Location, Dis-location, Conflation: Rum Music By Russell Cuzner

Russell Cuzner reviews the best of this month's experimental and avant garde releases

Like most physical enterprises in this digital, austere age, the cartography department of the Rum Music library has regrettably been downsized. Maps that had once led listeners to specific physical locations where ‘scenes’ of experimentation and novelty once thrived have not needed updating for some years now. While the astronomical department charting the galaxies of collaborations has never been busier, their astrolabes and planispheres identifying new constellations at a rising rate, their Earth-bound colleagues, armed with just longitudes and latitudes, have seen little in the way of localised developments.

Once there was US and Japanese noise; techno from Detroit or Berlin; East Coast minimalism and West Coast psychedelia; UK industrial and German kosmische; or the musique concrète of Paris and the elektronische Musik of Cologne. Each style bore audible signals exclusive to their geographical location. Whereas now the signature sound of a city or country is no more, undoubtedly thanks to the ease with which sound files can orbit the planet, to materialise in an inbox in an instant regardless of whether you’re jamming in Jakarta or Jamaica.

I was reminded of these dislocating developments as I tentatively dipped a lobe into the generous but intimidating compilation audio-MAD for which Spanish sound artist Francsico López invited 19 curators to form an exhibition of "100 audio-artists from Madrid". Across its day-long duration there appears to be all manner of arch audio matter to stimulate the mind, positioning Madrid as a fertile place for diverse sonic sculpture; but, its personal contributions bear nothing in the way of a common language to signify a "sound of Madrid" – they could have come from anywhere. (And, as if to trouble the traditions of music-making even further, the compilation also has recordings of four "performances" by autonomous computer algorithms – music that dislocates human involvement even!)

Of course, much Rum Music remains firmly concerned with place, often through field recording to capture the audible essence of an area, or more psychogeographical methods that prefer to travel through the hidden histories of various locations than stay at home within neighbourly or even national movements. This independence from location, a relatively new era of globally-conflated styles, is reflected in this column’s selection of composers, performers and studios who share no common land, perhaps representing a somewhat utopian, non-tribal mindset. Here, place is replaced by the personal, where music ventures beyond language to be less concerned with "saying something", instead focussing on the profundities of the experience of listening – places we can visit but are impossible to map.

x-Navi:Et – Dead City Voice / Remix Project

(Instant Classic)

Like Spain, Poland has a sizeable population of artists mining the world’s non-melodic matter to dramatic effect. Torùn’s Rafal Iwański released Dead City Voice in 2013 – a parade of elusive loops whose textures wove a bleak, impressionistic tapestry of urban environments. Inspired by the three remixes ending Sudden Infant’s Psychotic Einzelkind that saw Z’ev, Lasse Marhaug and Thurston Moore repurpose Joke Lanz’ harsh rhythms, Iwański scattered his files to sympathetic ears across the globe and presents the returned results here. The remixes often stay closer than expected to the character of the originals, as if passed through a filter to bring out buried nuances as opposed to torn apart to build new statements. Belgium’s Yannick Franck thins and re-blends ‘1 + 1’, stirring the original’s sonorous patina to form a revolving city soup, at times reminding of Non’s more ambient pieces. The decaying call to prayer that haunts ‘Mutagenocidecadentia’ is held underwater by Austria’s Pure (Peter Votava), adding intrusive blips of surveillance technology it becomes a paranoid night walk. Fellow Polish artists Stara Rzeka (who joins Iwański in the groups Kapital and Innercity Ensemble) and Tomek Mirt keep things cold on each of their revisions, the former adding a stubbornly strummed guitar while heightening the original’s rusting march, while the latter blurs then reduces ‘Luna 369 Park’ into deep breathing pulses and shudders. But it is the industrial stalwarts Z’ev and Rapoon whose methods are the least clear but perhaps the most evocative of urban malaise. Rapoon transforms a squeaking gate into intense slices of industrial timpani echoing feverishly, while Z’ev somehow thickens and initially spreads the original’s soaring layers of brassy loops and sirens into a droning hive of insect-like activity to suitably suggest swarms of locusts feasting on an abandoned city.

Post Global Trio – Fluids

(Unknown Tone)

Almost in complete contrast to Dead City Voice‘s international array of civic nightmares, Post Global Trio’s Fluids is a relaxed dream of rural idylls produced by three guys from the same place – Skopje, Macedonia (despite their collective name’s implication). The field recordings of Toni Dimitrov are central to the work, providing a near constant trickle of mountain streams, supplemented by crackling fires, bird song and insect-life. These pastoral cues are romanticised by crystalline synth and laid back guitar tones from Martin Georgievski and born aloft on electronic drifts from Dimitar Dodovski. Fluids’ six trips are somewhat similar, their evocations of floating around in fresh air, over cool-wet-grass bordering flowing waters narrowly misses being crystal shop muzak, although no less hackneyed than the noise of urban dystopias, just less theatrical and without tension. They steer shy of the incense and dream catchers through improvisation – Fluids was apparently recorded live – which traps small obstacles of unpredictability in its otherwise smooth, steady flow.

Black to Comm – Black To Comm


Marc Richter’s latest as Black To Comm is a seriously rewarding sonic puzzle, not through arriving at its answer (as I’m not sure it has one), but through immersion in his surreal collages of sound, uniquely creative yet with hints of ancient and modern musical journeying. The eponymous title suggests this release is definitive and certainly sounds like a marked refinement compared to the Hamburg-based artist’s previous outing for Type – Alphabet 1968 from 2009. As if newly equipped with a more confident, musicianly mood, Richter takes us beyond Alphabet 1968’s .delightful audio anecdotes into an awesome epic. And, like any good film, shows intrigue from the start: the bright, gleaming streaks of organ chords that carry us through the album’s cinematic duration (83 minutes) support a speech on album opener, ‘Human Gidrah’ – "The only difference that can be drawn between the two ends of a tube is based on who is positioned at either end," proclaims an American male voice somewhere between acid guru and evangelical preacher while the radiance of the clustered tones surges with a power that seems hard to contain. This brink of instability theatrically threatens throughout from which other voices occasionally emerge to suggest some kind of narrative. But it is the two long pieces at the centre of Black To Comm that provide the richest reward of tampering with time: ‘Is Nowhere’ throbs for almost twenty minutes like an orchestra populated solely by immense church organs powered by aircraft engines, followed by ‘1975”s metronomic displacements creating increasingly complicated patterns through which reverent wails strike. The former brings the time-bending ragas of La Monte Young to mind while the latter suggests the spiritual hallucinations of Terry Riley’s processes. But this is not a mere showcase of minimalist movements, rich developments born within the drone are joined by a whole parade of difficult-to-identify supporting characters, from what could be devotional prayer, time-stretched and vocodered voices, chants and speeches to refrains from grandiose piano, a bossa drum machine, and bike wheel percussion. Each listen reveals new depths and details within Richter’s triumphant, iridescent, timeless zone.

Jóhann Jóhannsson & BJ Nilsen – I Am Here

(Ash International)

Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s soundtrack to the Stephen Hawking biopic, Theory Of Everything, has been nominated for an Oscar, but it’s predictable, sentimental orchestrations are markedly different from the dark, understated drama he’s formed here in collaboration with the always excellent Swedish sound artist BJ Nilsen. Their soundtrack to a film by Danish director Anders Morgenthaler for the most part combines just two strings (Hildur Gudnadottir on cello and Daniella Strasfogel on violin) with Jóhansson’s piano gilded by Nilsen’s electronics. This reduced ensemble steers the music into intimate contrasts, from portentous, brooding swells and simmering, scraping suspense to introspective lonely and hopeful passages, spare in execution but abundant in emotion. Key to this deeply evocative emphasis is the electronics where strange tensions are created by subtly suspended hums, buzzes and vaporous slices. Exquisitely recorded such that the instruments feel like they’re playing from within you, the various themes, segues and motifs are frustratingly short. While the film, which I’ve not seen, no doubt benefits from the flexibility this affords in providing sonic colours to drape in the background, helping the foreground action unfold, a focussed listen without visuals is left craving for longer passages over which the deliciously dark dramas of the audio alone can evolve.

David Harrow – On Forever Gone


Like Jóhannsson and Nilsen’s I Am Here, the rest of the releases in this Rum round-up seem to embrace limitation as a creative force. Instead of wrestling with the infinite possibilities of the world of sounds they create their own sound worlds by interrogating the limits of a single instrument. Perhaps the most maximal of this minimal approach is On Forever Gone by David Harrow who doesn’t so much limit the range of sounds but the way they’re deployed using a Monome. This simple-seeming interface – just a square grid of unlabelled blinking buttons – was developed in New York in 2006, when its creators announced "this device … doesn’t do anything really…" alluding to its multi-purpose utility. Monomes plug-in to computers whose software is used to establish what purpose the buttons perform, from triggering samples to sound synthesis.

Although it’s not clear precisely how it’s used here, the chosen approach comes as no surprise for Harrow, having genre-skipped his way through many technology-driven styles since the late eighties when he created the ‘proto-techno’ sound of Anne Clark’s brief chart successes. For nineties’ dancefloors he regularly hooked up with Andrew Weatherall, created a hit for Billie Ray Martin (‘Your Loving Arms’ in 1994) and hooked up with Adrian Sherwood’s dub-bound On-U Sound System before trialling live drum & bass excursions in the late nineties/early noughties as James Hardway. Despite all this On Forever Gone is not for dancing, instead it’s a series of moody science fiction set pieces – glassy tones chime then get sucked inwards as if in proximity to a black hole, synth pads float smoothly on a space walk, while unmanned computers glitch as alien auras arrive. There are rhythms, but they’re subtly deployed to suggest movement in the narrative and not the listener. But On Forever Gone’s more involving moments tend to be when the regularity of Monome’s strict grid is harder to picture, when frequent arps and brief beats drop away to reveal a dark void.

Jean D.L. – Early Nights

(Sub Rosa)

This latest release from Belgian musician Jean D.L. for the mighty Sub Rosa label sees the controls afforded to the composer minimised even further. Jean D.L. has worked with many leading lights in the experimental/improv quadrant (such as Zbigniew Karkowski, Jozef Van Wissem, Anla Courtis and Damo Suzuki), but here presents several simple works for solo guitar. A collection of recordings made over the past seven years Early Nights deftly demonstrates the range Jean D.L. can wring out of six amplified strings. Many of the pieces incorporate background noises in the recording environment, like the echoing pendulum shadows of ‘Indoor part 2’s spare notes and the untitled fifth track’s sad, stealthy suspensions. The long reverb trails of these shuffles and scrapes suggest large, dusty spaces, as Jean D.L.’s glowing guitar embers are slowly absorbed into what always sounds like cold, concrete walls. This approach perhaps reveals his improvisatory skills where the environment becomes Jean D.L.’s collaborator to which he sympathetically responds to transform the simplicity of his approach into a rich source of sonic manoeuvres.

Clade – Klavierstücke


Danae Stefanou – [herewith]

(Holotype Editions)

The last two releases this time round focus on the piano as a sound source with results that couldn’t be more different:

Clade took seven days in a San Franciscan studio to explore the sonorities of its piano, organ and keyboard, utilising a hand-picked selection of microphones to capture every detail of each note’s attack, decay, sustain and release. They then spent a further week in Oakland processing and reducing the resultant 12 hours of recordings into the nine works presented here on Klavierstücke. They name it after a famous piano work by the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen but sound nothing like his avant garde notes scattered at discordant angles according to serialist theories. Instead, the comparisons it is more likely to draw are with Music For Airports, Clade’s consonant, pure notes being captured as lovingly as Eno’s revolutionary recording from 1978. But whereas Music For Airports was designed for use in the background, a pacifier even, Clade’s comparatively fuller-sounding Klavierstücke demand close listening and is more likely to inspire a range of emotions in would-be passengers, some of which would seem unsuitable for plane flight. It progresses and turns corners, quests and ponders, from severely haunted modes to genuinely life-affirming melodies like that of the fourth piece.

Also unlike Eno’s snug, comfort blanket ambience, some of Klavierstücke‘s cinematic themes bring in sounds from the piano’s body, its resonant wooden panelling and ribbed strings. Although these knocks and scrapes are largely used in a decorative manner, they are almost always carried along by the comparatively mellifluous tones of a droning organ or layered keys to provide a rewarding, deep, meditative sojourn.

Danae Stefanou’s [herewith], while exploring similar limitations, is an entirely different matter. Stefanou is based in Athens and Thessaloniki where she is an assistant professor teaching 20th Century music history, experimental music, philosophy and aesthetics. But to enjoy [herewith], her debut solo release, you need not be schooled in such academic areas. Beautifully recorded and expertly edited and mastered to place the listener right inside Stefanou’s piano, the eight pieces represent a sensory report of a "tactile exploration" of a single instrument, yet feel more like an autopsy as they tear and saw with all the power of artists such as Russell Haswell or Kevin Drumm. The opening piece is the sound of a TARDIS having an asthma attack – the scraped strings creating phasing streaks of abrasion, firing up adrenaline in a red mist of frantic movements. The third contrasts massively by somehow invoking the wail of an endangered aquatic animal, desperately ascending. Later, track six portrays a monstrously heavy rolling sound, like an unstoppable force on the horizon, while the album ends with the howl of a rusty spring introducing what seems like a hoovering from hell as a ritualistic drone causes feedback and more abrasive scraping before turning into a threatening electrical force. It’s an exhausting but extremely exhilarating and exciting experience made all the more fascinating by its transgressive approach to a singular sound source.

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