The Thing With Jim O’Rourke – Shinjuku Growl / The Thing With Otomo Yoshihide – Shinjuku Crawl

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It has been over a decade since The Thing formed, assimilating the combined talents of Mats Gustafsson, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, and Paal Nilssen-Love. They were named not after the John Carpenter horror film, but instead after a Don Cherry composition of the same name. They made an immediate impact with their self-titled debut album of Don Cherry covers, with the rhythm section of Håker Flaten on bass and Nilssen-Love on drums showing themselves to be one of the tightest units out there, and Gustafsson taking extended saxophone technique and then extending it some more. Eagle-Eye Cherry commented on hearing this early work that it was what his father would have called “organic music”; and The Thing have grown and mutated ever since, taking on new musical forms.

It is this eagerness to change and develop, a reluctance to stand still, that they draw on most heavily from the forward-thinking Cherry. While Cherry sought inspiration from Indian, Asian and Middle-eastern forms, experimenting with percussion and keyboards as well as his more usual trumpet, The Thing looked to make connections between the free jazz of the 60s and 70s and punk and experimental rock. Aside from the likes of Cherry, Ornette Coleman, Frank Lowe, and Albert Ayler, they have covered PJ Harvey, The White Stripes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and The Ex, and have employed Steve Albini to record some of their rawer releases. Gustafsson even featured on electronics (along with Merzbow) on Sonic Youth’s finest release of recent years, SYR8, recorded in 2005.

In parallel to their involvement with Peter Brotzmann’s tentet, The Thing have moved from more composed material to complete free improvisation over the years. As they have pressed on, they have moved into ever more experimental fields, their album tracks becoming longer and more freeform, their intuitive improv chops and technical skills becoming ever more impressive (even when not using electronics, Gustafsson pushes the possibilities of the saxophone beyond all known limits). They have continued to exploit huge dynamic contrasts, from ferocious free blowing to (often overlooked) more subtle and textural interplay. Given their range, both musically and dynamically, and the high-wire skill and connectivity they demonstrate, it takes a special kind of guitarist to stand toe to toe (to toe to toe) with them.

These two newest releases (on their usual home Smalltown Superjazzz) document two such meetings, from successive visits to Japan’s Shinjuku Pit Inn in 2007 and 2008. Here they tapped into some local knowledge, in the form of Tokyo residents Jim O’Rourke and Otomo Yoshihide. Given the use of guitarists, and the date of these recordings, in a sense they represent The Thing in transition: halfway between the rock influences of old and the freedoms of today. But in another sense they feel pivotal, as if these pairings somehow unlocked something, maybe convinced them of the true path to follow. For O’Rourke and Yoshihide are much more than guitarists, both are multi-instrumentalists, improvisers, innovators and collaborators of some regard.

O’Rourke of course is quite the polymath, an artist whose solo career has taken in guitar and modular synth experimentation as well as his Nic Roeg-referencing song-based alt rock. His relationship with Gustafsson goes as far back as the 1990s, when both were based on the Chicago improv scene. Despite this familiarity, Shinjuku Growl begins somewhat tentatively on “If Not Ecstatic, We Replay”. Nilssen-Love can be heard scrambling around with chains and bells, while Håker Flaten’s bass emits huge groans. It takes less than ten minutes, however, for this subtlety to be abandoned, the initially hushed conversation between Gustafsson and O’Rourke developing into a high-pitched and suitably ecstatic screaming session (no replay needed). When the saxophonist finally takes a breather, O’Rourke shreds silver into the tumbling rhythms, long streaks of white light dancing over the rippling surface. In contrast, “I Can’t, My Mouth Is Already Full” is in essence the growl of the album’s title, some incredible split note-cum-moans from Gustafsson being met with pulsing feedback and scraped cymbals. The meatiest cut is “Half A Dog Can’t Even Take A Shit”, in which the quartet get into a staggering, lurching entanglement: the real joy is not what with the bass and drums brilliantly picking out and echoing patterns from the front line.

Otomo Yoshihide’s biography is similar to O’Rourke’s in its bewildering diversity: from improv with Derek Bailey to house music via the rock of his Ground Zero group and the straighter edges of the New Jazz Ensemble. However, the differences quickly become apparent. While Shinjuku Crawl begins in a similar manner to its sister release, it feels less visceral, more cerebral. Whispered bass, breathy sax and faint clicks of percussion are quickly driven up to something faster by Nilsen-Love, like an Olympic cyclist pedalling a fixed gear bike from a standing start. In a sign of what is to come, Yoshihide is, initially at least, content just to add colour, dropping notes into the few remaining empty spaces, before he too eventually dances on the pedals. Yoshihide has always had that duality to his playing: the noise balanced by a more minimal style, and both are demonstrated in this set. On “Uramodo (Thank You Mr Fukuoka)” he is a mere ghost, with only sparse traces of feedback giving away his presence. When he does go into full-on Sharrock mode, as on “Third Attempt” and “Dori Dugout pt1”, it feels like as he comes closer than O’Rourke to matching Gustafsson for technique, as well as just volume. It sounds like he was a more awkward addition to The Thing’s lineup, one which would certainly have challenged them, and one which perhaps even gave them food for thought as to their future musical evolution.

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Phurpa – Trowo Phurnag Ceremony

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For all the humour and even high pantomime of Sunn O))) (they have a track called “HELL-O)))-WEEN”! The singer is dressed as a tree, and shooting lasers from his fingers!), it is clear that Stephen O’Malley wants to be taken seriously as an artist. His most recent live appearances have been in increasingly improvisational settings with Aethenor, which has brought him into contact with the free jazz community via their drummer Steve Noble. And now he has assumed that position of respect du jour, that of label curator. Having given John Elliott a similar role on their electronic Spectrum Spools offshoot, Editions Mego have put O’Malley at the head of a new acoustic imprint called Ideologic Organ. Without electricity there can be no lasers; the first pair of releases, from Phurpa and the pairing of Jessica Kenney and Eyvind Kang, focus primarily on the human voice.

Phurpa are a Russian group who have taken a journey to a place a few thousand miles south east of Moscow. Their name derives from the sacred texts of Bön, a Tibetan spiritual tradition which may (sacred texts are, in fact, somewhat scant and lacking in detail) date back tens of thousands of years, long before Buddhism had nestled amongst the Himalayas. The two traditions had a difficult early co-habitation, with members of the then predominant Bön population being persecuted and even sent into exile. Since then, the Dalai Lama has granted Bön a status equivalent to the four pillars of Tibetan buddhism, and around ten per cent of Tibetans still regard themselves as Bön.

There are important differences between Bön and buddhism, including their respective attitudes to the afterlife, as well as some more trifling ones – for example, I’m sure no-one is going to go to holy war on whether you should circumnavigate clockwise or counter-clockwise during prayers. Despite this separateness, both traditions have much in common, and have even become intertwined to an extent over the years. Ideas of life spirit, enlightenment, and healing are shared, and the areas of overlap include some of their ritualistic practices, or acts of devotion (puja): for example, their music. Phurpa’s double album Trowo Phurnag Ceremony (originally released on CD in 2008) showcases the throat singing style which is used by monks of either religion as puja, and to help them attain enlightenment.

The start of a track on Trowo Phurnag Ceremony is usually signified by the clang of a singing bowl, a low call from a Tibetan horn, or a light clatter of percussion, but after that, they are predominantly polyphonic. At first listen, you can hear an obvious link to Sunn O))), not just via the common interest in low drones, but in that their Hungarian vocalist Attila Cshar has a style which builds links between black metal and the throat singing tradition. But Phurpa really do take the level of intensity, and the level of seriousness, much higher. A mere thirty two minutes of Trowo Phurnag Ceremony groan and creak under the weighty title “Conferring Empowerment and Self-Transformation” – “HELL-O)))-WEEN” this isn’t.

Across the four sides of this double album, layers of long, deep, droning voices are punctuated by understandably exhausted-sounding gasps for breath, and the whole is scoured by the whirling overtones that the singers produce via manipulating mouth shape. These higher sounds begin like gentle breezes through a forest, but come together and strengthen until they are more akin to a wind blasting across an icy, mountainous plateau. This doesn’t sound like mere dilettantism: you surely can’t just dip in and out of this music, particularly given the level of skill involved. In order to attain this impressive level of vocal proficiency, Phurpa have undergone a considerable period not just of geographical relocation, but of musical transformation, one which has taken them from far their roots as a Russian industrial music band. But over and above this, they now sound utterly immersed in this tradition, and a cultural voyeur like myself can only imagine the profound spiritual effect that learning and performing it has had on them.

Ellen Fullman – Through Glass Panes

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The notion of an instrument that is up to 31 metres in length may seem slightly preposterous at first, but there is a lot of logic to what Ellen Fullman is doing, and it fits neatly into a continuum of twentieth century music. Like Harry Partch, she invented an instrument that could realise her precise musical vision. She began work on her Long Stringed Instrument, which comprises dozens of strings stretched out over a space, and played with rosin-coated fingers, in 1981. This was a few years after Alvin Lucier recorded his Music For A Long Thin Wire, but Fullman takes the idea much much further.

Unlike Lucier’s, the strings on Fullman’s instrument are necessarily long. They produce sound via longitudinal vibration rather than the lateral vibration common to other stringed instruments, and the laws of physics mean that it is only at these sort of lengths that these tones are produced when Fullman slowly and carefully walks their huge length. And, following in the footsteps of other musical inspiration as Arnold Dreyblatt, Pauline Oliveros, and Terry Riley the intonation she chooses to use is just: the strings are tuned to mathematical multiples of frequencies, all the better to maximise overtones, producing an array of harmonics.

Like Phil Niblock, Fullman has a good understanding of the importance of the performance space, though the relationship goes even deeper in Fullman’s case. Because of the immense length of those strings, it stands to reason that Fullman’s performances take place in some pretty big venues: art centres typically, though one show even took place inside the cavernous spaces of Seaholm power plant. There is a clear symbiosis between instrument and location: the dimensions of one dictate the size and tuning of the other, and the room ultimately becomes a big resonator. Fullman describes her works as event locations: at certain locations, events happen. This can be taken not just as a reference to the building, but also to the specific points on the vast strings from which she conjures the sounds: it is a three dimensional matrix. Titles reflect this close relationship: not only was her collaboration with Konrad Spenger called Ort (“place”), but she has now released two lengthy pieces just called “Event Location”. Both have appeared on releases on Important Records: the first on a split with Eleh, and the second being the closing track on her new album, Through Glass Panes.

Harking back to earlier releases like her debut Long Stringed Instrument album, this latest piece is a good primer to the Fullman sound. Based on one of Dreyblatt’s tuning systems, one designed to produced dissonance as well as harmony, it is full of rich, swirling tones that can sound like an entire string section playing simultaneously, creating glorious harmonics, pulsations and clashes of sound that fill up whichever space you happen to be listening to it in. For all the logic involved, this never feels like an arid mathematical conceptual project, not even close: instead it sounds like something much more organic. The strings are supported by sitka spruce, the fingers are coated in pine resin, and the locations this music summons in the mind are far less cold, stark or industrial than the performance settings, and much more warm and natural. You can hear precursors of the likes of Richard Skelton’s communions with land and leaves in this sound, the layers piling up and decaying like mulch on the forest floor.

Despite this common thread, over the last thirty years Fullman has continued to develop her mastery of this most singular of instruments, and is still experimenting in order to explore its full potential. On the title track here, she uses the long stringed instrument almost as a percussion device, beating the strings with hand-held wooden boxes, allowing rhythms to cross into the more familiar acres of vast glistening drones. The simplicity of the patterns contrasts starkly to the complexity of “Event Locations No.2”: if that track was an immersion in the forest, this one is a world glimpsed through windows, the panes of a train quietly chuntering round the forest edges, which finally escapes into the wide open countryside once more.

As her prowess has increased, so has her willingness to collaborate, and bring her music into new contexts. The long trombone notes of Monique Buzzarte (on Fluctuations), and the E-bowed guitars of Barn Owl (on this year’s Headlands LP) felt like natural fits for what Fullman does, but other works have pushed her into more challenging – and surprisingly melodic – places. The aforementioned collaboration with Spenger seemed like a bit of a curiosity, being an album of songs, with Fullman deploying a short version of the long stringed instrument (if that makes sense) and actually singing. But this wasn’t entirely without precedent. In 2002, she collaborated with the strings of the Kronos Quartet at the Other Minds festival, producing a suite based on Geeshie Wiley’s 1930s Delta blues classic “Last Kind Words” (which features on the excellent Mississippi Records collection of the same name), each of the seven pieces named after lines from the song. Two of those now feature on Through Glass Panes, reworked as duo and trio pieces entitled “Never Get Out Of Me” and “Flowers” respectively.

“Last Kind Words” is an astonishing record, at once simple and unfathomable, and both of the earth and of the spirit. It seems to speak of a soldier being killed in the war, and of the lingering effects that the event has on his widow – “it never gets out of me”, Wiley says at the piece’s sombre conclusion. Fullman’s treatment lingers on this weighty line, but also brings in her interests in traditional devotional music (one which she shares with Terry Riley): the Indian scales used by the cello being couched in a shimmering tamboura-like drone from the long stringed instrument. Recorded at the Seaholm power plant, “Flowers” (probably a misreading: in the song, the husband seems to say “if I don’t bring you flour, I’ll bring you bolted meal”, though it is a moot point) emerges from amidst recordings of birdsong in the eaves, and lands on the two syllables, digging them over and over and over, while the beds of strings bloom behind. As the song fades from existence, the birds return. From amongst death, new life emerges. And from within her logical, mathematical structures, Fullman has created deep emotional resonance. The long strings of Through Glass Panes stretch right back through the twentieth century, and build many connections. Fullman’s place in the continuum should by now be assured.

Chris Watson and Marcus Davidson – Cross-Pollination

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Cross-pollination is the germination of one species using seed from another. More specifically, the name of this album comes from an event that was held on the South Bank a couple of years back, which sought to combine human voices with the sounds of insects to produce new musical hybrids. As part of this, the sound recordist Chris Watson and the composer Marcus Davidson created ‘The Bee Symphony’, which took recordings Watson and Touch’s Mike Harding had made at bee hives, and set them in a choral context. The production of this piece came at a time of increased focus on the relationship between bees and humans, thanks to the worldwide spread of Colony Collapse Disorder, the causes of which are still unclear, but which are more than likely man-made. A quote is famously (if perhaps erroneously) attributed to Albert Einstein in which he was purported to have claimed that if bees were to entirely disappear from the planet, then humans would be extinct within four years. Without their role in the pollination process, the plants which we rely on for food (or to feed the animals we rely on for food) could die out, with terrible consequences. It is an extreme example of how one species can not just make convenient use of another to prolong the life of its genetic material, but actually be entirely dependent on another for its continuation.

A version of ‘The Bee Symphony’ recorded at a later performance in York is is one of two pieces on this new CD released by Touch. The above context aside, there is a clear musical logic behind the work, with Davidson finding that the insects on Watson and Harding’s recordings “sang” in clusters around the note of A during the day, dropped down a semitone as the day progressed, and rose back to a stronger unison A when their hive was threatened. And so ‘The Bee Symphony’ begins with the bees buzzing tunefully and rhythmically amongst birds in the morning, human voices gradually mixing in – the singers are not imitating the bees, more finding their own harmonies, making notes and sounds that fit, from long fluctuating sequences to short clipped yelps. The symphony becomes noticeably darker and more sluggish later, the voices sliding down that semitone, the sound of the bees (the “drone drone”, if you will) now processed, becoming increasingly muffled and indistinct. Finally, both bees and humans are silenced. ‘The Bee Symphony’ isn’t just a third of an hour in the life of a bee, it is an entire life cycle in twenty minutes, and a stark warning about the fragility of ecosystems.

You can read similar themes into the other piece on Cross-Pollination, which is entitled ‘Midnight At The Oasis’. It isn’t a cover version of Maria Muldaur’s hit from 1974, you may or may not be pleased to hear, but rather a set of recordings from the Kalahari desert. Watson is famous for recording sounds that you just wouldn’t be able to hear with your own ears, but on ‘Midnight At The Oasis’ he is going further, to create an entire sonic event you couldn’t ever actually experience, by layering and concatanating an entire night’s worth of recordings into a continuous thirty minute piece (he did something similar with his rainforest installation ‘Whispering In The Leaves’ at Kew Gardens last year). Despite temperatures which can reach into the high forties celsius, the Kalahari is surprisingly full of nature, though its presence is felt more obviously in the welcome cool of the night. Flies dance wearily between the last rays of that raging-hot sun at the start, to be joined by birdsong and the onset of what is to become a very intense burst of insect stridulation. The desert floor seems to be teeming with an incredible variety of species, each with their own distinct sound, and the recordings are rich: full of different frequencies, and different pulsations. Some Japanese monks believe that the voice of Buddha speaks through crickets: listening to the immersive ‘Midnight In The Oasis’, I can certainly hear why they would choose to meditate to these sounds.

However, one thing you don’t hear on ‘Midnight At The Oasis’ is any human activity. You might think that was a given, because of the harshness of the location, but in fact the Kalahari desert is home to the San bushmen, one of the oldest genetically distinct races of human on the planet, with their own sonically fascinating language of click consonants. These people have long been completely dependent on the desert, on its climatic cycles, and on its vegetation and wildlife. However, this balance is under threat, with the Botswana government forcibly and illegally relocating them from their ancestral homeland so that they can make more money through exploiting its tourist potential. A tribe can live for millennia in the most unforgiving of conditions, and amongst some of the most dangerous animals on the planet: ultimately, their enemy is not nature, but other men. As ‘The Bee Symphony’ reminded us, perhaps the delicate harmony that exists between humankind and the environment is one that we should be leaving undisturbed.

Daniel Menche and Anla Courtis – Yagua Ovy

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“I looked back for my comrade; he had stripped off all his clothes and laid them down by the wayside. My heart was in my mouth; and there I stood feeling like a dead man. Then he made water all round the clothes, and in an instant changed into a wolf.”

The werewolf has gripped the human imagination in its clawed paw for centuries. The quote above is from Petronius’s Satyricon, thought of as one of the earliest novels in Western literature, dating from the first century AD (the word lycanthrope too is derived from the Greek). But ancient Greece can by no means claim to be the source of the legend: in fact, wherever there are wolves, you’ll come across fables and superstitions about werewolves. Hence you’ll find them elsewhere in Europe: the Norse had their version of the tale, as did the Finns and the Russians.

However, some of the deepest-held beliefs and fears on the subject are to be found across the Atlantic Ocean. In some parts of Mexico, parents lay out mirrors and knives in their children’s bedrooms, emblems thought to ward off werewolves. In Paraguay and Brazil, seventh sons are feared as potential lycanthropes (or “lobison”), and in Argentina they had to take extraordinary legal measures to prevent parents killing such offspring – the president of the country is automatically appointed the godfather of any seventh son. Even in areas where the wolf is not the most feared predator, the story remains essentially the same: for example the Quechua people had the tale of the “runa uturunco”, the were-jaguar, which walked through the forest on its two hind legs, and was famed for its strength and bloodthirstiness.

“Runa Uturonco” is also the name of the first track on the new collaboration between the prolific sound artist Daniel Menche, and the experimental guitarist Anla Courtis. That the project has resulted in an exploration of such a shocking topic is in itself no huge shock: when you expose Courtis’s Argentinian roots to Menche’s particular interests, it seems almost inevitable. Other Menche releases have included albums entitled Beast Resonator, Wolf’s Milk, Unleashed, and Feral, but the theme he keeps coming back to is that of blood: Blood Sand, Bleeding Heavens, Radiant Blood, Beautiful Blood. Even his blog is called “What Does Blood Sound Like?”. The title of this new album refers to a tribe in northeastern Peru who paint themselves red, and whose name means ‘blood’ or ‘the colour of blood’. It seeps everywhere.

Such organic subject matter may initially seem to be somewhat at odds with Menche’s methods, which often involve the recording and processing of inorganic environmental sounds. His Kataract record famously involved recordings from waterfall “white noise”, and Yagua Ovy takes from the land, from snow and from rocks. When Jackson Pollock was asked if he worked from nature, he responded “I am nature”, and Menche through his art merges the meanings of the word: the external (the natural world), and the internal (the instinctive). He is interested, to invoke another of his album titles, in the Blood Of the Land: the idea of Earth itself as a living organism which is to be respected and feared, a concept that dates back through time, linking civilisations as otherwise disparate as ancient Greece and the tribes of Latin America.

While often building from these simple, quiet sources, his live performances can become extremely visceral, physical affairs. Last year in a solo performance, I saw him holding contact mics to his throat like he was about to slice through his own jugular: he really doesn’t need anyone else’s help to construct something intense and terrifying. Here though he has the sympathetic ear of Anla Courtis, who has previously worked with the musically malicious likes of Lasse Marhaug and Birchville Cat Motel, and who brings an unconventionality of approach that equips him well for working with Menche. On “El Relincho” (which means “the neighing”, and is also a place in Venezuela), it is in fact difficult to attribute the sounds to the respective artists: there is lot of metal on here, both guitar-based and otherwise, and the clanging, screeching sounds ultimately twist, bend and splice themselves into one gnarled, horrifying narrative.

On the aforementioned “Runa-Uturunco”, Menche leads the listener into a dark wilderness through shingle and stone, while around him Courtis builds a sense of menace into the story, a deep sense of foreboding, with his cracked guitar rumbling like a gathering electrical storm, an impending violent transformation. When it breaks, the downpour builds in intensity until it becomes a howl, a savage roar from an indefinable form that indeed sounds part nature, part beast, part human. As it retreats back into the shadows, I’m left musing that, as thrilling as the recording is, there is in fact nothing new to what Menche and Courtis are doing here. Yagua Ovy is merely the latest addition to a canon which stretches back millennia.

Jóhann Jóhannsson – The Miners’ Hymns

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“I’m still down there where the seams are deep
Digging a hole, away in the coal, go down…go down”
Ewan MacColl, “The Big Hewer”

The opening of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s latest album features the sound of a church organ playing huge, slow, mournful chords, rising in volume as if asking a question in increasing desperation. The call goes out into a huge and seemingly empty chamber, echoing and gradually falling away into a dark silence. After a few minutes, it finds an answer, a two note response from a solitary trumpet, initially hesitant, but gradually growing in strength. Still here. Still here. The church is Durham Cathedral, and the brass is provided by members of what was once the band of the nearby Pelton Fell Colliery. The Pelton Fell Colliery was sunk into the hill in that locality in 1835, and generations of men from the village worked there until 1965, when the mine finally fell silent forever. The colliery was a prop for the whole village, and when it snapped, much else came down with it: the Miner’s Institute, the working men’s club, the two pubs that the miners frequented, and the entire livelihood and social fabric of the village in a foreshadowing of the events of the early 1980s.

But yet: still here, still here. There are no mines left in Durham, but over 100,000 people attended the Durham Miners Gala in 2009, which comprised not just marching trade unionists and speeches from the likes of Tony Benn, Ken Livingstone and Billy Bragg, but also a strand celebrating the traditions of the miners, including their brass bands. One project which was commissioned as part of the Gala was a new film by the American experimental filmmaker Bill Morrison. I haven’t seen the film, but the way that the trailer (above) cuts from the ranks of men descending for the start of their shift, to the battle lines of protests, suggests it is likely to be a deeply moving piece of art: the men who once stood together to perform this most dangerous of jobs in the service of the nation, coming together once more to object to the violence being perpetrated on the working classes purportedly on behalf of the nation. The choice of Jóhann Jóhannsson to produce the score makes sense, given not only the Icelandic composer’s previous soundtrack work, but also his obvious interests in old technologies (IBM 1401: A User’s Manual) and workers’ revolts (Fordlândia).

Not only does Jóhannsson make use of locally-hewn musical sounds – the Durham cathedral organ, the Pelton Fell brass – but he mixes these with chunks of recordings from the mines themselves: deep explosions and the clanking and rumbling of machinery. It makes for a rich and evocative collage; in fact the whole project at times reminds me of Ewan MacColl’s BBC Radio Ballad on the subject of coal-mining called The Big Hewer, which knitted the sounds of the pit together with folk song, and the recollections of the miners themselves. MacColl’s work was produced in 1961, just a few years before the Pelton Fell colliery closed, and it even then had the feel of a look back at a way of life that already was beginning to be threatened, the eventual collapse being portended by the miners’ worries for their livelihoods (for example, through modernisation, with the introduction of new technology which would displace their jobs). Morrison and Jóhannsson pick over the rubble and find the same remains, that same humanity, those same hopes and fears, and that unbreakable sense of solidarity.

So, fifty years later, the colliery lifts groan back into action, dropping us back down to the pit bottom. The descent is marked not only by an increasingly menacing atmosphere as the noise from the coalface gets louder (you can almost taste the coal dust flaking from the walls), but by a correspondingly deep and descending musical sequence. It is a lamento figure, stretched out over a long period of time, a sobbing, shuddering expression of grief for those who fell over the years, and all that has been lost since. When the descending motif recurs later in the first half, this time on solo trumpet, it feels in fact almost like a last post. Yet The Miners’ Hymns is not a wake for the working class, more a celebration of it, and the brief crescendo on “There Is No Safe Side But The Side Of Truth” where the trumpet escapes to spiral up to the surface, gives hope where there was previously just darkness. This prefigures a closing track in which, over an insistent percussion, the massed brass all come together, marching in step, and singing with one voice. Even without the accompanying images, you’d have to have a heart made of the hardest, blackest coal not to be moved by this.

That last piece is called “The Cause Of Labour Is The Hope Of The World”, and it is worth noting that the release of The Miners’ Hymns comes soon after a huge display of trade union protest in the UK, at a time when once more the working classes feel under attack from an unforgivingly right wing government. The poorest parts of the country, such as the former mining communities of the North East, are suffering disproportionately from the deep ideologically-driven cuts that are being imposed. Yet, despite everything, the character of those communities will not die. That mining spirit is still here. Still here.

The Miners’ Hymns is released on CD and LP by Fat Cat on 23rd May. Bill Morrison’s film is released on DVD by BFI on 20th June.

CM von Hausswolff – 800 000 Seconds In Harar

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This may be the audiovisual artist Carl Michael von Hausswolff’s first solo album for Touch, but he’s been an integral part of their community for some time: indeed, he recorded with The Hafler Trio (in his Sons Of God collaborative guise) as far back as 1993. My own first encounter with von Hausswolff was in 2006, when he played after Fennesz and Philip Jeck as part of Touch’s 25th birthday celebrations, which shows you just how highly they rate his work. And quite rightly too: his performance that night was the one that I still remember most vividly. Wisps of cigarette smoke and pure sine waves curled into the night air, people lay on the floor with their eyes closed and let this succession of tones wash over their heads, like waves breaking on the shore. It was a vivid demonstration of just how powerful the most minimal of music can be at the hands of a skilled exponent of the form, marrying the scientific (the precise combinations of frequencies) to a blissful emotional resonance. That isn’t to say von Hausswolff has been inactive in the intervening periods, far from it in fact. In recent years he has created audiovisual installations around the world in cemeteries, ruined buildings and train sheds, documented his interest in Electronic Voice Phenomena (recordings which purport to contain messages from ghosts living within buildings or even electricity grids), and ruled over his conceptual Kingdoms of Elgaland-Vargaland, which comprise the border spaces between countries, and between the conscious and unconscious. These themes of travel, place, architecture, communication, death, and liminal space are all worked into the 2,437 seconds of 800 000 Seconds In Harar

The album was conceived in response to a request from theatre director Ulrich Hillebrand to compose a soundtrack to Michael Azar’s play about the life of Arthur Rimbaud entitled “Jag är en annan” (or “I is another”, the title taken from the famous lettre du voyant sent by the poet). Von Hausswolff sought and found inspiration from the last years of that life, from the 1880s and 1890s, in which the poet’s travels took him to Harar in Ethiopia, where he became a friend of Ras Makkonon, the father of the future emperor Haile Selassie, and where he settled as a trader (a trader of coffee and weapons, no less; a far cry from his middle class roots in Charleville). He spent ten days, which is indeed roughly 800,000 seconds, within the city’s walls, collecting sounds, investigating native instruments, and researching the poet’s time in that place. From these samples, sources and ideas he stitched together a soundtrack which is comprised of two long drone-based pieces, the second of which explicitly references the title of one of Rimbaud’s most famous works, his symbolist poem entitled “Le Dormeur Du Val” or “The Sleeper In the Valley”.

That piece is actually the one which is most reminiscent of the set from the aforementioned Touch show, being constructed entirely from von Hauswolff’s collection of oscillators, and demonstrating a similar kind of sonic architecture. It starts off with a 60Hz electrical hum, before this is joined by a succession of pristine, overlapping sine waves at increasingly high frequencies. This creates a three-dimensional sound space that I can happily spend some time wandering around, exploring the different levels and the intersections, noticing the changes that occur when I move around the room I’m listening to it in (the effect is lost on headphones, naturally). Under all of this appears a quiet, low-pitched buzzing which quickly reveals itself to be morse code, which would have been commonly used at the time Rimbaud was in Harar to carry radio messages. And the message being carried is actually the text of The Sleeper In The Valley itself, though it is of course highly unlikely that you’d pick out its tale of the unravelling of a soldier’s life, from an introduction “foaming with light” and warmth, through to a cold sleep which is finally revealed in the denouement to be a bloody, watery death, all couched in a language of grass, flowers, and herbs, even when the drones fade into silence to leave just the dots and dashes. It seems at first listen to be a particularly futile attempt to communicate, across great expanses of time and distance.

The other piece, “Day And Night” is in three sections, and is constructed quite differently. Instead of his oscillators, Von Hausswolff uses the sound of a krar (an Ethiopian lyre) to produce the drone, bowing at it rather than plucking or strumming, while field recordings from Harar are interspersed throughout.  It begins with the warmth of “Day”, a sonorous low note being joined by a bustle of natural activity: the chirp of crickets, the buzz of bees, the voices of Ethiopian children, the sound of plants being caressed by wind. These all vanish to leave just the stillness of the krar, and the piece takes a darker and colder turn when the “Night” section begins with a constant dripping, which is actually the sound of leaking taps in von Hausswolff’s hotel room, an initially puzzling choice of sample. The intensity edges up to dramatic levels during the closing section, which gradually layers on increasingly high bowed notes to create a jarring chord, a horrible shriek of alarm, a musical “Alas!”. Taken as a continuous whole, it seems to be a subtle musical symbolist reading of “The Sleeper In the Valley”, from life, sunshine and optimism through stillness, and the gradual, horrifying realisation of just what that dripping must represent. When this is understood, the following morse code-based track takes on a different tone altogether, as if it’s a transmission from that very particular border area, the afterlife, perhaps even a communication accidentally captured via one of von Hausswolff’s Electronic Voice Phenomena devices, a voice of the dead hidden amongst radio static. Once again, from sources of such seeming simplicity, he has created something remarkably resonant.

Tim Catlin and Machinefabriek – Patina

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So many words associated with the process of patination have such negative connotations: the act is a tarnishing, a corrosion, a corruption. Yet in certain circumstances, the formation of a patina is welcomed, sought after, even encouraged. Just down the road from where I sit right now, there are some new houses which have been there barely a couple of years, but their roofs are a bright green, copper having been used with the clear intention that it would oxidise this quickly. Likewise, new timber structures are designed to change in appearance prematurely, to silver, or to attract moss; as well as providing additional layers of protection, or even insulation, there is an implied message that the buildings are working with, as opposed to usurping, nature. But more than anything it is the age, or the desire to set the young in the context of the aged that is prized. Indeed, inside those homes, brand new furniture will have been made from reclaimed, pre-patinised, or even, to use another word which doesn’t sound like it should be a good thing, distressed materials.

And so it is with music too. The patina of vinyl crackle, and the repurposing of music’s past, have been the calling cards of the hauntological genre, a canon of records which very much put the geist back into the zeitgeist. Patina, the second release from the pairing of the Netherlands’ Rutger Zuyderfelt, aka Machinefabriek, and Tim Catlin from Australia, isn’t necessarily one that always feels like it belongs in that spectral body of work, but there is that same deliberate temporal disconnect, the joins between the new and the old being visible, the patina being welcomed, encouraged and facilitated. From the materials that were provided to him by Catlin, Zuyderfelt has produced something that is at once novel and ancient: a modern piece which has that much sought-after sense of provenance.

You may have gathered that this is not one of Zuyderfelt’s improvised collaborations, such as the particularly productive one with clarinetist Gareth Davis (which has just yielded some more fruit in the Grower CD), but rather something approached from the perspective of architect or engineer. Catlin specified the materials, a collection of electric guitar and sitar recordings, which Zuyderfelt has patiently spliced together, adding historical features, and then aging the end result. Though it is released by Low Point on (pretty white) vinyl only, much of the crackle that you will hear is the product of the design, rather than of the reproduction. The first side in fact begins with a looped section of hissing surface texture noise, into which creeps the slowly evolving drones of the source material.

Catlin is a guitarist (much like his countryman Oren Ambarchi or, indeed, like Zuyderfelt himself) who is less interested with the conventional applications of his instrument than with its sonic possibilities. What the embellishments do is make you think of an alternative history for the guitar, one in which the more experimental urges of the pioneering likes of Les Paul were the ones that took root; you find yourself imagining what might have happened if, for example, Hendrix hadn’t died before getting his hands on an e-bow. This desire to connect to (or rather, to show a disconnect from) music’s linear history asserts itself most strongly when a ghostly choir emerges from amidst the static, a classical music LP being mined for its nostalgic mood much as Philip Jeck would do, before it is supplanted once more by more contemporary-sounding ebbing and flowing tones.

The warm and natural sounding drones of the second side, in which the pulsations of Catlin’s guitar take on the character of a field of crickets on a balmy evening, are increasingly sand-blasted, the surface becoming pock-marked, the underlying detail indistinct. After a section of echoing, panning rhythm (the uncanniest of all dub revivals, in a sense), it closes with a hazy fragment of improvisatory guitar, spinning and fading like the last dying notes of a mechanical music box, or like a distantly-remembered tune evaporating from memory. And that last layer, the one that is formed in the mind of the listener, is perhaps the most important patina of all. It is those positive connotations of that word you’ll be left with, of that sense of reinforcement, and of just how powerful those juxtapositions of past and present can be.

Bee Mask – Canzoni Dal Laboratorio Del Silenzio Cosmico; Fabric – A Sort Of Radiance

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The decision to call this new Editions Mego offshoot label Spectrum Spools seems just too perfect. Though it is going to be issuing LP-only editions, the titular reference takes in recordings which use tape as part of the creative process, as well as things which are actually issued on a format which continues to have such persistent relevance in certain musical scenes. The spectrum aspect, as well as the allusion to that vivid display of colour (as beloved of psychedelia as much as its more recent musical cousin, hypnagogia) is surely a reference to a continuum: a body of analogue electronic music, one which stretches back to the musique concrete (and tape-based) work of Pierre Henry and Francois Bayle at INA-GRM, taking in the Radiophonic and modular synth pioneers, the kosmische and subsequent new age movements, the Lovely Music catalogue, and leading right up towards more recent excursions into synth-pop, industrial electronics and noise (which are, of course, so often issued on tape).

Via a whole bunch of recent artists drawing inspiration from these sources (not least the likes of the label’s curator, John Elliott from Emeralds), the whole thing is given a twist and taped end-to-end so that what you have is a never ending strip, in which the new and the old are back to back and side by side, visionaries past and present located contiguously. A Möbius strip (or perhaps, in the spirit of giving respect to our musical elders, a Moebius strip). Those new musicians can have very different approaches to this huge back catalogue: the most artistically successful are those which don’t just copy old forms, but seek to build new links; those cutting and splicing different elements together, or overdubbing, rather than those simply making their own copies. The likes of Emeralds and Oneohtrix Point Never are as much – if not more – plugged into minimalism, concrete and noise as they are into the kosmische scene of the 1970s.

Bee Mask is a similar case in point. The alias of Chris Madak, the project of this name has been responsible for a tangle of CD-Rs and cassettes (what else?), mainly on Deception Island, but also on Arbor and Emeralds’ own Wagon label. The wonderfully-titled Canzoni Dal Laboratorio Del Silenzio Cosmico first unspooled itself on the Gift Tapes label last year as a short (C30) but particularly well realised demonstration of his creative vision, one which showed an affinity with a wide variety of the aforementioned colour palette, and which arranges them to set up interesting contrasts: vivid against muted, warm against cold. It opens with a concrete-like collection of samples – the sounds, I think, of bowed marimba, someone coughing, and some rewinding cassettes (what else?) – before cosmic arpeggios rush in and overwhelm the space. Later, some minimalist drone is followed by a burst of dense noise and then some lucid Radiophonics, bright and melodic, while some of the more experimental synth landscapes remind me of the composer Douglas Leedy. And that compositional element is the most important factor: you get the sense that this has been put together with considerable thought, in order to create this nostalgic – if somewhat mysterious – narrative.

Some of the work I’ve heard from Chicago’s Matthew Mullane in his other guises has placed him in the realm of the serious electro-acoustic composer, the sound artist, or simply the guitarist, but his debut full length release under the Fabric name is primarily synthesizer-based. Not content with being virtually a one man Emeralds, he also publishes poetry and writes lengthy essays on the aesthetic experience. Given that he is clearly such a deep thinker about music, the depth of this work comes as no surprise. Like the Bee Mask release, it begins with chunks of noise, but this time it is what sounds like traffic noise, signifying the beginning of some sort of journey – inevitably, a journey through time as much as anything else. On a piece like the epic ‘Light Float’, he adds layer upon layer, element after element, shaking them to creating a complex, colourful, suspension, the patterns of which you could study for hours, and always find something new – or indeed something old. From amongst slowly-shifting drones and fizzing electronic pulsations there will emerge a Oneohtrix Point Never-like melody, bubbling to the surface like a memory from the depths of the unconscious mind, before it returns once more to the opaque. With this evocative and inventive mixture of sounds, Mullane, like Madak, has dubbed himself into this particular spectrum with some aplomb.

Julia Kent – Green And Grey

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The solo work of cellist Julia Kent deals in different ways with concepts of borders and of spaces which are neither one thing nor the other. Her first solo record, Delay, was based on that most modern (and Eno-esque) of limbos, the airport. Having crossed the globe in a number of different ensembles, most famously as a member of Antony and the Johnsons, but also with a range of more leftfield acts such as Rasputina, Burnt Sugar, Angels Of Light and Stars Of The Lid, she found she was spending rather a lot of time trapped in those places, and elected to use them to her advantage. She made recordings in airports, and used them as the foundation for Delay, naming the resulting tracks after the airports in which they were recorded. The title of her second album for Important suggests she has found the way out, but only to another place betwixt and between: the place where the grey of the city meets the green of the countryside. And exactly how much of an escape that turns out to be is open to question.

Green And Grey opens and closes with cicadas, stridulating in the evening air, with Kent’s looped cello building upon the samples to create the compositions. In between, there are tracks named after trees (“Ailanthus”), water (“Acquario”), landscape features (“Overlook”) and constellations (“Pleiades”), but also in one case, a building (“Spire”). It seems at first listen that Kent is outside, recording the sounds of the natural world, in order to inspire her work. The natural rhythms of those insects, the gurgle of water, the patter of raindrops, all find a musical echo in the tracks which follow them. So in a number of ways, the modus operandi hasn’t changed from Delay, it is just the location (or rather the locations) which is different. What is most telling here, however, is just how unobtrusive the recordings are. They are but brief snatches of very quiet sounds, the merest hints of the ambience of the outside world.

Leaving aside Eno (whether she draws from him intentionally or not), you have an album which takes similar cues as the likes of Johann Johannsson and Max Richter, or perhaps Hildur Gudnadottir with her more diaphonous cello work Without Sinking: modern, melancholic, minimalist, classical. However, in a sense trying to pigeonhole her records goes against their very essence: they seem to be born of a desire to break out, to escape. The short, churning rhythmic loops which underpin so many of these pieces act like an anchor, these ostinati counteracting the melody line’s desire to take the piece into different landscapes.

The more you listen, the more it begins to feel like, despite first impressions, this is less a record about the physical border between the city and the country, and more one about a mental border. The sound of echoing footsteps in “Ailanthus” suggest we haven’t even left the building, while the water heard in “Acquario” may even be the sound of a fishtank, rather than a stream. The cicadas are just as likely to be heard through an open window; let’s face it, you aren’t going to be plugging in a looping pedal in the park. As the surge of those song-like melodies is once more halted in its tracks, you feel that on Green And Grey Kent is as trapped in the city as she ever was in the airport. With the urge to escape to nature being defeated time and time again by more mundane concerns, sometimes all a city dweller can do is dream of leaving.