Friday, January 11, 2008

Invisible sounds

One of the most interesting releases from 2007 was by the peripatetic sound artist Francisco López, entitled Wind [Patagonia]. It is the third in an occasional series of extended works constructed from relatively unprocessed field recordings from various locations in the western hemisphere. The label description refers to the three releases as the "trilogy of the Americas," but it is not only the sound origins that create a commonality between the works. Each one has a similar cover design and contains an extensive essay on how the work was created, along with the same cautionary warning in all three releases, providing the listener with information about "the background philosophy behind the work and about its specific spatial-temporal 'reality,'" but urging him or her not to access them. All this is very much in keeping with López's long term vision of 'absolute' music. In various essays and interviews, he has situated himself with reference to the work of musique concrète theorist Pierre Schaeffer, who used sound objects without reference to their origins in the 'real' world. López often blindfolds the audience at his concerts to de-emphasize the sounds' relationship to the performer.

López has been at the forefront of sound art for nearly twenty-five years. He originally trained as a biologist, spending considerable time in the Costa Rican rain forest La Selva where the first of the three recordings was made. La Selva is an amazing recording, bringing the rain forest to life through close-miking magic. At several points, the listener can hear insects landing on the microphone and taking off again, along with all of the other richness present in the ecosystem. The second recording was urban: Buildings [New York] captured the sounds of the city's infrastructure, including the World Trade Center. Both albums portrayed a detailed sonic environment, demonstrating the rhythmic and textural possibilities for a musical interpretation.

Although Wind [Patagonia] shares several aspects with the earlier releases, it seems to require a perceptual shift that is unique. It isn't simply that López has moved his focus from the closed spaces of the rain forest and sub-basements to the South American plains. One can hear various creaks and squeaks, but the overwhelming sound source on the album is, unsurprisingly, wind. Movement of air through empty space. The sound of something invisible, something that's not really there. A Google search for wind noise produces results that tell how to minimize and eliminate it. López turns the act of listening on its head by calling attention to the invisible, the ignored, the unseen. Even with this obscured sound palette, López has created a work as varied, as detailed and as rich as the other releases in the series. The great sweeps of white noise from the wind are complemented by tiny sounds from the rest of the environment, rewarding the listener who has successfully transferred the background to the foreground.

López is a prolific sound artist, with nearly fifty releases on CD alone. With his focus on sound objects, it's not always possible to identify his sound sources, but he casts a much wider net than field recordings. Nevertheless, these three albums are among his best and most accessible. Wind [Patagonia] is released on and/OAR, a small label specializing in field recordings, and is available directly from the label as well as from the usual gang of distribution suspects.

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