Thursday, May 10, 2007

Songs from the Wood

Seth Nehil and John Grzinich worked together in the early 1990s on creating soundscapes where field recordings play a major role. In addition to a number of solo projects, they released a CD of archival recordings of their Alial Straa project from the mid-1990s and two companion CDs, Confluence and Stria, in 2002. Last year, they released a new recording, Gyre, on Jason Kahn's Cut label. An early mix of Gyre was presented as a four-channel sound installation.

Whereas their earlier releases present fairly massive drones and larger collective recordings, Gyre is both a more sparse and more textured work. For example, the track Weald starts with single percussive sounds (which could be wood cutters) before adding birds and other ambience. When a big boom (from a resonant water tank?) starts a passage of deep bass a little before the half way point, the wood cutters are still audible in the background. I hear tiny clattering sounds and a couple of ominous crashes, but the fade out is as rough as the introduction. The opening track, Cast, is most similar to their previous work because of a deep underlying drone that is sustained across most of the piece, but there is an insistent rustling in the foreground that sets the track apart. The texture extends to the final track, Glaze, where the foreground sounds composed and man-made, over a whirling metallic background that fades out, leaving the sound composer at work with his devices.

In all three pieces on the CD, Gyre plays with the spatialization of sounds. Some sound events are heard across a great distance. Their origin is diffused throughout the environment, and the resonance is stronger, making the specifics of the originating event more ambiguous. Contrast this background with very specific, detailed sounds that move perceptibly around the listening environment. These small sounds are no less ambiguous. I can't tell whether the rustling on Cast is from raindrops or the woods, at least until the end when the drone drops out and leaves only some metallic sounds.

Gyre is similar in many ways to the work of Michael Northam, whom I've written about before. Northam has released two collaborative CDs with Grzinich and contributes some source recordings for Weald on this album. Sometimes I wonder whether working so much with field recordings is an attempt to defer the listener's attention back to the environment and away from the artist. I would be hard pressed to identify characteristics of this album that are unique to Nehil or Grzinich, but I don't believe that they are trying to make a recognizable niche for themselves. Regardless, these recordings are immersive and timeless, qualities that I find tremendously appealing, and which I continue to seek both in recordings and my own music.

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