Friday, August 24, 2007

Synthesis from a diary

Most of the time, when I find a new discovery in the INA-GRM sound, a recognizable style of electronic music, often derived from Pierre Schaeffer's first musique concrète in the 1950s, the artist was active in the 1970s and 1980s, but his or her records were released in limited editions back in the day and never received any kind of circulation. The Icelandic label Creel Pone specializes in this mini sub-genre, duplicating the original releases as closely as possible except the LP is replaced by the CD (and the packaging reduced in size). Few are the releases of new work and new composers, but the Italian label Die Schachtel recently released a collection of pieces by Angelo Petronella that sits easily next to the French masters. As far as I can tell, this is his first release under his own name, although he participated in a new music/improv release from 1979 that has been given a deluxe reissue package, also from Die Schachtel.

Sintesi da un Diario (Synthesis from a diary) clearly inhabits the same sound world as Bernard Parmegiani and his colleagues. You can easily hear one big difference between this album and those from the seventies, and that is the precision Petronella gets from his material. This factor alone would make the album worth hearing — it sounds great, way better than most reissues, even after remastering. Razor-sharp sounds are carefully placed in space, even in the two-dimensional stereo reduction that comes on a CD. On headphones, you can hear sound gestures whirling around, coming from all directions. In addition, more than a lot of earlier composers, Petronella combines field recordings with electronic sounds in unusual and creative ways.

The album comprises a seven-part suite Insieme sonoro in quattro tratti e tre innesti (soundwork collection in four sections and three connections), preceded by the standalone piece, Voce e macchina (Voice and machine). Big Tibetan chants open this piece, intercut with delicate typewriters, helicopters, and other mechanical sounds. The two types of sounds carry on a dialogue that ranges in turn from ominous to sultry, sometimes morphing into each other.

In the suite, field recordings play a major structural role. Each of the four sections of the suite (named Tratto 1 through Tratto 4) incorporates the sounds of children playing, and each of the three connections is based around a different thematic, whether it's the illusion in Habitat of opening a window to the sounds outside, the conversations in Lamento, and the vocal phonemes in Un canto. Throughout the suite, the sounds swirl and blend together, precisely placed in space and with different degrees of resonance used to create visions of great depth. Electronic sounds seem to grow out of the field recordings, especially during the sections using the sounds of the children.

Many commentators have dismissed this album as derivative of the INA-GRM sound, but I think this perspective misses the point. Musique concrète remains a viable musical language with many different styles, and currently practiced by several artists (one thinks of Francisco López, Chris Watson, Michael Northam, and Steve Roden, to name only a few for whom field recordings are a rich source of sonic building blocks). Artists like Petronella keep the genre alive, and the technological advances in the studios over the last couple of decades make Sintesi da un diario a superb example of contemporary concrète.

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