revenant : zeltini


revenant : zeltini [57:30] (2011), is a 250 hand numbered limited release on Unfathomless, described as

a thematic ltd series focusing primarily on phonographies reflecting the spirit of a specific place crowded with memories, its aura & resonances and our intimate interaction with it…

…which is exactly what you get on this excellent album by Maksims ShentelevsEamon SprodJohn GrzinichKaspars Kalninsh and Felicity Mangan.

The raw material of the work consists of four synchronised binaural recordings in a former Soviet military base, carried out by Shentelevs, Sprod, Grzinich and Kalninsh.

Former Soviet military installations can only really work the one way. They, and the weather, have to be unpleasant and dark with more than a hint of the sinister. In fact we are told that

It was mid-November in the Baltics which meant that it was cold, gray and the sun goes down early.

Fond memories of my childhood in Aberdeen, where the weather could best be described as… well…Baltic

So perhaps we have a new genre , Baltic Noir. I say this because I came upon a similar setting in Noise Forest which I reviewed in 2010 on this blog. There I found the same dark cold mood, indeed the artists also mentioned the weather as significant. Furthermore I picked up on the concept of some sort of transubstantiation, the act instilling life and spirit into these somewhat soul-less places and the materials that they house, a notion that is certainly at work in revenant : zeltini.

This, then, is an intervention, and I know from the work that goes on in Estonia that intervention is an important part of the collective practice – seeking out locations and sonifying/activating/energising them whilst at the same time taking advantage of the location’s unique sonic properties. In my opinion it is the most inspiring aspect of their work and one which deserves much more attention. This kind of work is rich in context and as such it really helps to know about the artists, their collective aesthetic and intentions, their past work, the location and so on. I would strongly recommend taking time to browse through the range and depth of work that goes on at John’ Grzinich’s own site.

So here we have four sound artists rummaging around a former Soviet military base in Northern Latvia in cold, raw Baltic conditions. What you’d expect from this context is pretty much what you get. Other commentators have rightly pointed out the similarities with certain of Tarkovsky’s sound worlds, especially that of The Stalker, with the dripping and metallic sounds in the disused factory. The weight of time and place, and the resonance of anything to do with the Cold War, so called because it must have been f***ing freezing being a Soviet squaddy anywhere north of Kiev.

I particularly enjoyed Eamon Sprod’s notes on the back cover where he talks of the material circumstances around the artists and of their discomfort. I’m reminded of one of my favourite writers, poet and ethnographer Michel Leiris, who in L’Afrique Fantôme, more or less said the same thing throughout and after his journey from Dakar to Djibouti in the 1930s – blimey, this isn’t quite turning out the way I expected. No twee programme notes here.

Setting aside the issue of ‘editing’ or gap between raw sources, the original order of events, and final presentation, the sound world is captivating, displaying a richness across so many elements, surprising the listener with the unexpected and the unusual. For the most part the work as a whole sounds ‘legitimate’, a transparent document of what actually went on in the spaces where we are treated to chains dragged across floors, broadband noise textures, even machine-like sounds. I say ‘for the most part’ because eventually, to my ears,  some of these sounds began to register as digitally looped sounds and stuck out as somewhat unfeasible in the context. But who knows?

Bells and other resonant sounds gradually come to the foreground, followed by a rhythmic sensibility towards the percussive potential of the material (less ’played’ however than in Noise Forest). The result is masterclass in illustrating the meaning of various verbs by means of sound: drag, scrape, rattle, tap, shake. A teacher could have fun with a class of five to seven year-olds asking them to describe all the action. As the awareness of resonance develops, hints of interplay between the musicians blossoms into something resembling a performance.

I thoroughly enjoyed the pace of the work, a result in the first instance of the artists’ experience with these processes in these kinds of environments. There were passages that could have been played from a score, for example where a repetitive metallophone figure gave way and settled down to a clearly defined quartet, then thinned out to the tiniest sounds. These contrasting, more introspective passages, the lulls in activity, the clear evidence of musical structure and of humans doing musical things, drew me ever deeper into the work. And of course the heavy deep reverberation of the space, a presence in itself, colouring every tiny gesture and every emerging texture.

Then finally voices and the sounds of the outdoors towards the end, which some might interpret as lending depth to the narrative, others as focusing too much on sound sources at the expense of pace and density.

To my ears, the spell was broken only with the entry of a long-ish foregrounded passage of Jew’s Harp. I’m sure it was brought along to add to the party, but a listener might be forgiven for wondering if it wasn’t thrown into the mix back at the studio. Instead of listening to soemthing that I could have picked up at home, I really wanted to hear the ‘indigenous’ activities going on in the space. I’d have preferred a shorter work with more lingering on the initial sources, which were certainly rich enough to sustain my interest over a long duration. This might be one key to success in these enterprises – tight focus on fewer sounds, not giving the impression that you’ve run out of ideas, taking a deep breath and leaving space if you have, picking up again when appropriate. In other words, less can indeed be more. All of which seemed to be the run of things for the initial stages of the intervention. But these are minor quibbles, and very personal ones at that – after all, who am I to criticise?

Above all, the hypnotic, intense and irresistible mystery of a world heard but not seen, the very core of the practice of so many of these fine sound artists.

To me, and perhaps only me, this kind of work, fundamentally self-initiated and (I assume) modestly funded, if at all, made with inexpensive equipment, is far more important and inspiring than heavily subsidised forays into the wilderness or other natural environments with outrageously expensive kit and which are ultimately dependent on teams of assistants.

I will certainly listen again and again to this album – unlike some ‘avant-garde’ endeavours, none of this is chucked in your face, and, perhaps as a result, you’ll never really get to the bottom of this kind of work, hence the appeal.

Ever since I found out about the work of John Grzinich and company in the splendid isolation of Estonia I’ve admired everything about what they do, primarily because I’ve always wanted to nick John’s best ideas and start up a similar venture to his here in Scotland. A visit is still on the cards.

We are told that ‘‘revenant’ is an ongoing project with open membership that focuses on site-specific acoustic actions. All sounds originate from materials found in-situ, and from interactions with the space itself.’

Can I join please?


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