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Rum Music

Listening With Uncertainty: Rum Music With Russell Cuzner
Russell Cuzner , March 7th, 2019 08:07

In which, upon its re-opening, we find the Rum Music Library haunted by the playback of an unlocatable recording as staff try to round up 2019’s first batch of sounds from the un-genre-ground, including the latest releases from Black to Comm, Howlround, Annabelle Playe, Andrew Liles, Rudolf, Gaël Segalen, Sion Orgon and Maja Ratkje

For almost two years no sound had been experienced in the Rum Music Library. Its closure in May 2017 saw the auricularly-shaped building fall uncharacteristically silent, as its many listening rooms began to gather dust. Yet, when those first returning staff members peeled back the doors earlier this year to resume their auditioning of unusually textured audio, each could have sworn someone had been there before them as a new composition seemed to be already playing from somewhere within the Library’s many chambers.

The smooth, gushing layers punctuated by kinetic clicks flowing over a low-end undertow was both charming and unnerving. Charming because the confluence of sounds seemed original, meditative and magnetic. Unnerving because no one could find where it was coming from.

As colleagues reinstalled themselves in their workstations and got down to the business of sorting through the latest batch of acquisitions, the remarkability of this initially eerie phenomenon gradually dampened until we all realised we could no longer hear it. Had our phantom phonograph record stopped playing, or had we all got used to its ambience and filtered it out, like the sounds of distant traffic?

The most likely and least stultifying explanation was that we were listening to the sounds of the building itself. Our collectively rested and newly revived listening powers were at their keenest as water coursed anew through dry plumbing while chattering servers booted and backed up rendering artful the accidental sounds of our surroundings.

Whatever it was, it lent us a valuable lesson in listening. While we were all prepared to value sounds that are found, we realised that the fervency with which we listened to the unsourced aura was greater due to its mystery - had we known it was the building our sensitivity would have been sapped. And so, listening with uncertainty is the mode we have adopted in selecting this month’s Rum highlights, letting ourselves be guided more by each sound’s narrative and less by its source.

Black To Comm – Seven Horses For Seven Kings
(Thrill Jockey)

Black To Comm - "Double Happiness in Temporal Decoy" (Official Music Video) from Thrill Jockey Records on Vimeo.

In the four years since Black to Comm’s last, self-titled album, Marc Richter has been operating under a second alias, Jemh Circs, to produce short, anecdotal collages often formed from YouTube samples. Their post-modern flit through anxiety-fuelled amusement arcades of neon synths and lo-res noises is arguably the opposite of Black to Comm’s productions, whose circuitous themes can take a whole album to unwind.

Indeed, Seven Horses For Seven Kings comes across as very much a single epic of 13 ‘chapters’ with several titles alluding to mythology, adding to its sense of an ancient drama leaking into the present. Setting sail from Hades’ ‘Asphodel Mansions’, queasy brass, baroque strings, eldritch organs and kosmische synths get repeatedly subsumed by maelstroms of percussion and noise. Washed up on an alien shore, a Coil-like conjuring of tunes from the detritus of effects open the second act, while polyrhythms emerge from superimposed samples to guide us to the journey’s end.

Afterwards, like leaving a cinema, there is a lingering sense of the telling of a tall tale. As Richter recently revealed to The Quietus: “The narrative is quite important for my albums but it can hardly be translated to text or image - the music itself is the narrative”.

Howlround – The Debatable Lands

The Debatable Lands were where Northernmost England meets Scotland but situated in neither while local clans resisted English and Scottish authorities for over 300 years until their defeat around 1530. Broadcasting from this region in modern day Cumbria, Howlround channels its historic autonomy using two reel-to-reel tape machines to produce sounds that are “entirely at the discretion of the machines (much of them derived from ‘closed-input’ recordings) … in a single take [with] no edits, no overdubs and no additional effects”.

Radiophonic sounds framed by rural scenes often engender a sense of the occult and, with The Debatable Lands, Howlround’s aleatory process reminds of The Stone Tape, Nigel Kneale’s 1972 tale of a residual haunting recorded by a mansion’s stone walls. The results have thick streaks of analogue energies roaming the air, fluttering and pulsing, forming rhythms that palpitate and regurgitate before ultimately crumbling under an unstable tape delay. Like the cairns – burial monuments - that thread through the region, The Debatable Lands feels like unearthly audio monoliths with hidden, ancient properties.

Annabelle Playe – Geyser
(DAC Recordings)

Geyser, the third album from multidisciplinary artist Annabelle Playe, uses the form of nature’s rare hydrothermal explosions to build a dramatic, dystopian, electro-acoustic composition. Presented in two parts, it begins with bursts of static and distant explosions, but a swift progression through smooth, sinuous sonorities into an electric storm doesn’t so much evoke superheated columns of water as it does a modern society on the brink of collapse.

Tastefully monochromatic throughout, Playe’s desktop arsenal alternately segues from abstruse, diffusive phases, reminiscent of GRM’s hardy sonic travellers, to heavy, choppy passages bearing the bleak layers of power electronics. But however dense Geyser gets, it is never muddy: all sounds are rendered with the kind of ultra-sharp sound design Raster-Noton productions exhibit. This helps to give the piece its science-fictional feel of an exploding technology where an artificial intelligence is finally at war with mankind. The second side seems to confirm this with a martial weight mighty enough to destroy cities.

Andrew Liles – The Geometry Of Social Deprivation (self-released)

On paper, Andrew Liles’ latest release bears similarities with the similarly prolific output of James Leyland Kirby’s The Caretaker, where both use antique records of popular song as their sound source. But whereas Kirby created ambient washes that provoked notions of memory and nostalgia, Liles’ soundscapes are more insidiously complex, both in concept and execution.

First of all, the parameters are severely strict and numerologically sensitive: armed with 23 shellac singles from the 1920s, Liles set himself the task of transmogrifying the two sides of each platter into its own 23 minute composition with “No additional instrumentation”.

There is a fascinating rupture between the title’s suggestion of a postcode lottery, and the sounds within. Initially primed to dwell on the real sociological consequences of exclusion, poverty and disaffectedness, amplified by the cover photo of a lone child (a portrait of the artist as a young man perhaps), our attention is then absorbed by unreal dimensions of the hallucinogenic, ‘hall of mirrors’ of stretching, shifting samples. As mournful, narcotised horns float on seas of surface noise, beatific songs hypnotically loop, and Oramic-like electronic worms writhe, each 23 minute excursion is like a window into another dimension, but too dark and delirious to be escapist fantasy or ambient nostalgia.

The accompanying notes prescribe its eight-hour duration to be used “as a functional piece of music… as you go about your daily routine”. But given the quality of the work – like snow, each part of a cohesive body yet uniquely detailed - I would suggest its 23 chapters are taken like a novel and lived with over an extended period of time.

Rudolf – Om Kult: Ritual Practice Of Conscious Dying – Vol. III
(Om Kult)

Rudolf is perhaps best known for transgressive performance art as Runzelstirn & Gurglestøck. Like the Viennese Actionists, his shows were reported to be provocative and violent confrontations of the brutality and pain of life. But with’s Om Kult triptych the focus, while still both visceral and theatrical, seems to have moved on to a preparation for death: the ritual referred to in the title comes from a Tantric Buddhist belief that aims to pave the way to enlightenment without recourse to rebirth.

But the interest here is in the audio. Even back in Runzelstirn & Gurglestøck days, recognised sound as a primary tool in his art, consistently releasing tape collages of his noise-bound performances. Across Om Kult’s three volumes there is a curious substance to the layers of natural field recordings of “forests, creeks and waterfalls, hay stacks and dirt piles, maggots and flies”. Surprisingly subtle sines, ritual drums and chants are often added, casting genuinely mysterious shadows over the natural sounds to arrive at a deeper and darker experience than those often aspired to by black metal or noise releases.

Gaël Segalen – Sofia Says
(Coherent States)

Like the early pioneers of electroacoustic composition, such as Pierre Schaeffer, Herbert Eimert and Daphne Oram, Gaël Segalen has worked in broadcasting, both for radio and film. This seems evident across Sofia Says, which combines both musique concréte and electronics to present a compelling drama.

Born from “augmented/edited improvisations” its complex layers of found and forged sound suggest a form of conquest against the elements that inevitably fails. This notion, perhaps triggered by the title of the album’s centrepieces ‘Mountain East’ and ‘Mountain West’, is borne out through the often-heightened levels of blustering wind, occasional ecstatic vocal treatments followed by collages of radio static like graveyards of dead air.

But Segalen lands her productions right in the middle of music and sound design, where the musical matter either spills through or is encouraged to arise from the shifting noises. Indoor cues such as darkcore rave stabs and industrial rhythms emerge throughout Sofia Says, yet are caught up in an unpredictability of the elements outside. They strike an uneasy balance between conscious and subconscious streams of thought, as if trying to collide the outdoor world with our inner lives.

Sion Orgon – The Black Object (NIFE)

The mysteriousness of the title of Sion Orgon’s latest album is only increased by listening to it. Gone are the psychedelic pop songs that provided occasional respite from the sublime, audio oddities that made up his last release, 2015’s Recognition Journal. Instead, The Black Object’s six tracks stick to a left hand path of cryptic signals and ominous atmospheres where timbre and texture are foregrounded, demoting musical arrangement to a secondary role.

In addition to consistently working with Thighpaulsandra, Orgon often acts as composer and sound designer for dance productions and there is a diffusive choreography across The Black Object, where room is afforded to marvel at the emergent physicality of his complex and majestic synth work. ‘I Used To Be An Outrage’ and ‘The Lizard Is Alert’ initially remind of Parmegiani’s clusters of sound objects, while ‘My Loss Of Void’ and ‘The Groom Of The Stool’ settle down into luxuriant, travelling drones. But, in not neglecting the more mellifluous currents in his sound pools, Orgon’s oblique compositions are quick to grab the attention and seduce the listener.

Maja Ratkje – Sult (Rune Grammofon)

Maja Ratkje originally composed and performed Sult for the Norwegian National Ballet’s production of the same name, based on the proto-modernist novel by Knut Hamsun that follows the daily life of a severely impoverished writer in Oslo in the late 19th Century. Live on stage with the dancers for each night of the run, Ratkje accompanied her extraordinary vocal delivery on a self-devised instrument built around an old, out-of-tune pump organ.

Midway through the stark novel, the writer wanders by an organ grinder and his daughter singing “a mournful song” which, in his malnourished condition, affects him profoundly: “I felt drawn to the notes, dissolved in them, I began to flow out into the air… high over mountains, dancing on in waves over brilliant areas…” And this is as good as any description for the effect Ratkje’s compositions achieve here. Unlike her fiercely experimental voice improvisations, large scale orchestral work or sound art installations, Sult has beguiling folk-like songs touched with a transcendental air. It reflects the starving artist’s hyper-sensitive state that sees him experience not only abject poverty but also heights of joy.

But, Ratkje’s experimental sensibilities clearly run through Sult, seeing her heavily modify her accompanying organ, transforming its repertoire with plastic and metal tubes, guitar strings, resin thread and a wind machine. Like an acoustic form of glitch, the mechanism’s malfunctions, squeaks and rattles are emphasised in the arrangements to lend uncanny, dilapidated rhythms and textures to the affecting, sensitive suite. In doing so Ratkje has produced a rare recording that balances beautiful, uncanny song, rich, acoustic composition and startling originality in equal measure.

Tracklist for the Rum Music Spring 2017 mix

00:00-00:20 Intro (includes an excerpt from ‘Music of the Spheres’ - Johanna Beyer / 1938)
00:16-04:42 The Deseret Alphabet – Black To Comm (from Seven Horses for Seven Kings / Thrill Jockey 2019)
04:41-08:35 The Black Path (excerpt) – Howlround (from The Debatable Lands / Touch 2018)
08:31-12:14 Geyser II (excerpt) – Annabelle Playe (from Geyser / DAC Records 2019)
12:11-17:22 Part 14 (excerpt) – Andrew Liles (from The Geometry of Social Deprivation / self-released 2019)
17:20-19:26 Om Kult Backyard – Rudolf (from Om Kult: Ritual Practice of Conscious Dying – Vol. III / Om Kult 2019)
19:20-22:58 I’ll See You Again (excerpt) – Gaël Segalen (from Sofia Says / Coherent States 2019)
21:40-28:11 The Groom Of The Stool – Sion Orgon (from The Black Object / NIFE 2018)
28:11-32:56 Sjå, Åmioda - og ikke en lyd kom mig fra strupen – Maja Ratkje (from Sult / Rune Grammofon 2019)
32:51-33:10 Outro (includes an excerpt from ‘Music of the Spheres’ - Johanna Beyer / 1938)