Extra-Auditory Adventures: Rum Music For March By Russell Cuzner
, March 15th, 2017 11:33
An officious and unwanted audit leads the Rum Music Library to finally articulate a clear and honest policy behind the magical sounds it seeks. Russell Cuzner lists potent sonic spells in the form of the latest releases from Unicazürn, Dave Phillips, Olivia Block, Mira Calix and Daniel Menche
Tight lips and furrowed brows are currently worn like a uniform here at the Rum Music Library as the spectre of our annual audit is nigh. The fear, anxiety and self-doubt among staff is rising, inspired by the prospect of another inquisition from poker-faced, grey-suited auditors, as we anticipate their demands for evidence of consistent processes that just do not exist.
In previous years, hastily hatched memos filled with complex flow diagrams have been circulated to try and steer everyone onto the same page in pitiful attempts to feign an objective method in the aural madness of our listening choices. But, although the music we acquire can be loosely described by acknowledging what it is not (eg. idiomatic, notate-able, traditional or familiar), the process of listening to it seems to take us into purely subjective realms. Despite frantic thumbing of volumes from Adorno, Cage, Nyman, Schafer or Schaeffer, colleagues have continued to fail in reverse-engineering verifiable frameworks out of their word-less, though heart-felt, idiosyncratic preferences.
The mighty Alan Moore once proclaimed "...that art, whether it be writing, music, sculpture, or any other form is literally magic... to achieve changes in consciousness." Such changes in consciousness cast off by the sonic spells covered here tend to strand us temporarily in unexplored inner spaces to form a series of extra-auditory adventures.
Yet any endeavours to understand the underlying basis of these unchartered states of mind always prove questionable. A common question we once liked to aim at those artists piquing our attention was whether they used any psychological insights in their compositions to strategically affect their listeners' experience. The consistent response was always clearly in the negative, qualified by a preference for avoiding over-analysis in their art. Like the anatomy of a joke, dissecting the sensations of sound to reveal a rationale of response risks losing its very vigour and its charm. It would seem the auditory is just not auditable.
So, to explain our ongoing quest for profound soundworks this time around, with Moore’s quote in mind, we have, for once, settled on auditioning an honest and simple three-step process:
1. We seek magic.
2. When found, we measure its strength and uniqueness.
3. Only the most novel and/or potent sorceries of sound are then placed in the Library’s collection.
Here are our latest acquisitions:
Unicazürn – Transpandorem
Unicazürn's are among the strongest of sonic spells. Their unrivalled transportive powers are conjured through a duality of the psychic abilities of improvisation and a studied studio craft. If their previous release, Omegapavilion, issued by The Tapeworm last Spring, took its listeners on a flight "from secret sewers to interstellar travel", then Transpandorem sets them adrift on unknown seas.
The ocean analogy is made explicit in the notes that announce the release, their first for Touch, where it suggests the tendency "toward rolling river dynamics and the open seas of synthesized sound" is due to the duo dwelling near bodies of water - David Knight on the Thames and Stephen Thrower on the Sussex coast.
Whether primed by foreknowledge of these associations or not, it would be hard to imagine anywhere other than an ocean as the sounds of 'Breathe The Snake' fill the room. Its apparent minimalism is deceptive as it casts an uncanny tidal rhythm out of phased layers of electronics. The form is so palpable as to be almost sculptural, although this doesn't stop a narrative from unfolding as traces of siren song flow over lapping electronics in constant flux.
More radiophonic than rhythmic, 'Pale Salt Seam' has small synth notes drip across the stereo field, gradually filling a sparkling pool into which we take a deep dive. Its delicate details wrap around our ears like sprays of air bubbles before Knight and Thrower bring us up to surface in a coastal cave filled with stars.
Once again, Unicazürn's strange synthesis is rendered through august audio design to take its listener on a transformational journey. Yet, on Transpandorem, the fanciful impact of this function is secondary to the sheer marvel of their large-scale sound forms.
Uncertain: Dark Night of the Soul (The Pile of Bodies)
Unicazürn's Stephen Thrower contributes a remix in the form of the opening track on this latest album from Uncertain. Its compacted layers of sound matter - wraith-like wisps, reedy tones and cinematic strings - circle aggressively around a heavy kick to suggest a summoning. The remaining three tracks also have more than a whiff of occult intent, as if their composition is a by-product of personal rituals.
Uncertain begun in 2007 as the solo project of Florian-Ayala Fauna from Buffalo, New York. Its aural outputs somehow fulfil a similar aesthetic to the artist's equally prolific visual art that often depict animal heads - particularly goats, foxes and hares - as if charged with some kind of hidden power, part gothic horror, part Gnostic totem. As such, this compilation of "lost and new material..." makes a good entry point to Fauna's heady, esoteric sound world.
Vestiges of vocals are often found within the dense mix, their translation eluded by the near constant, restless travel of eerie tones and distortions. 'Androgyne Lullaby' apparently includes a voice recording of Fauna "having a vision during an epileptic episode", its details obscured through diverse edits and masked by a woozy bass drone.
More often underpinning the chaos are ritual drums - spare, slow and powerful - that temporally tether the otherwise disparate sounds together and give this strong impression of a dark, hidden agenda behind the eldritch barrage. It is perhaps this firm sense of purpose that sets Uncertain's stall apart from the many attempts at Crowley-ean occult soundtracks, as Dark Night Of The Soul’s primal forces are paraded with confidence and faith as opposed to swagger.
Dave Phillips - Rise
At first, Rise comes across as a forceful 'death industrial' opus in the way its portentous wails and whines ride spare, dramatic drums and ominous bass pulses, at times reminding of the work of Nordvargr's Mz.412 or Thomas Ekelund's Trepaneringsritualen. But instead of his sound-making being galvanised by occult practices, Dave Phillips has a more forward-thinking, altruistic motive.
I am more familiar with Phillips singular field recordings, like 2015's Songs of a Dying Species or the recent South Africa Recordings, whose exquisite attention to detail somehow manages the rare feat of highlighting nature's balance of beauty and brutality - both human and animal - as opposed to indulging the listener in a bucolic comfort blanket.
Rise incorporates animal cries and buzzing flies into its blackened cacophony to remind us of the accelerating cycles of life and death caused by the Western world. It is a rousing call to action that the extensive sleeve notes make explicit: "...to leave the religious, materialist and supremacist phases behind us..."
Although a sequence of seven tracks, Rise plays like a single, ponderous piece, like a heads-down crawl towards an inevitable decline. Its menacing, sensational setting of nature's cries amidst doomy drones and industrial detritus; combined with its environmentalist stance, turn the dark dramatics unnervingly into an all-too-vivid documentary soundtrack, giving the listener plenty to think about.
Olivia Block – Dissolution
Dissolution is the latest electroacoustic composition from Chicago-based media artist and composer Olivia Block. Her work has field recordings at its heart and is presented within video art and multimedia installation contexts as much as audio releases. As such, it tends to promote a sense of a cinematic narrative.
For Dissolution Block weaves an intricate tapestry of sound from telecommunications sources. Slivers of voice transmissions are spun across thin, spidery tones and billowed by lo-end rumbles as if to suggest a vulnerability within the digital age. Indeed, at one point during both pieces presented here, the busying threads dramatically drop away, leaving a void in its wake. The sudden absence of the preceding busy voices, which were easy to imagine as coming from some sort of mission control, initially suggests the action of an astronaut becoming untethered on a spacewalk, their life suddenly threatened as they float unsupported, adrift in space.
But to impose a visual narrative on Block's audiorama is to over-simplify what is at stake and to deny its essence. In the accompanying notes Block refers to Dissolution as a "reflection upon human 'webs of significance'", formed by "electronic communications and recording technologies". By combining human voices, more often untranscribable, with the noises of the machines carrying them, Dissolution seems to demonstrate how these 'webs' of exchanged language, or languages, leak a non-lingual sound of its own. Then, like missing the smell of pollution, the absence of these sounds represents a paradoxical disconnect: an absence that we both yearn for and enjoy and yet stubbornly resist. In this way Dissolution is less a 'movie-for-the-ears' and more a 'music-for-the-mind'.
Elodie – La Porte Ouverte
Tim Van Luijk and Andrew Chalk have been collaborating as Elodie for around six years now, their wind, stringed and analog-synthesised sound pools are occasionally augmented by the clarinet of Jean-Noël Rebilly and piano of Tom James Scott. La Porte Ouverte, their eighth album, sees them as a trio with Scott but not Rebilly. But whatever the configuration, their mode is always rapt and fragile, as if the players regard each note as a priceless jewel whose beauty can only be fully conveyed when held up to the light at highly-specific angles.
Such practice endows their spare, sparkling music with an, at times, almost unbearable richness that brasher or busier styles could never contain; a savour so refined that superlative descriptions start to seem crass. Consequently, it is a music that is most effective in relatively small doses, exemplified by La Porte Ouverte’s 28 minute duration.
Gently swelling synth tones, sometimes like the bitter sweet timbres from the second side of Bowie’s Low, are lightly dusted by Scott’s piano motes that remind of Eno’s ...Airports, but their highly melodic, yet never-resolving, interplay remains unique. Along with an elusive array of acoustic pluckery, flutey breaths and bell-like chimes Elodie create an illusion of a nearby Narnia. Indeed, the open door of its title allied with its beguiling sounds position the album as a hidden portal. But the fantasy world that lays beyond its threshold, so affectionately described by Elodie’s coruscating tones and shimmering textures, remains indistinct and undefined like residues of dreams or the more elusive memories of childhood - a wistful sense of something magical being perhaps real yet out of reach.
Mira Calix – Portal
Sometimes an album feels like an exhibition, its tracks less a linear timeline and more like a gallery space you walk through negotiating the qualities on display. Mira Calix provides a particularly engrossing example of this, releasing a selection of her recent commissions via a virtual gallery of sorts.
As it happens, one of the pieces was formally exhibited in the National Portrait Gallery - 'I Desire No Commendation' uses a recording of English artist Sarah Lucas narrating a letter Catherine Parr sent to her husband Henry VIII. Here, Lucas' dulcet tones are transformed into rippling layers, fragmented and blended with sparkling electronics, as if to suspend in time Parr's rebuttal of the philandering monarch's praises.
Two of the pieces were originally composed to accompany dance pieces, although have enough movement and magic to work without a visual accompaniment. 'Of Line' saw two members of London's Rambert Dance Company perform with a pair of mechanical tables created by Polish artist Goshka Macuga. Apparently, Calix played in the key of Macuga's machinery to merge with the live sounds of their movements, which here are situated amidst a delectable creaking, as slight spindles of electronics and lonely guitar chimes curiously move through a sinister space. Meanwhile, 'Metamorphosis I', conceived for the soundtrack to a video of ballerina Eve Grinsztajn, has cellist Oliver Coates and violinist Daniel Pioro provide layers of richly melodic pizzicato strings in an excited stepper that simultaneously feels old and new, while soaring and swelling with emotion.
Although the five tracks currently in Calix’ Portal are only available to download individually, together they exhibit such a cohesive relationship that they could be taken together as her first album since 2008's Elephant in the Room all the while showcasing the diverse multi-disciplinary nature of her work.
NYZ – DRNH
2016 saw a sudden spurt of releases from David Burraston, the electronic composer from New South Wales more often known as Noyzelab, or, more succinctly, NYZ. Curiously they all arrived on UK-based cassette labels (Meds, Cassette Club and Feral Tapes), including DRNH on new Bristol-based label Gamma Mine, his final instalment of the year.
They showcase Burraston's deeply studied approach whose often crazy-sounding results can be informed by scientific experiments as much as artistic ones, like the processes he designed to compose generative music using cellular automata. Drawing on an intimate knowledge of sound synthesis, Burraston would seem to be your archetypal mad scientist, so immersed in his studies as to seem wildly eccentric to any casual observer.
As demonstrated across his 2016 releases, his sound retains a tinge of braindance, a soupcon of minimalism, a big, warm embrace of noise (in all its parameters) and an abundance of confounding, convivial waves that travel a full spectrum from meditative to exuberant.
The C-90 that is DRNH is no exception. Its first side is filled with codified track names that read like labels on test-tubes - 'FM80Pcellular' or 'NYZ-1SHPRmono - leaving the layman to imagine Burraston in a lab filled with wires, patchboards and wave displays, measuring and modifying, note-taking as opposed to note-making.
The first 45 minutes take us along acidic passages, past simmering assays of static and through curvy, sonic diffractions - all inventive and addictive accumulations of electronic sound. Then spread across the second side the title track covers us like a ferrous blanket. At first it tricks the listener into thinking it’s the sound of unrecorded tape, with perhaps residues of the flip side quietly poking through due to a misaligned head. But it stubbornly sticks around to impose immersion instead of inquisition as you realise quietly undulating electronic textures are at play. They slowly sign-off another diverting take on modular signals, bathing its listeners in its idling Alpha waves.
Daniel Menche – Sleeper
This latest collection in a long series of artfully-executed experiments in sound from Portland's Daniel Menche is designed to be a soundtrack to the "subtle abstract films" formed by the "strange sparkles of light" that play while our eyes are shut. But while closed eyes may help one focus on Sleeper's studious sounds, to drop-off while playing this behemoth of an album would not be advised, and may prove difficult in any case as this is no soporific balm.
This is not to say Sleeper's twelve tracks are invasive or startling like the power electronics Menche made in the early nineties, nor to say they lack a kind of hypnotic charm. But they do bear a monstrous and ominous energy filled with delirious details that a sleeping state could ignore.
Some pieces suggest a deconstructed lullaby in the way their thick, organ-like tones move like a pendulum over a purring bass note, before they mutate with hair-raising harmonics that bristle up and through each other. Whereas others, like ‘Sleep VII’ or ‘Sleep XI’ form mesmeric crystal spheres of sound orbited by sub-bass satellites. Either way, these epic length pieces come across like modern ragas. As with similar manoeuvres by the likes of Skullflower or Sunn O))), Menche seems to take this ancient form of Indian classical music and apply modern noise-making techniques to build monolithic sound structures with entrancing properties.
With its three-hour duration Sleeper doesn't feel like it should be taken in one sitting, instead I would prescribe just one or two a night, and taken before bed.
Tracklist for the Rum Music March 2017 mix
00:00-00:20 Intro (includes an excerpt from ‘Music of the Spheres’ - Johanna Beyer / 1938)
00:16-06:56 Breathe the Snake (excerpt) – Unicazürn (from Transpandorem /Touch 2017)
05:32-12:22 The Serpent of Night (Blood Moon Lilith) (excerpt) – Uncertain(from Dark Night of the Soul (The Pile of Bodies) / self-released 2016)
11:16-17:24 Rise (excerpt) – Dave Phillips (from Rise / iDEAL 2017)
17:04-28:04 Dissolution B (excerpt) – Olivia Block (from Dissolution / Glistening Examples 2016)
27:50-29:48 Par La Main – Elodie (from La Porte Ouverte / Faraway Press 2017)
29:48-32:50 metamorphosis I – Mira Calix (from Portal / Bleep 2017)
32:44-39:20 NYZ_Z-DSP+NUMBERZ-DRN1– NYZ (from DRNH / Gamma Mine 2016)
38:52-44:56 Sleeper - IX (excerpt) – Daniel Menche (from Sleeper / SIGE Records 2016)
44:40-44:58 Outro (includes an excerpt from ‘Music of the Spheres’ - Johanna Beyer / 1938)