Many artists working under the catchall ‘experimental’ label nevertheless tend toward repetition, even cliché. Olivia Block, by contrast, rarely does the same thing twice. Indeed, her recorded output often feels like a series of literal experiments, designed and executed in rigorously controlled environments. With each release, Block conceives a new setup, introduces a new instrument or source material—or a new system or method of composition—so that her oeuvre has the feel of an ever-expanding research programme. When she has selected, explored, and documented a new idea (or technique, or space), Block publishes her findings and moves on.
The UK-based Penultimate Press (run by Mark Harwood aka Astor) continues their ongoing retrospective/excavation of the neglected Danish Fluxus-aligned composer Henning Christiansen with two new archival releases sharing the distinction of being scores for films directed by his partner and collaborator Ursula Reuter Christiansen. The label’s back-catalogue—home to such luminaries as Graham Lambkin, Księżyc, Étant Donnés, and Áine O'Dwyer—points to a constellation of outré artists united, however tenuously, by an aesthetic departing from Christiansen himself: a sort of rustic, homespun, off-kilter style enmeshed within the soundscape of local folklore and ecology. It is therefore appropriate that Penultimate is taking up the task of bringing attention to this underappreciated composer and subsequently filling in a historical gap between the now-canonized Fluxus sound art of Nam June Paik et al. and the legion contemporary artists in its trajectory.
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.