Sound Discrimination: April's Rum Music By Russell Cuzner
, April 15th, 2015 08:15
Russell Cuzner tries to explain exactly what rum music is and reviews new releases by Lawrence English and Dream Weapon Ritual
It's always quiet at this time of year in the Rum Music Library. This is certainly not due to a dearth of suitable releases however - on the contrary, there has never been a greater amount and wider range of suitable sound works. No, it is the hushed wake following the Library's annual strategic review, a round-table meeting in a dusty square room, whose lack of accord extends the debate into the early hours leaving our board members confused and despondent as once again they struggled to agree upon what they call a 'content strategy'. Their pursuit to define a "framework which guides the Library's acquisition streams", or, more simply, how to decide what stuff to leave in or out, always ends up in a circular debate about what Rum Music is. There are two main factions who can never agree: the contrarians, who are only interested in those releases that bear no relation to anything that has come before, and the libertarians who believe all sounds should be welcome regardless of genre, it being the individual listening mind that completes the creative communion satisfied or otherwise. This war of ideological attrition is further hampered by various, more idiosyncratic stances such as the faction who would prefer we stick to releases from the the Nurse With Wound List and those of its curator, unhelpfully (but pointedly) suggesting that this collection alone would provide enough neural nourishment to fill any realistic life span.
Typically, the result, meekly announced in those awkward, muted days each Spring, is a compromise that risks cancelling itself out, and this year is no exception:
"...the key principles for the content strategy 2015-16, a refresh of our content strategy of 2014, approaches content development by proximity to genre and inclusivity of sound, whereby acquisitions will be sought from those works displaying non-idiomatic approaches and/or that are open to all sounds regardless of their source, or the age, gender, ethnicity or abilities of its composer and performers."
The Rum Music Library Strategic Review 2015
If nothing else this helps confirm that trying to identify, quantify and categorise art these days, especially by what it isn't, is unlikely to form a robust critical 'framework', while letting everything in avoids the issue and loses any kind of focus. Clearly rules don't work in the Rum Music Library, which requires new approaches to help discriminate with integrity.
Lawrence English - The Peregrine
An answer to this conundrum may come from the correspondence Brisbane's Lawrence English had with Munich's Werner Herzog after the sound artist had gifted the maverick film director a copy of The Peregrine by English author J A Baker that went on to inspire this release. Herzog is said to have referred to the book's evocative observations of birds' behaviours as a "quasi-religious transubstantiation" where, through the text, the reader first becomes the author then becomes the bird. A similar three-step transformation is experienced on English's sonic interpretation of the book, first released in 2011 and now available digitally for the first time. Initially, as listener, you're met with rich, deep chords and not the expected field recordings of birds of prey and their habitats. Then, putting yourself in the position of composer, your brain races to identify their source, and how their choral, symphonic textures may have been formed. But, once immersion has been achieved these suspended and treated layers form a soaring auditory experience with smooth, cinematic transitions that position the listener as both bird and observer. This strength or profundity of transformation, from listener to composer to something else, something other (however determined), that is so splendidly felt on English's The Peregrine is perhaps a measure by which all sound and music could be appraised.
Sigtryggur Berg Sigmarsson - So Long
(Helen Scarsdale Agency)
Sigtryggur Berg Sigmarsson & BJ Nilsen – Avantgardegasse
These two releases definitely take you somewhere else, somewhere 'other'. Sigmarsson, of Icelandic absurdists Stilluppsteypa, and BJ Nilsen their frequent recordist ally from Sweden, already had travel on their minds with last year's Golden Circle Afternoon, their collaboration with Reynols' Anla Courtis that wove their experiences of a three month tour into a skewed sonic travelogue. So Long, the latest solo release from Sigmarsson, plots a similar path with three works that promote the disorientation of long journeys. All previously self-released on cassette (covered in an earlier column) the CD format affords much greater clarity with which to head into these evocative travel-induced dream states: the bleak drone of air conditioning segues into distant chatter as the sound of domestic machinery influences elusive memories of musical themes before turbulence rudely intrudes on the drift.
This uneasy oscillation between the mundane and the magical is dropped in favour of going somewhere fictitious on Avantgardegasse. Here, Sigmarsson and Nilsen conjure up an urban street filled with familiar sounds - shouts, cars, radio, sirens - but collaged together in such a way as to defy the laws of gravity - a powerful dislocation achieved through an intense attention to detail. Indeed, Nilsen has been focussing on capturing urban sounds in recent years, as opposed to the more lush and exotic, and much more common, produces of field recording in rural areas. As he says in last year's fascinating publication he co-edited The Acoustic City, "...recording the city has many parallels to the ways writers and urban flâneurs walk and explore the city. These acoustic observations are later composed into a personal reflection... a surreal city begins to unfold..." On Avantgardegasse, this surreality is paved with long, groaning tones and textures carefully mapped onto musical found sounds such as an Eastern folk song on a tinny street radio or the steroidal bass of a car stereo to add a fevered, nightmarish edge. Both avant garde and feeling like it is gleefully taking the piss of the avant garde, Avantgardegasse confuses and confounds with a rare charm.
Soiled - Splices And Phases
(Elm Lodge Records)
If some of the track titles are anything to go by Splices And Phases, the fourth album by Marcus H AKA Soiled, is concerned with key locations stretching the length of England, from the Cornish stone circle of Boscawen Mann past the Bristolian mound of Brandon Hill and Oldham's Tandle Hill to Boulby in North Yorkshire, near where the composer currently resides. However, the sounds each place name are attributed to seem more suited to spell out psychodramas from a New Wave of Science Fiction compendium. Other track titles make this association feel more explicit - 'Fear In The Amygdala', 'Caustic Surplus Of Robotic Smiles' and 'Spectrum Binary Training' - all of which could have been nicked from Ballard, Moorcock or Aldiss, and, upon listening it becomes quickly apparent that all would serve as ideal theme tunes to these distinguished types of dystopian tale. They all feature treated and looped layers of distorted, folksy guitar, swelling, revolving, echoing and sliding in and out of ominous washes of static or invaded by radio signals from space as if to describe some kind of technological crisis. Meanwhile extended organ chords and percussive episodes are employed to keep the puzzling plot unfolding. It is a rather unique, loose, expressionistic collage style yet manages to keenly infer a peculiarly English style of strange fiction.
Ix Tab - R.O.C.
Also peculiarly English is R.O.C., a much delayed follow-up to the audio puzzle that was Spindle & The Bregnut Tree from 2012. Like it's prequel, R.O.C. is heavily codified requiring a giant research pencil to join its dots and reveal any connections between its convoluted cast of characters, some of which are eluded to in the release's extensive sleeve notes. Of course, this need not present a barrier to entering and enjoying its frame of references, it just might mean you feel you're not in reach of the good stuff at the source.
Like the work of friend Kemper Norton, Ix Tab (or Loki, author of the estimable long-running blog An Idiot's Guide To Dreaming) blends significant personal experiences with influences from both within and without the world of music. R.O.C.'s opening track, 'Parhelion', we're told, is inspired by a teenage afternoon tripping on mushrooms and home brew listening to Kevin Ayers' Irreversible Neural Damage while witnessing the atmospheric phenomenon of sun spots, an experience that "much of R.O.C. stems from". Filled with bright, iridescent synths, slightly corrupted by a timestretched, woozy effect, the scene is palpable. As the album progresses a consistent arsenal of similar Coil-ish synthedelic manoeuvres establishes itself - warm, glitchy and druggy - often peppered with intriguing spoken word passages from Baudelaire to Stockhausen to R Ogilvie Crombie (presumably the R.O.C. of the title), whose curious tale of meeting a "faun-like being" in the Royal Botanic Garden is begins its narration over birdsong on 'I M Wh U Mk Ov M', its combination of an RP accent and increasingly creepy synths reminiscent of seventies’ cult TV dramatisations. Whimsical, melodic, rhythmical and esoteric - R.O.C.'s semi-autobiographical philosophical hedonism of an album is one that needs obsessing over to crack, but still rewards lighter brushes with its mysterious, magical realism.
Dream Weapon Ritual - Ebb & Flow
Ebb & Flow gently but purposefully guides us on a potent occult excursion. For the Italian duo of Simon Balestrazzi and Monica Serra's latest album they have invited a range of collaborators to expand their core sound of synths, stringed instruments and voice with percussion, flute, clarinet, guitar and a "sacred horseskull". Their sequence of five untitled tracks feels like a complex audio sigil to achieve transcendence, perhaps performed in a candle-lit cave or long barrow. Starting with a short prayer or invocation, a wall of shifting guitar textures and a small, pulsing synth invite tiny glottal sounds from Serra, initially as if in fear as much as reverence, before her vocal chords gain confidence as they become enclosed by the circling sounds. The second piece feels like the main ritual - its slow, steady, focussed pace established by footsteps, pulses, creaks and whirrs, embellished by a beautifully resonant singing bowl, extends throughout a quarter hour. Sparse vocals, sometimes whispered, with long flute and clarinet tones fill the space like vapours, gradually building to a crescendo involving a shockingly deep kick (which I'm guessing is the "horseskull").
Side two continues the slow, devotional drive flowing from a hymn-like piece of wind, strings and synth carrying Serra's suitably gothic vocal hues, through incantatory passages where her repetitive wishes, heavily pronounced, disturb what sounds like the rats and bats of the cave, to the final, percussive journey. Its sound pool promotes an impression of a sailboat guided by moonlight and ethereal voices, as if a desired release had been granted.
Merzbow/Mats Gustafsson/Thurston Moore/Balázs Pandi - Cuts Of Guilt Cuts Deeper
Drama through improvisation is once again abundantly provided by the international team-up of Japan's noise magnet, Merzbow, Sweden's sax slayer Mats Gustafsson and Hungary's power percussionist Balázs Pandi. They first joined forces on a tour in 2012, the catalyst for their first release, Cuts, from a couple of years ago, and returned to the studio on the subsequent tour co-opting America's mighty Thurston Moore for the occasion. The resulting rampage is presented across these two CDs of noise improv with few surprises. The first of four long tracks is monstrous - horrific sax shrieks and bass tremors shake up guitar detritus in a violent session brimming with energy. The third and fourth pieces tend to bear similar dynamics, each player behaving like an uncontrollable hose flailing wildly due to the extreme water pressure shooting through it.
But, like a good superhero movie there is the odd twist along the way to avoid it being a constant parade of battle scenes. First off, Merzbow more often seems low in mix, adding a crusty texture rather than drowning the proceedings in his customary roiling red mist, only rising above his peers for crescendo purposes. Secondly, Pandi's adhesive drums often avoid the freeform interplay becoming so free it evaporates into a kind of noise ambience, and on the final track he delivers such a deliciously meaty, tribal workout that it could convert a vegetarian. But it is the second track that is perhaps least expected merely because of its sparse, cool, relaxed-even shades. While there is the odd angry spurt of noise or feedback and often a static patina forming, for the most part it is an exercise in restraint that brings Pandi's drum work to the fore as lead instrument to create a predatory, snake-like vibe.
Sometimes it feels like there are aspects of pure improv that are most likely to be identified and appreciated by other improvisatory artists, and unfathomable to non-players, a skills-based kudos system for those in the know. Yet, although fatigue can set in if listened to in one go, Cuts Of Guilt Cuts Deeper is fun in a Boy’s Own adventure kinda way, a jungle of noise whose dense foliage is cut through by Pandi's inspired hand.
Tashi Dorji - Appa
Skilful handiwork is the method on Appa, an album from Asheville's Tashi Dorji. Following on from last year's compilation on Ben Chasny's Hermit Hut label, this new array of vignettes for solo guitar somehow both demonstrates a seriously honed technique and a freedom from it. Instead of being tied in to a skilled tradition Dorji's plucks, strums, scrapes and taps seem to flourish in an independent air, giving his single sound source the versatility to travel across spectrums of movement and emotion.
Many of the tracks seem to have a ghost of bluegrass or flamenco behind them, but the foregrounds firmly focus on more modern approaches such as the serialistic lack of repetition on 'Murmur' whose complex string of seemingly unrelated notes are stitched both roughly and elegantly, or the prepared guitar of its neighbour, 'Forbidden', its percussive weft weaving a rare percussive cloth.
Appa's 13 curious short compositions feel their way as if improvised, where, unhindered by the need to take cues from other players, Dorji can focus on the textural qualities of the solo sounds, and how to evolve and transform them. While melodic themes do form, it never takes long for them to disintegrate like patterns painted in dust. Equipped with both modern and traditional techniques but guided by neither Appa's novel expressions captivate like shadow puppetry, its simple source spinning complex tales.
Reinhold Friedl - Golden Quinces, Earthed
Golden Quinces, Earthed by Zeitkratzer's Reinhold Friedl is also borne of a single source but this simplicity doesn't extend to the way it is made and definitely not its results. Its subtitle 'for spatialised Neo-Bechstein' refers to the instrument and the way it is delivered to its listeners. Built in 1930, the Neo-Bechstein is a piano fitted with 18 pick-ups that amplify its strings, which attracted Friedl as a means to better deploy the 'inside-piano' techniques he had been developing. Like contact mics, the pick-ups can deliver the sound of the strings cleanly when vibrated (be it traditional keys, or some other intervention), without the other reverberant contributions of the piano's strategically shaped wooden body. This means a Neo-Bechstein can do away with the piano's sound board which typically cuts the frequency and reduces the duration of the strings' sound. For Friedl's purposes the pick-ups are sent to different channels affording dramatic movements of the liberated sounds.
The resultant piece, at just under an hour, is an extraordinarily theatrical sound work, yet one where any attempt to impose a narrative on the changing moods and impressions would be so subjective as to be meaningless.
It has five movements which relate to the different ways in which the strings were vibrated: initially Friedl uses small pieces of wood to 'bow' the strings, launching showers of shards through the listening space. Next, heavy stones are placed on them, their subtle springiness begin to have a dappled Morse effect that grows gradually into a buzzing swarm, filling the air. Ominous, thunderous dark tones are aroused from the bass strings when struck with mallets, turning the size of the scene into a gargantuan canvas, while sliding metal tubes on the final two passages introduce cavernous whines and ghostly swooping manoeuvres.
Although alien and alarming, Golden Quinces… needs no context other than other than its processes, its sounds and how they relate to each other and evolve - a transformation that extends to its audience - inarticulable but clearly and dramatically felt.
Seamajesty - Tea & Biscuits
(Plain Sailing Records)
Tea & Biscuits, a web-based project from Leeds' James Yates, is an exercise in simplicity. Yates' aim was to design a compositional method that swiftly navigates 'round the more time-consuming approaches to process and production techniques, and has so far succeeded in composing and publishing nine wistful synth themes in as many weeks. In doing so Yates wears his arp (along with his reel-to-reel and his reverb) on his sleeve by revealing how each piece was quickly achieved through brief notes on the blog that houses the project.
The first and longest piece from February he confesses to be directly inspired by Eno and Lanois productions of the eighties (a decade that tends to infuse all of the Tea & Biscuits outputs). As with each successive upload, he goes on to reveal the small selection of equipment and effects that combine to realise the results of the exercise. Here it is a sine, a piano, an old Yamaha synth and a bass pad, but crucially routed into octave, delay and reverb FX to maximise their presence before being mixed down to a warbling old two track. Like several other of his instalments it is a comfy drift through soft clouds of synth and warm bass casting the sort of introspective shadows that Boards Of Canada take their time over.
Unsurprisingly Eno gets further mentions, particularly with reference to the semi-automated compositions he developed with Robert Fripp using tape delay techniques that, not for the last time, Yates takes advantage of on his piece from 4th March. The accompanying diagram and video on his blog kindly demonstrates how little the player needs to do to feed this process with enough sound matter in order to produce flowing results. His fingers casually fire up three short refrains on the keyboards, and the two tape machines extend and expand them outwards freeing Yates to sculpt their outputs with FX and mixing, as it immediately starts to sound like a solid retrofuturistic soundtrack.
I think Yates makes it look easier than it might be though; his succinct, slightly self-deprecating notes belie the depth of his multi-instrumental skills that, in Tea & Biscuits, has swiftly formed a seductively nostalgic foil to the sterner, more studied releases often found in this column.
LST - Th Duo
(Another Dark Age)
Sounding much more like the results of bespoke processes than deliberately placed notes and noises is the oblique Th Duo from Melbourne's Tarquin Manek. A multi-disciplinary artist interested in "prepared improvised performance" and the "dysfunctions of language" this latest offering could be ticking both of these boxes. The, perhaps deliberate, lack of information on process (all we know is that it was "recorded using mobile phones and microcassettes") neatly forces the listener to imagine their own sequence of events. Organic glugs and ripples (contact mic'd water vessels maybe?) alongside telephonic clicks and ringtones, drones and bleeps from DIY electronic projects and feinted traces of live movement all conspire to suggest one of those unnecessarily elaborate sequences exemplified by the old Mouse Trap board game, each predetermined mechanical event triggering the next until a basket falls to trap the ill-fated rodent. The lo-fi sound quality adds to this effect, the amount of air hiss and shuffling noises even suggesting a gallery space in which such sequences might have been performed and recorded, their uncultivated results giving off a Fluxus/ Dada type attitude. Although many tracks like 'Lewd Strength Truth', 'List Sideways Trend' and 'Lemon Suck Teeth' (all tracks have the initials LST) do have musical matter briefly bringing to mind Tangerine Dream or the Radiophonic Workshop, they are almost always contaminated or corroded by the non-musical matter as if to suggest the increasing dominance of a dispassionate technology on human concerns.
Arturo Ruiz del Pozo - Composiciones Nativas
Miguel Flores - Primitivo
These fascinating archival releases from Peru's Buh Records demonstrate the playful relationship to technology their composers enjoyed when they took their traditional native music and explored and tested its limits using the expanding tape methods of the time. Traditional Peruvian folk was on the political agenda in the mid-seventies when nationalistic policies promoted indigenous music in an attempt to conserve what had been endangered thanks to centuries of colonial exploitation. But modern composers like Ruiz del Pozo and Flores sought to greatly expand this heritage with 20th Century modes and methods.
Composiciones Nativas was recorded at the Royal College of Music in London during Ruiz del Pozo's final phase of study there. Using mainly a range of ethnic flutes along with the odd gong, bell and a rattle, he constructed a range of diverse tape pieces, seven of which are showcased here. Part of this diversity is in how the flutes were approached. On opener 'Parantara' sikus (or pan flutes) are blown and gongs are struck as intended, but then layered and transformed through tape techniques into a light shower of brittle tones underpinned by a deep, intoning bass. Whereas on the following piece, 'Lago De Totoras', the flutes are rubbed creating a percolating percussion made superbly psychedelic through dreamy echoes. The album continues through more previously unimagined outputs of old instruments from vocal wails and glass glides to shrill birdsong and fierce noise textures to finish with 'Kanon Expansivo' a majestic orchestral piece performed on regular strings and woodwind, its recognisably triumphant theme coolly contrasting with the preceding alien workouts.
Miguel Flores' Primitivo is less concerned with conservation of folk instruments (although sikus do feature) than helping to keep their related ancestral myths alive. Commissioned to soundtrack Mitos y Mujeres (Myths and Women), a performance by dancer and choreographer Luciano Proańo, Flores brings together aspects of tribal music with the rock and free jazz experimentation he was known for. The first of three long tracks, 'Pachacuti', is concerned with millennial prophecies of an apocalyptic nature. Apparently using 14 guitars and the full range of tape effects he initially describes in sound the creation of the universe - large-scale soaring arcs are followed by smooth swells offering an uncanny sense of terraforming. A huayno dance follows, its patterns gradually dissipating, to describe the pre-Columbian civil wars, after which more catastrophe is marked out by the violent disruptions of feedback representing the Spaniards' invasion.
The strangest but most delightful mythic music on Primitivo is the middle piece, 'Iranpabanto', that takes its listeners through three stages - firstly a ritualistic procession that scratches a path to a more traditional chapter, where a female contentedly singing is decorated with flute and bells, before an uproar of synth, cymbals and siku followed by extended ultra-heavy bass tones spell out a fabled tragedy. It is based on a myth from the rainforest's Ashaninka tribe where a woman made of clay is abandoned and abused by two successive husbands. Consequently, she turns into a man and heads out for the jungle where she melts in the rain. Flores’ fearless re-appropriation describes in sound both the magic and the trauma of the tale.
Both Ruiz del Pozo’s and Flores’ proximity to folkloric traditions combined with their questing attitude towards transformative sound extends the power of myth, conserving while creating new dimensions, which are thankfully conserved anew on these wonderful re-releases.
Beatriz Ferreyra - GRM Works
Beatriz Ferreyra & Christine Groult – Nahash
A masterclass in the bewildering and jaw-dropping possibilities of tape-based composition is given in these two releases from the Argentinian electro acoustic composer Beatrix Ferreyra. The latest archival release from Recollection GRM compiles two hard-to-find short works from the late sixties with two longer pieces lifted from her eponymous album of 2012, all of which are a marvel to behold regardless of their availability and demonstrate a consistency in Ferreyra's ear across the decades.
1967's 'Demeures aquatiques' (Aquatic Mansions) sets out her stall of sounds that, like Tom Lawrence's The Peregrine at the head of this column, seek to describe physically altered states – such as how solids turn to liquid to and then to gas. Here, metal sheets and glass rods provide the sound matter Ferreyra then manipulates into rich, sinking forms and busy bubbling textures rising to reach fresh sprays of air.
Transformation of an alchemical variety is perhaps more explicitly explored on 2009's 'Un fil invisible'. Sudden zaps - as if igniting a process - give way to a sense of tunnelling, its fervent travel slowly turning to landslide as gracefully as simmering turns to boil, punctuated by sharp hits. Later electronic stormy stabs and meanderings suggest a cooling phase, both the imagined matter and listener forever changed.
Her latest release, in collaboration with French composer Christin Groult (to whom 'Un fil invisible' was dedicated) continues the sensory parade through changing states, this time seeming to focus on modes of physical movement, as opposed to chemistry. Improvisations for Ferreyra's four Revox tape recorders and Groult's multi-triggered samplers, the two tracks are different versions of the same piece that are equal in effect, so can feel a bit duplicative, but go some way to prove the aleatoric nature of the order of the events. Both works take its listener through a busy, erratic parade of modes of movement - smooth snake-like slithers, fussy butterfly flutters, splashing, trickling, galloping, zooming that combine to form tidal waves of sound that defy the laws of physics. Restlessly oscillating between recognisable natural sounds (water, kids’ voices, horses’ hooves, car engines) and synthetic ones, Nahash is best described as a somewhat literal embodiment of para-normal or super-natural where normality and nature are examined in a new light and found to be far beyond our understanding. But, descriptions in words of work such as this can feel a poor way to negotiate its transformative power. Liked Reinhold Friedl’s Golden Quinces…, Ferreyra and Groult's Nahash need not be aligned or exposed to other contexts, their compositions can work purely as enquiries into sound - where it can go, how it can change, and how it feels as it does so - where the best route to its comprehension is to listen.