Turn And Face The Strange: Rum Music By Russell Cuzner

In this latest set of rum-inations Russell Cuzner hears that music need not exist, while finding it almost everywhere - in the movements between notes to a chorale of insects – including releases by Thomas Koner, Catherine Christer Hennix and Chris Watson. Mix by Russell Cuzner

Change is one of the few things that unites us at the Rum Music Library. Perhaps the only thing. Or, at least, it was. While unanimously regarded as an essential element in the soundworks that sustain us (their changes in contrast, atmosphere, effect and approach are the very threads from which they are wove), institutional change, it would seem, has frayed our tempers.

The rupture is all down to the Library’s recent refurbishment and reorganisation. Although the building that houses us is the same, its exterior has been renovated to better look like a human ear, correcting its original architecture’s less auricle and more generally orificial look (that, unfortunately, only encouraged those comments of an alimentary nature). But, it is the internal reorganisation that has had the most unsettling effect: to match the building’s resemblance to our peripheral auditory system the organisational structure has been drolly changed to reflect the brain’s central one. So where there once were musty rooms drily labelled ‘Acquisitions’ or ‘Collections And Curation’, we now have departments archly named ‘Cochlear Nucleus’ and ‘Temporal Lobe’.

Along with provoking as much mirth as confusion, the move has also resurrected the old and tired argument of whether ‘Music’ is a relevant part of the Library’s name. The detractors quite rightly assert that musical qualities are pretty low down, if not off the list of criteria for inclusion and are now worried that the board’s new structure risks accepting a psychologists’ model of listening based merely on survival instincts, speech and pattern recognition (as opposed to the complex, transformational effects of listening to a Zbigniew Karkowski composition, for example).

Clearly we don’t know what we’re doing! But, then again, neither do psychologists, so we can perhaps console ourselves by noting that such floundering is a rare luxury in an increasingly quantified and codified world. Devoting time to doing something that is neither understood nor explainable, that avoids the coarseness of words yet fires the emotions and the imagination beyond what can usually be anticipated, can only be a change for the better.

Thomas Köner – Tiento de la Luz


Paradoxically, in the fascinating liner notes to his latest release, Thomas Köner goes so far as to assert that “music does not exist”, while delivering arguably his most musical work to date. It is the second in a planned trilogy of albums based on ‘Tiento’, a Baroque music from 15th Century Spain.

Its first instalment, 2014’s Tiento de las Nieves, saw the sound artist transform the even, courtly melodic style into a beautifully barren, frosty display of long, melting piano tones. Tiento de la Luz continues this mining of the rich, reverent qualities found in the attack and decay of sparse notes, but evolves in a more complex way through the addition of a second piano, viola and percussion. The ensemble gives these six new pieces an even more ‘musical’ feel, where the combination of cycling, solemn piano motifs are counterpointed by strings and electronics to form a series of emotionally-rich themes.

Despite working with traditional instruments he regards as “rigid”, Köner’s carefully cultivated notes succeed in both creating a sense of the beautifully bleak landscapes typical of his environmental recordings, while maintaining a glorious sense of harmony somewhere between Eno’s comforting …Airports and Pärt’s God-fearing tintinnabuli.

Meanwhile, the liner notes go on to reveal how Köner regards listening experiences as “impossible to share”, and, instead, finds the resonance of “tone colour” as “the only element that is… able to communicate itself”, giving the love inherently conveyed in a mother’s voice when reading to her child as an example. It is a remarkably purist stance for a composer to take. On this latest release, Köner’s forensic study of sound matter although unobstructed by musical mores is all the better for not entirely disregarding them.

Catherine Christer Hennix – Live at Issue Project Room


Catherine Christer Hennix – Central Palace Music

(Important Records)

Catherine Christer Hennix’ compositions have been called ‘hallucinogenic ecstatic sound environments’ and, on the evidence of these two releases – one new, one archival, it is a much more accurate description than the ‘drone’ or ‘minimal music’ tags more commonly used to describe the profound audio experiences the Stockholm-based artist deals in. They are the product of a rare blend of studied disciplines covering the spiritual, sensual and scientific: in New York in 1970 she studied Hindustani raga under Pandit Pran Nath, explored the immersive effects of extremely sustained pitch ratios with La Monte Young and then went on to become a professor of mathematics and computer science for twenty years.

Live At The Issue Project Room is an exquisite recording of a show from a couple of years’ back as part of New York’s Ultima Festival. The 10-strong ensemble puts raga singers, a brass quartet and live electronics performers together whose pooled, sustained tones stir up a devotional and increasingly hypnotic trip. Seemingly palindromic in shape – each sound type has specific, mirrored positions on the 80 minute course in which to rise to the surface – but for the most part remains deftly confused with their fellow players to encourage heady diffractions in a full-spectrum sound that genuinely monopolises the senses.

The ensemble for Central Palace Music, a recording from an eight-day festival in 1979, is much more minimal, combining the just tones of home-made sine generators with two amplified oboes and a Chinese bamboo ‘mouth organ’. While its journey follows a similar concourse to the new release it produces wildly different results. Although each instrument also gets to have its own passages in which to dance ahead of the others, their extending tones seem to be steadily but gradually moving apart from each other so that by the end the air has been palpably thickened by an almost threatening murmuration of harmonics.

Both releases genuinely inspire awe on a large scale – the kind you might get at the foot of a mountain, or peering down into the deepest crevasse. Hennix consistently produces sound phenomena that feels beyond the scope of something merely man-made, and, as such, left me feeling changed, shaken, but also mentally refreshed.

Various Artists – Scelsi EP

(SN Variations)

Although largely unknown until the eighties, Italian composer Giancinto Scelsi pioneered new compositional techniques throughout the fifties and sixties informed by both post-serial musics and Buddhism, encouraging microtonal transitions to come to the fore. This switch in focus from musical patterns to "pure sound" is a similar realm to that later explored by Hennix, and is celebrated on this diverse, vibrant EP from SN Variations.

The ‘Duo For Violin And Cello’ of its A side was composed by Scelsi in 1965 and here is played, masterfully and tenderly, by Aisha Orazbayeva and Lucy Railton. With only two sound sources (and often just the one note!) Scelsi’s score conjures up brooding waves from scintillating subtleties.

Unpredictably the second side starts with a field recording of insects rather than avant orchestrals. Compressed from a recent installation piece, Chris Watson’s ‘Invertebrate Harmonics’ transposes Scelsi’s instrumentally-invoked ‘pure sound’ into the natural world where a swarm of vibrating insects in Borneo produce an astonishing, almost musical mass of mesmerically shifting microtones.

The disk ends with another Chris Watson recording, but, unusually for him, one that includes both a human and a musical instrument. Based on a traditional Buddhist piece, it has Joe Browning on Japanese flute meditatively returning SN Variations’ Scelsi survey full circle to one of the composer’s original sources of inspiration.

Zach Cooper – The Sentence

(Styles Upon Styles)

The sentence of the title is formed by combining the names of this curious album’s 12 tracks – This Is For Us To Incite Stillness In Our Hearts And Minds. Its sound, at least at first, bears more relation to the way the sentence assembles than its meditative meaning, being collaged from a life’s worth of recordings. In this way, new solos inspired by older collaborations are placed alongside earlier demos and tape experiments.

Cool, jazzy horns largely take the part of narrator leading the listener through otherwise fragmented sonic anecdotes, like on second track ‘Is’ where their luscious, Eastern-sounding fanfare binds the otherwise loose layers of percussive guitar, splashy cymbals and outdoor ambience. Later, a mellifluous clarinet and dramatic cello become two key supporting players in this biopic, where their interplay can seem so sensually intertwined as to be sexual (particularly on ‘Us’ and ‘Hearts’ appropriately enough).

But the main impression The Sentence provides is that given off by the sum of its parts. Cooper is clearly open to all sounds be it orchestral, electronic, soul-funk or found, and looks for juxtapositions like Burroughs did with text cut-ups as on ‘Incite’ whose samples of Saturday morning kids’ TV jump randomly around Moog emanations held together by a spirited solo cymbal. Although not exactly inciting a straightforward stillness, on reflection The Sentence is meditative. Its combination of time-distorting edits, from childhood memories to recent jams, with a seductive musical articulacy gives a strange feeling of observing a whole lifespan measured in years not the 35 minutes it takes the album to run its course, defying time’s stressful punctuality.

Chemiefaserwerk – Blue Eighteen

(Blue Tapes and X-Ray Records)

On this alarming release from Marseille’s Chemiefaserwerk the European traditions of musique concrète are upheld across two sides that deploy loop, phase, splice, reverse and speed change techniques in a radiophonic attack.

As such, there is very little evidence of regard for tonal concerns throughout its half hour journey. Instead, Marseille-based sound artist Christian Schiefner is enthusiastically exploring the very fabric of sound as if performing some kind of health & safety quality check to test its combustibility when subjected to uncommon, sometimes severe treatments.

But unlike many noise-focused endeavours that tend towards a temporal staticity or overload, Chemiefaserwerk creates an eventful performance designed to artfully present a range of unidentifiable sounds whose fluid transformations and abrupt cuts carve a semblance of a narrative. Thanks in part to the image on its cover coupled with its frequent insect-like fluttering the story sounded like a version of War Of The Worlds recontextualised from the perspective of a butterfly – the magnetic manipulations recalling the kind of concrete foley used to emphasise the action of UFO death rays in cult movies from the fifties. Indeed, the tape could have been produced anytime in the last 60 or so years, such is its seeming independence from contemporary styles and technology, an aspect that only enhances its strange appeal.

COH – Music Vol.

(Editions Mego)

Music Vol. plays like an anthology of austere, uneasy adventures performed with the exacting direction of a true auteur. Each sonic event, uniformly electronic but travelling the full spectrum from synthetic to organic, feels individually sculpted then put into sequence frame-by-frame to achieve maximum dramatic resonance out of a minimum of ingredients. It comes together to form a signature sound somewhere between alva.noto’s emotionally-charged pointillism and the wayward, worshipful moon music of Coil – perhaps unsurprising given COH’s Ivan Pavlov has previously recorded for alva.noto’s Raster-Noton and with Coil’s Peter Christopherson in SoiSong.

Jettisoning the rhythms that illuminated Retro-238 and To Beat – his last two outputs on the mighty Editions Mego – here COH explores the ensuing darkness with the sparest of sparks, flickering electronic flames and dimmed searchlights. Soft rhythms and melodies arise surreptitiously out of sonorities both chasm-deep and needle-fine with plenty of space in-between to better contrast with each other. They choreograph dramatic scenes with unnerving clarity like on ‘20,000 Lieues’ where low-end movements suggest a submarine smoothly scanning a vast ocean floor, or the genuinely terrifying ‘Night Over Peak 1079’ whose whistling wind haunts an arctic base camp punctuated by failed radio transmissions, its occupants chillingly absent.

Kate Carr – It Was A Time Of Laboured Metaphors

(Helen Scarsdale Agency)

Last year Kate Carr investigated the sounds of a single, specific place on I Had Myself A Nuclear Spring with a set of recordings from the wetlands that surround a nuclear power complex in Marnay-sur-Seine. Although documenting the relationship between man and the natural world, an aspect often edited out by field recordists, the striking album felt even more concomitant in its approach to describing the place with occasional, subtle embellishments from electronics and guitar helping to add an emotive dimension.

It Was A Time Of Laboured Metaphors switches the emphasis around by giving most room to Carr’s hypnotic, pulsing refrains gilded by found sounds from a range of locations to remark on the emotions of being between states and the ensuing unreality of change. The album most clearly evokes this by largely alternating longer, primarily musical, collages with shorter, straighter environmental recordings. In this way Carr first casts unsettled, drifting meshes of memories on the air with stirring guitar strings, telephonic pulses and waning synth. But then follows by resting to listen in to a single place, such as Andalucia where a herd of goats gather, or simply the church bells spilling in through her bedroom window, their increasingly muted tones suggest a lulling to sleep.

The artist recently moved home from Sydney to Belfast, so it is easy to interpret Laboured Metaphors as a travelogue of sorts. But, if this is the case, it is an emotionally holistic one: Carr’s sound world, at once both vivid and hypnotic, bridges the metaphysical and physical to describe the elusive inner worlds built by leaving firmer external ones.

Himukalt – Conditions Of Acrimony

(Helen Scarsdale Agency)

It makes a refreshing change to have so little context to digest and convey with this debut release from Himukalt. All that is known is that it is the work of Ester Kärkkäinen from Nevada who previously provided photographs for a couple of earlier releases of Helen Scarsdale Agency and has a website filled with grainy xerox images.

And often I feel that is how it should be, leaving the sounds to do what they will, unpolluted by concepts, biographies or preconceptions of intent. On Conditions Of Acrimony they drop the listener into an unsheltered, blackened nest of noise, initially similar to the sort Maurizio Bianchi and MZ.412 have built, but whose sharp production values ensure subtler details remain evident and intriguing.

The materials remain roughly the same throughout – layers of electric engine churn, travelling from the hum of low gears steadily turning over to hi-speed squealing violence, and get intercut with rapid, short fragments of distorted voice, often distressed or commanding. On paper it perhaps doesn’t sound so enticing, but in the hands of Kärkkäinen they’re laid with strict attention to the sounds’ qualities, where textural modulation, rhythmic editing, and theatrical panning bring her most unmusical machines to life. This is best demonstrated on ‘Without Laughter’ whose lo hums and buzzes squirm over and under each other like large deadly snakes mating, the layers forming a slowly squirming and sensuous throb, more Nurse With Wound than Non, as the smooth restlessness eventually falls into a cavernous shaft.

Michael Begg | Human Greed – Let The Cold Stove Sing


Around the time of recording last year’s Hivernant Michael Begg launched Omnempathy Editions to showcase the visual side of his work, largely watercolours and photography, as a body of evidence of “the dialogue of what occurred between the subject and the person”. Said to have been achieved through “applying the same light touch [as watercolours] to the studio”, Hivernant’s spare notes absorbed in washes of orchestral suspensions presumably came together more swiftly than the context-heavy albums Begg more usually releases with casts of collaborators. His new solo album, Let The Cold Stove Sing, bears similar synaesthetics in visual art, but draws from a wider range of styles than Hivernant’s painterly approach.

Photography is represented in the form of field recordings – in addition to the exquisitely refined electronic thermals carrying tender piano and deep strings that are now to be expected of Begg – Cold Stove bears evidence of him wandering his homelands of East Lothian and beyond recording as he goes. ‘Paris Is Closing’ simply presents the clamour of a busy urban road replete with a busker on accordion and an ambulance siren. Bird song takes ‘Leisure In F’’s mysterious choral streaks outdoors where children are playing, while what I’m guessing are growling sea lions invade ‘Made And Unmade In Europe’ making a disturbing, dream-like diversion in an otherwise comforting chamber piece.

The less observational abstractions of modern art are expressed overtly on ‘Francis Bacon: A Room’ – a lecture made unintelligible (and, therefore, bizarre) by hi-pitch tinnitus – and ‘Louise Bourgeoise: A Cell’ whose creaking, sawing and buzzing forms notions of a restless psyche (perhaps designed as a soundtrack to her sculpture that adorns Cold Stove’s cover). Meanwhile, ‘Studies In Space And Density’ does just that, using electronic sound to fire up an intensely satisfying aural illusion.

Cold Stove’s ‘real’ and ‘surreal’ recordings, its nimble stepping through figurative music and abstract sound, paints such rich, rewarding contrasts. The melodramatic light of the more mellifluous pieces sets the more wayward, non-musical passages into strong relief to form an enthralling exhibition.

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