Dawson City: Frozen Time

 
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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 NoxNox 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 The footage we see is a historical document, and we're meant to be captivated by how it gives us a glimpse of the time period it was filmed in, as well as of Dawson City itself.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. 

Alec Livaditis - Reticulate (self-released)

reticulate

Tracklist

1. A
2. B

Copies of Reticulate are available at ErstDist

Alec Livaditis first appeared on the scene with Clear and Cloud, an LP released on Kye Records. The titular A-side featured Livaditis's cello playing pit against a backdrop of unending chatter. What would have otherwise felt like a normal live performance was transformed into something more stately through the work of Killick Hinds' Vo-96 guitar playing. In the song's second half, the harmonics that Hinds employed filled the recording's cracks with a calming ambience that immediately turned the domestic space into one more sacred. With Hinds setting the tone, the cello's weeping legatos granted the song a sort of profundity-in-the-everyday that felt at once uplifting and wistful.

Reticulate is Livaditis's small batch, self-released CD-R follow-up. It's notable in that unlike both tracks on Clear and Cloud or the live performance on WUOG, the Athens-based musician is found here playing alone. It's also a continuation of the more austere sounds and methods explored on "Mid August, 2016", except that since this isn't a shabby live recording, there's a bit more bite to the electronics. The album is comprised of two 18-minute tracks filled with oscillating sine tones and feedback. As is commonplace for recordings of this ilk, these stretches of sound alternate with periods of silence.

"A" starts off with a low, wavering sine tone. With it comes the creation of a more subtle rumble that resembles a quickly spinning computer fan. Livaditis lays some squelching feedback on top that's sharp and unpredictable in comparison. This contrast is crucial as it helps paint the underlying sine tone as monotonous, and with it comes a looming sense of dread. When it abruptly phases into silence, the transition is like a gasping for air. Feelings of anxiety still linger, though. Because of this, there's an impression that these first five minutes could effectively soundtrack the quiet but unsettling moments of a Philippe Grandrieux film. Soon, however, comes a long section comprised of buzzing noise that's accompanied by the clatter of metal objects. This all eventually dissolves into a comforting, higher-pitched sine tone and a brief moment of silence. If the track had ended here, it would have told a rather concrete narrative. Unfortunately, it's slightly undercut by four more minutes that sound extraneous: another sine tone sequence, a half-minute of silence, and a reprisal of the buzzing and handling of metal.

"B" starts off in a similar fashion to that of the previous track—for four and a half minutes, a raucous (but still relatively controlled) stretch of noise is heard. Occasionally, Livaditis injects high-pitched, pinprick-like sine tones. When the noise disappears, the sine tones remain, and consequently feel comforting amidst the relative silence. He soon exchanges these tones for extremely brief bursts of contact mic-type sounds and feedback. This entire section spans four minutes and is rather relaxing, especially compared to what was present on "A". Its placement is effective as it manages to shed light on the meditative nature of the ensuing noise, particularly those that appear immediately thereafter. As a result, the minute of silence that comes after that feels especially calm. If I were to fault "B" of anything, it would be for how it isn't split into two separate tracks at the moment this silence ends. The eight minutes that close out the album are more of a summation of what's been heard and therefore don't necessarily seem connected to the rest of the song. Still, it's a nice piece of whirring noise that closes out Reticulate on an appropriate, albeit anticlimactic, note. 

All in all, to see Livaditis release a full-length album in such a different vein is refreshing. When listening to the record, It's clear that he's confident in his ability to handle these electronics. The meshwork that adorns the cover is amusing because it points to his specific approach—the interlacing strings are as essential to the structure as the empty spaces surrounding them. And like the silence utilized on Reticulate, the burnt portion that leaves a gaping hole is significant because it highlights that exact idea by altering how the material immediately surrounding it is perceived.

Takahiro Kawaguchi/Utah Kawasaki - Amorphous Spores (Erstwhile)

Tracklist

1. 12:32
2. 10:59
3. 4:17
4. 10:01
5. 5:20

Purchase Amorphous Spores here
Read Kawaguchi's production notes on the album here

Before listening to Takahiro Kawaguchi and Utah Kawasaki's Amorphous Spores, one first experiences Hirozumi Takeda's beautiful design for the album. The photographs that adorn the packaging are alluring precisely for how they draw out specific qualities from various objects—the shape of the mushrooms, the contrast in color between them and the dirt, the general form and movement of the leaves—and bring them to the forefront via thoughtful framing. These individual photographs are chosen with the gatefold packaging in mind; the leaves that flank the side interior panels act to house the CD between them. When one lifts the disc from its tray, an upside down mushroom is revealed. It's unexpected and equal parts charming and hilarious. It all captures the essence of Amorphous Spores perfectly and acts to prepare one for engaging with the music.

When "12:32" begins, a low rumbling is heard. It's deep and has an inherent rhythmic quality to it that sets up the piece as both meditative and dramatic. However, any sense of tranquility is quickly shattered with the sound of a loud, resonating horn. These horns appear frequently but in different ways; sometimes we hear small squeaks, sometimes we hear a series of short notes. A buzzing drill arrives soon thereafter and it acts to contrast the clear, crisp tone of the horns. These three sounds make up the large majority of "12:32"—it may not seem like much but Kawaguchi and Kawasaki handle the material with such meticulous precision, in both pacing and arrangement, that the piece feels grandiose and nuanced.

Even more exciting is "10:59", a whirlwind of a tune that ranks among the best pieces either artist has ever created. It's huge and cacophonous and accomplishes such a feeling through the mixing of various contorted electronics. Considering this photo of Kawasaki sporting a SOPHIE shirt, it's easy to connect the elastic and humorous sounds present on "10:59" to those SOPHIE has created in the past couple years. However, it also recalls the playful attitude of U is for Utah and some of the stuff Kawasaki has created under the youpy moniker, both in its sound and sense of humor. The horn is present again on this track but it serves a different purpose in the midst of hyperactivity. There are, in fact, isolated moments where the horns resemble that of a clown's but what's more amusing is how a constant stream of staccato notes—something present on "12:32"—can sound so terrifically deadpan. The unexpected appearances of the whirring drill are also effective and they've managed to make me burst into laughter on multiple occasions.

The following two tracks are a bit more familiar-sounding but they manage to highlight how Kawaguchi and Kawasaki are so great at contextualizing specific sounds. On "4:17", the drill is heard yet again but it blends more seamlessly with the fidgeting noise. Here, the clamor is contained and the different components amass into a thick layer of sound. When the drill finally disappears, it becomes clear just how instrumental it was in making the piece feel so dense. "10:01" performs a similar trick except with the horn, allowing its droning tone to bind the rest of the instrumentation. As its high-pitched tone eventually clears, the abrasiveness of each scrape and yelp becomes palpable.

The album ends with a reprisal-of-sorts of album opener "12:32" and it acts as a repose from the raw buzzing noise of the previous tracks. It differs from the first track, however, due to how overwhelming the looming low end is; in the final thirty seconds of the song, we hear a note that's perceptibly altered by the track's deep pulses. That exact moment ends the album on a subtle but strong note. Amorphous Spores is filled with many of these small details and it's exactly why it feels like such an accomplishment; the level of craftsmanship that appears in every track allows each revisit to feel incredibly satisfying. It's a real testament to how astute both musicians are in utilizing and organizing their source material, and it's at the core of what makes Amorphous Spores one of the best albums of 2015.

 

 

Kevin Drumm/Jason Lescalleet - Busman's Holiday (Erstwhile)

Tracklist

1. The Hunt
2. Powerless
3. The Wait
4. The Push
5. Belligerence
6. Honest Toil

Purchase Busman's Holiday here
Read a review of Drumm/Lescalleet's live show here

Busman's Holiday opens with audio taken from an iconic scene in John Boorman's Point Blank. Walker, played by Lee Marvin, has just been betrayed and left for dead by his accomplice Reese and his wife Lynne. Having survived the incident, he makes his way to Los Angeles with the intention of getting revenge. As the scene plays out, Walker's footsteps reverberate loudly, juxtaposing the calmness of Lynne's morning routine. Interestingly, these footsteps continue and become non-diegetic sound for images of Walker himself. It's effective as a means to build tension but also as a way to establish the unwavering one-track mind that defines Walker throughout the film. As a result, there seems no better way to start off Busman's Holiday. This record definitely sounds like the collaborative work of Kevin Drumm and Jason Lescalleet but it's even more uniform in style and mood than The Abyss. It's a bit surprising considering the variety of sounds that both Drumm and Lescalleet have explored within the past year, let alone their entire careers, but these six tracks are far more potent for it. The result is a cohesive and ultimately better album, and Busman's Holiday ends up being an incredibly strong statement for both of these highly accomplished artists.

When the footsteps and film soundtrack that introduce the album cease, "The Hunt" explodes into electrifying noise. The reason this piece feels so powerful is the perceptible movement of these sounds in the mix. In albums like PurgeSheer Hellish Miasma, and The Pilgrim, passages of harsh noise feel domineering because of their huge monolithic presence. Numerous components may contribute to an overall structure but the main effect is less a frenetic assault on the senses (as with the second track on Land of Lurches) and more an all-encompassing wall of sound that completely envelops the listener. From its moment of impact, "The Hunt" does very much the same thing. The general shape of its screeches and howls keeps the listener trapped inside but what makes the track particularly oppressive is its refusal to stay motionless. These buzzing drones move around the listener at a moderately slow pace, circling them like prey, and it adds greatly to the piece's ominous ambiance.

There are approximately ten seconds of silence before "The Hunt" ends and "Powerless" begins. Those ten seconds act as a chance to catch one's breath, and when the piece starts with a loud tone, one may assume that it'll rupture into something as equally raucous as the last track. But what starts shrill soon crumbles through fuzzy noise and into a static drone. The album's liner notes state that the record is "a meditation on the inner mental environments that one encounters and endures during times of work-related travel." I've consequently listened to this album numerous times while driving to work and "Powerless" has felt particularly effective in accomplishing that feeling. Through my car stereo, the smears of high-pitched tones overhead are the primary sounds that catch my ear. Aside from adding textural interest, they act to stimulate and direct my attention towards the stillness of the drone and the repetitive mechanical rhythms heard underneath. In turn, this makes me aware of the blankness of my thoughts during these periods of travel. It's something that presumably occurs as a way to distract myself from the banality of such an everyday event as well as the equally familiar workday that's to follow. Before long. the song gradually builds into something comfortably noisy and it slowly ushers me back into that empty state of mind.

"The Wait" bears a similar structure to "Powerless"—it first descends into a dark pit before clawing its way back out. It's the longest track on Busman's Holiday but its length feels justified as it allows the listener to feel the physicality of its rattling machines. Here, the clatter is at the forefront while the subtly shifting drones are in the service of accentuating its deep reverberations. This relationship is key as it magnifies how eerie these noises actually are. It's comparable to "Asking for the Initial Thing" from the eighth edition of This Is What I Do but more dynamic, nuanced, and dramatic. As a result, when the piece ends with a more prominent drone, it feels like a natural extension of the mood evoked by what came beforehand. 

This eventually leads into "The Push", a track whose title presumably refers to the perceived stasis of the cacophony here. The piece consists of three large blocks of noise, the first of which is the longest and highest-pitched. This section also evolves the most elegantly; it's difficult to pinpoint the exact development of these noises unless one hears the beginning and end of this passage right after one another. The following sections are just as noisy but their individual components are "livelier" and less homogeneous. The sequencing here is important and it, along with other factors—the general sounds used in each part of the song, the decision to have complete silence before the final passage, the relative lengths of these three sections—all contribute to the effectiveness of the piece as a whole.

"Belligerence" comes next and it's most interesting for its spontaneity. While not exactly high-energy, there's a fierce unpredictability to how this piece progresses and it grants the song some intensity. Near the beginning of the track, a high frequency tone appears unopposed and it pierces the ear. Considering the sound palette of the previous tracks and the general density of their structures, it feels particularly refreshing at this point in the album. This tone pops up frequently throughout the song, juxtaposing roaring electronics at one point and low rumbles at others. At around the six minute mark, a buzzing noise starts to pan back and forth across both channels before abruptly halting. A burst of cloudy noise emerges, as if snapping all the previous sounds into place. The surrounding fog dissipates and the track soon ends.

Busman's Holiday concludes with what's perhaps its most surprising track. Both Drumm and Lescalleet have made incredibly "pretty" pieces before, both individually (Imperial DistortionShut InArchaic Architecture) and together ("The Abyss"), but it's accomplished here in a way that's far more affecting. "Honest Toil" consists of a high-pitched tone, a shifting drone, and the sounds of various objects and machinery. It's all incredibly delicate and all these specific sounds—light tapping, miniature squeaks, the flipping of switches—are carefully organized as to sustain the track's child-like essence. These small sounds brings to mind moments in Keith Rowe and Graham Lambkin's Making A, though with a much sweeter tone (alternatively, a less saccharine Four Forms). One such example is an incredibly delightful moment at 2:54, when a tiny beep and ticking sound play harmoniously. Even when the rattling gets a bit noisy, the sustained sound of the other instruments help to maintain the piece's calming mood. A looping melody eventually appears and closes out the album on a nostalgic note. It may be too romantic for some but it feels appropriate both as a musical contrast to the previous tracks and as a final statement regarding the album's theme. Work is tiring and overwhelming but in the warmth of this final track comes encouragement from Drumm and Lescalleet to persevere.

 

stilllife - archipelago (Ftarri)

Purchase archipelago from Ftarri (JPN) or ErstDist (US)

On stilllife's debut album Yoru No Katarogu, Takashi Tsuda and Hiroki Sasajima highlighted a different sound on each of its ten tracks. Some pieces were straightforward field recordings that pointed listeners to the general form of an ecosystem while others were intimate portraits of a single material or instrument. Similarly, the duo's sophomore album archipelago is comprised of sparse instrumentation and field recordings taken in various locations. The primary difference here is the decision to present the record as a single sixty minute track. Periods of silence separate passages of sound but there's a cohesiveness to this piece that the two constantly maintain. On the surface, this may not seem like a particularly noteworthy feature to point out; Takashi Tsuda and Hiroki Sasajima recorded this album in areas where certain sounds—namely wind, waves, and birds—are prevalent. A sense of continuity is therefore expected. None of this would be as effective though if it weren't for Tsuda and Sasajima's thoughtful performances. The very lifeblood of archipelago, and the precise reason it's a successful recording, is that their instrumentation always occupies the same tonal, timbral, and emotional range as those of the fields they're recorded in.

As archipelago opens up, we're introduced to periodic tapping, a wind instrument, and the natural sounds of the environment. Tsuda and Sasajima's contributions are distinct but the weight of their presence is never overbearing. For example, the wind instrument is airy and light. Its childlike melody and high register are appropriate alongside the busy chirping and distant waves. Conversely, the tapping is dense and always plays a consistent beat. It's an effective addition as It works to contrast the delicate textures of the piece whilst pairing nicely with some of the louder and robust bird calls and songs. Everything coalesces smoothly and the setting's musical qualities are never attenuated by what exists in the foreground. In other words, Tsuda and Sasajima aren't injecting the piece with a meditative and whimsical ambiance, they're bringing it into view and amplifying it.

The piece quickly transitions into a passage dominated by birds. Here, the chirps and squawks all amass into a dense cloud of sound. A synthesized tone occasionally appears and with its unwavering pitch, acts to counterbalance the vibrancy and energy of the bird calls and songs. Interestingly, this consolidates the bird sounds further and tapers any notion of their collective unruliness. The noises that deviate from this section's average rhythm, texture, and volume are the most captivating, naturally. However, I've found that the tones Tsuda and Sasajima play redirect my attention to the swarm of chirping that defines this 'average' and I'm left examining how these individual units interact and form something more concrete.

This carefully considered interplay continues throughout the rest of archipelago. In the following section, a string instrument is plucked and it's the most emotionally charged component of the entire record. One could make a case that the musicians are being 'manipulative' here but when considering everything they've played up to this point, it still feels in line with how they view this environment—contemplative, calming, and filled with life. A long stretch of silence bookends the next segment, and it's purposefully done as to ease the listener into, and out of, its more private and personal recording space. Here, Tsuda and Sasajima are relatively removed from the shore—we can now hear automobiles and a Westminster Chime close by while the sounds of waves and birds lie further in the distance. It's relatively quiet and the two try to capture the intimacy of this solitary space through their instrumentation. While there doesn't seem to be a direct link between their playing and the various external sounds, they all harmoniously evoke the same mood.

When archipelago ends, it does so with a passage that's centered around roaring waves and winds. It's considerably different than the previous segment yet there's an introspective quality to it that links the two together. This is, in part, a result of the synthesized tone that's laid on top of the waves; it ebbs and flows like the water, making it seem less threatening. And as the piece slowly fades into silence, archipelago concludes with a feeling that we've explored the very essence of these various locations. Each section of this record is characterized by something distinct yet is part of a greater whole. Using the same instruments helps to sustain a sense of continuity but it's ultimately the way Tsuda and Sasajima play—constantly drawing out the tranquil nature of various places and elements—that makes archipelago feel completely immersive.

Radu Malfatti - shizuka ni furu ame (b-boim)

Tracklist

1. shizuka ni furu ame

Personnel

Radu Malfatti - composer
Cristián Alvear - guitar


Purchase shizuka ni furu ame by contacting Malfatti at radu.malfatti@chello.at

shizuka ni furu ame marks the first time that composer Radu Malfatti has written a piece for Chilean guitarist Cristián Alvear. That this is the first time Malfatti has composed something for solo guitar since 2003 (though, that was for electric guitar) is perhaps telling. On Alvear's previous recordings, it was clear that he very much understood the spirit of the Wandelweiser collective and on shizuka, it's very apparent that he still does. Across these 54 minutes, Alvear performs in a delicate but firm manner, realizing Malfatti's score in a way that highlights the potency of silence. I've listened to this record every day for the past month and throughout the many contexts I've heard it in, one thing remains constant: the use of silence on shizuka ni furu ame is the most affecting I've heard on any album all year.

shizuka will sound familiar to those who have heard Malfatti's works but as with all of his compositions, there are enough differences here that allow for the piece to stand on its own. The most obvious difference is, of course, the use of classical guitar. Its timbre is warmer than the strings, electronics, and trombone that have characterized previous b-boim releases. Malfatti takes advantage of this by having Alvear play dyads. As they're plucked and allowed to resonate, the weight of their relative consonance and dissonance is perceptible. Throughout the record, these dyads are repeated multiple times. Periodically, a single note is plucked after one of these chords, signaling an ensuing change in the dyad that will be played. The new chord is always similar to the last: one of its notes shift one semitone while the other stays the same.

This gradual transformation may seem tedious but the extended silences that bookend each dyad grant a freshness and vigor to each chord Alvear plays. As a result, the most crucial element of his performance is not what chords he plays but when he plays them. Alvear plucks his guitar frequently enough to set expectations of his continued playing. However, he appears at irregular intervals, creating tension during periods of silence. He strikes a perfect balance between consistency and unpredictability, and it's what makes shizuka so enthralling. This phenomenon is easily understood when looking at the waveforms of various Malfatti recordings.

die temperatur der bedeutung (EWR, 1997)

zeitschatten (b-boim, 2007)

friedrichshofquartett (b-boim, 2007)

l'effaçage (b-boim, 2008)

nonostante II (b-boim, 2007)

shizuka ni furu ame (b-boim, 2015)

These waveforms come from pieces that are all characterized by an interplay between instrumentation and silence. The first fifteen minutes of each piece are presented here and are representative of the entire recording. All waveforms are on the same scale for both time and amplitude.

When listening to zeitschatten and friedrichscofquartett, one can figure out the structure of the composition as it progress. If one listen isn't enough, one will know the grouping pattern of both pieces upon subsequent revisits. Conversely, the rate at which instrumentation appears on die temperatur der bedeutung, l'effaçage, and nonostane II doesn't lend itself to a specific and recognizable pattern. One engages with those pieces without foreknowledge of when silence ends and instrumentation begins. Consequently, there isn't a large sense of anticipation that one feels when listening to them.

When Alvear plays a consonant chord on shizuka, it feels like a warm and inviting embrace. That one could be waiting anywhere between 20 and 110 seconds for its return is the key to the album's success and replay value. I've found that when listening to this album in a quiet location, these passages of silence have an incredible sense of urgency. This is true even when relatively dissonant chords are played since one is still awaiting, albeit long-term, the arrival of more consonant ones.

When listening to shizuka in a more active setting, Alvear's entrances are still surprising and effective. When he plays a chord, one is likely to trace the event of it slowly fading into the environment. We as listeners are led into these 'external' sounds and are encouraged to interact with them. It's a clever move because I've found myself forgetting an album is even being played during these silent passages. Hearing Alvear's guitar has, on a surpiringly large number of occasions, left me dumbfounded as to how such a thing could happen. It's a bizarre but fascinating occurrence, and Malfatti's instruction to play the piece quietly helps to make it a regular one.

There's a lot more to shizuka ni furu ame than one would expect. Considering how minor the differences are between this album and other Malfatti records, I'm left astounded by how singular this record feels in his entire catalogue. Simply put, it's fantastic. Malfatti's compositional ingenuity is unmistakable here and Alvear's realization is extraordinary. It is, undoubtedly, one of the best releases from either artist and one can only hope that these two collaborate more in the future.

The Set Ensemble - stopcock (Consumer Waste)

Tracklist

1. Fires & Conifers
2. Memoire de Cezanne
3. This has already had a history (2b)
4. 360 Sounds
5. you have not been paying attention (again)
6. for six

Personnel

Patrick Farmer: open cd players, loudspeakers, objects, dried mango
Bruno Guastalla: cello, carrot
Sarah Hughes: zither, yo yo bear for kids
Dominic Lash: contrabass, banana
Samuel Rodgers: piano, electronics, apple
David Stent: guitar, banana
Paul Whitty: electronics, crisps

Scores

Sarah Hughes - Fires & Conifers
Bruno Guastalla - Memoire de Cezanne
Patrick Farmer - This has already had a history (2b)
Paul Whitty - you have not been paying attention (again)
Dominic Lash - for six


Purchase stopcock here

Since forming in 2010, The Set Ensemble have tackled works by composers such as Antoine Beuger, Manfred Werder, and Michael Pisaro. In 2012, they contributed five tracks to the fantasticWandelweiser und so weiter box set released on Another Timbre. But it's with stopcock that they make their first grand statement as a group. This isn't to say that their contributions to Wandelweiser were poor (they weren't) but this record is particularly special because each of its six tracks were composed by members of the group themselves. And considering that all of its musicians are also composers, stopcock proves valuable for its presentation of the synergy and creativity of all its members—both on a performance level and a compositional one.

In interviews with Seth Cooke and Jennie Gottschalk, Sarah Hughes expressed how she tries to find a balance between improvisation and composition with all of her works. This is achieved by setting up a basic framework for performers that still allows for variability. "Fires & Conifers", the first track on stopcock, does this by providing each of its six performers with two different actions they can take. One or both options can be taken but there's often an overlap in theme or idea for each person. Player one, for example, contributes short sounds regardless of the route they take. One of player three's options involves "making a continuous sound that creates an indent to the space." However, the other choice would provide a similarly noticeable effect on the overall piece. Because of these connected actions, each person is essentially designated a role that helps to maintain a consistency in the song's mood and texture.

The cohesiveness of "Fires & Conifers" is surprising, though. Players five and six are tasked with reacting to the other four in a way that would presumably impede harmonious interplay. But because of the way Hughes has arranged this composition, their actions never feel at odds with the rest of the instrumentation and the title feels incredibly appropriate. Player five has to make loud, prominent attacks and the plucked cello near the beginning of the performance is one of them. However, it functions much like player one's handclaps and, near the end of the performance, player two's piano chords. Likewise, the generally meditative tone of the piece—a result of the soft pulses from player one, the sparse piano notes from player two, and the contrasting sustained notes from players three and four—allows for player five's enforced periods of silence at 7:40 and 14:45 to feel like natural extensions of what the group is playing. That these passages may not actually be the result of player five's mandates only attests to how thoughtfully this piece was composed. 

Bruno Guastalla's "Memoire de Cezanne" follows and its score is comparatively straightforward. It's split into three sections—the second passage contrasts the first while the third is similar but 'slightly different' to that same first passage. This structure is not dissimilar to basic sonata form but it seems more appropriate, given Guastalla's interests, to say that it resembles a minimal superpermutation. In a nutshell, a 'minimal superpermutation' of a number 'n' is the shortest string of numbers such that all possible sequences of positive integers up to and including that number would be listed. Therefore, if n=2, one such minimal superpermutation would be 121 (which is analogous to the structure of "Memoire de Cezanne") since the sequences 1,2 and 2,1 are present. If n=3, one minimal superpermutation would be 123121321 since all available sequences (123, 231, 312, 213, 132, 321) are listed in the shortest possible manner.

Like Paul Cézanne himself—a painter who understood the function and elegance of basic geometric forms—Guastalla sees the importance and potential of mathematical applications in art. In the recent issue of Wolf Notes, we're given insight into how incorporating superpermutations into his scores reflects his interests:

I am a bit ambivalent towards the beauty of sound, cherry-picked-slice-of-life. In my work on instruments, doing daily sound adjustments for players, what seems desirable, rather than the beauty or character of a sound, is a sort of grace, and ease (or sometimes unease) in the movement from one quality to another.
When a piece is played, the chaos of sound, of life, is soon enough full of infinite precision.

While later scores are considerably more complex, "Memoire de Cezanne" is appealing in its simplicity and manages to display that exact beauty in movement. It's a long-form, textural piece that neatly transitions between its three sections. And it's in this palindromic structure that each individual passage is recognizably colored by what precedes and/or follows it. The instruments all coalesce into an impressionistic blur and an overarching mood develops linearly across its ten minutes, feeling both tense and introspective throughout; it's a truly enjoyable realization of Guastalla's score.

The most peculiar track on stopcock appears next with Patrick Farmer's "This has already had a history (2b)". In Farmer's score, he asks that each performer "initiate[s] the decay/transformation/disintegration" of a particular object and "must not stop until the end result is achieved". Amusingly, The Set Ensemble explore this 'decay' by eating various foods. "history (2b)" brings to mind Christian Wolff's "Drinks, 1969", a piece comprised of performers pouring, sipping, and slurping drinks. It's a humorous piece that explores the whimsy in bubbles popping and the tapping of glassware. In comparison to Farmer's piece, it has a decidedly theatrical bent, a knowingly 'unnatural' presentation of its quotidian sounds.

The sounds on "history (2b)" are similarly familiar—we know the hard crunch that comes with eating a carrot, or the crisp bite of an apple—but The Set Ensemble don't try to embellish them in any major way. And perhaps unexpectedly, the recording proves consistently engaging. This is accomplished, in part, by the intimate nature of the recording. We're up close with these performers and we hear the different timbres of the foods being eaten and the rhythms with which they're chewed. And along with that, small details—the sound of food being swallowed, the tiny exhalations thereafter, and the ensuing gurgle of stomachs digesting—ornament the primary chewing process.

The delightful "360 sounds" comes afterwards. In it, Dominic Lash asks six players to play one sound per second for sixty seconds. The catch is that that they must play "without exactly synchronising the beginning." Because of this imprecise matching of sounds, the piece has a charming, child-like quality to it that contrasts the rest of stopcock. Each noise occupies its own space in the mix, allowing one to shift his or her attention from one instrument to the next. But when engaged with plainly, they all converge as an amorphous mesh of constant pulses. It's a simple conceit that's slickly executed. Despite how short the piece is, it happens to be incredibly memorable.

The vibrancy of "360 sounds" quickly contrasts with the bleak "you have not been paying attention (again)". Paul Whitty's score requires performers to provide an array of sounds that are "extremely quiet" yet "as abrasive as possible". These sounds are separated into two distinct categories defined by length. One involves shorter sounds between 1 and 7 seconds that can be played multiple times but not consecutively. The other involves longer sounds between 28 and 73 seconds that can only be played once. This framework distributes the weight of each sound's 'abrasiveness' somewhat equally and allows for a sense of constantly renewed stimulation. But even more, there's a perceptible distance between these individual sounds that allows for each action to feel distinct. Consequently, the sonic qualities of these noises are capitalized on without diminishing the effects of others, all of which ultimately combines into a layered whole.

stopcock concludes with Dominic Lash's "for six", a composition that displays the ingenuity of Lash himself as well as the cohesiveness of The Set Ensemble. Three pairs are formed, two of which are based on pitch (Guastalla's cello and Lash's contrabass, Hughes' zither and Stent's guitar) while the third finds both Whitty and Farmer working with electronics. Each person has three possible behaviors: be in silence, play a continuous sound, or play an irregular sound. Based on what one person plays, the other member in the pair reacts according to the unique score he or she has. With this set-up, there are essentially three separate duos simultaneously performing in their own respective space. The decision to tune the instruments to their corresponding extremes (e.g. the cello and contrabass are tuned to the lowest playable pitch) grants a vastness to the entire piece. This is valuable as it makes the interplay between the individual pairings, as well as the entire group, discernible.

In Wolf Notes #8, Dominic Lash describes the score for a composition he wrote entitled "for four". It's a significant piece for Lash in many ways, but perhaps most interesting is that through it, he became comfortable with the idea of writing scores for specific people. It led to a freedom from self-imposed notions of what scores "should be" and he expresses deep gratitude of this realization in writing. He states that composing scores with people in mind should be seen as opportunities in which one tries to get the most out of a collaboration. "for six" was composed two years after this understanding and it contains the names of the six people who perform it here. As the final track on the album, it's a beautiful representation of The Set Ensemble's strength as a group. Which brings to mind how the title of this record feels incredibly appropriate. A stopcock is a valve with a binary functionality—it either prevents or allows water from flowing through pipes. When The Set Ensemble come together, it's like a stopcock has opened and the ideas, compositions, and performances of each member converge harmoniously.

Bryan Eubanks / Stéphane Rives - fq (Potlatch)

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As soon as fq begins, Stéphane Rives' soprano saxophone readily unites with the high-frequency tones of Bryan Eubanks' oscillator. It's immediately clear that both musicians are elevating the severity of their respective performances through uniformity. Compare this with Axiom for the Duration, Rives' collaborative release with Seijiro Murayama. There, the contrast in tone and timbre between the instruments was easily identifiable and allowed for a relatively balanced sound palette. Most of what we hear on this album, however, is high-pitched. And across its thirty minutes, it's this effective confluence of all these sounds that makes fq so satisfying.

Through speakers, the additive quality of Eubanks and Rives' instruments is incredibly clear. The components are frequently hard to separate and its only with repeated listens, especially with headphones, that one starts to get a grasp on how well both musicians play off each other. At times, one musician will disappear and the effect it has is noticeable. This first occurs a couple minutes in: a tone fluctuates between both channels, perhaps signaling the listener to note Rives' absence, and when he returns we can easily recognize how he contributes to the piece. This proves strategic as one can more fully appreciate the interplay between the two as Eubanks' feedback synthesizer begins to a play a prominent role in the album's middle section. Its jagged textures are slightly more animated than those on The Bornholmer Suite. And in conjunction with Rives' breathy squawks, this portion of fq finds the duo at their most delightfully raucous.

Earlier in the recording, one could faintly hear the passing of automobiles and people talking underneath Eubanks and Rives. But in the second half of fq, these 'extramusical' sounds are more audible. We hear more conversing and what is presumably a cart being wheeled around. As they get louder and closer, the musicians react and play as if guided by them. But most interesting is how this passage highlights how crucial the mixing is on this record. Around 19:30, a tone pans right and Rives softly returns but with these sounds accompanying him. A minute later, a tone pans right again but is soon counterbalanced with one in the left channel. This allows for the entrance of the aforementioned cart to be highlighted as it's situated directly between these two tones. This conscientious arranging of sounds exists throughout fq and lends to its effective pacing, making for a constantly engaging listen.

Elements of fq can feel familiar to those who have heard previous records from Eubanks and Rives. For one, Eubanks explored the acoustic properties of a cistern in Fort Warden State Park on his previous solo record and a continued interest in psychoacoustic phenomena is present here. Similarly, Rives has been an adventurous saxophone player for more than a decade and his style of playing here echoes that of Much Remains to be Heard and Fibres. Nevertheless, fq sounds like nothing in either artist's discographies, and the elegant marriage of styles here highlights the immense talent of both Eubanks and Rives.

 

Kevin Parks / Vanessa Rossetto - Severe Liberties (ErstAEU)

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The pairing of Kevin Parks and Vanessa Rossetto may, at first, seem odd. Parks seems largely interested in pure portrayals of improvisation—his collaborations with Joe Foster and Alice Hui-Sheng Chang are comprised of untouched recordings and his live performances don't show signs of prior preparation. Rossetto, on the other hand, would primarily consider herself a composer. And since the release of Dogs in English Porcelain, her records have been the result of meticulous assemblage. What makes Severe Liberties so satisfying, then, is how these two elements—composition and improvisation—come together so harmoniously.

As Matthew Revert noted in Surround, Rossetto's music is interesting because her "source material is often gathered from improvised experimentation" but "is made to exist within a compositional framework." On her solo releases, field recordings are frequently juxtaposed with instrumentation or one another. This consequent reframing highlights, or perhaps imbues, certain emotional qualities to the sounds we hear. Furthermore, the musical qualities of these sounds are explored, and there's a spirit of randomness to them, even if they're coming from pre-programmed machines like those in "348315" and "Whole Stories".

Parks, then, seems like a perfect counterpart to Rossetto because of how talented he is as an improviser. Acts Have Consequences, for example, sounds like a carefully coordinated record. There's a precise balance in dynamics between both Parks and Foster and it's surprising that each track is completely improvised and unedited. That Acts Have Consequences sounds just as thoughtfully constructed as Parks' record with Hong Chulki and Jin Sangtae, an album that was mixed and edited, only further attests to his abilities.

The combination of these two artists leaves us with Severe Liberties, an album whose title refers to the numerous edits that were made with the source material—hours of improvised recordings taken in Vanessa's home. And as the record starts, it makes that idea known to the listener with the sound of contact microphone-derived sounds bouncing across both channels. As Revert's fantastic cover art portrays, Severe Liberties is a record about exploring domestic spaces. It's about our homes and the familiarity of it both as a place and a feeling. And with three tracks that range between 14 and 22 minutes, we're able to get a feel for this space. As is characteristic of previous albums from both Parks and Rossetto, these long-form pieces allow for an involved engagement with these tracks and get a sense of their unfolding narratives.

There are a lot of sounds we hear across these 53 minutes—zippers, the stacking of dishware, processed electronics that sound like fireworks—but it's all so purposefully considered. Take "the details of the anecdote": early in the track, Vanessa walks around and we hear floorboards and doors creak. She eventually turns on a faucet and water begins to funnel down the drain. A high-pitched tone then appears, and because it's so noticeable, it naturally draws our ears back to the running water. And in that moment, we're able to compare both sounds and acknowledge and appreciate the inconsistent rhythm of the water's movement. A softer electronic hum soon appears underneath to assuage the previous tone and the piece moves forward. This sort of methodology permeates Severe Liberties and is exactly what makes it so captivating: there's a constant redirecting of our ears—across field recordings and instrumentation, timbres and rhythms, melody and silence—and it feels like a tour of the house, perhaps not lineally in space or time, but in mood.

Despite the variety of sounds that exist inside Severe Liberties, a few seem especially significant. One of those is the use of voices. While Rossetto has incorporated vocalizing before, and even used her own voice to provide a meta-narrative in Whole Stories, what's here seems especially candid and naturally presented. About three minutes into "seeing as little as possible", we hear her casually talking with someone who is presumably an acquaintance. It's a short exchange, and it's obfuscated by a bit of noise, but it feels all the more personal because of it. The attention isn't drawn towards the conversation. Instead, it's just another sound in the mix, another element that brings up a familiarity of home—the short but polite conversations we have with neighbors. And at the end of "they sit", we hear Rossetto ask Parks, "are you getting tired?" It's humorously positioned, as Parks gets cut off and the following track abruptly starts, but it also provides a glimmer of humanness to the piece. It's safe to say that the human voice would provide such a feeling regardless of what it said, but it's also the genuineness of the question here, and the sound of a weary Parks replying "yea" that makes it so effective. Home is, after all, our place of rest and where we should feel cared for.

Even more emotional is Kevin Parks' guitar. It's often used here alongside contact microphones to create different textures but what really stands out is Parks' decision to incorporate highly melodic instrumentation. These passages appear about halfway through each track and when they arrive, dominate the mood of the piece entirely; it's a sharp contrast with how all the rest of the sounds on the album function. And consequently, it's why these sparse guitar chords and melodies feel more potent than when they appeared on Acts Have Consequences. Nevertheless, Parks' guitar feels wholly appropriate, essentially contributing to the nostalgic atmosphere and tone that the album often evokes.

Perhaps the most interesting element on Severe Liberties, though, is silence. There are four extended periods in which we hear absolutely nothing and they each function in multiple ways. For one, they provide a nice flow to the album; their presence is a building of momentum through repose. At the same time, their placement in each track also allows for the sounds that precede and follow them to be all the more effective. Most compelling, however, is how they allow for us as listeners to fill in the space with the sounds of our own home. It becomes a participatory event, which naturally makes the record all the more intimate.

There are numerous reasons as to why this record is such an accomplishment but it ultimately comes down to how beautifully these artists' styles converge. They're both incredibly talented, of course, but the natural merging of styles on Severe Liberties goes beyond that; it's because both Parks and Rossetto were willing to accommodate their own ideas for a greater whole. Various aspects of Severe Liberties sound characteristically Parks or Rossetto-esque but the final product is something unlike anything in either artists' discographies. And for that reason alone, Severe Liberties is worth hearing. Fortunately, it's a success in many other ways as well.

Devin DiSanto/Nick Hoffman - Three Exercises (ErstAEU)

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The opening track of Three Exercises ends with a brief statement: "It's August 9th, 2014. Devin DiSanto and Nick Hoffman, St. Thomas the Apostle Elementary School." Yet before we're told this, certain sounds help to establish the environment we're in—tables squeak loudly across tile floors, doors with push bars reverberate as they close, and both a parent and child talk in the distance. Even if one hadn't glanced at the photos that decorate the CD's packaging, one could likely deduce that these performances took place inside a school gymnasium. But more than just an unveiling of the sounds and location that characterize Three Exercises, "preparation / introduction" reveals a very important component to the album: transparency.

Two writers, Justin Palmer and Sharon Glassburn, are tasked with recording notes out loud into a tape recorder. And throughout the album, we get an understanding, albeit a vague one, of the ensuing sounds. The actual three exercises that take place are hard to parse, however, and an overlap of sounds between tracks diminishes any sense of clarity regarding when each activity took place relative to one another. In "sequence 1" and "exercise 3", we hear Devin playing with a Boggle game—the container is shaken, an hourglass is flipped, and a list of words is recited. Interestingly, a portion of the former is replayed over speakers in "sequence 2", and DiSanto performs a variation of this process that replaces the Boggle game with Bingo, cage and all.

The first and second "exercise" tracks and "sequence 1.2" seem to be interrelated. From piecing the tracks together and viewing the images on the cover, one can somewhat figure out what's going on here: duct tape is measured and placed on the gymnasium floor, DiSanto walks along the duct tape foot-to-foot with a collapsible table that's placed on a moving dolly, ping pong balls fall off that table and their end point is numbered and marked with duct tape. An interlude entitled "recreation" also occurs midway through the album which, appropriately, features basketballs being dribbled and shot into the gym's hoop.

For many, the task-driven nature of Three Exercises will be reminiscent of DiSanto's Tracing a Boundary. On that record, numerous sounds—namely the folding of paper and the soft hum of wind—were heard in an open space. The piece channeled the calming nature of working on a project or doing housework on a Sunday afternoon. Instruments were occasionally played and announcements with specific times (e.g. "13 minutes") periodically interjected but they never detracted from the overall mood. Three Exercises isn't exactly meditative but it feels very much like the product of DiSanto's approach there with Nick Hoffman's texturally-minded works via different types of synthesis (on this recording, frequency modulation and dynamic stochastic synthesis). It never gets too noisy, but it's a clear combined effort and the interplay between both musicians is harmonious and engaging, often helping to pace the record effectively.

There's a lot happening in Three Exercises but the beauty of the recording is that its mysteries don't need to be thoroughly decoded to enjoy. At times, the reveal is delightful—knowing that the terrifying crunch that opens "sequence 2" comes from a spinning Bingo ball cage is hilarious. But more often than not, a play-by-play isn't necessary to be fixated by what's present on these eight tracks; the juxtaposition between the twirling Bingo ball cage and the silence that follows is potent and affecting whether or not we recognize the source. And because of that, the record holds a fascinating paradox of sorts—the semi-acousmatic nature of the work affirms how nonessential it is to see and know the source of any given sound to appreciate it.

During my initial listens of Three Exercises, I made sure to pay close attention to Palmer and Glassburn's notes. At first, they functioned solely as guides who helped me unearth what DiSanto and Hoffman were doing. But after my "need" for them was presumably finished, their roles shifted from somewhat auxiliary to indispensable—their voices, usually signified with tape feedback, were important elements that contributed just as much as anything else to the sonic make-up of these tracks. In other words, the very things that exposed these sounds were better appreciated as pure aural elements. Three Exercises is transparent but the innate qualities of the sounds therein, and our visceral engagement with them, take precedence. And the record manages to point out that exact phenomenon. That the alluring mystique of the record's production is sustained after its literal unveiling is at the heart of what makes Three Exercises a masterpiece.