The album Music and Dance (Revenant, 1996) is attributed to two performers: Derek Bailey, who plays guitar, and Min Tanaka, who dances. It is not obvious what—if any—sounds on the record are Tanaka’s. The recordings are murky and take place half in the rain. Nevertheless, Bailey stresses in the liner notes that the album is correctly attributed. There would be no music without Tanaka’s dance, no dance without Bailey’s music. Even if his presence in the music has been largely or wholly mystified, Tanaka is decisive in what we hear.
It is impossible to begin with anything other than death. Two deaths have been placed, as it were, in advance of the piece itself: one, in the painting from Poussin’s later period, which serves as the ‘text’ of the performance. The other is the passing of Bjørgeengen’s wife—for whom the piece is named—just weeks before the date of the performance.
Writing in Japan during the late 1930s and early 1940s, Nakajima Atsushi drew from classical Chinese texts in order to tackle existential questions that he wrestled with personally. Contemplation about such matters weren't in vogue at the time, and understanding this helps to paint the potential loneliness he felt in having these thoughts. In the afterword to The Moon over the Mountain, the first collection of Nakajima's short stories translated to English, Paul McCarthy and Nobuko Ochner note that his contemporaries would approach fiction autobiographically. In attempting to do this, Nakajima found the results unsatisfactory. He was, after all, just a schoolteacher: how could his philosophical musings be wholly conveyed through such a limited lens? One senses that in his utilization of canonical texts—and his rigid faithfulness to them—Nakajima found both a large enough canvas to work with and a solace in assigning his inner turmoils to characters that were familiar to all.
Released in 2012 on Another Timbre, Chantier 1 juxtaposed two studio recordings with five from a construction site tasked with erecting the Philharmonie de Paris. The idea was that Pascal Battus and Bertrand Gauguet would try and recreate the on-site recordings in a "neutral, silent space" by memory. This served as an interesting exercise that ultimately pointed to the richness of the construction site's own sonic identity, especially since the studio tracks were unexpectedly placed at the beginning of the album. In Chantier 2, Gauguet wrote that the chantier had its own autonomy, and that his and the others' presence had little effect on its "life." As such, there was little intent to "musicalize" it; to do so would undermine the detailed sound world already present.
By: Jared Redmond
The dotolim (닻올림) series has been a mainstay of the small but active experimental improvisation scene in Seoul for a good decade. Last Friday’s excellent concert brought together three legends of that local scene, heavy hitters with years of Korea- and internationally-based work behind them: Ryu Hankil, Kevin Parks, and Joe Foster. Ryu Hankil is a household name among experimental music aesthetes in Korea. His large body of work extends from glitchy electro-pop (as early-2000s project Daytripper) to hardware- and object-based free improvisation and digital noise, and he performs perhaps more often in Europe than he does in his home country. Kevin Parks is a composer as well as an improviser, currently teaching music at the Catholic University of Daegu, and Joe Foster, who has been based in Korea for at least 15 years, is well known as a free improviser of music ranging from the very harsh to the very weird (this is meant as a profound compliment).
Their trio improvisation was performed as two sets of about 40 minutes each. Both sets stayed away from harsher ’noise’ territory: although at times the sounds leaned toward the more extreme, that extremity always occurred as the result of the improvisation’s narrative, rather than as a brutality for its own sake. Throughout it all, a studious Ryu at his laptop provided a tasteful backdrop of digital glitches and drones which infrequently even intimated definite rhythm. From within that sonic landscape emerged the processed instrument, object, and hardware sounds of Foster and Parks. At times, the keyclicks of Ryu typing commands became a subtle musical addition unto themselves, his fingers announcing shifts in the underlying digital canvas.
For the first set, Parks spent a lot of time with his electric guitar, carefully working a radically detuned low string to create e-bow drones. Foster took on a decidedly ‘motivic’ approach, using amplified tuning forks and extended techniques on his trumpet periodically, as recurring fragments which created a sense of unity within the stream-of-consciousness flow of sound. In the second set, these motivic impulses found their outlet through Foster’s intermittent striking of claves. Parks complimented the dry and ritualistic sounds with smoother, more atmospheric sounds of his own: amplified and reverberated springs and metal objects which rumbled, creaked, and groaned.
Highlights of the acoustically-generated sounds: Foster’s amplified and processed music box, which when cranked forward or backward yielded either sounds of slow, twisted bells, or foreboding mechanical rattles. And from Parks: ball bearings of various sizes dropped into amplified metal bowls, as great stones into the abyss. In general, the chamber music skills of all three musicians were apparent, although Parks was especially noticeable, his head leaning toward the other performers to carefully sense the right moment to chime in or bow out. In only one moment was the natural flow of the music rather unnaturally stopped and re-started, as if a collective sense of when the improvisation had ‘finished’ had not been equally felt by all three players. But such moments are their own risk and reward in such music: a byproduct of the mental electricity – for the musicians as well as the audience – of never knowing quite what will come next.
Caroline Park's newest album concerns itself with the "tensions that persist: physical frictions, muscles trying, and the body that continues to labor to survive." It's about the act of living, understanding that the many terrors of the everyday demand much of our time and energy. That we continue to press forward: a reminder of the systems that imprison us to such a life, a sign of our continued persistence, and the inevitable rendering of such terrors as quotidian.
By: Lucas Schleicher
1. The Races
2. Parking Lot
4. Thanksgiving Song
5. Birthday Song
8. Coal Train
Note: The CD and LP feature eight tracks while the digital copy combines "Breathing" and "Coal Train" into a single seventh track
Grouper’s first album in four years is eights songs long and clocks in at a hair under 22 minutes. Not just short, it’s a concise and elliptical collection of fragments that lands deeper in abstract territory while trading almost exclusively in the same piano and voice that Ruins did. But there’s no 11 minute conclusion, no disguising melody beneath layers of distortion and texture, just a healthy sustain pedal, vocal multitracking, and the keen application of harmonic color. In the spaces she might normally fill with sound, Liz Harris instead chooses silence. As a result, the lyrics and sounds we get are compressed—layered because they are ambiguous, cut from an emotional or personal background that is implied and always withheld.
Harris’s experimental disposition is clearer on Grid of Points than it has been on any of her previous albums—just don’t mistake the clarity and unembellished manner of her performances for the experiment. Stylistically and instrumentally, there’s a lot here that’s recognizable. The singer-songwriter’s toolbox, on display from Wide through The Man Who Died in His Boat, has long been a staple of the Grouper sound, and Ruins made it clear just how talented she is with a piano in the spotlight. The risk taken on Grid of Points is structural. Songs end unexpectedly and melodies—like the one that closes “Thanksgiving Day”—drift away mid-progression. Moods rise to the surface without precedent, as with the uneasiness of “Birthday Song,” and other ideas come to a halt the moment they encounter an obstacle, an effect you can hear in the repeated chords on “Parking Lot.”
These rough edges are compounded by the effect of time on the album’s shape. Grid of Points establishes a background against which these songs could be understood, but only partly. It’s tempting to picture the Wyoming room where Liz Harris recorded these pieces but there’s not enough information to complete the endeavor. At best, the picture would be a sketch: bare walls, white paint, maybe a window opaque with reflections. The specifics are hazy, even if the usual connotations of major and minor chords are present; melancholy, happiness, and relief simply don’t tell the whole story. The album, then, offers exactly what its title announces: discrete points that sit in unspecified relation to one another. The distances between them, the places where they might have traveled, come into focus even though nothing occupies the emptiness.
Ultimately, it’s absence that defines the record: a sense that what is unfinished can be as good as what is refined and worried over. The music isn’t entirely unscripted, but there’s a feeling that it didn’t turn out as originally planned. Harris’s willingness to allow brevity and innuendo into her music—her acknowledgment that these fragments stand on their own—mimics some of the unrehearsed qualities of improvised music. T. Carl Whitmer, one of many improvising musicians quoted in Derek Bailey’s Improvisation, advised performers not to concern themselves with “finished and complete” pieces, recommending instead that ideas be “kept in a state of flux.” Chipping away at song form, as Harris does, is one method of accomplishing that.
Grid of Points concludes with “Breathing” and “Coal Train,” a pairing that might as well be a single song. The former runs for a minute and a half. The latter, a field recording of a passing train, interrupts it mid-sentence. It’s unlikely such a coupling happened by accident, but the feeling is that these songs should be allowed to speed away in the same manner. The idea that a melody, a song, or an album is ever finished is an illusion anyway, all of them arbitrary stopping places better understood as temporary points on a much longer line.
Note: "prelude" is not available to stream but is present on the full digital album after purchase
The general conceit of salts | adagios will not surprise anyone familiar with Jez Riley French's works. He's once again interested in capturing "audible silence," utilizing his custom contact microphones and geophones here to record the resonances of architectural spaces. The distinguishing element of this record is that he employs orchestras and ensembles, having them play "re-scored" adagios as French gathers the resulting sounds that escape into the building itself. The result is charming: a sensuous experience of architecture by way of music.
Given the context, one would presume that the album's liner notes would indicate the names of those who performed the modified adagios. It doesn't, and French hints at a possible explanation on the Bandcamp page. Recording halls were unwilling to have their names mentioned on previous recordings from the series as this risked tarnishing the highly touted "acoustic accuracy" of these spaces. As such, one may conclude that a listing of performers could spoil these specific locales, and is why their names are absent. Whatever the reason, it has the fortuitous side effect of eliminating the record's human component, directing listeners to the musical phenomena at play in these buildings.
The image of a particular architectural space devoid of any people grants the album a slightly haunting tone. It brings to mind Nikolaus Geyrhalter's Homo Sapiens and Tsai Ming-liang's Goodbye, Dragon Inn. In those films, one is subjected to static shots of abandoned places, forced to consider the humans whose imprints are destined to remain there, untouched. Likewise, the sounding of instrumentation on salts | adagios enters into the space's walls and ground as if to become enclosed in amber, the musical detritus therein waiting to be unearthed. In other words, the performers are unknown, but their impact is felt.
When listening to salts | adagios, one is also likely to recall the films of Heinz Emigholz. In his recent masterwork Parabeton, Emigholz presents image after image of famous Italian structures—the Pantheon, the Baths of Caracalla, Hadrian's Villa—and the works of architect Pier Luigi Nervi. As with the large majority of his filmography, he eschews long takes despite keeping his camera still. The relatively swift succession of images wash over the viewer, allowing one to soak in the architectural work on a sensorial level. Emigholz understands that the best way to create a filmic autobiography is to have people appreciate architecture in its mediality. We may not get a complete understanding of these buildings' utility (made clear by the near-absence of people onscreen), but the emotional heft of a building's curvature, the color of concrete, or the geometric patterns utilized is deeply felt. This exact experience may not technically be what's present on salts | adagios, but the intimacy of these recordings (informed both by its techniques and the resulting sounds) feels comparable.
Ultimately, the reading of salt | adagios as haunting and intimate comes from its source material. The instrumentation, specifically refitted for "durational performances", generates diaphanous drones. These tracks bear a resemblance to similar projects, such as Jacob Kirkegaard's Conversion, but they're also not worlds away from the chilling landscapes of Thomas Köner or the saccharine ambience of artists like Christine Vantzou and Kyle Bobby Dunn. While the music is undeniably pleasant, it's primarily the process behind it that arouses intrigue. That French is still accomplishing such a feat decades into his career is a testament to two things: his fondness and ear for careful listening, and the wealth of sound that lay hidden all around us.
*Note: shortly after this review was posted, Jez Riley French posted the following note on the album's Bandcamp page:
due to the complicated issues around permission naming the ensembles would be problematic, as it would give away locations. However I can reveal that all but one involved UK based ensembles, some at Universities and that the sessions were held as part of either workshops or informal, privately arranged exploratory sessions. I am grateful to all of the musicians for their time and for allowing this release without their names appearing, for now at least.
Across the six hours that comprise l'âme est sans retenue I, Jürg Frey presents a carefully considered assemblage of field recordings and silence. The organizational structure of the piece is simple and austere: field recordings fade in, are left to simply exist, and then fade out into silence. Both of these elements span approximately ten to thirty seconds and this alternation occurs until a longer period of silence emerges. In the long tradition of Wandelweiser, Frey's arrangement makes an irrefutable case for the importance of silence in composition. And as with countless other works, this privileging of silence as compositional material allows for a consideration of our listening environment as a wellspring of its own musical details.
The field recordings that appear on l'âme est sans retenue I were recorded during the final months of 1997 in a Berlin park. There’s little, if anything, that would help one identify the location or date of the source material though. This proves beneficial as it strikes down any reading of the recordings as highly personal and prevents one from viewing the composition as an aural travelogue or a snapshot of a specific place and time. To be certain, this is a composition that wants us to experience sound strictly as sound. This is obvious given that the sounds Frey recorded often have a muted quality to them, resembling white noise. The brevity of the field recordings’ appearances further crystallizes their status as unglamorized material. Consider, for example, how different the piece would sound with classical instruments. The inherent emotional quality in the timbre of strings or of pressure placed upon piano keys would dramatically alter our reception of the composition. There are no overtly emotional aspects to the recordings, and this is paramount to the piece’s success.
The decision to include a fading out of sound into silence is significant as it directs our ears from Frey’s field recordings to the silence he employs and then ultimately to our own surroundings. The result is a recognition of the expanded and reversed figure-ground relationship at play. Since the large majority of l’âme est sans retenue I is silence, we perceive this silence as the ground with which the sound acts upon. The presence of a “digital silence” is thus crucial as it pushes our understanding of the ground beyond what’s only present on the album to what’s also in our own listening environment. At the same time, one is hard-pressed to imagine how the alternative—an environment-sourced, Cageian non-silence—could have been utilized given the composition’s conceit.
The structure of l’âme est sans retenue I fosters a relationship between the listener and the piece that is in ways both predictable and not. The amount of time that both the field recordings and silence lasts is established within the first few minutes of the piece, making the pacing of this back-and-forth quickly familiar. Since l’âme est sans retenue I is spread across five discs, one is forced to remove oneself from the piece four times if rips of the CDs weren't previously made. It's a wise move, then, to have each disc start with sound; listeners can recalibrate with the composition’s sound-silence rhythm immediately upon pressing play.
The extended periods of silence, however, don't last for equal lengths of time. As such, the recognizable patterns that Frey sets up are constantly stripped away. This removal of consistency stirs a craving for the return of sound, and the fact that we as listeners are unable to foresee the precise moment it reappears makes for a lively listening experience. To be sure, one would be surprised by the reemergence of sound even if the stretches of silence were of equivalent lengths; unless one is keeping track of time, seven minutes of silence aren't particularly distinguishable from eight. Even so, it's safe to say that the varying lengths of silence subvert expectations—during the final hour, two minutes of silence are followed by one that lasts ten—and provide a much larger contrast to the other parts of the composition.
The most refreshing aspect of l’âme est sans retenue I is how its structure, overall length, and field recordings are conducive to a passive engagement with it. For dozens of listens, I treated the piece as one fit for an installation. Accordingly, I would occasionally have the tracks playing on repeat throughout all 24 hours of a day. Playing on speakers in my bedroom, the field recordings' presence would often be shocking upon my return to the room—how could I forget, again, that this was still playing? But even if I had stayed in a closed-off space where the piece was playing, I would frequently forget about the piece during its long silences. This naturally led to several bouts of laughter when the sounds surfaced.
But more than just being surprised and finding it all very humorous, I came to understand the field recordings as an immense source of comfort. This is undoubtedly related to the desire one has to hear something familiar (both of sounds and their internal structures) during the silent sections. Frey is conditioning the listener to become accustomed to silence during these six hours, something that is pivotal in allowing the field recordings to be so evocative. The true marvel of l’âme est sans retenue I is how we aren't necessarily moved by the sounds present within the field recordings, but by sound itself. As previously mentioned, it's the "unglamorized" nature of the field recordings (along with the structure and length of the piece) that confirms this to be Frey's intention.
None of this is to say that an active engagement with l’âme est sans retenue I proves fruitless. There are numerous intriguing sounds that are contained within these field recordings. One of the most arresting segments appears at the end of disc one and the beginning of disc two—a soft but prominent gust of wind blows as chirping birds and a melodic sound akin to bells and synth pads is heard in the distance. It registers as something pensive and wistful, bringing to mind minimal ambient music such as Kazuya Nagaya's Utsuho. Near the end of disc three, the wind blows with a gale-like force. Nestled inside it, though, is a high frequency tone that provides a point of focus and consequent sense of peace in the midst of a raging storm.
Subtle, striking moments such as these are scattered throughout the six hours that make up l’âme est sans retenue I. It brings to mind l’âme est sans retenue III, which was released on Radu Malfatti's b-boim label in 2008. That album contained much longer periods of sound and silence, allowing for a more readily immersive listening experience. Each segment of sound felt distinct and had something (usually a high-pitched ringing) to maintain interest. In a sense, l’âme est sans retenue III is the midpoint between Frey's weites land, tiefe zeit, räume 1-8 and l’âme est sans retenue I. The sounds contained within part one and three of l’âme est sans retenue are sourced from the same recordings, yes, but the long stretches of sound in part three almost diminish the utility of silence to that of a mere cleansing of the aural palette. There's an understanding of silence's role in terms of the piece's structure, but the length of the field recordings overwhelms the listening environment, as is the case for weites land, tiefe zeit, räume 1-8.
When listening to l’âme est sans retenue I, it is impossible to ignore the meticulous structuring of material on display. As previously mentioned, the sound-silence rhythm is crucial, but it's also the sequencing of field recordings that is important. Frey makes this abundantly clear within the first few minutes of the piece. Of the first eight sections of sound, all but the third and fifth are from the same field recording session. There's a recognizable continuity that's broken by these two instances. But then Frey resumes the sound on the third segment with the ninth, and does the same for the fifth segment with the tenth. This intentional reordering discreetly enlivens the field recordings and the listening process.
This juxtaposition of different sounds occurs throughout the piece, but there are also other structurally interesting decisions that Frey makes as well. Halfway into disc two, church bells can be heard and Frey decides to separate two field recordings with only a second of silence. Even so, we hear a distinct difference in the bed of sound that accompanies those bells. Near the beginning of disc four, harsh winds prevail and Frey decreases the silences here to ten seconds in order to capitalize on the ferocity of the environment. Approximately seventeen minutes into disc five, a stretch of alternating sound and silence is amusingly capped off with the sound of a ship's horn. One may not recognize all that Frey does on this record, but one can be sure that Frey has done a lot to ensure that even the ostensibly plain moments will be captivating. Granted, even the fading in and fading out of the field recordings makes the tracing of sound within each segment an enjoyable endeavor.
The l’âme est sans retenue series takes its name from a book by French writer and poet Edmond Jabès. Jabès's interest in the "unwritten word" manifests in his works in various ways, one of which being pages laden with "empty" white space. His influence on Frey is clear. One is tempted to draw additional comparisons to l’âme est sans retenue—the poetry of Mallarmé, the paintings of Fontana, numerous flicker films—but none are quite satisfactory. Visual mediums necessitate an active engagement via sight, and this results in a fundamentally different experience than what one has with this specific piece by Frey.
The strongest analogue that comes to mind is of wearing Molecule 01 by Escentric Molecules. Molecule 01 is a fragrance almost completely made up of the aroma chemical Iso E Super. Iso E Super is present in countless perfumes today and is used to enhance and soften notes, akin to how salt is used in cooking to draw out numerous flavors. Iso E Super has its own distinct smell—a peppery cedar with a tinge of antiseptic alcohol—but the most common result is that those smelling the chemical detect nothing at all. When perceptible, Molecule 01 is subtle and abstract (theoretically, it should amplify your skin's natural scent). One may catch a whiff of the fragrance but it will be intermittent and at varying degrees of strength. The simultaneously passive and active experience of wearing perfume and the quasi-blank nature of Molecule 01's scent provides for an experience that's extremely comparable to that of l’âme est sans retenue I. That I'm unable to think of anything else that provides a similar experience is a testament to how Frey is doing something incredibly unique here, even within the Wandelweiser camp.
Frey composed the l’âme est sans retenue series from 1999-2000. As such, the first part of the series marks Erstwhile Records' first archival release. It doesn't sound the least bit dated, though, and one could easily argue that it sounds refreshing compared to all the melodic compositions that have defined Frey's recent releases. To think that this may have never seen the light of day is shocking; this is the very best piece of music that Frey has ever composed, and is an undeniably essential addition to the Wandelweiser collective's catalogue.
Directed, Written, and Edited by Bill Morrison
Run Time: 120 mins | Genre: Documentary
Viewed at Gene Siskel Film Center
Dawson City: Frozen Time chronicles the history of the titular town during and after its status as the epicenter of the Klondike gold rush. The film does this in order to set up the remarkable discovery of 533 nitrate film reels that were stored in an athletic center's indoor swimming pool. To explain all this, Bill Morrison constantly overlays text on photographs and film clips. For those who have seen Morrison's previous features, the abundance of text is a bit alarming. At first, there is a sense that this is perhaps an unwise decision—does Morrison not have faith in the power of the images on display? And surely it would've been more appropriate to use intertitles? But as the film progresses, it's clear that this is the only possibly way that Morrison could have told the full story.
Aside from a couple brief moments, Dawson City never aims for the kaleidoscopic collage of Decasia. Morrison is captivated by the content here—both the films and the story that surrounds them—and as such, it's understood that he thinks it all deserves to be thoroughly told. This is a relief considering how disastrous The Miners' Hymns and The Great Flood were in their half-baked attempts at quasi-experimental documentary. Neither film fully committed to a conventional presentation style and consequently forced its utilization of decaying nitrate film upon the viewer, turning an ostensibly avant-garde element into mere ornamentation.
When watching Morrison's films, I'm often confronted with a question of effectiveness that recalls my impression of Anne Carson's Nox. Nox is a peculiar epitaph-as-book written for the author's deceased brother. In it, Carson presents poetry, dictionary entries, and photographs in what is essentially a glorified scrapbook. It's a very precious book printed in a accordion style, relying heavily on its gimmicks to transmit any sort of profundity. Similarly, I'm not always sure that Morrison's fascination with damaged nitrate film is a good thing; it's not always certain that it's being considered for its physical properties beyond the striking visuals it creates. Dawson City succeeds, then, because it rarely privileges the aesthetics of nitrate film above the story being told. The footage we see is a historical document, and we're meant to be captivated by how it gives us a glimpse of the time period it was filmed in, as well as of Dawson City itself.
The unearthed films aren't only presented as archival curios, though. As the plot unfolds, Morrison occasionally shows relevant excerpts from numerous films in quick succession. For example, we read from the onscreen text that a movie theater has opened. What then follows is a sequence of film clips that feature people entering a theater, sitting down in their seats, and reacting to what they're seeing. This restructuring of old films to provide a story with supplemental visual aid is reminiscent of Peter Delpeut's The Forbidden Quest. In Delpeut's film, he takes old polar expedition films and crafts a new narrative meant to be taken as authentic evidence of a voyage to the Antarctic.
As a mockumentary, The Forbidden Quest has no reason to disclose its source material since the film needs to uphold its conceit and try to come off somewhat convincing. Morrison, however, always makes sure to provide citations for the films used in Dawson City. When he cycles through many at a time, we're astounded by multiple things: the enormity of the discovery, the technical feat of Morrison's assemblages, and the humanness of all the films. Because alongside films meant for entertainment, we witness numerous newsreels with generic titles such as Universal Current Events Vol. 1, Issue 2 and Pathé Weekly, No. 7. The residents of Dawson City were able to learn what was happening outside the Yukon. As viewers, we're placed in the interesting position of imagining what it was like for these residents to experience that. It's safe to say that Morrison wants to capitalize on the power of film to conjure up feelings of unity amongst the human population. Which is why there's little obfuscation in Dawson City or desire to revel in some abstract artistic statement.
Sigur Rós collaborator Alex Somers handles the soundtrack and it unsurprisingly recalls his work with the Icelandic band and for Captain Fantastic: sweeping ambient soundscapes comprised of tape delays, vocal loops, and cinematic strings. It's a bit garish at times (Morrison specifically asked Somers to create something "epic" and "ethereal") but it never feels manipulative. More importantly, it doesn't feel like the slapdash afterthought of The Great Flood's blues and jazz soundtrack. What Somers provides is obvious and familiar, but all the better for it. If the soundtrack veered into more experimental territories, it would undermine the spirit of Dawson City and become another sensory overload multimedia presentation a la Decasia.
When Dawson City comes to a close, it does so by explaining how the unique conditions with which the reels were stored led to their intriguing visual characteristics. Morrison then plays several clips that are among the film's most aesthetically pleasing. It ends on a particularly elegant note: a woman dances as if she's cognizant of the flickering swirls that appear beside her. It fully captures the allure of the films that were discovered—it showcases the beauty that arises from decaying film, and presents a vivid snapshot of people at a specific place and time.