There seems to be a quest in much of Stephan Mathieu’s work to disrupt the linear nature of time, to capture a moment and hold it forever, to reach back to the past and drag it through to the present day, or even to reverse the process of obsolescence. His is a very slow and quiet rage against the dying of the light. I saw a performance of his Virginals project (a version of which is to be released as an album later this year) in Berlin last year, which saw him bringing not just the room – the crumbling old Sophiensaele theatre – back to life, but also rejuvenating that renaissance Virginals keyboard and a Philicorda organ. He made them sing in ways their inventors couldn’t possibly have dreamed of, via versions of pieces by the likes of Charlemagne Palestine and Alvin Lucier. His much-lauded Radioland CD from 2008 grabbed threads of shortwave radio as they were vanishing into the cosmos, and span them into huge tapestries of sound, preserving them for posterity in these new forms. But it isn’t just about the fourth dimension, as the titles of these two new CDs for the 12k and Line labels, A Static Place and Remain respectively, suggest. Mathieu is stepping outside the relentlessly flowing stream and into new eternities where whole new rules of time and space apply.
The first track on A Static Place is even named “Swarzschild Radius”, a term which denotes the distance from the centre of an object which, if all of its mass were compressed into that space, would cause its gravitational field to be so strong that light could not escape – i.e. it would become a singularity, a black hole, an infinitely deep schism in the fabric of space-time. If this is already sounding a little scientific, consider Mathieu’s descriptions of his working methods on A Static Place: they involve “spectral analysis and convolution processes”, which sounds like something men in white coats would use at CERN to view the spirals traced by colliding subatomic particles as they try to unravel the mysteries of subatomic forces. But, gravitational fields aside, there is a much more human, emotional pull to this music.
A Static Place is rooted in Mathieu’s passion for very early 78rpm records, which he has been collecting for some years (“I love the way they transport sound”, he has said). He plays them on, and collects the results from, his HMV 102 mechanical gramophones, which themselves date back to the 1930s. There is a further temporal dislocation involved here in that the pieces he uses on this album are recordings of material from the late Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque eras, works dating back centuries. And as such, they feature instruments which too have passed into desuetude: clavichords, lutes, and the like, whole families whose voices have faded to near silence. Mathieu is pointing his microphone directly at the past to collect these ghostly transmissions, much like an astronomer pointing a telescope at the night sky to detect in its faint red shift an echo of a time when notions of space and time were in fact meaningless.
As on previous work, such as the Transcription album he made in collaboration with Taylor Deupree, he plays these records on the acoustic gramophones and captures the sound via microphone, feeding it back to his laptop. Such is the extent of his processing that you are quite hard pushed to pick out any of that aforementioned instrumentation, their unfamiliar tones and textures coalescing into a spectral orchestra. Or even at times a chorus, for there does appear to be a voice deep within that opening track, calling softly from amongst the galaxial arm of hiss and static, and from amongst samples of strings which have been stretched seemingly to perpetuity. Another piece, “Dawn”, bristles and buzzes like a field of insects in summer breeze-tossed cornfields, as if a version of Gershwin’s “Summertime” had been entirely deconstructed, all instruments being removed to leave only heat haze and a languidity that seems like it could linger forever.
Layers are built up by Mathieu, not just layers of different instruments, but more contextual ones which are bound into the very process of the work’s creation in a different way. The section entitled “A Static Place 1a” feels like a room thick with resonance, its harpsichord strings echoing into a three dimensional space and collecting glistening harmonics. But which space? Am I listening to the studio in which the piece was originally recorded? The room into which Mathieu was playing them back? Or, indeed, the one I’m playing them back into right now? When you let these sounds fill your environment, you help Mathieu to complete his masterful telescoping of a century of recordings and playbacks, of times and spaces, and you find yourself listening to something that is at once rather clever and very beautiful.
Similar notions are explored in the contemporaneously released Remain, which is based on work by another of Mathieu’s sometime collaborators. Janek Schaefer produced an installation for the 2007 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival entitled Extended Play (Triptych For The Child Survivors Of War And Conflict), which was a musing on two births, separated by considerable time and space: that of his own mother in Poland in 1942, and his daughter in far more recent and less fraught times. A Polish tango from the era was used as the basis for a new composition, which was then split up into its constituent parts and scattered across a number of vinyl records, which played from clusters of gramophones around the hall, all bathed in a blood red light. The exhibition was designed so that those visiting it would unintentionally interfere with the playback, causing the records, which were in any event playing back at different speeds, to pause, and thereby “extend”, resulting in a new creation of indeterminate length.
Mathieu was playing the recording of Schaefer’s piece around his own home on a variety of different soundsystems simultaneously, enjoying the different ways in which the frequencies interacted with the various spaces. He decided to capture these resonances, using microphones and repeated recordings and playbacks, much in the manner of Alvin Lucier’s famous I Am Sitting In A Room, before processing and further extending them into an hour long version. The original instrumentation is once again well buried well beneath a shimmering ocean of sound, a piano briefly emerging above the surface at the thirty minute mark, a violin at fifty; even the vinyl crackle of the original is now just the patter of raindrops on water. It is again the resonance which dominates, never still, constantly mutating, the waves reaching peaks of room-rattling proportions before gradually falling back once more.
The cover of Remain retains the vivid red light of Schaefer’s original work, but stretches it like a Rothko to fill the canvas. And that comparison is quite apt when it comes to a piece like this, a huge, seemingly monolithic (it is composed of one sixty minute track) construction which when perceived close up, as well as immersing and overawing, also reveals whole worlds of detail, brush stroke, surface imperfections and colour. There are a million shades of red herein, but all are full of blood, teeming with life. But if it had been Mathieu’s ambition on both A Static Place and Remain to, like Rothko, “create a place”, he would have overachieved. He has done far, far more than this, with masterpieces which completely obliterate the boundaries between different places and times, to create new singularities. These are recordings to treasure forever, whatever forever means.