19 November 2000
These recordings of natural VLF radio phenomena were made by Stephen P. McGreevy during various expeditions to Alberta and Manitoba, Canada in 1996 and 1998. VLF phenomena, in short, are the sounds of atmospheric conditions heard through radio waves. Lightning storms, the earth's magnetosphere, and the Aurora Borealis and Australis (northern and southern lights) all produce a variety of electromagnetic "sounds", such as "sferics" (lightning-stroke static), tweeks, "whistlers", "chorus" chirping, barking and squawking radio sounds produced by the the sun's solar wind hitting the earth's magnetic field; various kinds of hiss, and other varieties of sounds. (For more information on VLF phenomena, visit Stephen McGreevy's site below.) My take on this so-called phenomenon is this (and those who know better can perhaps enlighten me if I am incorrect): what we're hearing is not the actual sounds of these atmospheric conditions, far from it. This is rather what is in effect audio interpretations of these atmospheric conditions. The radio translates these conditions and relays the information in the only manner it knows how: through sound. So I'm really not quite sure how much of a "phenomenon" this really is. If you set up a TV antenna to receive information directly from the northern lights, would you not receive a particular variation of "snow" on your screen? Can this rightly be called a phenomenon?
The recordings (some in stereo but most in mono) are all characterised by strange popping sounds, probably the sounds of the equipment being used through which the VLF radio signals can be heard, and although they are often in the foreground, we really should be paying attention to what lies behind these pops and clicks, those strange sounds resembling bird calls (squawks and chirps), whale songs, whistles and such. This is an interesting document of capturing anomalous radio signals, which may or may not be of any scientific interest. Which begs the question: Are they of any artistic interest? Can they succeed in capturing the attention of those with curious ears? I suppose it's more than possible, but if you're looking for the next best thing in nature recordings or in radio wave research, you'd best look the other way... the approach to these recordings seems a little too new-age for me. [Cristobal Q]
This disc marks the 22nd installment of the complete John Cage Edition being released by Mode Records. The renowned new music interpreter Irvine Arditti (violin) joins forces with fellow new music virtuosos Stephen Drury (piano) and Mayumi Miyata (sho) to present two variations on a single composition from Cage's later years (circa 1991). I'm going to skip over most of the academics involved in interpreting this composition. Let it suffice to say, however, that this composition carries hidden within its structure a set of potential variations, explained in the liner notes as "the symmetrical construction, varying length of the windows of possibility, the 'hidden' additions of time," etc. However incomprehensible all this may seem, these potentialities, even when realised, are never actually heard by the listener. The performer, we are told, "could not actually make these time brackets heard; they exist as mere possibilities, with only one unique potentiality coming into being in a given performance".
And so let's move on to discuss what we actually do hear in these performances.
The composition relies on the interplay of two sound elements. The violin holds its notes for extremely long periods of time, creating a long, thin line of sound, which seems fragile and mysterious in nature. In the first variation, the violin is accompanied by a performance on the sho, a Japanese wind instrument used in the gagaku ensemble for performing traditional court music. In contrast to the sustaining notes from the violin, the notes on the sho (limited to 17 chords) are played for shorter periods of time, only rarely do the two elements converge in a moment of silence or resonance. This music is really quite captivating and mysterious, and seems to exist as if in a state of suspension. The second performance (of the same composition) pairs the violin with the piano. The violin repeats its performance of sustaining its notes, creating long and thin drones of sound. The piano performs the counterpart by sounding its chords in shorter durations (again, the same 17 notes as in the first performance). The piano variation is instantly distinguished from the first performance for violin and sho, for the very obvious reasons that the sho is a wind instrument where the tones are held for as long as the player's breath allows, and the chords on the piano are "plucked" and last only as long as the vibration endures. The piano variation also provides a more bold sound, the composition takes on less of an ephemeral nature, and the notes seem more grounded rather than suspended in mid-air. This particular "grounding" effect is chiefly because of the more bold and concrete nature of piano playing, the very nature of the piano as an instrument where chords are struck with inescapable energy (even by the most gentle of players).
This latest installment in the John Cage series is an intriguing and captivating release, expertly executed by the performers, and packaged with an insightful (if a little confounding) essay by Stephen Drury. [Richard di Santo]
Here's a self-indulgent bit of new nonsense from Coil. Here you can listen to Coil twiddle with their fancy knobs and fancy voice manipulator software ad nauseum. Seemingly the antithesis to their very fine Moon Musick set of discs, Constant Shallowness is a mess of harsh electronics and tumbling rhythms, really rather comical in nature (as opposed to being comical in Nature).
The disc is bizarrely paced and pieced together. First off, there's twenty-three
tracks on the disc, six track titles listed on the disc itself, but only
around four movements evident. The first movement coincides with the first
track, which hints of things to come further on. Subdued power, slowed
down and mechanized for your ears. The second track brings in the comedy.
A flippantly bouncy synthetic plucking of strings form the backing to
some vocal ramblings referencing "the green child", "occidental
vomit" and "colour, sound, oblivion". And this the strongest
track on the disc.
As I said, a self-indulgent bit of new nonsense from Coil. Please get back to the regular bit of new nonsense, thank you very much. [Vils M DiSanto]
This new disc from empreintes DIGITALes compiles four pieces by Louis Dufort, a Montreal-based electroacoustic wizard, composed between 1996 and 2000. Dufort manifests his passion for electronic music, cinema, painting and contemporary dance in his electroacoustic works. His own description of his music emphasises the narrative qualities in his work: "Object, body, colour and sound anecdote give rise to plays of perception that envelope the listener. Sound material is used in this way to draw forth musical outlines in which poetry and the narrative representation of sound serve as markers in the development of the work". It is therefore only fitting that his work carries a particularly "theatrical" component, suggesting all the movement of a story, but enacted solely through the use of abstract sound. Each of these compositions presents an intense sound environment, buzzing with activity and motion. The themes are of paradoxes ("continuous discontinuity" in track 1), opposites ("elasticity/contraction" in track 4), and self reflexive exercises ("the formal expression of form" in track 3). All manner of sounds are used in arrangements that forever keep you on the edge of your seat. You never have time to relax your perception, as each of these compositions demands your undivided attention. Although there is an immense host of extremely fascinating sound constructions (Dufort's concrete sounds all share a certain clarity that fits perfectly in my ears), I occasionally found the arrangements to be a little too busy and chaotic for my liking. Still, these recordings have piqued my interest to see what Dufort's theatre pieces are like; since he often composes for the Marie Chouinard contemporary dance company, it would be interesting to see how his music, itself so very theatrical and expressive, can work together with a more physical stage presence.
One last point about this disc, on a purely aesthetic note: the nice folks at empreintes DIGITALes seem to be forever committed to presenting their CDs in the most awkward packaging designs around. This one's the worst of the lot, I'm afraid. I am convinced that there's an adequate middle ground where form and function can meet, so if the right people are reading this, please try again! [Richard di Santo]
At first this seems like an unlikely collaboration. Thomas Lehn, an improviser immersed in the "Cologne movement" of improvisational electronics, never seemed to me to be quite in the same musical realm as fellow Cologne resident Marcus Schmickler, probably best known for his work as Pluramon (progressive- postrock- krautrock released on Mille Plateaux). The two had met while working in the improvisational ensemble MIMEO. For their collaborations, Schmickler sheds his Pluramon-Wabi Sabi-Kontakta hats, trading them in for something a little more like-minded with Lehn's improvisational methods. Clusters of clicks, pops and whirrs flutter in and out of these tracks at amazing frequency. There's a lot of energy to these recordings, a lot of movement and detail. And yet still the sounds are not all that diverse; the five tracks that comprise this CD never quite leave the microcosm of analogue versus digital clicks, noise and sound fragments (Thomas Lehn uses an analogue synth while Schmickler uses a digital synth with computer). Which came first, I wonder? Are they mixing each other's output, or are they creating independently? The arrangements range in tone from softer clusters of sound to more harsh and abrasive movements. This music is really quite dense and difficult, heavy on detailing and spontaneity, which means that listening to these tracks takes some effort to get through (for me, at least). Nonetheless a very fine CD of improvised electronics. [Richard di Santo]
Andrew Chalk's recent output has been something of a surprise for me. Formerly a member of Organum, and now collaborating with the likes of Christoph Heemann and Darren Tate, recently Chalk has been flooding the catalogues of Robot Records, Streamline, Some Fine Legacy and Die Stadt with his rich and elaborate soundscapes.
Nightwalkers is the latest installment by Mirror, the collaborative project of Andrew Chalk and Christoph Heemann. This time around they are joined by the very talented multi-instrumentalist Andreas Martin. Martin has often worked with Heemann throughout the years; see the excellent 2 CD set documenting their collaborations called Lebenserinnerungen Eines Lepidopterologen (also on Robot Records). Martin's touches are sometimes subtle, and sometimes quite obvious. On Nightwalkers, we see Mirror admirably branching out from the long drone pieces we have seen in their previous work (see the reviews below). Instead, side one offers us shorter pieces with all manner of sounds in what seem to be more improvisational arrangements. Sharp tonal shifts, percussive clusters and rhythms, resonations from guitar strings, and unexpected turns make these pieces exciting and surprising. Side two returns us to the more familiar drone territory, and concludes with a breathtaking piece, so very rich in detail and texture, which moves slowly with acute deliberation. As with all of Mirror's output, which for me represents some of the most captivating and complex ambient-experimental work in recent years, this one comes highly recommended.
Aureum is a 2LP set representing some of Andrew Chalk's collaborative efforts with Darren Tate. They are joined on this release by the mixing talents of Collin Potter (whose work we have witnessed on Current 93 and Nurse With Wound records, among others), who mixes one long track on side two of the first LP. The selection opens with the kind of rich drone we have now come to expect from Chalk, with its beautiful detailing and intermittent drops of crystalline sounds and samples. Mixed in with the drones on the first LP are all manner of found sounds and field recordings, but the integration is meticulous and natural, obviously the result of highly detailed mixing. The second LP branches off somewhat, and instead of these evolving drone pieces we get a more diverse sound palette where the field recordings take more precedence, but still with a similar structure of a slow and deliberate progression. An audible breeze, a stream of water, the sounds of something or someone moving around, shifting positions, strange sounds... a fascinating collection, perfectly arranged, arousing the listener's imagination and curiosity.
The ORA sleeve features Darren Tate's strange artwork, which with its faded watercolours and bizarre inkings can be quite psychedelic in spirit. The Mirror record is packaged with a limited edition print by Andrew Chalk, who is continuing his series of mysterious and sandy visual textures. Very nice! [Richard di Santo]
Repeat is Toshimaru Nakmamura (who performs on a no-input mixing board) and Jason Kahn (acoustic drums, metals, electronics, sampling). Kahn is a seasoned improviser who recently surprised me with two exceptional solo records released on his own Cut label (the see related reviews below); surprising not because I was expecting otherwise, but because I had never heard Kahn's music before. Much like these two solo records, the focus for Repeat's recording projects is on slowly evolving repetitive structures and textures. On this disc we have 10 tracks which investigate the possibilities of such structures to amazing effect. Generally subdued and subtle, these minimal rhythms and abstract tones move slowly through the cold air. Nakmamura provides quiet shifts from his feedback mixing board, while Khan moves the rhythms forward with his percussive instrumentation and electronic noises. The two elements work extremely well together; the pieces move in a natural way, engendering and developing new and complex repetitive structures. There is an unassuming harmony between all sound elements in this music, and the results are often quite captivating. Track 10, for example, is a stunning example of this "harmonising", and provides a mesmerising conclusion to the programme. The chimes and tones are guaranteed to prick up your ears and invite you to respond cognitively to their evolving structures. Another excellent new release from Cut Records. [Richard di Santo]
ERNESTO DIAZ-INFANTE: Tepeu
These two discs are the first in an ongoing series of annual recordings for solo piano by improvisational composer Ernesto Diaz-Infante published by Pax Recordings. Since then two others have been released, Ucross Journal in 1999 and Solus in 2000.
Recorded in 1997, Itz'at comprises 13 "Pax Preludes" and a longer composition called "Mariposa Liviana". The pieces are quiet and are played with noticeable calm and deliberation; the piano tumbles slowly through a maze of contemplative movements, inspiring in the listener a call for pause and introspection. The music is really quite beautiful, and the more I listen to it the more I notice the subtleties and nuances in the compositions and in the performance. Diaz-Infante has become more and more adventurous in his music over the past few years, and I suspect that these early improvisations for piano represent only a small portion of his capabilities.
Tepeu, recorded exactly one year following Itz'at on the fourth of July, 1998, is so named after a Mayan god who has the role of bringing order to the universe. Diaz-Infante finds a kindred spirit in Tepeu, for he says: "I think of my creative process as bringing order out of chaos". Collected here are six improvisations (one of them structured, the other five being "free"). On this recording we see Diaz-Infante building on the foundation he had established one year earlier, creating pieces which share a similar quality of studious and deliberate playing. But this time the music is more bold, the keys are struck with greater force, and there is more of a sense that a time for introspection must always be met by a time for decision making and action (hence the thesis-antithesis-synthesis theme in the track titles). Conflicting emotions ranging from a cool sort of calm to more confused emotional states mark the moods of these bold and energetic pieces, creating a greater sense of urgency but also a sense of incomprehensible mystery, the kind that's at the root of the human condition.
Both of these discs from Diaz-Infante offer captivating compositions that reward the listener at every turn; this is the kind of music that increases in richness and meaning as the listener builds on experiences in his own life. Highly recommended. [Richard di Santo]
A very fine compilation released in 1997 as a second collaboration between California's Swinging Axe label and Toronto's Freedom In A Vacuum (the first was To Step Outside And Keep Walking). Globus And Decibel features the work of Brume, Edward Ka-Spel, Jörg Thomasius and Stylus (featuring Randy Greif, R. Kitsch and Jeff Jerman). The artists are given a nice workspace with which to showcase their talents. Everyone has between fifteen and twenty minutes of material here, and it ranges in style from the conrète stylings of Brume to the vocal stylings of Ka-Spel.
France's Brume impresses mightily with their three track contribution entitled "Acid Ages Carbon". The tracks a very distinctive hand-forged nature about them - very well constructed indeed. The tensions builds feverishly (as does the decibel level), but it's all so well-controlled, it never feels like it's going to lose track of its intentions. Primordial and monstrous, Brume provide the most engaging work on this disc.
For his part, Mr. Ka-Spel chose to provide a reworking of a previously-released number called "Atomic Roses", and has divided it into two parts here: "After" and "Before". "After" is the more adventurous of the two, jumping from a circus atmosphere around a third of the way through to some nifty voice treatments laid over top of a 1930s-era movie score. Guitar screechings sound like the wailing cries of a famished cat in the night. "Before" cuts the volume down by half, and is much more ambient and stretched in nature, with slowly shifting pulses of sound favoured over vocals this time.
Jörg Thomasius' three tracks are the least engaging on the disc - compared to the craftiness of Brume and the showmanship of Ka-Spel, Thomasius' tracks seem characterless by comparison. Some playful reverb techniques enhance some minimal drum banging, but there's just not much going on otherwise.
Stylus closes off the disc in fine form. What starts off in a Vidna-Obmana-esque ethno-ambient mode turns into a rhythmic exercise reminiscent of Nurse With Wound's friendlier moments on Thunder Perfect Mind. Not a very sharp or crisp recording, I wonder if this track could do with some remastering. It seems to lean to the right side of the stereo spectrum as well, but only just enough to feel slightly off-balance. Still, an entertaining close to a wonderful disc.
So if you're looking for a well-formed compilation by a small group of talented people, I would highly recommend this disc to you. A very well-paced disc with some exemplary work by these artists. [Vils M DiSanto]
The Incursion Music Review was published and edited by Richard di Santo from 2000 to 2004. All 75 issues can be accessed in the archive. Please note that we are no longer accepting submissions or promotional material for review.
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