Abhilasha Chebolu and Ishmael Ali – “Many Calmly Ordered Rules of Death” [Lurker Bias, 2020]

Abhilasha Chebolu & Ishmael Ali
Many Calmly Ordered Rules of Death
Lurker Bias, 2020 (LB_142)

https://lurkerbias.bandcamp.com/album/many-calmly-ordered-rules-of-death

Noise as a genre has the power to unsettle and overwhelm, I think, effectively re-contextualizing the listener’s relationship to sound. At its best, the raw canvas of the sound field can paint a new representation of the world that stimulates the ear, and, through differentiation, can even provide a new and radical mode of listening to all the other everyday sounds around us. But too often, in my opinion, the potency of noise is undercut by an artist overindulging in the brutal, relentless side of the genre—and in the dense miasma of its harshness, it can lose its effect. The sounds can wander and get lost in an aimless over-saturation. As a listener, I sometimes find myself less affected by this kind of unrelenting noise, and it slips into the background self-defeatingly despite its confrontational approach; like a white noise machine covering tinnitus.

This is not the case with Abhilasha Chebolu and Ishmael Ali’s 2020 release “Many Calmly Ordered Rules of Death” on Lurker Bias. Here, silence is an operative quality. There is noise, to be sure— familiar and skilled uses of short delays, feedback, white noise, contact-mic scrabble, and electronic buzz—but there is a silence and space between irruptions that gives each iteration its own power and effect. Sources are panned lightly to either side of the stereo field, giving a space and identity to the interplay between the two, defining the territory of its engagement. 

There are no track names, weighing any context heavily onto the title of the release. And the title is apt: there is a calmness and discipline in the ordering of textures that makes the whole more than the sum of its parts. Over the 25 minutes, I sense a tension at play between the human intention of the authors and the inhuman abstraction of the musique concrète-like pure sounds. The quality of intention encourages me to listen into the silence between bursts, listening for the living hand of the artists as they make their decisions for action—and, when these actions occur, to listen into the pure sound in opposition, as primally inhuman, inacoustic, unliving, and absolute.

But importantly, as counterpoint to this abstract palette, the subtle sound of breath underpins the release, halfway between white noise and embodied voice; in a certain way, the release as a whole comes together through an inversion of its own title. As example, about halfway through the second side a brief but clarion voice is heard: “oh, that thing, oh, OK, um…” — a sudden, human clearing in the noise, a playful reification of life behind the ‘death’ that abstraction gestures toward. Deeply expressive. To my ear, there is nothing indulgent here. Many Calmly Ordered Rules of Death is an exceptional context for listening into abstraction through silence.

TVE – “Street Calcium” [Hologram Label, 2019]

TVE
Street Calcium
Hologram Label, 2019
https://hologramlabel.bandcamp.com/album/tve-street-calcium

I love TVE’s oblique nihilism. The sound of nothing, disintegration, incidental sound, and the byproducts of raw mechanisms. A study in negative space. I think their main tool is the reel to reel, likely broken, likely with spliced and degraded tape, shuffling barely along against the head. They have a talent for toeing the line between sense and non-sense, comprehensible sound and sound so warped it’s abstracted from any context. Every now and again, a clearing opens up to reveal the source—a brief 20’s jazz snippet in track 1; clouded voices in track 3; etc.—but is quickly pulled apart again into hiss, burble, and near-silence. I do find it odd that this was released on CD. It feels so germane to magnetic tape that I would think a cassette would be the better medium—but then again, maybe it’s exactly this strange differential between media that wounds me and keeps me coming back.

youtube user ‘nadia’ – “somebody else” by the 1975 but you’re crying in the bathroom of a party [youtube, 2019]

youtube user ‘nadia’
“somebody else” by the 1975 but you’re crying in the bathroom of a party
[uploaded May 23, 2019]

https://youtu.be/lDaFFUov1uE

This is likely old news to everyone, but I only recently discovered the trend of pop songs, “…but you’re crying in the bathroom of a party”. It’s a simple technique: take a pop song, low pass filter it to mimic being in another room, and applying a little reverb to wash out the sound. Some variants include a crowd, some include the door close as the listener enters the bathroom, etc. 

I don’t often listen to pop music (my own failing), but to me this speaks to the essence of pop music. Pop music isn’t there to make some radical claim about the world; it’s there to give voice to a feeling, experience, sentiment. The cynic in me wants to say this is due to marketability, but I don’t think that’s entirely the case; there’s a real value in providing approachable, pleasurable songs that speak to something of the human condition. And I think one important effect of this is to give guideposts to memory and history. I can still recall songs from when I was younger that I associate with a time, a place, and an emotion. When the song comes on, I’m immediately thrown (usually unconsciously, even against my will!) back to that moment. Not just as a distant memory, but in that moment I become that person again; I feel that joy, pain, whatever emotion I associate with the song, as acutely as if I were actually there again.

I think this video, and others in the genre, encapsulates this ephemeral phenomenon, using sadness and melancholy (in addition to nostalgia) as the vessel of the emotional response. To me, it gives voice to something I have a hard time explaining or capturing in words. And although at first blush it seems to indulge in a certain depression, we don’t listen to sad songs to feel sadder—sometimes the opposite. Not that it heals, necessarily, but it forms a solidarity or understanding between the song and the listener. “This song speaks to me”. And I think this solidarity is reflected in the comments of these videos (a screenshot below). There is a common understanding, a common thread through individual and disparate experience. Who hasn’t felt the sting of being spurned, or of making a mistake?

A close friend of mine said this about the video above, and I think it’s too beautiful not to include here:

“No room for interpretation. You are listening to this outside with a cigarette and you’re sad. Great power in that. Weird how our understanding of that space is so unrelated to the song. It’s from where we stood when we listened to it. Outside, alone, having it forced upon you in this semi-safe space. Like a skylight for your heart. …”

screenshot taken May 8, 2021

Francesco Covarino – “Luce / Mantello” [wabi-sabi tapes, 2021]

Francesco Covarino
Luce / Mantello
[wabi-sabi tapes, 2021]

https://wabi-sabi-tapes.bandcamp.com/album/luce-mantello

Field recordings capture a specific time and a place. The sounds of a recording define an entire field of symbols and markers that delineate a precise event within our world. The sound of a particular birdsong native to a region or the city streets in different continents define the specific markers of that location for the listener; we hear the mockingbird, the Citroen, not arbitrary sounds and timbres. And more, we hear the mockingbird flying overhead specifically, the Citroen slowing and passing down the road; we hear each sound as an object and action with causes, effects, contingencies, histories; as a part of the entire complex network of activity within our world.

In Luce / Mantello, Francesco Covarino presents a percussion and field-recording based work on wabi-sabi tapes that is both sparse and complex, engaging the listener in navigating between conceptual layers with minimal tools and playing with our fundamental perception of object, action, and the external world. There is a rawness and immediacy here that bears close and repeated listening.

In the opening track, Luce I, the sound of birdsong and the organic buzz of a rural location outside the artist’s home permeates the stereo field alongside the quiet rustling of metal objects against a hard surface, establishing a disciplined palette within which action takes place. And in these first moments, on a close listen, I found that I was guided into reorienting my mode of engaging with these raw sounds. At first I formed a contrast (even opposition) between the ‘natural’ and organic activity of birdsong and the ‘unnatural’ and artist-imposed percussive elements. I initially was split by this difference between the flow of the natural world and man’s imposition upon it. But as my ear settled into hearing the subtle timbral changes in both, a sort of synthesis between the two sound worlds occurred; a kind of leveling between the two layers, each reduced to their shared and fundamental frequencies, noise, rhythms, and timbres. Between the two disparate sound fields of the natural world and the artist’s percussive hand, a correspondence and counterpoint begins to take shape.

The series of Mantello I and II begins with the close sound of something like footsteps through rough material set against the far-off sound of dogs and the faint call of the mourning dove. The metallic sounds of the first track are contrasted here by a dry snare and floor drum; a deeper, more earthy sound that develops the role of percussive objects while continuing to find subtle correspondences in the field recordings. The scattered, responsive rhythms of the drum mirror the topographies of the field recordings, presenting an accompaniment that draws out and develops detail through patterns of abstracted call and response, and reflexive kinesthetic movements across the drumhead. In the closing piece, Luce II, Covarino returns to the active external world of birdsong; but here, the initial metallic layers are complemented by the floor tom, stick work, and disengaged snare that flowed through the middle pieces, creating an interplay between formal and sonic elements that stimulates imaginative listening into difference, repetition, and variation.

There are no electro-acoustic tricks or special effects here; the percussion is simply and phenomenally recorded with actions taking place across the stereo field such that one can imagine being ‘behind the kit’. But the percussion is situated perfectly against the backdrop of environmental recordings such that it sounds both ‘inside’ the recorded environment and ‘outside’ and in contrast to it. I found that projecting oneself into the sound world of Luce/Mantello is a complicated affair; the dry-recorded percussion does not have added reverberation or the obvious sound profile of a room associated with it, no clues for the listener to situate themselves. The field recordings, on the other hand, situate the listener in a very specific time and place. And this difference between the two roles of sound, to my ear, stimulates a phasing between conceptual layers in the mode of listening. The listener projects themselves simultaneously–and incongruously–into the specific embodied world of the field recording and the spatially alienated world of the percussion. There is a tension between the two; a friction that forces the listener to resolve this incongruence in the activity of listening to the work.

And at its core, for me, this release mediates a fundamental tension between human action and the natural world. By capturing and re-contextualizing the layers of action–in the cosmic scale of the natural environment (birdsong; dogs barking); in the manifestation of humanity’s relation to the world (a car passing; footsteps through gravel or snow; the distant sound of children playing); and in the close, focused, interpretive action of the artist striking a surface, Covarino opens up a moment where we can renegotiate our relationship to the world. The sounds of the everyday enmesh with the sounds of the artist’s movement. Our own footsteps sound like percussion playing patterns on the world.

Luce / Mantello was released on wabi-sabi tapes on January 22, 2021 in an edition of 50. Artwork by Yann Rambaud.

Jürg Frey – “Le poids d’ombre” [INSUB, 2020]

Jürg Frey
Le poids d’ombre
[INSUB, 2020]
https://insub.bandcamp.com/album/j-rg-frey-le-poids-dombre-insub-distances-8-8iva

INSUB is a record label from Geneve, Switzerland which “covers the fields of experimental, electroacoustic, improvised & composed musics.” Their output is incredibly diverse, and varyingly challenging. Purveyors of the good shit. Already having put out some of my favorite records this year, I was caught last night by them nearly unawares in the eleventh hour with a mid-December email update concerning a new Jürg Frey piece.

I believe that all who possess the capacity to be moved by quiet music remember the first time they heard Jürg Frey. Maybe it was on the bus or a busy street, and the headphones you had didn’t quite do the trick. The ambient noise was an absolute shatter of obfuscation, and Jürg’s track a confusing silent span. Maybe it was in the quiet of your home, the lights dim and purple, and you rode the extraordinary waves of his musical quietudes like the sun-warmed wings of a quietly breathing bird. Maybe it was standing next to the pristine sonic canvas of a private studio. The warm acoustic five-ounce-red-wine buzz of a late night museum gig. A concert hall, their creaky chairs.

No matter where it was, I think we remember it because it was a moment of confrontation. Either with the notions you had about sound, silence, composition, narrative, tonality, or simply a moment of confrontation with yourself. Jürg’s music reveals much less than most composers, and the listener’s participation and mere existence, an oft-forgotten levee in the positions of music listening, is more usually an intimate and integral part of the curious relationship between his music and his profound silences, the reality of his space and fictions of distance.

This new piece, “Le poids d’ombre,” is a work led by two experienced improvisers. Anouck Genthon and Pierre-Yves Martel, playing the violin and viola da gamba respectively. It is the eighth and final installment of INSUB’s distances series, a quarter-long run which spoke heavily on the relationship between composer, improviser, and listener in the “new normal” quarantined working world that coronavirus has wrought.

In the piece, the sound produced by the disciplined bowmanship of the two players rests on the precipice of pure “dragging” sounds and a hesitant, gentle harmony. A natural fusing of the physical surface and the following reaction of the strings. The distance between sound and source is so slim that they almost conjoin completely. Plucking sounds, rather than dragging, give bright tones early on, a second light which fades as quickly as the first. The notion of distance is again touched upon here, as the cycle-esque movements of Genthon and Martel’s improvisations move away and bring back in; the brief returns to pure room silence a loving centerpiece for the shared virtual table of the piece.

Moments of accidental harmony pass, planets nearly crashing. A shunt of light shoots across the black silence of space, suddenly from behind the curvature of a star. A slight pastoral element pervades, as tones resemble accordions, harmoniums, electronic sources entirely. Moments of hesitation are so gentle, yet so stern at the same time, and the play between the slight difference in the tonality and responsiveness of the two player’s strings sometimes resembles a song being quietly sung. Sometimes however, the piece feels more as though someone is speaking. 

The voice speaks on the other end of the title, “the shadow weight,” perhaps that which is being “dragged” behind the sounds. A dark cloud that follows us, watches our hands improvising, knows our movements, knows the route we take home. A juxtaposition with the classical “tamed” tones of bowed playing, highlighting perhaps an innate unmusicality within constructed elements.

I switch to the video of the performance at about 16:30 in and finally see the instruments being played by the performers after listening with my eyes closed. The two rooms are so warm, so well lit, so wooden. Separated by the tiniest amount of pixels. Here, the room has no shadows, no black bird, no distance. The world I had constructed in my head now totally changed by a visual element, they themselves lived ones in the theater of the improviser, and both directly birthed by Frey’s composition, itself another untold story. All of these “distances” converge. Here. There, nothing else in those moments. Because we willed them to be. All participating. Gone, like anything that moves and is passed over. Gone, like our living separate lives. 

Gaseous Acolyte / a body without organs / Vomir / [Untitled] – “Untitled Four Way” [Small Worm, 2020]

Gaseous Acolyte / abodywithoutorgans / Vomir / [Untitled]
Untitled Four Way
[Small Worm, 2020]

Small Worm is a small-batch tape label directed by James Shearman, a multi-disciplinary artist based in the United Kingdom, which focuses on “experiments, mishaps, rummaging, field recording, grievous chaotic din, rabble-rousing, wall noise, Styx ferryman whistling tunes, children’s rhymes in dead languages, animal mating calls, number station remixes and anything else.” A heady list but one that certainly speaks to the role Mr. Shearman has accidentally taken as one of harsh noise wall’s most important archivists, mentors, theorists, and practitioners.

November 23rd sees an inaugural batch dispersed from his Small Worm garden in 2020. Mostly swimming in the dirt of obscure, challenging, but surprisingly densely-populated genres like hnw, ambient noise wall, and obsessive expressions of maxi-minimalism, the conundrum Small Worm and countless other devoted net/tape labels often face is an effective way to synthesize these vastly varying areas of interest, intention, study, and sound into consumable servings for the general public. Luckily, with a 4-way split included in this latest bucketful, we have a splendid sample size to do the trick.

Side A begins with a near ten minute piece from Gaseous Acolyte, a mysterious but benevolent side-project courtesy of James himself. The track is mostly static and unmoving, which will satisfy the purists that Shearman’s discography constantly terrorizes, but the breadth of sound within the core of this wall is, perhaps obviously, more subtly shaped and sculpted than the Vomir wall that mirrors it on Side B. Here, the body of the wall is rounded, contained, almost perceivable, spilling over edges – and then seemingly it stretches out or falls forever. It makes me consider the way my lungs have a certain capacity, yet I would not have the first idea of how to measure or quantify it for you here. I bring breath into my body, and within me it is within every part of me I know of, but I can’t speak much more to it than that.

Gaseous Acolyte’s side reads to me like a long book that was gently opened, it’s pages intact and, invariably, beyond or behind us. This is a characteristic of a lot of the wall noise I enjoy. There’s a sensation of open-ended storytelling between the listener and the performer. Flapping lazily in a breeze, the obscured implication of narrative juxtaposes the finality of the sonic product we are often gifted in the genre. A wall. Vomir’s distillation of finality doesn’t seek to juxtapose, however, and fuck all if it inspires someone like me to write at such length about it in the first place. If there’s one thing Vomir’s music seeks to invalidate, it’s intention. Rather than opening a book for us, Vomir hands us torn out pages, and we are to be thankful at that. 

Regardless of ethos, both of the walls are immense. Gaseous at times gives the impression of synthesis, with moments, textures, and tones resembling wind, burning fire, and the gentle rumble of moving earth bringing to mind some massive ash borer many miles away, deep and working. Vomir is suffocating to a similar effect but by more direct means. 15 minutes of gunmetal harsh noise wall. There is the hint of some dynamic source underneath directing the movement of the piece, rattling, submissive to its terrible motion. It comes very close to breaking out of the massive blanket of distortion that is Vomir’s signature, but the brutal violence of the wall ultimately manages to contain it, eventually suffocating it of all movement. 

This totality in the two true wall pieces on the split is beautifully emphasized and also completely transformed with the inclusion of a body without organs’ material, the three pieces which finish Side A. Contrasting beautifully with the relaxing “immersion” wall Gaseous employed, abwoo, from St. John’s, Newfoundland, manages to hold its own in a harsh noise wall release despite being a far more experimental and collage-driven project (and also without organs).

The three tracks here alter the emotional trajectory of the release as a whole, introducing warped space age samples of garbled German public-service-announcements, dial-up tones, and some beautifully subtle drones that barely commit to existing at all, to name a few. The second movement is the highlight of the split, and represents a sort of deconstructed wall approach which gives the tape a much needed sense of urgency and adventurousness. Rather than a plateau of sound, abwoo gives us a roaring river; glitched pulses of massive feedback, oscillating, sharp warnings of sine waves and careening anthemic harsh noise. It’s ultimately relaxing, surprisingly, massaging my ears with a heavy and confident low-end that bounces my headphones dreamily on the surface of the hood I have pulled over my head. It’s like some as-seen-on-tv relaxation device I find in the back aisles of a Bed, Bath, and Beyond. One that has been fucked beyond all belief by the sticky hands of children, corrosive cleaning fluids, and rouge microwave signals. Relaxing, but oddly threatening, like a ball of light that you are terrified to touch for fear of shock or burn.

The final section on the split, “Open Content,” is a contribution from [Untitled], a project courtesy of Richard and Sean Ramirez-Matzus, two names synonymous with decades of legendary, genre-spanning experimental noise releases. Their track opens with some ambient noise wall not too unlike the precedent Gaseous established in the opener. It’s a continuation of the tape’s flirting with some of the more quiet “immersion” walls that are becoming a popular alternative to the “play it fucking loud” status quo of the harsh noise wall scene. It’s still quite distorted though, especially when cranked, and eventually, in classic Ramirez form, industrial source makes its way into frame, complimenting the cold dead pre-amp static that is the foundation with haunting repetitions of wheezing, whining, scraping, and applications of pressure on perhaps a large metal object. All in all, the [Untitled] quarter of this tape is another essential moment, similar to abwoo’s, both being a clever divergence from the rigidity of noise wall that, without it, would otherwise make this tape a more sneakily grueling listen.

Instead, this split is a telling document of what makes Shearman and his curation such an enigmatic force. He manifests a distinct intersection of war-hardened veterans and isolated and fearless experimentalists and summarily injects them with his own unassuming, unpretentious, and rather humanistic approach to wall noise. This tape is successful because it is willed by a genuine sense of discipline, but not afraid to be vulnerable and forego convention. Classic worm. Here’s to many more.

Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and Steve Jansen – “Locations” [That’s Cool Records, 2020]

Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and Steve Jansen
Locations
[That’s Cool Records, 2020]
https://thatscoolrecords.bandcamp.com/album/tcr-055-locations-digital

That’s Cool Records is an independent experimental record label founded in 2011 by Steve Jansen, a jack-of-all-sonic-trades from the southwestern corners of the United States who, after endless befuddled minutes of ham-fisted independent research, is confirmed to be not Steve Jansen of Japan, itself not a country. Locations is the 55th release in the TCR catalog, a collaboration between Jansen and Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, “the man with the bass,” one of Norway’s most prolific and talented expatriates, who on this recording accompanies Jansen’s tape, guitar, and saxophone work with a combination of electric and acoustic basses.

Locations opens in medias res, almost as if Jansen’s manipulation of various frequencies and pseudo-percussive sound sources were readying a room for the duo’s work to reside in (the first of the many diverse moments the record seeks to make tangible the concept of space). Flaten’s bass is gently passive, like he was just playing to pass the time until a chair was offered. Recorded originally in 2012 as a winter norther was approaching a “wooded backyard studio” in Texas Hill County, once the album gets moving and a certain sense of wary intimacy is established, it’s hard not to picture the two crammed so tightly in a small drafty shed that Jansen has to aim his guitar’s neck skyward to physically fit into the recording.

This feeling of closeness, or perhaps more fittingly tightness, manifests a sonic expression early on as the sound of strings, Jansen’s metallic, birdlike, and atonal, Flaten’s more natural and wooden – jerk over and over one another like a slowly falling stack of wiggling iron rods seeking a parallel. It’s claustrophobic for sure, but clanging finally to a silent place on the floor, “Movement and Stasis,” the third track, brings the record to a more morose and dejected space of dark jazz and rudimentary electronic manipulations of sine and static. Here, the record seems to find another “location,” a space akin to the image gracing the cover of the record. Gray, unnerving, perhaps miserable but at the very least definitely considering it, Jansen and Flaten together, as all effective collaborations do, create a curious and engaging palate. Rather than complimenting each other with a sonic aesthetic that would easily blend into a smooth and easily traversable surface, here the players instead seek to challenge the assertion of the other’s technique with differing severities of textures and urgencies to establish a genuine relationship therein. These are not necessarily moments of absolute polarity, but there is a certain bridging that needs to be established in order for the two to compliment each other.

As the record continues, this complementary dichotomy is redefined again and again (the word “and” even going so far as to being an important thematic reoccurrence through the release’s track titling), like the early stages of a romantic partnership; constantly reaffirming the trajectory and tragedy that flows through this record like pale smoke. Musical conventions are less so diluted here than other experimental works of the same milieu. Instead of seeking to reject the personality of one’s instrument for the sake of experimentation, removing oneself from popular tropes and sounds and playing styles, it is always refreshing to hear adventurous guitar that still sounds like guitar. Jansen’s electric playing recalls the eeriness of doom metal deftly without committing either to long-form chord drone or deconstructed riffing. Instead, the free jazz tendencies at the core of this release drive feedback-saturated works like “Sound and Silence,” shifting across the fretboard as if the violent motion of the guitar’s playing were more important than the resonance of the note that was struck.

A shift in “location” is again perceived at about the middle of the record, as “Strength and Sanity (Dedicated to Booker Little)” creeps into view with a decidedly more classical tape music-esque motif repeatedly and solemnly bellowing behind delay-ridden electrical work. Dirge-like and deceptively beautiful, it is one of the stronger moments on the record where a piece feels less like an experimentation than a distillation of focused emotion.

The mournful modus operandi of Locations continues into the record’s second half, as a yawning maw of drones and string bends, vaguely like whale-song, introduces “Before and After,” another piece more concerned with dread and distortion than development, certainly at this point in the record at least. Like the souls of the dead were themselves visiting Texas Hill County, the track further emphasizes the interesting ability the album has to flirt heavily to the “horror-movie-music-in-the-forest didactics” of its sonic elements without committing entirely to an aesthetic or listening space similar to releases in the dark ambient or dungeon noise scenes. These sounds don’t need the somber breath of a midi pipe organ to sound mournful, they don’t need ghoulish samples to sound haunted, and they certainly don’t need reverb to sound atmospheric. This is homegrown horror.

But surprisingly, this record tends to hold off from devolving fully into sonic realms frequented by fans of harsh noise and power electronics that might enjoy this brooding release. Even as moments of distortion and intense feedback are utilized, they are done so in such a well-mannered way that it never comes off as violent, nor even aggressive really, which is all the more sinister. The methods by which Jansen and Flaten seek to dismay and disarm you are instead through the alien quality of their instrumentation and playing styles. Uncertainty abounds as the tangible texture of the plethora of drones peppered throughout the album seemingly attempt to induce a sense of familiarity or precedent, but the foreground, which is more often made up of string-based free improvisation, gives a certain uncanny quality to an otherwise more-on-the-nose dark ambient release.  

“Life and Death” marks a welcome return of Flaten’s acoustic bass, an element that I do wish was much more prevalent on the bulk of the recording. Truth be told, I wonder if my ears are failing me (though I suppose collaborations such as this one might revel in the fact that I’m about to say this), but I can’t quite tell the difference between the qualities of Jansen’s electric guitar and Flaten’s electric bass. To me, it felt like the recording slowly drifted away from the set piece established in the instrumentation of its early moments. Maybe it’s fitting then, that this welcomed revisiting feels like a penultimate and referential “location” for the final act of record. As if Locations operates on a circular track, the exploration and improvisation that makes up the bulk of its runtime feels like a long arch (“spiraling around and into abstract slugs”) back to the free jazz at its bookends. It’s a welcome return, and the idea of “and” once again feels significant.

Here too is some bowed work, from Flaten presumably, a fantastic juxtaposition to the angularity of the fingerplay that makes up the bulk of his contributions, itself at the forefront of the record’s final pieces. Fluttering and moody stringwork is countered by Jansen’s almost strawlike improvisation, an aquatic friction which once again facilitates a wonderful give and take between the two very contrasting aesthetics of the artists.

Finally, we are given the most truly “free jazz” moment of Locations with its final piece, “Witches and Devils,” which is fittingly dedicated to Albert Ayler. A frenzied and panicked finish to an otherwise arguably relaxed record, it almost feels like a perplexing afterthought, but due to the experimental nature of the release, it doesn’t feel too off the cuff. Ultimately, “decisions” like these make Locations feel like more of a shared sketchbook than a singular collaboration, but the unpretentious and slightly hesitant quality of Jansen and Flaten’s playing makes it an engaging albeit chaotic listen. Locations feels apt, as these pieces most successfully exist as differing windows into an otherwise pervading central feeling – one of bloodshot eyes and empty coffee cups, final straws and last words, dead trees and dying worlds.

As the record fades out, I can’t help but think of the approaching winter storm that was mere hours away from pummeling the southern branch of Texas this collaboration was recorded in. A Texas norther is a terrifyingly sudden cold front which is characterized by strong northernly winds and often, a black sky that punishes otherwise unsuspecting southernly placed locales like a frozen hammer. As the music fades out, intention or not, composition or not, what remains here is this black sky – the long blanket of anxiety that courses through the experimentation – the cold, cold wind. For a record concerned with “location,” this representation of its surroundings is its greatest artistic achievement.

Akiyama / Nakamura / Sugimoto / Wastell – “Foldings” [Confront Recordings, 2020]

Akiyama / Nakamura / Sugimoto / Wastell
Foldings
[Confront Recordings, 2020]
https://confrontrecordings.bandcamp.com/album/foldings

Foldings, released last month on London’s fearless Confront Recordings (est. 1996), is the final product of a now nearly two decade old collaboration between four of experimental music’s most devoted vanguards of musical silence and lowercase sound art. Tetuzi Akiyama, Toshimaru Nakamura, Taku Sugimoto, each master practitioners from unique corners of Japan’s experimental onkyo scene, here join English multi-instrumentalist Mark Wastell in this hour-long journey into the depths of reductionism and ultra-quiet electroacoustics. 

On this two-part opus, Akiyama, more normally a guitarist, is equipped instead with an air duster and placed promptly behind a turntable. Nakamura, the grandmaster of the no-input mixing board, graces this recording with it in flawless form. Sugimoto, one of my personal favorites, gives a masterclass in instrumental deconstruction and sonic chameleon. Finally, Wastell, equipped with a violoncello, amplifier, and contact microphones, time and time again throughout this release ties the proverbial string around an ocean of sonic whispers, brushings, glances, and glides with the at times forceful physical nature of his contributions. Akiyama and Nakamura provide sharp porcelain sine waves and refractments of static and buzz, beautiful and barely there, sculpting the longevity of silence and flying dizzyingly overhead to accompany the earthly pursuits of Sugimoto and Wastell’s hands-on acoustic manipulations and tactile contact-based improvisations. The two are never at odds with one another however, as each mysterious mirror adds a unique shade of gray to this most overcast oeuvre.

Foldings is best contextualized as a success when we first establish “silence” to be the tangible ground zero of sound. That sounds easy when you read it quickly, but in reality, each of these artists, myself included, could probably debate for hours on what constitutes absence and what instead could be characterized as emphasis. In a human way rather than a musical way however, I’d like to establish silence as an important threshold through which we pass in any space or span of time, regardless of it being unwillfully part of a recording or listening experience. Even in the chaotic din of a city, even as I clack and click to type these words, when my fingers finally stop, there is no skip between the sound and the silence. There is no buffering, no turning wheel. It was there waiting for me. It was always there, I was just obscuring it; and when I hit play on this record’s first track, titled “First Fold”, I am not interrupting silence, I am joining it. I am “folding” the record into silence, into a world that transcends tracks and turntables, a world that has reached far before our lives, and moves far beyond this hour of playtime. Foldings exists somewhere within this immense and immortal wingspan.

This fascination with silence, with the “in-between;” this celebration of the minute, the rejection of ego and the embracing of cosmic storytelling; this “tuning in” with the world around you — these are not just the sonic qualities that make up this record and countless others made by outsiders, visionaries, and academics in the experimental world for the last near century. They are important emotional and intellectual considerations to be made by the listener, appropriate and essential to understanding or even, god help you, enjoying music from schools of discipline such as lowercase, reductionism, and onkyo. Foldings is such a success because we are given four artists who, through years of practice and work (and in this writer’s opinion, something like blistering fate), are deeply attuned with these empathetic qualities that make experimental expressions such as these successful. Expressions that are begrudgingly humanistic in their explorative qualities, and enjoyable because they recognize our place within larger notions like silence and absence, in the quiet, and through the aspects of their musicianship they will for us to dimly perceive they bring us closer to the threshold of something eternal and perhaps genuinely pure.

A record of pure silence, however, would not be much to write about, would it? Thankfully, throughout Foldings’ 57 odd minutes, our four guides are not dedicating themselves to silence, but are instead dedicated to compromising said purity of it. Often, sounds are indistinguishable as being electronically or acoustically sourced. Often however, the best of which are: Nakamura’s work in the first half is incredibly affecting and sparse, and Wastrell’s wiedling of the piezo in the second is diverse and dynamic. In between much of that, there is the rustling of coat sleeves, creaking chairs, and a quiet so intense that I can cherish the sound of Sugimoto’s fingers moving across the fretboard. I nod as he again commits to no note at all. 

Sounds that seem to be human-made are found to be unreliable, as the sound of sweeping along a table slowly recedes into the uncanny; machine-like motion, dusty washes of static gentle feedback further obfuscate the truth. Each player mimes a marking on the whiteboard and the following sound is negated or negotiated by the group as a whole. There is a gentle flow between sounds sent for the air, which tend to have a more electronic or synthesized character, and sounds left for the ground which wonderfully plant the performance’s feet in the physical space (Offsite, Yoyogi, Tokyo, on January 19th, 2002) and reminds the listener how astounding it is that this is a recording of a live improvisation and not a carefully orchestrated piece. Company is exchanged for closed eyes, as I picture the movements of the artists in the room, walking to and fro as the sound of a case being opened, the sound of a switch being flipped, the sound of a speaker going quiet, breath itself, folds into the silence around me and reminds me where I’m not. 

Foldings reminds me, as I think all good quiet music does, of how little of the world I have seen, how little I will see, and how important it is to interact with the small part of the world you do experience in as genuine and open a way as you can; to fold into your world. While Foldings is disciplined listening, it is not without its rewards, and a reserved sense of calmness and beauty is perhaps thanks to the sympatico mined from four masters meshing to form something cosmic and organic and spiritually significant. While it is at times prodding, searching, and sometimes brooding, Foldings is ultimately celebratory, a collage of the final remnants of sounds left over from the universe, not swept up and carelessly tossed away, but placed in our pockets, joined like a rosary for us to crease, knead, and fold forever.

Daphne X – “Água Viva” [tsss tapes, 2020]

Daphne X
Água Viva
[tsss tapes, 2020]
https://tssstapes.bandcamp.com/album/gua-viva

tsss tapes is a small cassette tape label based in Perugia, Italy. Founded just over a year ago, tsss curates a strain of music that is, in their own words, “Quiet and weird and free.” Last month saw the release of two works to their catalog, Daphne X’s Água Viva and Philip Sulidae’s Stien. Both are of the esoteric sound art milieu, with Daphne utilizing water-based field recordings sourced from the Montseny region in Spain, and Sulidae instead approaching his Hobart, Australia-based soundscapes from a place of found sound/junk percussion improvisation.

Água Viva, which this review will focus on, opens to a vast and barren region where an almost imperceivable drone gives spectral character to an otherwise initially featureless environment. Daphne’s cascade of near microsounds, water-drippings cited in the notes as reacting to surfaces of “polyester, metal, and skin,” lull the listener into a gentle but ever-shifting space of open air, perhaps stone, but most importantly, falling water. An expansive environment is thus created from minute elements of said environment; it makes for quintessential by-the-book lowercase listening. My bread and butter…

These drips, interrupted by almost recognizable material surfaces (I myself wonder if Daphne simply held their binaural microphones up to their coat), feel warm, round, and dulled, as if they were landing on the roof of a makeshift shelter the listener is huddled in. Comforting but dynamic listening – cautious, but safe, for now; a sleep approaches that you don’t want to fall entirely into, for fear of losing this momentary sense of calm. Luckily for Daphne, and the listener, this static comfort is not the tape’s one trick.

Soon, animal sounds begin to lend company to an initially isolated listen; birds, a faraway dog. A small pail is pushed out from the shelter. The sounds of the falling water now echo with a half-hearted metallic reverberation throughout track two, and this sort of improvised drum disguise/technique is expanded upon as the tape progresses throughout the rest of its short run time. The titles of the tracklist, “First the Thirst,” “First the Mouth,” and “First Both,” interestingly seem to mirror this expansion, as their individuality as separate tracks is each negated by their being the “First” of something, reliant on each other though clearly differential.

And thus, more musical percussive elements are added to the rain and sourced from the rain (the true sonic “first,” if you will), until the tape, by the end, begins to sound sort of like a malfunctioning downtempo release rather than environmental recordings. Daphne’s flowing source material, cold, bubbling, like water caught near the surface of a half-frozen lake, pairs beautifully with the space they finally arrive at within the last track, titled “Now Either,” a culmination of Daphne’s clever track titles as well as a reflection of the evolution of the source material. Naturalness, caricatured by the rain, is joined seamlessly with a more experimental electronic palette, finally followed by a rather alert field recording of possibly a supermarket or other large public space, the “now.” Ultimately, the listener is removed from their initially secluded vantage point, their natural, “first” state, and brought back to some sort of version of civilization as a sort of transplant, similar to the way the rain constantly evolves from source to a place of unnaturalness.

Perhaps Daphne is offering a commentary on the nature of manufacturing here. Even the source material is not entirely nature-based. Remember, these are not just rain sounds, they are the sounds of rain’s audible reactions to man-made objects and surfaces.  So, how do we experience naturally occurring phenomena? Do we even have a context for it that is entirely removed from our own manufactured viewpoint? Can I feel it without my clothes on at all? Where are my sunglasses…

What is more significant, the visceral, animalistic drive of thirst, or the fact that my mouth is that which is thirsty? Me, me, me. Is the existence of nature more important than our presence in it? Did earth really throw this great big party just for us? And does the rain fall just for me, or just for Daphne, or…does it just fall?

I don’t have answers for these yet, but I do know we look forward to more from tsss tapes, always. In the meantime, you can listen to Philip Sulidae’s equally fascinating work here.

Cristián Alvear and d’incise – “Bow down thine ear, I bring you glad tidings ” [mappa, 2020]

Cristián Alvear & d’incise
Bow down thine ear, I bring you glad tidings
[mappa, 2020]
https://mappa.bandcamp.com/album/bow-down-thine-ear-i-bring-you-glad-tidings

mappa is a small imprint based out of Lucenec, Slovakia that began in 2016 which operates “various approaches to sound derived from phenomenologies of listening… on a thin border between something and nothing.” Their latest release to an already stellar catalog of modern experimental composition is a collaboration between Chilean guitarist Cristián Alvear and Swiss reductionist/sound artist d’incise (Laurent Peter), who also mixed and edited this collection of sounds, Bow down thine ear, I bring you glad tidings.

I happened across this newest offering on release day by pure happenstance, despite my being a casual fan of the label already. I was browsing Bandcamp looking for some hot action when the eerie, vaguely rudimentary psychedelic storybook aesthetic provided for the release by Pilgrim Talk’s label-head Nick Hoffman immediately caught my eye. Still shaking with joy after reading Andy Douglas Day’s magnificent graphic novel Boston Corbett earlier this year, Hoffman’s art direction was a perfect dessert for my otherwise understandably acquired aesthetic taste. Imagine my surprise to glance down at the liner notes to see I had arrived precisely at the ribbon cutting!

Unlike myself, Cristián Alvear is no newcomer. His intensely disciplined guitar work is highly regarded in the international classical scene, with years of wonderful releases and often near-silent compositions inhabiting realms of pure intonation study, environmental field explorations, and, among much else, singular EAI collaborations with other contemporary artists such as the one released here by mappa

Alvear’s often seemingly understated guitar playing, a compositional aesthetic shared by onkyo and musique concrete contemporaries such as Taku Sugimoto and Michael Pisaro (themselves collaborators with d’incise), has much more bite here thanks to Peter’s sonic direction and the deft assimilation of various unspecified idiophones within the landscape. On Side A (“Let the night perish…”), Alvear’s obsessive repetition of esoteric harmonic phrases plods along like some improvised war drum for a global conflict of circus insects, illuminated at the end of passages by the sharp juxtaposed dissonance of d’incise’s glasslike percussive and drone contributions. This side, which arguably begins from a place of warm acoustic familiarity, eventually descends into a sickly and distorted horizon where even the heavily repeated motif begins to translate into more and more alien contexts thanks to Peter’s unique method of synthesis. It’s as if Peter took Alvear’s strings themselves and began to unwind them throughout the movement’s near twenty minutes, turning six tight and taut sound sources into a sort of witches broom by which to sweep the space “Let the night perish…” resides in. It’s an engrossing listen, but it does understandably feel a little less pleasing to the ear as some of Alvear’s more reserved acoustic work. As I often am, I was listening to this release for the first time while fiddling with work, and throughout Side A, it was hard to escape a creeping sense of dread. Mappa had this to say of the recording:

“The static structure of the pieces allows the music to function as a sound sculpture – breaking time constraints in favour of continuous duration and acting in a multi-perspective way. This material does not promise any solution, but strictly accompanies the listener and tries to close itself in the continuous present.”

The very nature of the present is shifted then with Side B, “Who can from joy refrain?”, a softer piece which seems less concerned with adhering to the rigidity of Alvear’s composition and his guitar’s timbre on Side A and more comfortably leans into an almost passive ambient headspace which begins to relieve this prevailing sense dread. Peter’s idiophones still tie the track together with the breathy mirage of vibrations coating the air around Alvear’s pseudo-melodic pluckings. By the end, all evidence of acoustic instrumentation is lost to d’incise’s refraction-obsessed sonic direction. The tape fades out, d’incise’s final contributions oscillate like a drinking bird in water, forever transforming/or transformed by Alvear.

Bow down thine ear, I bring you good tidings is heavily-influenced by the work of Baroque composer Henry Purcell (1659-1695); the tape’s title and the tracklist are pulled directly from pieces of his own writing. In detranslating Purcell’s work, both sonically and textually, Alvear and Peter perhaps seek to create a new method of detachment from the historical and sometimes linear nature of composition. The duo create a space that is entirely dependent on the existence of a form and technique, yet completely removed from the confines of narrative. While these pieces are a distillation of a history, they only truly feel agency by the conscious or unconscious dilution of what has preceded their meeting. That is to say, Bow down…is ultimately dependent on d’incise being dependent on Alvear who were both dependent on Purcell. And how does dependence still then translate to a listener who is attempting to live independently from the sounds themselves, in “the continuous present” as mappa puts it? A curious standoff, indeed.

Ultimately, these are questions for the ages, not for the moment. In this moment, Alvear and Peter offer us two wonderfully strange and sonically unique additions to both of their storied discographies, and mappa continues to be a gold standard for atypical experimental composition. I continue to look forward to work from both artists, within and without mappa.