I’ve listened to this album many times and would say that Anla Courtis seems to favour specific musical values: musical meaning expressed by means of a plurality of sound sources and inventiveness of composition; an almost historical approach to the making of the album – a sort of retrospective glance at methods and sound archives and consequently the possibility of nostalgia in setting out a lo-fi environment; short episodic pieces each exploring their own corner of sonic territory; inventiveness within the limitations of a of restricted palette. The sources are diverse – electric guitar, tapes, bags, bells, bronceosasma system, pipes, turntable, violin, plastic trumpet, music box and processing. The music was recorded on to 4-track cassette in the early 90s and, though we are left to guess, possibly reworked.
The album is quite simple to describe but hard to recall. I can’t form an image of the music in my head as I can with, say, the music of Mark Fell or Francsisco Lopez, to take two well-known contrasting artists.
Side A has a quiet start with rumbles, clicks and loops. Then pauses and synthy pads. The music starts to become a mixture of more concrete recorded material and device-driven sounds set out as short passages of disconnected material. The foregrounds, generally identifiable timbres, are often layered with noise. Away from the processes, concepts and gestures, in purely sonic terms some of the noise passages are quite interesting as are those which focus on sound rather than organisation of sounds.
Side B offers some contrast. Things seem to run and evolve a little more freely, though again with fairly recognisable sounds, some surprises (for example something resembling a WEM copicat in full voice and something else resembling a Romanian nose flute) and carefully considered injections of feedback and resonance. Even with somewhat bland electric guitar sounds everything is extremely well-crafted and musically structured.
The whole album, to put it simply, sounds very experimental, like an invitation to a not-quite-mad professor’s lab which lends the work an atmosphere of warmth, generosity, honesty, humor and enjoyment. These are not to be treated lightly and are the qualities that make Courtis’ music so accessible.
I asked some questions of the artist questions to help me understand his choices, ideas and processes:-
What makes you decide to use so many different sound sources? Do you restrict yourself, are the resources simply what you have to hand or do you make a conscious decision to work with what one might call lo-fi sources?
The LP is from the early 90’s when I started with solo recordings. I got my first portastudio and I discovered a whole world recording in my own bedroom. Four channels on cassette! It was all fresh and new so it was exciting to try out many sounds sources and record with them as much as possible. The lo-fi aspect has to do with the cassette itself: since I didn’t get a computer until the end of the 90’s that was the only way for me to make these kind of pieces. By the way I like the cassette sound a lot – magnetic tape has some organic quality that works very well with some stuff so I still use the portastudio sometimes.
What do the titles mean – are they significant in the context of the music?
The titles are based on a neologism that connects the words “cassette” and “utopia”. Despite the fact that the name came afterwards I think it describes pretty well the spirit of that moment.
I sensed a structure of short-ish disconnected pieces. Is this a deliberate formal choice, driven by restrictions in the material or something else?
The pieces themselves are in a way all pretty different which was a kind of hallmark of that moment. To choose a sound source, to try to do something with it not knowing very well where it would end up were all part of the creative process. And I think it’s still nice that the pieces don’t sound all the same.
Some, perhaps a majority of the pieces, are gestural and quite linear. Is this again a deliberate compositional choice or is this driven by a live mixing approach to making the work? I suppose I’m asking about spontaneity here as well.
During those years I was pretty aware of my limitations so to focus only on one sound or one idea was something normal. In the end maybe that helped a bit the pieces to avoid becoming too “pretentious”. However now I find that early simplicity to be something not only anecdotic but also pretty interesting in itself.
Released as a vinyl lp on ini.itu
I want to begin this review by offering some statements of meaning about Kraig’s work, about the communicative power of his work, bearing in mind that I’ve known of Kraig and his work for around fifteen years and that recently we were fortunate to meet up in person after many years of correspondence on microtonality and other musical topics.
I’d say then that I’ve found much of Kraig’s research and creative output over the years to be consistently compelling, evocative, unique and memorable. What I find compelling is his dedication to an art which is fundamentally complex, requiring an investment of high levels of both time, energy and resources. Grady’s work combines the required practical craftsmanship (to design and manufacture instruments) and the well-honed mathematical skills (in the design and understanding of a range of tunings and their musical applications). Yet we the listeners are rewarded by an accessible and easily understood sound world.
Because of the underlying Anaphorian context, this half-real, half-imaginary continent with its own ethical and musical codes, the music is always evocative in its reference to aspects of this hidden place with its various spaces, qualities and attributes. The fact that shadow puppetry and other hybrid theatrical and movement forms have provided containers for Anaphorian music over many years enhances its evocative powers. It is all of these details taken together which make the music unique and memorable in my view. Although there is plenty of microtonal music out there, both old and new, perhaps even played on hand-made instruments which resemble those of Kraig Grady, there’s nothing which blends the old and the new so seamlessly and which binds the instruments and their tunings together into such a tight and accessible creative output– even the music of Harry Partch runs so fast at times that the powers of the tuning can be lost on the listener and the instruments cannot sustain long enough to let the tuning work its magic.
Our short dialogue might help the reader/ listener to understand Grady’s intentions and creative output.
To what extent is the Anaphorian world view a prominent element in your musical aesthetic? Perhaps you could tell me a little about what Anaphoria represents.
I appreciate this question as it is quite misunderstood. Anaphoria should not be envisioned as an appendix to its music as much as music being just one element immersed inside of it. It is an extension of the installation that includes virtual space, performance practices, recordings, live performance and shadow theatre and installation. The most comprehensive view is presented on the website (www.anaphoria.com). It is the world folded into itself.
As much installation can be traced to theatre, this work began from a musical perspective, so the question is a logical one. Possibly seeing Partch’s instruments on stage as a presence coming from some unknown land would be a germinal seed.
Anaphoria allows for a more truthful representation of myself, being as I am of nine known nationalities, an exile from many societies. This mixture makes the possibility of any single mundane geography inadequate to represent a point of orientation, so a model became fruitful in which they could each communicate contrapuntally, and manifest the type of creolization that results. This is similar to what one often finds on islands inhabited from many different directions. All these backgrounds are folded into one place. As more and more people become more and more mixed, hopefully such a model might be useful in the future to deal with the dilemma of such situations. Music is a wonderful medium by which to represent such a space as my favorite music always implies the space in which it is heard. It is as much a way of hearing as what is heard and it gives us a context for who is hearing the music and where they are.
I can’t tell at times what is improvised and what is composed. Can you tell me something about the relationship between the two in your work?
I am glad to hear that. I have a strong compensatory nature so that in the presence of composers I speak about the importance of improvisation, and among improvisers will point out the strengths of composition. For the most part there is always a score for my acoustic music. The purpose of the score has always been an interactive guide for performers, often in conjunction with oral instructions or dialogues. Rarely do two pieces share the same type of score and different sections too might require a new form of placing the material.
I am interested in what humans can do and do together as opposed to exploring just how well they can take orders together. Electronics provides us with precision and the ability to work directly with the sound when strict order is required. Acoustic and/or live music allows us the opportunity to explore more human freedom and collaboration since the demands of the past can be accomplished elsewhere.
I should also point out though that the instruments themselves act as a part of the score in that what freedom is given to the performer is still shaped by the layout of the instruments. This is an element that might develop over a long period of time where the same set of bars might undergo as many as four different layouts before one alone is decided upon. The tuning of the scale also predetermines much as we can see how impossible 12-tone equal temperament has been able to move beyond atonality or regress into past practices. Different scales involve completely different sonic worlds which are ripe for exploring as soon as one no longer feels an obligation to make concessions to past practices.
Finally, can you say something about the connection between the elements of landscape in ‘Escarpments’ and the music? Are these impressionistic or is the music analogous to the textures and rhythms of the landscape.
I think our relationship to nature is at least twofold. There is the ‘observational’ view of it as seen from a scientific perspective, which is useful but risks saying more about the observer and the method of observing than about what it is they are observing. Are we observing nature or are we just engaged in a form of aesthetic scientism? The second relationship could be described as psychological – how does our soul react to nature? Here I believe that the observer is less hidden. The question of the titles also brings up the question of music expressing ideas in which I think we have to also entertain the possibility of the opposite as being also possible, where music generates ideas that wouldn’t occur otherwise. There is a danger of taking what an artist says about their work as being methodical. We might argue against music altogether and just relay the idea, but art strives more for reflection than knowledge. It keeps us in suspense, avoiding any resolution. Knowledge on the other hand allows us to leave it behind us, as James Hillman pointed out, since we move on once we know. In the case of Escarpments the titles mostly followed the music depending on the piece but they also reflect poetic fragments drifting in synchronicity.
Released as a vinyl lp on ini.itu
- Settle [10:23]
- Expenditures [40:28]
Nick Hennies lives in Ithaca, New York. He was formerly based in Austin, Texas and is perhaps best known for his explorations of the vibrational properties of woodblocks. The very informative promotional literature for this album tells us that ‘Nick Hennies makes music from work – and work into music. Simply put, work is process and one of Hennies’ goals as a composer is to shape the possibilities of a given instrument as well as its sonic imprint. The result is austere, lyrical solo percussion music that focuses on resonance, natural overtones, room acoustics and slowly developing structure.’ We are also told that Hennies likes to explore quite a wide variety of musical approaches in his creative output.
Musical people tend to have all sorts of values attached to their listening and experience of music, both in their own music and that of others. I’m no different and I tend to value some sort of consistency in an album of work. I should say though that in the absence of a dialogue with Nick himself I can only go on what I have to listen to. So for reasons of my own I found one piece to be of great interest and the other less so. Others will differ in their perceptions, obviously. There are two pieces, the ten minute and the forty minute. To my ears the ten minute piece Settle speaks of an almost environmental approach to listening, restraint in execution, intense concentration, personal discovery and even expression. The album is worth purchasing for these qualities alone. A solo vibraphone gently but firmly sets out a simple shifting ostinato which flirts with arpeggiation. A well placed occasional shimmer in the background and a harmonic sheen in the later stages of the piece lend interest to the austerity of the foreground. It’s a simple as that. There’s no fatigue in the piece owing to the diatonicism of the instrument (I assume it’s equally tempered). The beatings and combination tones are rich yet tightly controlled in that they don’t overpower the clearly percussive nature of the work. The inharmonicity of the metallophone does its work beautifully. It’s somewhere in the depth and strength of concentration on the sound of the music that Nick Hennies has something going.
The longer piece Expenditures is for ensemble and vibraphone. From the promotional literature we are told that ‘Here Hennies is joined by several Austin new music regulars, including bassists Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and Brent Fariss, drummer Chris Cogburn, clarinettist Jon Doyle, trombonist Steve Parker and violinist Travis Weller. As Hennies puts it, the goal of the piece is for the musicians to play sustained tones on the same pitches as the vibraphone and then eventually to play ‘work music,’ where the players each come up with their own phrase to be repeated until the end of the piece.’ Expenditures begins like Settle with a solo vibraphone ostinato, drawing the listener into the same world of restraint and concentration. Then the spell is broken as it shifts from being a listening environment in which ‘sound’ overrides ‘music’ and process overrides gesture to an environment where the history of Western music seems to rudely intervene. Distinct ‘contemporary’ structures take over and a more analytical frame of mind is required to process the stream of musical information as other instruments begin to weave formal patterns and create ever changing timbral structures. For me this is too much too soon, though the last minute or so returns to a more contemplative mood in which the vibraphone and a low drum succeed in creating something of the simplicity and strong sonic interest which gave the fist piece so much of its elegance.
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.
Mark Peter Wright’s Where Once We Walked is described as a sound composition based on location recordings gathered from the Polish homes, villages and surrounding environments of Holocaust survivors of 1945, who, as children, were transported to the Lake District and cared for at the now ‘lost’ wartime village of Calgarth Estate near Windermere.
This is one of the very few sound works I’ve encountered which sets out to engage with a subject of real historical and social importance, above and beyond the historical and social importance of, say, working more narcissistically with abstract sound as an art form. We have here an extremely emotive subject, a subject overworked in the extreme by a Hollywood film industry obsessed with what can only be described as war and holocaust pornography, and of course a subject which requires sensitivity in the approach and artistic treatment.
Before listening to the work I was struck by the simple elegance of an act of compassion, people caring for other people, children in this case, and by the local link to Lake District, a link established to a large extent by the artist/curator organisation Another Space.
We are invited to listen to the work, with its five episodes, as one whole piece. Overall the work is marked by detail, clarity and transparency in the actual quality of the recordings, by a leaning towards realistic or even naturalistic representation though the framing, sequencing and gentle crossfading of the various scenes. The various elements work well to deliver an exceptionally powerful narrative whose mood lifts the listener above and beyond the mere fact of well captured location recordings.
I think we should give work like this more attention and certailnly more credit for investigating new narrative forms. Because of the weight of narrative, this kind of work always strikes me as drawing closer to literature than to music or to what passes for ‘sound art’. I say this because the best critical theory I’ve found which helps me to understand such work comes from two discourses sharing an interest in semiotics: the semiotic branch of literary theory and analysis, and some of the excellent writing on photography. In the sonic department the only critical writing that makes sense in this context would come from some of the very clever commentators and critics working in the field of new radio art.
Bakhtin, in the contest of examining specific literary forms, writes of the chronotope, a space/time unique to every work. Where Once We Walked presents us with an unfolding tableau of several chronotopes, though the strength of the work lies in the fact that we are able to join everything up, drawn as we are into the illusion of completeness by means of narrative method. Worthy of further consideration in this context, again from Bhaktin, is the notion that we can seek out chronotopic motifs, condensed reminders of particular types of time and space which carry metaphorical resonances: church bells, train stations, water and birds, subjects which would seem to be inexhaustible in their multiple resonances and dear to numerous field recordists.
The opening episode, A Past Present, leads with the pealing of church bells, then carries us slowly and gracefully inside the church to simple choral music, to the church organ and then to what sounds like a station, where the sound fades to a lingering resonance, holding on to the quality of the earlier music. Linear and filmic on the surface, but with deep undercurrents.
In Tobacco Trails we find ourselves outdoors with water and birds, very clear and clean. Long slow crossfades reveal a train departing, a train arriving, people talking and a muted tolling bell. Everything gives the impression of being very expertly scripted, again in a cinematic sense. Passages of composed polyphony underline the fact that this is a sound composition.
Hope Transmits begins with (I assume) a Jewish religious chant. This is layered with rain – this scene in particular seems to me to be representative of something deeply emotional – then thunder, heavier rain, electronic radio sounds and an abrupt cut off, possibly a combination of narrative exigency and a sharp contrast to the earlier very effective diminuendi. On the topic of an emerging narrative, I’d say that the composer has succeeded in walking the very fine line between telling us just enough and letting us create something meaningful for ourselves.
With Witness we listen to cars and to the ambience of a town or cityscape. More church bells, this time in the distance, carrying the weight of penitence. These recurring motifs speak to me of the artist’s restrictions on his choice of materials (I can imagine the dilemma of deciding whether to introduce new material, from hours of ‘footage’, or choosing to establish repetitions). We then hear bicycles, other vehicles in transit, cars idling. I should mention here that I particularly enjoyed, perhaps for the first time, the sound of cars idling, a sound which always seems to intrude and spoil most recordings carried out in urban settings. Perhaps it’s down to the skill in framing. The bells reassert themselves, then linger till the end of the episode. I for one could listen to bell recordings all day.
The last episode, Where Once We Walked, delivers an interesting twist on the bell theme, this time in the shape of a clock bell plus the whirr of its internal machinery. It is 9 o’clock. A voice in distance, coloured by loudspeakers, is then layered with the interior of a place of worship, an interior marked by the sound of people moving in a large reverberant space. I might be wrong, but I always associate this kind of sonic complexity, the movement and spatial cues, with Roman Catholic places of worship, where all sorts of social and liturgical events seem to be going on simultaneously, as opposed to the more ordered and focused soundscape of Protestant churches. This takes us to the broadband noise of water, possibly rain, then to birds (because the narrative environment invites meaningful interpretation we might well ask what these birds represent: symbols of peace, hope?), the hint of an organ, bees. We end up more or less where we began, in the same kind of comforting space, a place of worship, this time with the pentatonic folk melodies of a simple hymn and its organ accompaniment. Church music is unique in delivering this particular experience, a beauty in which we can participate. The footsteps to finish invite the listener to come to his or her own conclusions.
This is an excellent work and it comes over well as a cd release. But I see this kind of work as finding its best presentation as a radio work, taking advantage of all that the radio can offer. It belongs with the the kind of work we need so much in order to overcome hackneyed documentary conventions in public broadcasting, the sort of work that, even if it doesn’t get much radio play, is persistently highlighted by the Canadians and the French in particular as radical, (and at the same time) forward thinking, and most of all optimistic.
Apart from his work over many years in new or experimental music, Frans de Waard reviews for Vital Weekly, an online initiative which provides a great service to countless musicians and sound artists who aren’t going to get much change out of the mainstream press. He has a deep and wide knowledge of the field of new music and sonic art, and having been around for a long time, is involved in numerous projects, both solo and collaborative.
The label ini itu has a unique focus. All the previous releases (which I’ve reviewed and enjoyed immensely) have had some connection with South East Asian instruments and musical culture. Stainless Steel is described as two sides of radically reworked gamelan, which is presumably why it finds its way on to an ini itu vinyl release.
The album has a digital side, Stainless, which I assume involves software processing, and an analogue side, Steel, in which ‘some arcane wirings, some machines end up spitting out shifting binary patterns’.
Stainless begins with a crescendo from a grainy texture to a pitched interval (a perfect 5th if my ears aren’t mistaken) with another layer further back in the mix. Panned crackles contrast with the emerging and receding layers. There are occasional dropouts in the radio static sounds, but a pitched voice remains constant. We realise quite quickly that the resources have been very effectively reduced to a minimum – this, and subtle touches like a very fine diminuendo, both point to exquisite craftsmanship. The crackling sounds come over as very hackneyed to my ears, and (almost) bring to mind the predictable fuzzy narcosis of some overrated ambient popsters posing as ‘experimental’ artists. However, these intrusions are never too dominant here and after a few listens I think de Waard shows a genuine concern to make the best of those kinds of sounds, even if I don’t know what they have to do with gamelan.
Next we have a pause for new sounds, more metallic and processed this time; iterative and broken. More crackles, but not too anaesthetic or overused. The music returns to a polyphony of iterations with a metallic edge, persistent, deliberate, quite unique and distinctive after a while. The interest deepens with the appearance of an ominous lower frequency, all within a relaxed and unhurried time frame, which is one of the great strengths of this piece.
At this point you wouldn’t know that the sound sources had anything to do with gamelan, an interesting approach as I’m hearing nothing of what I’d consider to be the gamelan’s essential characteristics, inharmonicity and so on. He might as well have used pots and pans. But I think that de Waard is putting his experience and musical savvy to good use here, looking sideways and being very clever in taking the patterned overlapping kotekans of gamelan as his focus. This quite austere approach comes through very well in the piece.
There has been a (somewhat one-sided) debate in academic electroacoustic music, an idiom which should never be underestimated by the way, as to whether one should show some of the character of the source material or go hell for leather and process it to smithereens. I can draw parallels here with more mainstream idioms. For example Thelonious Monk believed firmly in keeping a handle on the tune during the improvised passages, as opposed to running through the changes. Ron Block, banjo player with Union Station, says the same of bluegrass. The listener can choose their preferred aesthetic – I lean towards the notion of letting some of the source shine through.
Back to the music: another drop out, then back in again with a fresh layer on top – it’s beginning to get interesting now and abstracting more from the sound source (which is of course important if you’ve mentioned it in the first place). You could almost dance to the last few minutes. Another sudden dropout, then, to my ears, a slightly disappointing obviously processed gated/stretched sounding passage (but maybe I’ve spent too much time with nerdy spectral processing packages) after which it all gets interesting again with some more radical spectral processing, scrambling and rearranging of some kind (ok – I’ll refrain from playing play ‘spot the process’), dribbly water sounds and liquid iterations – the iterations do keep us on track and on script.
More electroacoustic than elektronische, this music is far more restrained than perhaps I’m acknowledging and this is a very strong feature in the identity of de Waard’s music. It is just on the right side of inscrutability without being evasive. There are very fine contrasts between the sparse (dare I say minimalist?) and the busy sections. I enjoyed the looped endings – can’t do that with a cd can you?
Steel consists of a stream of pulses/beats/iterations or whatever else you want to call them and so can be played at any speed you like. I don’t know if this is an original concept, I doubt it, but it’s a good idea and it works. Apart from a section at the end I could identify three contrasting sounds or layers, separated by register and timbre. I thought this was quite clever as I don’t get to listen to much of this kind of music. Here I was drawn in without wondering whether this was a dance producer trying to be cool. One sound rolls along according to a given pattern or cell, then breaks into a different pattern, then into sets of patterns. This business of cells is as close as I can imagine to some of the core practices of the composers originally associated with minimalism: various cells and patterns superimposed, offset, drifting, evolving in different ways. Hence the inevitable comparisons with Reich and company.
To digress and self-refer (again) for a moment, the beats remind me of a time in my life when I missed the boat, yet again. A friend came round to my apartment with a broken drum machine and a very dodgy delay box which he ‘played’, though how on earth he knew what was going to happen was beyond me. I played a pair of temple bells into the input of a very iffy synth. I’d never heard anything like it. This was in the early ’90s and I didn’t have the foresight to realise the potential. Anyway, that’s what this reminds me of, though Frans’s music sounds much more organised.
I found myself playing games: the counting game (how many layers?), the metrical game (where’s the pulse?), the rhythmic game, different from the metrical game (what’s the rhythm?), the cell game and so on. The music started to hit the funk button at one point with a taste of swing. At times I could imagine a target audience of folks who like to get totally zipped to this music, perhaps to the accompaniment of a backdrop of blippy visuals. But this music is so much more visceral than the antiseptic sterile posturing of some of the ‘big name’ minimalist beatmeisters, without wishing to be disrespectful of course. Music like this should be about six hours long, maybe running from a random or conceptual algorithm. That way you’d be able to know if it really worked as ‘ambient minimalism’ or simply got on your t*ts.
Again, the music sticks in a loop at the end, one of the wonders of vinyl – try doing that with an mp3.
It’s an interesting choice of release for ini itu given their previous offerings and here I’m curious. ini itu seemed to me to have a special thing going and I’d have liked to see them going even deeper into the south east Asian musical traditions. Stainless Steel, excellent though it is on its own terms, would fit into many a label’s aesthetic.
Yet overall this piece falls on the right side of mesmeric without ever being monotonous. Given the means, I’d like to get my hands on four or more copies of rhe album, run them at different speeds, diffuse them over a multi-channel system and wallow in the mix.
Some time ago I started messing around with cassettes again. I also began to seriously consider a release of some new work on cassette. Then I looked into artists who work with cassettes and of course very soon found myself in the virtual company of Rinus van Alebeek.
Rinus is a busy man – just follow the links for yourself (1, 2, 3) to gather an appreciation of the depth and range of his work. He’s all over the place performing, installing, curating, releasing, collaborating, writing, compiling and the rest. I am fascinated with his work and that of his colleagues, with his irrepressible and candid attitude to experimentation, in which he not only involves other artists along the way, but seems to be on a mission to take the sound to the people, for example by way of his kleine fieldrecordings festival and by means of his work with the Diktat ensemble.
After a brief correspondence he very kindly sent me two cassette tapes released on Staaltape. These objets d’art take some unpacking, both literally and metaphorically. First, you have to consider the actual packaging which has handwritten ‘sleeve notes’ in and around the folds and corners of the brown paper wrapping. When I ran my small Sound Café events here in Jedburgh one of the most satisfying aspects of receiving the submissions was the variety, ingenuity, care and attention that artists showed in wrapping up their cd offerings. In the end I exhibited the packaging as part of the show. Here you have the same – you don’t throw anything away – it’s all part of the unfolding offering.
Then we get to the innards – two cassettes tapes, packaged in brown card wrappers with hand drawn illustrations, handwritten notes, track lists and sketches, bits of which were enclosed in a clear plastic bag hand sewn at the top. So here we have Rinus sat in his kitchen, an artisan in the cottage industry mould, devoting time and energy to serve the listener.
The cassettes I received were A Day in the Life described in the online notes as follows:-
This selection of compositions is the result of an invitation I sent out to nine sound artist. I asked them to create a four minute composition that would portray a day in the life of someone or something or them selves.
Various genres come together, from spoken word to fluxus, from field recordings and sound poetry to radiophonica.
Every single track is a portal to an imaginary situation. Oier’s sound track would have made saturday night fever a better movie, Anton’s condensed composition has the lightness of his Parisian roof top apartment and its view over the roofs. Yin Yi’s elegant use of field recordings juxtaposes with Robert Habarc’s working class reality. Manuel’s and Anders’ absurdites seem to complete each other. Barbara and Margarida are the comforting center points of every side. The Berlin based Italian couple Mat Pogo and JD Zazie offer an insight in their daily life.
The actors on this tape are based in different cities around the world.
Side a : Barcelona Paris Brussels Shang Hai Berlin
Side b Buenos Aires Budapest Mexico City Eskilstuna Berlin
There are two aspects to this. First the work, then the whole concept of using cassettes, the whys and the wherefores. I’m not even going to attempt to classify or categorise the works on this cassette, but, contradicting myself somewhat, I have to attempt to describe what you’ll get: musical pieces; straightforward narrations; evidently processed offerings; weird/outrageous/humorous interpretations – Robert Habarc’s For the Love of a Sheep has me baffled yet delighted every time and I can’t stop myself chanting along to Anders Ostberg’s a day in the lives of three buddha electronic praying machines hanging in a tree. Some things you simply cannot fit in a box. Following this loose analogy you could say that the works here leak out at the edges of the box, in much the same way as humans do when you try to get too close a fix on them and their ways.
The concept has truly revolutionary potential – I can imagine a world where communication by means of cassette tape becomes a subversive arm in the people’s arsenal. I also found myself reflecting on the fact that you can’t do this sort of work so easily with the current crop of digital tools on offer in the lonely monadic world of the squished up mp3. Cassettes are quick and dirty – actually that should be clean; the sound quality is absolutely first class, despite what acoustic engineers might say. A physical tape format, cassette plus portable tape machine, allows you for example, to do your bit, then pass on the physical object, the cassette, to the next person as in The Berlin Tape Run. Furthermore from the listener’s point of view (you forget these things) there are two sides to a cassette, so, given that I normally listen to bits of a cassette, I’m never sure which side is which and what I’m going to get – a much more satisfying and clunky uncertainty than the randomisation of the mp3 playlist. And of course, if you’re over a certain age, you will normally have several hundred cassettes lying around the house or the loft, all in various stages of uncertainty.
The second cassette is released on 20 July 2011. You Can Kill a Pig in July is an extended interview with Luis Costa . Based in Nodar, Portugal, Luis runs the Binaural residency programme, of which Rinus is an associate artist. There is reference in Rinus’ writings to the use of sound in his own work as a narrative investigation. Indeed he did at one point turn his back on a successful literary career to follow a different path. Having spent much of my own time and energy inside literature and literary forms, I’ve always been struck by the very close connections between the written word, the spoken word, as in dramatic forms, and the presentation of various recorded sound sources as narrative and rhetorical tools. In terms of strengthening the connections, these Staaltape releases are doing a better job than anything else I’ve heard to date.
This interview with Luis Costa is so much more than a face to face conversation. The topics are of real interest – change in rural society, family history, socio-political tensions in a small community, personnages from the past and present. But there is more and I put this down to a genuine craftsman’s dexterity in knowing how to let the interview run, how to interject, to question and comment, without apeing conventional procedures. We also have the sound of Luis illustrating his narrative by sketching on paper. Of course we don’t see any of this, but we can imagine all the more creatively. There is electronic interference of some sort, perhaps batteries running down on the cassette recorder. We move from place to place and between spaces, savouring the acoustic qualities of each as we go. Captivating, engaging, warm and intimate.
To digress and self refer for a moment, though staying on topic, I’ve been writing to various book festivals asking if they’d be interested in hosting an event of narrative sound works – a loose term but I think you know what I mean – based on the premise that the sonic works would give fresh perspectives on the whole notion of narrativity. No success yet, but a few near misses and I remain optimistic. The kind of work that Rinus and his colleagues are producing would sit at the top of the tree in this respect.
I’d recommend that anyone interested in meaningful and committed contemporary sound art order a selection of these cassette releases now. They’re not digital so they won’t self-replicate at the touch of a button. You get to look after something with a cassette. What gives these plastic boxes their vital charm is also the source of their vulnerability.