Friday, January 8, 2010

Suite Concrete

From the earliest examples of musique concrète, practitioners have started from instrumental rather than environmental sounds, taking samples from sympathetic performers as the origin for their electroacoustic works. Although environmental and field recordings become more prevalent in recent years, in the mid-1990s composers like John Wall re-initiated the use of instrumental fragments. Wall's earliest work originates almost entirely with short, nearly recognizable snippets of commercial recordings, as if his compositions sought a performance practice that the diverse set of sampled musicians could not produce together. Partially because his methods inadvertently lumped him with plunderphonics, his more recent releases have avoided pre-released material, or at least made it completely unrecognizable and unacknowledged, in favor of live recordings which he then manipulates in the studio.

Wall retained connections with the British free improvisation community, so his musician sources perform on piano, double bass, and trumpet. Adam Sonderberg (also a member of Haptic) and Salvatore Dellaria's project the Dropp Ensemble also works with musician sources, but the credits on their recent album Safety also include open circuits, oscillator, treatments — obscure and elliptical sounds from the outset. Their stable of fifteen contributors (plus six more musicians credited for "Research and Development") includes noted improvisers Jason Kahn, Tomas Korber and Christian Weber. For the various and sundry electronics and synthesizers, one is hard pressed to identify any individual contribution on the four tracks that comprise this set. But one of the unifying factors is how Sonderberg and Dellaria incorporate acoustic instruments, often leaving them identifiable, anchors that focus the listeners attention amidst the background noise. The authors are reticent about their methods as far as I can find, but the album notes that the contributions were recorded around the globe, and they confirmed to Richard Pinnell that the musical fragments were assembled in their studio, solely by the duo.

The four pieces pace themselves together extremely well, starting a trajectory from the amuse-bouche Inlet leading to the slow pace that begins Everywhere Present and Nowhere Visible. Levels of activity bubble up to the surface, each level with its own rhythm and frequency level, and each has its own story to tell. There are three fairly distinct sections, and it almost sounds like the same source with different treatments underpins each one. What sounded like fast drum beats gets progressively slower and drier, until the last silence leads to Vernacular Rooms. Here, the frequency spectrum is much wider, a clattering, rich sound with hidden layers of static. As Weber's bass was briefly identifiable on Inlet, so Jason Stein's bass clarinet becomes a focal point guiding the listener through the abstract rattling. The clarinet's long, sustained tones provide a slow moving harmony at the piece's core, but the outer layers are very active throughout. The noise and static suddenly become background, revealing the previously hidden gentle murmuring.

The suite's conclusion, Forget Collapse, starts with a thunderclap, a wide hissing environment like the rain, and high pitched sine waves from Everywhere Present circle the sound field. Individual percussion strokes on bells, sticks and drums, appear like beacons in the mist, adding an urgency mitigated by the occasional lingering gong or cymbal stroke. A transitional hihat stroke extends endlessly to an extended white noise with individual elements and frequencies gradually isolating themselves. Slowly evolving into a metallic and noisy drone, a brief window shows the quiet white noise and tape hiss that has been subliminally present all along, and to which the suite will slowly ebb.

Besides the integrating presence of acoustic instruments, I hear these pieces as a suite because of sound elements that recur across the set. As shimmering high sine waves in the finale recall the earlier suggestives ones in Vernacular Rooms, a few persistent sounds provide a foundation for the countless sonic variations and unique, abstract gestures. The relatively short length, just over a half hour, gives Safety an opportunity to be heard as a whole, more than a collection of four disparate pieces, a rare example of an electroacoustic suite that really hangs together. Safety is available directly from and/OAR as well as creative distributors worldwide.


icastico said...

Nice article.

Both my latest, asynchronic,

and an older release, Valis,

utilize techniques from music concrete, but are largely based on recordings of live instruments.

The track Forsaken off of asynchronic, for instance is built entirely off of a 10 second vocal sample.

maready said...

Thanks for bringing this one to my attention --- I will make a trip to my local creative CD retailer, who have a copy on hand .... and, an update: the Stockhausen is on the way ...