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

Daphne X
Água Viva
[tsss tapes, 2020]

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]

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.