Soundheads vs Syn-aesthetes: August's Rum Music by Russell Cuzner
, August 1st, 2016 07:17
A wave of synaesthesia leaves Russell Cuzner’s senses working overtime as he reads, sees, feels and is touched by the latest in outsider audio from David Toop, Valerio Tricoli, Andrew Liles, Claire M Singer and more. Homepage photo courtesy of Fabio Lugaro
A picture may well be worth a thousand words, but where words fail, music speaks. While the first idiom severely undervalues imagery by measuring out just one thousand of our clunkiest signifiers of thought per piccie, the latter would seem to put sound above sight in the hierarchy of the senses. Such a sentiment would be wholly supported by all staff here at the Rum Music Library, although the largely word-less, non-idiomatic music we particularly cherish doesn't so much speak as bring new worlds, universes even, into being.
But all this whimsical weighing up of worth has long presented a schism here that's generally become known as Soundheads vs Syn-aesthetes. It all started several years ago when the occasional hung painting that served up a little visual variety in several of the Library's otherwise drab, dust-filled rooms, were surreptitiously turned to face their oak-panelled walls. Although the identity of the anti-ocular activist never came to light, the motion to remove all visual stimuli has been on most board room minutes that followed. Ever since, the acousmatically-inclined Soundheads have consistently argued that, like words, images are an obstacle to true immersion and appreciation of the qualities of sound, effectively sending the brain on a distracting detour. Meanwhile the more sensibly-balanced view of the Syn-aesthetes suggests that contexts can not only help to understand the intent or approach of a piece, but can also provide a way-in to those works at the more impenetrable end of the audio spectrum.
A resolution has never been reached and the frames still display their bare, strung backboards to this day and have become something of an accepted quirk of the Library's fixtures and fittings. In fact, no one even remembers what images they originally exhibited, so instead these plain rectangles serve to remind us of the psychological sensitivities of listening.
Claire M Singer – Solas
The deep, transcendental works for church organ, cello and electronics spread across Solas' two, generous discs tend to inspire visions of a pre-industrialised countryside. Each emergent piece initially evokes an unpopulated bucolic panorama, but, as the instrumentation slowly and seductively swells, our gaze intensifies and begins to note the odd labourer in the field or child running down a hill, until a whole community has somehow materialised. It is a haunting of sorts, but instead of the usual malevolence of ghosts and ghouls, it seems to celebrate the complex resonances between place and its history.
Indeed, many of the titles use the original Gaelic names of rural locations in the composer’s native Scotland, and the second disc is devoted to ‘The Molendinar’, named after an early settlement that evolved into the metropolis that is now Glasgow. Its fertile 25 minute time-lapsed trip is conjured on the vast church organ built into London’s Union Chapel, one of the city’s best live music venues (as well as being a working church and drop-in centre for the homeless) where Singer is music director. Her precise control of the air flow through the pipes of this unique, nineteenth century behemoth of an instrument, delivers a vital, ascendant experience. The long, rich tones initially float and combine to produce heady artefacts and ultimately bear traces of choral qualities, as if devotional vocal performances from the church’s past have become reconstituted through the wind in the pipes.
However, Solas delivers its delightful, historical hallucinations with a bold, modern sensibility. This is no nostalgic excursion. Although traditional themes occasionally float to the surface of Singer’s sonorous pools – like on ‘Éilean’ that incorporates extracts of the folk fiddle of Paul Anderson – the work focuses more on the sensuous dimensions of sound than their musical heritage. This leads to something very special indeed – each piece is timeless and genuinely magical.
Robert Curgenven – Climata
(Dragon’s Eye Recordings)
Like Singer’s ‘The Molendinar’, the dense, stirring tones of pipe organs are central to Robert Curgenven’s compositions. Last year’s Sirène was recorded in several old churches along the Cornish coast, the Australian composer’s ancestral home, while They Tore The Earth And, Like A Scar, It Swallowed Them, his colonially-themed release from the same year, has its pipe organ blow under and over field recordings of specific locations in his home country. Although Climata is neither autobiographical nor features a pipe organ, it strongly maintains the intense relationship to places and the movement of air through them to profoundly affect its listeners own relationship with their location.
The two disk’s six pieces, uniformly 19 minutes and 20 seconds each, were entirely recorded in fifteen Turrell Skyspaces - modern architectural installations based on “a specifically proportioned chamber with an aperture in the ceiling open to the sky”. Bordered by colour and artificial lighting, Skyspaces sensitively frame the sky, offering new visual perspectives that Curgenven creatively transposes into sound.
Using just two oscillators and a portable speaker he turns each Skyspace into a single pipe of a pipe organ, freely modulated by the weather moving the column of air through its opening; the sonic equivalent of throwing dust into a room to reveal invisible presences perhaps. The recordings of the microtonal resonances layered across Climata are initially unspectacular and super minimal. What seem like just two suspended tones are unevenly punctuated by everyday sounds from the room and outside – largely small movements, birdsong and traffic. However, focused listening, crucially through speakers, reveals the subtly rich choreographies of these distant spaces. As such, they can transform the listening environment in a physical and introspective sense - heightening awareness of its shape and illuminating its ontological dimensions. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn such transportative and refreshing feelings are similar to those experienced under and within a Skyspace.
Fossil Aerosol Mining Project – Revisionist History
(Afterdays Media/ The Helen Scarsdale Agency)
Although at first glance the name feels obscure and surreal, this enigmatic group of artists and collectors bear a moniker that goes some way to doing what it says on its newly unearthed, antique and heavily corroded tin. The Fossil Aerosol Mining Project looks for and extracts objects from the present day to imagine their discovery in a remote future when degrees of deterioration and decay have set in, or as they put it “views of modern pop mummified, and contemporary provisions made artifact”. Curiously, such a vision is more often rendered in sound than image, where found and discarded audio is treated to sound like it has been excavated from the dystopian rubble of tomorrow.
To celebrate what is apparently “three decades of obscure, faked resurrection” Revisionist History presents a fevered, dreamy series of collages that resulted from digging up their own archival material from a pre-digital age and putting it through the binary mill. The results are far from the unnatural pristine patina of a modern day remaster and instead sound compacted with age, a murkiness in which the odd familiar glimpse occasionally bobs to the surface.
For example, ‘Filtered By Limestone’ finds a TV piano theme and birdsong briefly ambling along before rudely cut by a long smear of bleak thermal tones. Typically, brief samples of voice over artists, along with a detritus of scrapes and static bursts pass by to form an obscured narrative onto which the listener cannot help but project a pessimistic view.
Revisionist History is an artful parade of audio works that feel possessed. Caught somewhere in the middle of a triangulation of William Basinski, :zoviet*france and EVP, these Miner’s hands have artfully transmogrified otherwise mundane audio into totems charged with an esoteric edge their original incarnation never had.
Richard Scott – Several Circles
Improvising modularist Richard Scott took the cosmic, abstract painting ‘Several Circles’ as his starting point for his latest album, one he regards as his “first ‘proper’ album in ten years”. Kandinsky’s abstract interplay of circles and colour from 1926 gives us a foothold on which to grasp on to Scott’s restlessly fecund electronic universe. Both the painting and the album expressionistically promote cosmic contemplations on a macro scale and cellular ones on a micro scale.
Indeed, where words fail the painting succeeds in framing these equally abstract sounds. Kandinsky regarded circles as “the synthesis of the greatest oppositions… the concentric and the eccentric in a single form and in equilibrium. Of the three primary forms, it points most clearly to the fourth dimension.” Scott’s rapidly evolving analogue protons and neutrons point in the same direction, sounding like they are giving birth along the way to plasma, solids, liquids and gases and all states in-between.
Although its resolve to remain irregular and fitful places Several Circles in a universe of its own, a few peers and pathfinders come to mind like the synth pioneers of the 60s and 70s avant garde such as Parmegianni, Oliveros and Dockstader, while the predominant use of the a Serge synthesiser recalls some of Thighpaulsandra’s more wayward passages. But with a focus on percussive timbres it also, if only faintly, reminds of the stern, minimal techno of Berlin where the composer resides, and the more recent electro abstractions of fellow Mancunians Autechre.
Perhaps it is this percussive focus that propels the listener on without leaving time to worry about comprehending the alien sounds. Throughout Scott somehow maintains the equilibrium Kandinsky so admired in the shape to make Several Circles a rare and breath-taking excursion into purely synthesised sound.
David Toop – Entities Inertias Faint Beings
Author, academic and musician David Toop has recorded Amazonian shamans, appeared on Top Of The Pops, collaborated on countless free improv sessions, and curated and contributed to exhibitions of sound art installations. Through this multi-dimensional work he has helped us to understand music as an expansive “erosion of categories” using the accessible analogy, “ocean of sound”, as the title to his mind-expanding book published in 1995.
In the notes accompanying this latest album, his first solo release in over nine years, he reveals a rich source of non-musical influences contributed to his cultivation of what he refers to as “spores … of digital files”. Along with devotional music of the ancient Orient’s Zen and Confucian philosophies, we learn that Entities Inertias Faint Beings was informed by inaudible things like a silent Japanese film from the thirties, the concept of Hyperobjects, the epistemological writing of Clarice Lespector and the tonal, reductionist photography of Takhuma Nakahira and Tomatsu Shomei.
More often the sounds seem deployed for textural than melodic motives and range from small scrapes and crackles to reverent plucks of acoustic instruments. ‘For A Language To Come’ sounds like a recording of a ritual to resurrect a rattlesnake, ‘Ancestral Beings, Sightless By Their Own Dusk’ has longingly bowed tones peppered by electronic needling, while the tranquil and balmy ‘Setting Stones’ sets a traditional shakuhachi under a female Japanese narration in a lightly trickling but otherwise dry atmosphere.
Descriptions, however, deny the album’s careful curation of timbres and its sense of poise that turns each sound palpable. Yet, in Stephen Mansfield’s book on Japanese stone gardens Toop finds a worthy way-in to experiencing the album: “…stone arrangements seem almost alive, the elements conversing among themselves with an occult vitality”. Indeed, the carefully selected and positioned sounds of Entities Inertias Faint Beings, although strictly sourced from relatively small classes of ancient, acoustic and electronic aggregates, are meticulous and meditative zen gardens of sound.
Testing Vault - Loitering In Dogland II, or On The Ancient Dolls’ Mechanics
Loitering InDogland II, or On The Ancient Dolls’ Mechanics is dedicated to the Quay Brothers, the identical twins from Pennsylvania responsible for some of the most beguiling and macabre stop-motion animations since Jan Švankmajer. Their penchant for using disassembled doll parts in dimly lit, grimy settings combines innocent qualities of childhood with darker, queasier aspects, as if bringing to life the images of the German artist Hans Bellmer.
Instead of the raw, creaky Polish chamber music of Lech Jankowski often used as the soundtrack to Brothers Quay productions, Daniele Santagiuliana AKA Testing Vault sticks to his longstanding industrial influences of early Coil, Throbbing Gristle and Rozz Williams’ Premature Ejaculation to reimagine the dolls’ movements.
Extensively using percussive loops of dank mechanics such as clockworks and chimes, their repetition initially makes one yearn for some other stimulation, but then forces submission to its subterranean spiralling. Once the senses have become calibrated to Testing Vault’s minimal minuets scenes involving the ancient dolls of the title easily come to mind. ‘The Doll Synaesthesia’ has an incessant ratcheting that suggests a methodical torture, on ‘Radula’ a deep horn sounds over and over a ghostly reassembly of broken, rattling parts. Later, ‘The Euphonia Talking Machine’, named after a nineteenth century attempt to create a mechanical replica of the speech organs, fails to utter words but achieves a chill, haunting effect through its woozy, hypnotic cranking.
Testing Vault’s …On The Ancient Dolls’ Mechanics is a series of perpetually bleak, sombre rituals, but ones that nourish in a dark and twisted way like the Quay’s surreal sequences.
Andrew Liles – The Power Elite
The picture the prolific Andrew Liles paints on The Power Elite is not an uplifting one either, but one whose dread and despair is devilishly dramatic and thoroughly vindicating. Starting off with a collective wailing and then sliding into a disconcertingly warped noir theme, it lumbers warily forward into a hellish landscape applied from a largely orchestral palette.
Though still deploying the unexpected and twisted musical dioramas that Liles excels at, The Power Elite neither summons a phantasmagoric world, nor mines our subconscious. Instead, it is situated in the very real present day. The elite of the title, though once the subject of conspiracy theories, are the now accepted “military, economic and political institutions” whose insidiously cultivated and seemingly irreversible system protects their status while the rest of society wilfully aspire to touch their hems. Knowledge of this contemporary, legitimate concept, although not essential, makes the soundwork even more chilling.
Developing his unique command of avant-garde composition showcased across the temporal experiments of his four-part Through Time series, here Liles corrupts the doomy toll of church bells alongside stern themes on treated piano and bowed instruments with whirring percussion and nightmare choirs. Their repeated contortions are as if heard on the brink of anaesthesia as Liles peels back his sound sources to expose the signals of a pervasive authority brainwashing its subjects. Together they form exquisitely complex, peculiar and pensive themes that commiserate the perversity and sheer villainy of the 21st Century.
Valerio Tricoli – Clonic Earth
Following on from 2014's Miseri Lares, the Italian artist Valerio Tricoli presents Clonic Earth, another long form electro acoustic composition. Even though we are told his approach involves "exploded narratives", "psychological insights" and references the Chaldean Oracles, a 2,014 year old theosophical text, such contexts are not necessary when listening in. This is because the qualities of his sounds, from brief musical smudges, through papery rustling and crackling fire, to fragmented voices, are so fascinating in their vividness, their movements - the way they arrive and depart, and their textural finery, that they fill the mind to its brim leaving no room for making sense.
Throughout Tricoli's compositions it is as if he is somehow working with field recordings of our thought processes - a disjointed, abstracted inner rhapsody of questing energy and sensory processing that occasionally forms words but also, crucially, functions in ways words cannot convey. The choice and sequence of his sounds feel familiar yet cannot be identified and, as such, become unnerving, provoking unanswerable questions.
Arrived at through a combination of analogue electronics, live sampling and Revox tape manipulations, Clonic Earth is a sensuous, acousmatic masterpiece that reveals new nuances, none of them articulable, on every repeat listen. The press release explains it as "a ritual, somehow, which may link the listener and the perceptive space that he [sic] inhabits with whatever lies beyond the loudspeakers, beyond the vibrating surface of the world." I would add that Clonic Earth, as well as going beyond, also reaches within to arrive at subconscious domains where words and contexts need not exist.
Tracklisting for Rum Music Mix
00:00-00:15 Intro (includes an excerpt from 'Music of the Spheres' - Johanna Beyer / 1938)
00:03-06:50 'Wrangham' - Claire M. Singer (from Solas / Touch 2016)
06:32-11:31 'A1 B3' - Robert Curgenven (from Climata / Dragon’s Eye Recordings 2016)
11:18-16:50 'Squatters At The Launch Facility' (excerpt) - Fossil Aerosol Mining Company (from Revisionist History / Afterdays Media + Helen Scarsdale Agency 2016)
16:40-20:52 'Induburu' - Richard Scott (from Several Circles / Cuspeditions 2016)
20:50-28:38 'Ancestral Beings, Sightless By Their Own Dust' - David Toop (from Entities Inertias Faint Beings / Room40 2016)
28:34-33:44 'The Doll Synesthesia' - Testing Vault (from Loitering In Dogland II, Or On The Ancient Dolls’ Mechanics / SoundScape 713 2016)
33:42-42:53 'Affluenza' - Andrew Liles (from The Power Elite / United Dairies 2016)
41:08-59:20 'Clonic Earth' - Valerio Tricoli (from Clonic Earth / PAN 2016)
59:17-59:37 Outro ((includes an excerpt from 'Music of the Spheres' - Johanna Beyer / 1938)