Friday, April 13, 2007

Drone Classics — :coyot:

Although mnortham's solo album :coyot: was not my first exposure to his work, nor the first album I'd heard that used Aeolian harps or their derivatives (that would have been Alan Lamb, but that's for another post), it resonated with me immediately and has stayed with me over the years. Its base sounds are from an installation on Suomenlinna Island near Helsinki, Finland. Michael Northam installed seven Aeolian harps on the roof of an old gunpowder bunker named "kaponieeri coyet". He also made additional field recordings at various places around the island, including the resonance inside an old and massive cannon barrel. He worked for a year on all of the resulting tapes, finding the patterns in the continuous sounds, and slowly layering them together, before he compiled this album of three tracks, each around twenty minutes in length.

One of the most unusual features of :coyot: is the inclusion of a ten-page essay by Giancarlo Toniutti on (Sámi-Suomi) Geocultural and Ecosystemic Patterning. Toniutti is a paleo-linguist, a researcher in anthropology and morphology, and a composer of fascinating electroacoustic sound works known mostly by reputation because they are generally released in extremely small quantities. The essay documents some of the ways that the wind forms part of the indigenous Scandinavian cultures. He also attempts to discern the overlays of the early European ethnographers, whose worldviews distorted the perceptions of the underlying cultures, overlaying them with romantic or Christian beliefs. Referring to the shamanic images on Sámi drums, Toniutti projects instead a porous boundary between natural and cultural processes, of an entirely different nature than the terms 'spirit' or 'god' might suggest.

Taken in the context of Toniutti's essay, :coyot: positions itself as an expression of Toniutti's porous boundary, as well as a different kind of overlay interpreting Finland's wind and water. The wind played the harps, but the sound of the harps had to be extracted with technology. The different natural sounds, of the harps and other field recordings, are presented simultaneously, combined into layers in the studio in a way that simulates the elemental forces that Northam captured in his recordings. He makes the elements audible. The sheer duration of the sounds promotes a sense of timelessness. The strong wind noise at the end of "Effects Of Atmospheric Pressure On Air-Born Particles Of Solids And Liquids," for example, has a gentle undulation in the overtones to the single low pitch which makes me think of ocean waves. The combination of the two sounds reminds me of times when I've stood on the shore and felt a big wind blowing off the ocean. The natural rhythms of the piece bring a sense of slow immersion into the environment.

Many (if not all) of Northam's projects use the patterns in natural phenomena for inspiration. As a result, I get a strong sense of nature from :coyot:, but at a deeper level than a straightforward field recording. The patterns that Northam found in the wind and waves on Suomenlinna Island are all around me, but their time scale is different from the one in which I live. Admittedly, my time scale has gotten slower since retirement, but still.... My admiration for Northam's work continues with his other releases, which I'll save for other posts. But he gives articulate and thought-provoking interviews, which are available on his web site and at Kaon records, a French label covering several sound artists who use field recordings extensively.

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