Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Freely available drones: Uexkull

One of the first sets of CDs that I pre-ordered was when my primary CD dealer was Soleilmoon Records in Portland. I even went to visit them once when I was in Portland on business, and they were the source for most of the odd music I found in those times. The store went on to found its own label, but originally it was only a distributor. Sometime in 1990, they sent out a special flyer advertising a forthcoming 11-CD set, called Anckarström. I can't remember what timeframe they projected, but it ended up being almost a year before the CDs arrived, along with an apology that there were only ten CDs, rather than the promised eleven (the eleventh, a collaboration between Adi Newton and Andrew McKenzie, was released on LP in 1994, nearly five years after the original flyer). But the packaging was great. Each CD was in an oversize cardboard wallet, with only the artist's name in a black banner on the front and a label logo on the back. Inside, each page had a wallet, a vertical one on the left that held a poster or other printed material, and a horizontal one on the right that held the CD. The album credits were printed on the left-hand wallet, and the right-hand wallet had several lines of continuous text, printed as if an excerpt, all in some language I don't understand (probably Swedish).

Even then, from the ten CDs, the ones that appealed to me the most were the drones. A favorite from the set was a long piece by Zbigniew Karkowski entitled Uexkull, and accompanied by a very evil looking photo poster by J. Cynimbo, a sacrifice of a virgin with lots of occult symbolism. The piece itself is a little over an hour long and presents a number of noisy drone scenarios sequentially, four or five for the piece. Each section runs for about 10-15 minutes, then slowly crossfades to the next. Underneath the whole piece is a gorgeous deep resonant drone, with a tone quality almost like a didgeridu, but without any of the rhythms that come from a human performer, just a slight repeating oscillation. This deep drone opens the piece, then appears by itself at various other times. Its recurrence provides a few moments of peace amidst a couple of very rich and noisy blocks. We get air-raid sirens wrapped in buzzing sounds, screaming mechanical birds, and angry mutant insects from a bad sci-fi movie, all processed into a slowly evolving potage. Karkowski studied with Xenakis and created Uexkull in part using the Upic system in Paris that Xenakis pioneered. The influence shows strong similarities to Xenakis' early electronics works, such as Bohor and Concret PH.

Karkowski didn't do a lot of drone pieces (although I have my no means heard all of his work). He participated in a group effort with Bilting and Phauss on a release on Kim Cascone's Silent label, which explores similar ideas (Phauss also had an Anckarström album), but these were among his earliest releases. I have other Karkowski albums that are a very different sort of electronics, and some that are orchestral. He's still very active, now residing in Tokyo, and performs around the world (though I haven't seen him anywhere near Arizona lately).

The Anckarström albums were a one-time pressing. I saw them occasionally for sale as singles in better record stores, but eventually the albums were re-released on other labels or went out of print. The Hafler Trio's and John Duncan's contributions were released on Staalplaat, and Karkowski's was reissued on Audio Tong (whence the cover photo above). It's again out of print, even on Audio Tong, so the label has made it freely available as a high-quality AIFF file, mp3s at various bitrates, and as an Ogg file. It's hosted at the Internet Archive, without the x-rated artwork.

Hat tip: Free Albums Galore.

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