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Album Of The Week

Everything But Emptiness: Bucked Up Space By Nik Colk Void
Darran Anderson , April 7th, 2022 08:49

After a string of releases with Factory Floor and Carter Tutti Void, Nik Colk Void’s debut solo album conjures a world all of its own, finds Darran Anderson

In the winter of 1954, Edgard Varèse premiered his Déserts composition at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris. It was not quite successful enough to be greeted with a full-blown riot but it was a close-run thing, with the audience yelling insults throughout and booing loudly after the finale, unintentionally adding to the performance (you can listen to the live recording on YouTube Edgar Varèse - Déserts (World Premiere, 1954) - YouTube). Placing the experimental work next to a Mozart overture and a Tchaikovsky symphony on the programme only amplified the negative reaction.

The problem was the challenging nature of the music, particularly sections where the composer played pre-recorded sounds on electronic tape. It didn’t matter that it was an atmospheric cinematic piece that still utilised an orchestra. To hysterical objectors in the crowd, it was a step too far, an insult to those long used to being comforted and moved by the warmth of woodwind and strings. What it seemed to represent was the victory of the machine over beauty and sensitivity. It was inhuman and inhumane, a step towards some dystopian age where the only music would be the metronome, the piston, the drill and the drone.

Looking back, it's difficult to appreciate what the fuss was about. There’s something quite charming and quaint about the naivety on both sides, even if composers were risking life and limb at times. Varèse must have known, given the climate, that his work would prove controversial, while perhaps underestimating the venom. It could be argued though that the spirit of his piece was very much in keeping with the post-war Existentialism of the time. The Déserts he envisaged were not just geographical but philosophical and metaphysical, “All those that people traverse or may traverse: physical deserts, on the earth, in the sea, in the sky, of sand, of snow, of interstellar spaces or of great cities, but also those of the human spirit, of that distant inner space no telescope can reach, where one is alone.”

His diagnosis of the contemporary condition was wilfully misinterpreted as an endorsement. It didn’t matter that Varèse was encapsulating the collective ennui, to borrow the language of the time, that modernity had already wrought. Instead, his work was treated as an act of vandalism, as if he had stripped away some bucolic idyll and replaced it with a landscape of concrete and steel, where the only things that bloomed were loudspeakers. The crowd shot the messenger to avoid the uncomfortable truth that we were already in the world he was soundtracking.

If such battles seem archaic now, the false dichotomy they instituted prevailed for decades, namely that electronic music was cold and inhuman compared to ‘organic’ music. The desert of Varèse has been updated to an endless Tron-like space of vectors, where nothing of real sustenance can grow. Somewhere we can occasionally escape to but never inhabit.

The language and imagery around electronic music has long reflected its apparently inhospitable nature. It is a world of industrial machinery, glacial soundscapes and “Wir fahr'n fahr'n fahr'n auf der Autobahn”, black holes and glitches, uncanny valley and hikikomori. Of course, there’s nothing necessarily inhuman about coldness. A cursory look at the past 150 years and the death toll therein might relieve us of the wishful thinking that we are innately warm empathetic creatures. If electronics are cold, well… so are we.

The assumption of cold-blooded frigidity however misses all the emotional variety that electronics offer – to only use (relatively) mainstream examples, there’s the starry-eyed eeriness of Delia Derbyshire’s Dr Who theme tune, the interstellar awe of Tangerine Dream’s Phaedra (an unlikely Top 20 hit in 1974), the tender archness of Laurie Anderson’s Big Science, the under-acknowledged sadness and humour in Kraftwerk, entire ecosystems in Eno and co, the fun/menace/enigma of anything from the early Sheffield years of Warp Records and so on. In the age of the corporate algorithm, it’s increasingly obvious we were wary of the wrong robots. Compare the ‘coldness’ of a track like Aphex Twin’s ‘#3 (Rhubarb)’ or Boards of Canada’s ‘Dayvan Cowboy’ to any of the unctuous committee-written astroturfed anthems that have emerged from ‘organic’ music in recent decades. 808s and Moogs may have their limitations but they do not lie.

Regardless, we have lived for several generations now with electronic music of innumerable variations; it’s effectively another form of archaic modernism with its earliest pioneers long dead (many, like Varèse, before they were able to fully explore and realise the potential of what they had initiated). It has soundtracked our most intense and intimate experiences, permeating life beyond headphones and dancefloors, winding itself round the DNA of our lives. If its ability to shock or innovate has lessened, it’s only because its influence is everywhere. Perhaps the idea that it was ever unnatural was always as questionable as a string quartet being natural. The important thing is the music, the art that all others aspire to as Walter Pater put it, whatever manmade tools get us there. And if the technologies of television, train travel, computer games, etc., have acquired a patina, an aura, a romance, then so too has electronic music.

This feeling permeates Nik Colk Void’s debut solo album Bucked Up Space. It is full of echoes of the past just as much as it seeks to establish, like the greatest dance music, a bridgehead in the future. One of the strengths of Factory Floor (the group Void fronts, alongside Gabriel Gurnsey), especially live, is that they appear full of surprises, improvisations and playfulness while also creating music that is intense and immersive enough to lose yourself in. Bucked Up Space strikes a similar balance, with even more focus on electronics.

Void has said she was nervous creating the album alone given she usually collaborates with others. Yet, for all her meticulous attention and mastery here, it feels like a collaboration – or rather, there’s a sense of responsivity with the tools at her disposal. One of Void’s primary influences, Glenn Branca once said dismissively of electronic music that “the real composer is the guy who invented the instrument” (by the same logic Adolph Rickenbacker is responsible for everything Branca played). But the experimental No Wave composer had a point in a roundabout way. There is a kind of human-machine dialogue involved in creating electronic music, or even a sense of sculpting in real-time the loops, beats and oscillations that have been let loose.

There’s a feeling in Bucked Up Space of pushing close to the edge, of risking going out of sync or letting the music collapse or decay, a tension that becomes at times exhilarating, as if Void is somehow constructing the mountain she is slaloming down. What unites the variation throughout the record, aside from Void’s idiosyncrasies, is a feeling of world-building and an attendant sense of exploration, as if the creator is not entirely sure where it is all going. It gives the album the sensation of a live improvisation, however intentional it actually is, and it makes for a thrilling listen, full of surprises, ingenuity and left turns, as you’d expect of a member of Carter Tutti Void.

The opening track, ‘Interruption is Good’, exemplifies what’s best about Bucked Up Space. It’s energetic and enveloping. It feels like it’s pushing forward but it’s nostalgic too, in a transportive rather than conservative sense, with skittering beats and trance-like patterns over a pulse that feels like it’s travelling through the nocturnal tunnels of a basement club. It sounds like something that was experienced once and might be again. It sounds, after years of lockdown, like a triumph. ‘Demna’ and ‘FlatTime’ are similarly propulsive, menacing and jubilant in equal measure. They feel like lost industrial dance tracks from thirty years ago – or the world to come.

‘Big Breather’ marks a departure into more abrasive territory with stuttering beats echoing and pausing, falling over each other before resolving, disharmony then synchronisation. This tension of almost disintegrating at any moment and the confidence required to pull it off carries the listener along. With its corrosive noise over a languid beat, the final track ‘Oversized’ also has this tension, teetering on the brink (in a way that calls to mind Void’s ingenious built-to-degrade record Gold E). There is a notable electrical charge here that comes with combining supposed opposites – construction and vandalism, ad-libbing and precision, the mechanical and the sensual.

There are some anomalies on the record for sure. ‘Tender Supposition’ starts with a Suicide-like buzz and, for all its crackling atmosphere, it seems little more than an interlude. Likewise, ‘Absence Pile Island’. Yet such moments need to be heard in juxtaposition with the songs around them and recognised as breaths or lucid moments that accentuate the music which comes before and after. The absence of vocals is another surprise and when they do arrive, in spliced form in ‘Early Summer’, they are tantalisingly momentary. Yet what might be frustrating about Bucked Up Space is also where its strengths lie, namely in a refusal to be as expected.

Listening to Bucked Up Space, the mind returns again to Varèse, and not just the deserts of his age but our own, which this album both evokes and transcends. It could all come down to a question of resolution. What looks, or sounds, like an empty desert from the sky could be, with an adjustment of focus, wheat fields, burning forests, golden seas or indeed a desert teeming with hidden life up close. Anything and everything but emptiness.