7 May 2000
When asked to address a group of architects in 1991, filmmaker Wim Wenders decided not to emphasise the practise of occupying empty landscapes in his speech, but spoke instead of the necessity of preserving them. He asked his audience "to consider the opposite of what you do by definition - not only to construct buildings, but to create open spaces to preserve emptiness, so we are not only faced with fullness, but have the emptiness in which to repose." These words offer a most fitting preface to a consideration of Crawl Unit vs. Silence, which is aptly titled because in it sound is pitted against the very silence from which it derives. For only through silence can sound be said to exist (and, in some ways, vice versa), and the "fullness" we experience in music is matched only by the beauty of silence in which we truly repose. The sounds on this record, originally recorded between 1993 and 1995, were intended for use as "environmental sound for exhibition space". These pieces are remarkable for how their subtle and dense soundscaping continuously moves in and out of a foundation in silence. These five segments create an amorphous whole where silence is not only used as marks of punctuation, but fulfils its double role as both the source and the destination of sound. Highly recommended. [Richard di Santo]
Incursion boss Richard di Santo passed this one to me, having been disappointed with it himself, and hoping that I would find something more beyond its beautiful packaging. But alas, I too was disappointed. First, the facts: this is Bebel Gilberto's first solo album, having worked with Towa Tei and having appeared on various brazillian-flavoured projects in recent years. Most of the tracks here were produced by the late Suba (whose own solo record was recently reviewed in these pages), and feature musical contributions from percussionist João Parahyba, vocalist Nina Miranda, guitarists Celso Fonseca and Luis do Monte, and a whole host of others too numerous to mention. Gilberto's voice is charming and sounds like velvet, as you would expect from anyone with a lineage in bossanova's vast genealogy, but the shortcomings of this music lie not in the artistic talents involved, but in the various structural arrangements and production work of the songs. The record begins with what is billed as a "collaboration" with Amon Tobin, but how misleading this label is! What Suba has done here is merely dub Bebel Gilberto's smooth voice over a completely unaltered version of Tobin's "Nova" originally released on the excellent album Permutation. The mix is also poorly done, for Gilberto's voice comes across as too crisp and loud over Tobin's dense and heavy sound. On the other hand, "Lonely" is a charming song produced by Thievery Corporation, and, though prematurely cut short at only 2 minutes in length, is probably the best on the CD, with a sweet melody, deep bass, and mellow rhythm. Also to her credit is "Samba e Amor", which I like for its simplicity: Gilberto's voice is accompanied only by a traditional melody on acoustic guitar. Which raises an interesting point about this album: it seems that the more production work that was done on these songs, the less rewarding they have become. Consider the arrangements of "August Day Song" and "Sem Contenção", both of which seem too busy and awkward with the urge to be "hip" that they lose out on the charms of Gilberto's vocal talents. What all this amounts to is an album that is best as background music for polite gatherings, but any more than this I cannot recommend. [Cristobal Q]
As far as I am aware, this is the debut release from minimal click-artist Kozo Inada (who also has a CD forthcoming on V2_Archief), and is the first in a line of specially packaged CDs from Staalplaat. Three pieces, totalling just over 13 minutes in length. Short, yes, but an extremely rewarding little release. The first track begins with sparse clicks which build and become almost rhythmical. An incredibly high frequency is added, which is then matched by an incredibly low frequency, making for a highly abstract but overall intriguing piece. The second track is more of an exercise in constant, yet subtly shifting tones. The third is the best of all, which offers a dynamic aural dialogue between natural (water samples) and artificial (microwave) elements. Characteristic of the whole are finely constructed sounds and tones, masterfully edited and arranged to form alluring and abstract sound structures. An excellent debut which leaves me hungry for more. [Richard di Santo]
The latest from Staalplaat's limited edition series is a generous helping of 60 minutes of Bryn Jones' dubby excursions, and it's a nicely varied release. Dubstyle is front & centre (moreso the further into the disc you get), but guest appearances in the guise of peacocks wailing, Arabic radio hosts introducing "a very popular song", and the sweet, sweet harpstrings being plucked in "Gop: Juggle", all lend to a nicely paced disc. If you're not a fan of his "variations on a single theme" discs (Azzazzin, Betrayal, and Untitled come immediately to mind), you should look to adding this one to your collection (notwithstanding the gorgeous Digipak this comes packaged in!). [Vils M DiSanto]
Ethno-ambient master Vidna Obmana returns with a surprising CD of complex soundscapes. Using a host of instruments and "surreal acoustics", together with musical contributions from Steve Roach (guitar), Joris De Backer (double-bass) and Jim Cole (overtone singing and tamboura) makes this one of Obmana's most complex and rewarding works to date, utilising more sound manipulation techniques than I was expecting. Though Obmana's "unmistakable tone" is central in this release, its complex sound constructions and layering of samples makes it a departure from the more gentle and unobtrusive ethno-ambient works of his recent and not-so-recent past. Maybe I have never turned up the volume of one of his records, but with The Surreal Sanctuary the impulse was natural: there's so much hidden beneath these layers, listening to it is like digging for the subtext of a complex narrative structure. This is literature for the ears, telling stories and constructing entire worlds for its listeners to travel through, only to return bewildered to the world like Dante rising from the infernal depths: "It was from there that we emerged, to see - once more - the stars." [Richard di Santo]
Well here's a gorgeous release ideal for morning, noon or night. Constructed by Bill Laswell and conceptualised by Alan Douglas, here we have jazzed-up restylings of the instrumental sections from various operatic works. Music from Donizetti, Verdi, Puccini and Saint-Saens are "redesigned" with Laswell's bassy rhythms (tabla tabla tabla) which are buried in the background of sweet strings, cornets and saxophones. When I first heard this disc, I wanted the rhythms to be louder they just seemed to be too low in the mix but on repeated listenings, I now feel they are at the absolute perfect level. Listen to this now before it's exploited and commercialised in Lexus or British Airways advertisements! [Vils M DiSanto]
Thunderous and abrasive, yet rich and rhythmical, Speedy J's latest release sees him delving far deeper into the sound spectrum than ever before. This exquisitely produced monster offers much to its listeners from loud, heavy bangers to the thicker, denser numbers each play such an integral part to the music on this disc. The "Shocking Hobby" the title refers to (and what a title!) is further explored with track titles like "Borax", "Balk Acid" and "Amoco Cadiz". A chemical-laden thick soup of a theme, echoed throughout the sounds on this disc. The standout track comes relatively early "Dril" is a pounding stunner, and rewards as each new section of it passes. Kudos to Speedy J and Novamute for not including last year's IEEE Mitten Menu single on this disc; its more club-friendly stompiness would not have sat well with the concept behind this disc. Speedy has presented us here with a clear and coherent release, one which challenges and rewards equally. [Vils di Santo]
The latest in Sub Rosa's Le Cour du Monde series of ritual music and field recordings, Tzotziles was recorded by documentary filmmaker Thierry Zéno. The Tzotziles are a native population of some 150,000 living in the Mexican state of Chiapas. This record presents music and chants from some their most common ceremonies, rites and festivals, as well as some storytelling, speeches and discussions. There is an amazing magnetism in their chants, which characteristically will break words into a rapid succession of monosyllables at steady speeds and in streams of various lengths. Take the example of the "transfer of power" rite. Zéno has chosen to present us with three variations on the chant of this rite: the first one is very rapid, the second slower, and the third sung in the broken breaths and fragile voice of an elder. This aural picture is enchanting, but nonetheless coloured with a sadness and suffering which seems characteristic of these people. The selection of songs and stories, together with the liner notes, communicate a civilisation that is declining in strength, which also makes it clear that there is a political as well as an ethnomusicological agenda here. In this light it is only fitting that fragments from speeches and interviews with leaders of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation conclude these recordings. The Zapatista's goal is to win from the Mexican government improved living conditions, democracy, and freedom for their people (and yet, it seems to me the scope of this group is outlined in ambiguous terms: we are told of their goal, but little of their means to attain this goal). In spite of the political agenda (which simultaneously seems both just and suspect), this is overall a fine CD, very well recorded, arranged and mixed, and is an excellent document appealing to the ethnomusicologist in all of us. [Richard di Santo]
Released in 1998, this stunning second album by Tibetan songstress Yungchen Lhamo was produced by French producer and composer Hector Zazou (Sahara Blue, Chansons des Mers Froides, Lights in the Dark). Lhamo's alluring vocal style is complemented by contributions from the usual Zazou ensemble including Kent Condon (guitars), Daniel Yvinec (bass), Hossam Ramzay (percussions) and Caroline Lavelle (cello). Zazou's influence is unmistakable here in the arrangements and instrumentation of the music. All of his music contains a quiet beauty, clarity and subtlety in their delicate sounds and arrangements, making his music instantly recognisable and always worthy of close attention. Zazou's cool, complex rhythms and exquisite production work never cloud the force of Lhamo's voice, and the rich tonalities here leave me breathless with wonder and send chills down my spine. The songs sing of separation, praise, celebration, and travelling. Among the most rewarding pieces on this album is the opening title "Happiness Is...", containing a mantra of "loving compassion" from Lhamo and the exquisite percussions of Ramzay. The deep tones and spine chilling vocals of "Khyab Sange" and "Defiance" demonstrate how Zazou and Lhamo complement each other with their unique styles and musical traditions (the latter contains a sample of unbelievably deep Tuvan throat singing that is simply earth-shattering). Beautiful and alluring, this record is not to be missed. [Richard di Santo]
Sound theorist and recording artist López presents "sound environments from a neotropical rainforest" in this disc released in 1998. These "environments" of a shrinking reserve in Costa Rica are best described by López himself; for as it turns out, I have very little to say on the sounds contained therein. His description of La Selva the rainforest applies equally to La Selva the recording:
The disc comes complete with a very lengthy essay, which, if I remember correctly, came sealed when it first arrived. Sealed and prefaced by a recommendation to keep it that way. The booklet contains the background philosophy behind the recordings, as well as a detailed list of sound sources and the spacial-temporal locations of the recordings. López feels that knowledge of the theory which informs this project takes away the "crudeness" of the work's possibilities, and that it will undoubtedly change the listener's experience of the work, for better or for worse. But for me, the concealment of theory is like a Pandora's box, so I couldn't possibly respect his prefatory recommendation. (For those of you who wish to preserve the "crudeness" of which López speaks, please read no further in this review, for what follows is more of a discussion of the arguments contained in his essay rather than the music on the disc.)
The essay begins with a denunciation of "common practices" in nature recordings. Namely: the isolation of individual sounds from their aural environment; the traditional preoccupation with animal sounds; the use of heavy editing techniques; and the impulse to rationalise and categorise individual sounds. The most immediate examples of this form of nature recording that comes to mind are Chris Watson's Stepping into the Dark and Outside the Circle of Fire, both released on Touch. What López instead proposes is this: a more environmental approach to nature recordings, one that encompasses as much as possible all sounds of location recording; the embracing of all sounds, including those of plant life; and a resistance of extracting sounds in the foreground from those in the background. By doing this he doesn't claim to be presenting a more "realistic" or "complete" perspective on the real location, but instead this method "promotes a perceptual shift from recognition and differentiation of sound sources to the appreciation of the resulting sound matter." He uses the term "sound matter" as opposed to "representation", explaining that "sound matter" emphasises the importance of sound in and of itself (sound in a state of being), as opposed to functioning merely as a representation of another reality removed from it (sound as signifier of a fixed location in space-time). But López does not deny the representational qualities of his recording - indeed he admits that they exist in his work - but claims that these qualities are not essential to it.
This is something I can't quite get a grip on: how López can distinguish between representational and non-representational sound in nature recordings. He claims that the microphone is the "first transformational step" which a natural sound undergoes; that the microphone "hears" sound in a specific way, some differently than others, and that sound recordings, no matter how advanced the technology, can never replace what he calls the "real experience". While this is true, I might point out that even the "real experience" offers a specific way of hearing sound, and that the very concept of "real experience" is dubious, to say the least. Though it is true that a microphone "translates" or "interprets" sounds as the first in a chain of "translations" and "interpretations", it is our ears and neural processes that have the final say. They are the final translators, interpreters and metaphor makers in the act of hearing. In an early notebook, Nietzsche wrote of the impossibility of knowing reality in and of itself because all of our senses essentially interpret their source materials as they represent them to the brain. Our realty, the "real experience" López is pining for here, or truth itself, is nothing but a
What all this leads to is this: While it's very clearly stated what López does not want to do with this recording, I can't be entirely sure of what he actually sets out to do. He first says that the recordings here "have not been modified or subjected to any process of further mixing or additions... it could therefore be said that this work features 'pure', straight nature sound environments." And thus is his conceit. However, later on in the essay, when discussing the presence of human sounds (traffic, a plane flying overhead), he contradicts this claim by saying that he "deliberately avoided [human-made sound intrusions] during recording... or removed them through editing" (my emphasis).
Let me close this rather lengthy review by granting López the validity of the majority of his arguments and misgivings about more traditional forms of nature recordings. His paper is very well written, and is clearly is the result of much research, experimentation and consideration. The only thing the paper lacks is a lucid rendering of what he is affirming through his work. His discussions on "blind listening" (acousmatics) and "sound matter" (sound as being) are (for me, at least) lacking in clarity, and the whole representation vs. non-representation discourse leaves me wondering what the nature of each actually entails. In short, López offers a fascinating look at the trappings of making a nature recording, and presents an incredibly rich aural environment in which to linger as an active listener and partaker in this soundscape that is La Selva. [Richard di Santo]
Scala is Mark Van Hoen (Locust), Daren Seymour and Sara Peacock. Van Hoen and Seymour released an album of abstract audio textures together in 1995 as Aurobindo on the Ash International label. Released in 1998, Compass Heart is an extremely rewarding album of atypical, moody pop songs, sung by lyricist Peacock with an engaging blend of sweetness, bitterness and sadness. The lyrics are simple expressions about love, loss and desire (but which nonetheless carry some unexpected turns of phrase). The vocals find their perfect complement in the music which surrounds them: they match each other perfectly in their themes and moods. Take "Words and Thoughts", which reads like an open letter to women in unfulfilling relationships. The lyrics have a biting force in them ("What can he give you if you let him get away with that?... How far will you let him go?"), a sentiment that is matched by the sharp and violent vocal cut-ups provided by Van Hoen and Seymour. An important contribution to the success of this record is that each vocal song is followed by a short instrumental piece, giving the whole album a balanced, symmetrical structure. Beats and atmospheres range from warm ("Hotel Room"), to contemplative ("Thirst"), to the more harsh sounds of "Broken Down Beauty" and "Ride On". Van Hoen's staple "hiss" production work is omnipresent here: the sounds are rarely crisp and clean, but always muffled by layers of hiss and crackles, contributing to a certain otherworldliness in the moods here. Seek out this record and just soak in it. [Richard di Santo]
Seclusion is Makoto Hattori, Chako and Christoph Heemann. From the moment I put this in my player I was stopped dead in my tracks. This music on this 30 minute EP has an overwhelming power, and I find myself returning to it time and time again. It opens with a quiet drone, interspersed with drops of crystalline sound, as gentle as the gentlest snowfall (this first visual effect is suggested by the superb cover art). As I have come to expect from any project with Heemann in its personnel, the production work here is incredible; these sounds breathe a life of their own that is truly remarkable. Deep into the drones of the opening sequences, immersed in their depth and beauty, there comes a gentle voice strained in song, later accompanied by the quiet and deep intonations of an organ. You encounter her voice as you would a pool of clear cool water in a tranquil wilderness; as still as sadness itself, a scene for contemplation and reflection, a place of infinite beauty that pulls you to stillness. Please excuse my liberties here: I can only speak of this music, itself so very poetical, in terms of analogy and metaphor. Needless to say, this record comes highly highly recommended. [Richard di Santo]
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