages where an investigation of the raw material of the sounds became a priority, where patterns of growth and evolution were prioritised over and above the linear unfolding of a bundle of sounds. My main criticism here is that many of the sounds, in particular the crunchy field recordings, given their richness, were not given enough time or space in which to unfold.

A difficulty that we all face, I believe, in listening to music which mixes field recordings and electronics, is that we have to change listening strategies ‘on the fly’. The technique of playing similar sounds off one another is fine if we’ve been lulled into a listening strategy where we don’t question the sound sources very much but if very obviously representational sounds make their appearance in a ‘pure’ electronic environment for example, they risk being taken as a dash of humour, irony or worse. Furthermore, although we are treated throughout the album to a wide range of musical moods and attitudes, which works overall, this agenda is sometimes overshadowed by the impression of putting too much variety into the mix which is a bit like letting a bull loose in a foley shop.

In conclusion then, the concept and its execution worked best when the sounds were given time to breathe. This album takes on the a difficult task of combining field recordings and electronics and makes a strong statement in doing so. My main question is why one would take on such disparate sound sources in the limited environment of a live mix. Usually a conceptual solution comes to the rescue, but it needs to be strong and resilient at the same time. The danger is that you end up throwing together a bunch of ‘cool sounds’ though here Matthews is far too musical and far too clever to fall too deeply into that trap – this is work of a very high standard despite me picking away at it. Would I want to hear this music in live performance? Yes I would, even though I’ve never been one to rush out to a laptop performance.

Finally, with the exception of one or two of the electronic sounds sounding somewhat ‘tired’ there’s a wonderful freshness throughout the album. It’s also of relevance (to me) that most of the music is unable to be appropriated by the bad guys, which adds value.

Matthews suggests that we might listen to his pieces as ‘sonic koans’, which isn’t a bad suggestion, though I felt less inclined to yield to the intuitive, the contemplative or to seek out and discover insights, the province the koan, than to sit back enjoy an expert display of the art of rhetoric – in essence much more Cicero than Bodhidharma.

Finally, I thought I’d squeeze in my regular rant with something I don’t understand. There’s a photograph of the artist on the sleeve. He’s accompanied by two Apple laptops, logos loud and clear. Lots of electronic/digital/new media artists like to be photographed with Apple. It’s a cherished brand. This worries me greatly

I saw a video clip recently of two artists onstage brandishing two iPhones each, moving them around to take advantage of tilt sensors which seemed to determine which sounds were made, how they were mixed, maybe even processed. The devices had been programmed using very fancy customised software. Was I watching a performance or an advertisement? The fact that one of the artists used to be artistic ‘ambassador’ for Apple France answers many of my questions about the push on Apple products. But ‘ambassador’? Is Apple a nation state? For greater clarity always follow the money. Once at a symposium in a UK University all the home crowd were glued to their Apple laptops, only breaking concentration very occasionally, to do one of two things – talk in Klingon about various coding options for very obscure purposes, or attend to the perfomances and papers being delivered, which I thought was very charitable given the importance of the work they must have been doing. I wondered for a long time after that about the name of the hosting institution, ‘Culture Lab’.

Continuing with intersections of ideology, socio-politics and art brought together in the humble commodity, there are three sayings, verging on slogans, which again cause me to worry greatly:-

  • I love my iPhone (or other digital device of your choosing) – commodity with dodgy mode of production as human substitute – sad.
  • I can’t live without my iPhone – commodity with dodgy mode of production as life support mechanism – sad and pathetic.
  • I’d die for my iPhone – commodity with dodgy mode of production as faith – sad, pathetic and highly dangerous.

And really commodities like these, over-fetishised and taken too seriously, come to function as a kind of colostomy bag – essential for the normal functioning of the user perhaps, somewhat unpleasant socially for the rest of us. A mullet for the early 21st century.

Of course I’m not suggesting that Wade Matthews is up to anything, but I have noticed that musical artists in particular love to be associated with the Apple brand as if it confers something of its smug designer aura to the possessor, much like the caressed stratocaster of old (didn’t a bloke once marry his strat?). All this going on despite the violence and coercion that surely goes into the production of many Apple products. I mean, have your gadgets, but keep your head down. I go along with Sartre who said that a scientist is only an intellectual if he signs the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. You can join the dots yourself on that one.

Not that I would expect anyone to boycott a certain product just because somebody had been exploited in the making of it – otherwise we’d be naked, starving or, worse, without our beloved mobiles. Yet when, the very day after we all discover that Apple’s Chinese production factories are in fact sweatshops, bourgeois ‘cultural’ doxosophers like Stephen Fry make a public fuss of queuing up and slavering ove the yummy new iPad, my heart sinks.

Who would have believed you could find so much angst wrapped up in a tiny little commodity?

[43:49]
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