Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Listening to the fauna

Michael Prime was one of the founding members of the electronic improvisation group Morphogenesis, one of the few groups who traced their lineage to the live electronic music of Cage, Stockhausen, AMM and MEV instead of the more typical free jazz. Although the group still performs sporadically, Prime has continued a productive improvisational career as a soloist and with other improvisers such as Max Eastley, Jim O'Rourke, Eddie Prévost and Geert Feytons.

Similar to sound artist Francisco Lopez, Prime studied ecology and worked in the field for many years. Not only do field recordings find their way into his music, but he also developed an unusual method of sound production: bioelectrical signals from plants. Even with Morphogenesis, Prime could be seen (and heard) with various plants connected to wires. His solo work includes the album L-Fields where he manipulates bioelectrical signals from various hallucinogenic and psychotropic plants. In addition, he has also worked with ultrasonic recordings, capturing the sounds of fish, insects and bats. He also creates sound installations, one of which was released a few years ago in which live bioelectrical signals were modulated with infra-red motion detectors and eventually, interference from the audience.

His most recent solo work, Borneo, is a two-CD set stemming from a trip to the northernmost part of the island in early 2005. The album is an excellent summation of Prime's various creative activities to date. Several pieces combine bioelectrical plant signals with field recordings from the same area. The piece Insect Strategies combines ultrasonic recordings of various insects, while Hungry Ghosts includings ultrasonic recordings of bats. He even set up sound installations in the jungle and recorded these in combination with the field recordings. Some of the tracks are unadulterated field recordings from forests and markets. The album's opening piece, Year of the Cock, includes snippets from a Chinese New Year celebration, but the piece is a gentle introduction to the set as a whole, saving the bioelectrical sounds for the longer compositions scattered across the album.

The sounds themselves on the album range from the greatest delicacy to massive squalls of sound. The noisiest parts often come from the plant recordings, creating a disjointed image between the ferocious sounds emanating from the most pastoral and tranquil scenes. In this sense, Prime exposes a world that most of us never see or hear, similar in this effort to John Duncan's or Jonathan Coleclough's recordings based on tidal data. But Prime's goal is different in that his bioelectric recordings present real-time sounds from the environment, not data mediated and massaged into audible form. A closer parallel would be shortwave data, which Duncan has also used and which dates back to Morphogenesis (and Cage and Stockhausen before that). Shortwave radio pulls sounds from the radiophonic soup that surrounds us at all times and in all places, an audible reminder that we're never alone. But seldom do we get to hear messages from so foreign and so other a source as plants — although we all know they're alive, to most people they remain part of the inanimate environment.

In one of the most quixotic moves I've ever heard, for a couple of the pieces Prime went through the effort to set up installations in the jungle, which he then "stalked" (his word) with binaural microphones. The accompanying booklet even includes pictures of such installations. The action is reminiscent of the transient works of Andy Goldsworthy, a visual artist who creates ephemeral sculptures from natural materials available at the site, and whose works exist for most of us only through photographs. The paradox emphasizes the hidden nature of the sounds, brought forth by obscure processes on "previously undescribed species" of plants, created by stalking installations that practically nobody was there to hear. Trees falling in the forest indeed.

The packaging for Borneo shows great care and attention to detail. Prime includes a 16-page booklet of text and color photographs, including a short travelogue essay and some notes on each individual piece. Some of the tracks contain index points, and in the booklet the events at each index point are noted. Both CDs and the booklet come in a metal box along with a small envelope of tongkat ali, an Indonesian herbal product that comes with various life-affirming promises. The first hundred copies include a mini-CD containing an additional ultrasonic recording of bats.

Prime's recordings can be difficult to locate. None of them are available on iTunes or emusic, but the CDs are sometimes available from Mimaroglu or other online vendors. Neither Prime nor his label (Mycophile) have web sites, but I obtained my copy of Borneo directly from him.

1 comment:

DaveX said...

This sounds like a really great set of recordings! Too bad about the haphazard publishing situation, though-- sounds like you had to do some "stalking" of your own...