Stephan Mathieu – A Static Place and Remain

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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.

Celer – Vestiges Of An Inherent Melancholy

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In the eighteen months since Danielle Baquet-Long passed away, there have already been upwards of a dozen albums worth of material released which were recorded by her and her husband Will Long before her untimely death. Especially given the quiet, introspective nature of all this music, there comes a point where you have to wonder just how much more there is to say, or how many ways there are of saying it; even the title of this latest album may almost be verging on self-parody. But not for the first time, I’m confounded; once again I have found myself buying a Celer record, listening to it, and being stopped in my tracks by the powerful glare from its reflections. This new album, Vestiges Of An Inherent Melancholy, is a captivating journey – not just to a particular country, and to a particular time, but also to a very particular, and very personal, state of mind.

Vestiges Of An Inherent Melancholy is Celer’s second LP for the Blackest Rainbow label, after the dense collage of dark, deep, drones that was Dwell In Possibility. Despite the typically lengthy list of source sounds on Vestiges (cello, violin, pipe organ, field recordings, tape, samples, electronics), it is a simpler, and much more emotionally direct construction than that release. The front cover is decorated with a photo of Buddhist prayer flags draped across a dusty street, the bright colours seemingly having been drained from it by the ravages of time: it was in fact taken nine years ago by Baquet-Long during a lengthy stay in Nepal. Two “tracks” (while nine are delineated by title on the record’s sleeve, they seep into each other to effectively give two long continuous pieces) also feature field recordings made in Kathmandu.

Nepal is a country of such dramatic contrasts, from the warm, lush, tropical rainforests of the south to the cold, rocky Himalayas of the north, from the simplicity of rural living to the capital’s many complexities. In 2002, in both the peaceful Buddhist villages and the bustling chaos of the (primarily Hindu) capital there must have been a sense of exhaustion, worry and hope about recent events and forthcoming changes. A royal family had just been all but wiped out, an event which, when combined with a strengthening Maoist faction, was destined to lead to dramatic changes in the state’s status, changes which have still not fully stabilised. Vestiges Of An Inherent Melancholy is equally full of contrast, with those sections of extremely animated (and even slightly frightening) chatter slicing into sections of prayer-like serenity, with lush melodies appearing from amidst barren backdrops.

But much more than being simply an ode to Nepal, it feels like it’s more generally a reflection on transition, on a time when sadness for what was being lost was tempered by hope for the future. A quote from the film The Third Man on the album’s second side brings us back to post-war Vienna; similarly broken, burnt out and yet somehow optimistic. Yet underpinning the album there is that sensation, common to the hauntological musical canon, that all has not turned out as was hoped; that, to quote from Leyland Kirby’s most recent project, “sadly, the future is no longer what it was”. Sad, slow snatches of orchestral melody seem doomed to play out over and over, degraded and withered with time, giving much of the album the mood of work by Philip Jeck or indeed Kirby himself. The happy songs of old are transformed by the passage of time into something very different, very personal, and very poignant. When taken in conjunction with everything we know about the premature end to the Celer project, these Vestiges Of An Inherent Melancholy are at times almost unbearable.

Æthenor – En Form for Blå

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Previous Æthenor albums have featured symbols on the front, pyramids and crosses and that sort of thing, which could quite reasonably lead you to infer an interest in the occult. When combined with the fact that the group includes members of Sunn O))) and Ulver, you’d be forgiven for divining some black metal tendencies; however, as their last release Faking Gold And Murder also featured David Tibet, you might equally expect the mystical folk influence that he brings to Current 93. But musically, you’d be hard placed to put the records in this context. It’s perhaps for the best then that Æthenor’s new album for VHF RecordsEn Form for Blå, dispenses with much of the symbolic baggage I’ve mentioned. The album’s graphic design is markedly different, with a woman’s face picked out of from a stark blue background: as well as being the name of the famous Oslo venue where the album was recorded (and recorded very crisply, it has to be said), Blå translates from the Norwegian as “blue”. If it weren’t for the font, you could mistake it for a Kim Hiorthøy work. And that name, along with that venue, perhaps give better clues to what this sounds like.

En Form for Blå is another superb genre-defying suite of experimentalism from four free-thinking musicians: Stephen O’Malley, Daniel O’Sullivan, Kristoffer Rygg, and Steve Noble. Both in terms of instrumentation and approach, it recalls those more regular Blå residents and Hiorthøy acquaintances Supersilent. Like them, Æthenor utilise Fender Rhodes, improvised drumming, and deep bass drones, with live processing keeping the sound mix varied and unpredictable, the individual instruments surfacing briefly before being dragged back down into the dense sonic stew. The playing is restrained and responsive, maintaining a palpable sense of tension throughout; much like last year when I saw Stephen O’Malley and Steve Noble playing together at Cafe Oto, when Noble strained at the tether of the guitarist’s intense textural focus.

And if you do want a drummer to focus on texture as opposed to rhythm, the esteemed UK improviser Noble is indeed your man – as you’d expect from someone who’s played with the likes of Derek Bailey, his repertoire extends far, far beyond just shaping the beat, enabling him to engage in more meaningful dialogue in such a setting. The first track ‘Jocasta’ begins with electrical whine, and he meets it with long, ringing cymbal tones, before staccato bursts of static necessitates some dampened metallic sounds, like he’s engaging it in swordplay. His waves of cymbals add sparkling, shimmering overtones to the twinkling Rhodes melodies of ‘One Number Of Destiny In Ninety Nine’ (as you can see, Æthenor have also dispensed with their enigmatic refusal to give tracks titles).

Like at the aforementioned Oto gig, Malley is playing against type for much of this set, though he doesn’t so much sit in the shadows, as actually create the shadows. His deep bass rumble and amp hum on “Vyomgami Plume” are malevolently portentous, like the tremors which prefigure major seismic activity. When those earthquakes finally arrive they appear with shattering force, and just at the point when you begin to think the danger has passed. The ambient, electric-era Miles exploration that is “Laudanum Tusk” is cleaved in two by a section of hideous distortion, as if hit by the twisted metal force of a speeding train that has been shaken from the tracks, collecting all four band members as it goes. Aftershocks become increasingly infrequent, and “Something To Sleep Is Still” sees the landscape slowly re-emerging through dust-clouds. It becomes increasingly clear that while Æthenor may appear to have changed, they have in fact lost none of their magic.

Leafcutter John – Tunis

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At the very end of this record by English experimental musician John Burton, better known as Leafcutter John, there is a burst of applause. It’s a reminder that Burton, for all his association with music producing software – his own Forester program being a highly regarded Max/MSP development – is most at home in the live setting. The antithesis of the email-checking laptop musician of journalistic cliché, a solo set by this most inventive of performers is as likely to see him sampling the noise of deflating balloons or playing with a slinky as jabbing at the space bar. Such are his chops in this setting that he found himself co-opted into the rather popular jazz group Polar Bear. And, for me, his contributions to that group (such as the strange sounds which populate the off-kilter “Drunken Pharoah” from Peepers) are actually the most interesting thing about them, even if I’ve noted at times his efforts are clearly being met with incomprehension by their audience – at one of their shows I swear I once heard someone describe his input as mere “farting about”.

An overly harsh verdict, clearly, even if the slightly subservient nature of his role in Polar Bear means that the subtlety of what he does isn’t always easily appreciable. That clearly isn’t the case with his solo records, which have always had plenty to grab and hold the interest, both in a musical and contextual sense; that is if the two can even be separated. For example, The Housebound Spirit used concrète collage to create a nightmarish soundscape reflecting the acute agoraphobia he was suffering from at the time, while The Forest And The Sea, in both instrumentation and inspiration, reached back to something more pastoral, with more traditional folk sounds used to score a leafy fairytale. However, given that so much of what he does is geared around the live setting, from the equipment he builds to the highly visual nature of his performance, it’s perhaps fitting that his new release Tunis is (with a modicum of after-the-event tidying up) a live album.

And it is not just a live album, but a live album constructed mostly from sounds that were recorded during Burton’s stay in Tunis for the Festival Echos Sonores de Tunis, which his performance was part of. So, he had turned up in the country a mere day or so before the performance without source material, relying on being able to accumulate enough found sounds from what little of the city he could actually visit in that short period to be able to create something useful from them. Thankfully, his confidence was justified. The album is in fact structured like one day in the city, from the glorious sunrise over the bay experienced during “A Slowly Growing Beautiful”, through morning prayer and the increasing cacophony of the second half (interrupted by siesta and its “I am sleeping” vocal refrain), to an evening alive with music, and finally culminating in a gradual fade to silence.

It’s to Burton’s credit, given the timescale, that Tunis sounds as good as it does, in particular that it manages to be as evocative of city life as it is without relying on the more obvious sound sources. The instrumentation, strings and percussion are, whilst I assume of local origin, all heavily processed, used to add light or shade to the atmospheres created. Significantly, there is no call to prayer sampled on the record (as far as I can tell), yet the vocal drones and repeated phrases on “Palm Reader” sound deeply spiritual; the holy minimalism of the likes of Arvo Part would be an obvious reference point (a less obvious – and more troubling one – would be another esteemed minimalist. Is the repeated refrain of what sounds like “my name is…” a reference to Steve Reich’s Daniel Variations, his response to the sickening violence which flowed from religious conflict?). The bustle and chaos of city streets is evoked not so much by the sounds Burton chooses, but by the way he repurposes them via frantic, fragmented cut and splice, turning them into twisted, bustling alleys, stuffed with life, and roads choked with diesel chunter. This is so clever, so inventive, so alive, that I come so close to joining in that burst of applause which greets the end of the set.

Cory Allen – Pearls

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The final leg of my return from my Christmas break had me catching a train back to London from Leeds. The snow that had been covering the country for much of the festive period seemed to have turned into a icy, foggy suspension, hiding the Yorkshire countryside from view. It felt eerily still, particularly with headphones in; only a faint mechanical chunter told me that I was in fact travelling. My attention was caught, however, by the occasional sudden appearance of a tree through the haze, its blackness picked out against the brooding grey behind. And another, hard edges amongst soft textures. And another, crisp shapes contrasted against a diffuse background. Gradually, I found the album I was listening to on those headphones, Pearls by Cory Allen, and the outside world, were seeping into one another, it was as if the pure tones were becoming immersed in the fog, and the trees were emerging from static. The sounds adding new colour to the sights, and the sights adding fresh harmony to the sounds.

A happy accident of time and place, surely. However, accident isn’t a word that is used often in describing the work of Cory Allen. There is a reason the label he jointly runs with Mike Vermusky is called Quiet Design, after all. Allen’s solo work for the label has tended towards the scientific, being formulated from precisely measured combinations of ambient textures and tones, carefully set up to experiment with notions of perception. The range of frequencies he uses, so I’ve read, even include the imperceptible, the ultrasonic. You clearly aren’t supposed to engage with this on all levels, all of the time. His last album, Hearing Is Forgetting The Name Of The Thing One Hears, was a collection of glistening sine waves inspired by a neighbour’s set of wind chimes; always there, always musical, always beautiful, but somehow not always noticed, drifting in and out of aural focus. Ambient music in the sense that Eno would approve of, as ignorable as it is interesting in its own right.

Allen’s new release Pearls is similarly unassuming, but it is a sonically richer experience, full of contrasts. Acoustic and electronic. The light and the dark. The real and the unreal. “Strange Birds” rolls sleepily down from the hill at dawn and immediately diverges. The tension of a pulsing river of glitchy static is broken by delicate Fender Rhodes droplets, soft minimal melodies playing on the surface, becoming increasingly diffuse with each rippling repetition. Throughout the track, and the album as a whole, a slow undercurrent of bass notes tries to drag you out of your seat and into its fluid depths; the combination of frequencies, as well as the meticulousness of their assembly, reminding me of the electronic constructions of Oren Ambarchi.

While initially it feels still, you begin to perceive the sensation of slow movement, of calculated progression. The tracks run into one another, those recurring bass and Rhodes sounds leaking across the divides, pushing you almost imperceptibly forward into new misty landscapes which are shy about revealing their beauty. As well as sharing sounds with each other, the tracks trade them with the outside world; at the end of the album is a field recording of sorts, as if someone has accidentally called you when their mobile phone is in their pocket, and you are listening in to them going about their crackly business. You find yourself tuning out from your world and into theirs, these dislocated sounds distracting you from the wondrous scenery: the ruined majesty of “Isoyazi Clouds” with its looped, greyed-out classical samples is only gradually apparent, as if it is approached by train through the fog. Or, quite possibly, via some other means. You probably don’t need to invest in a ticket to/from Leeds to get the most from Pearls. It will add a delightful tint to your environment, wherever you are.

Sohrab – A Hidden Place

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For we are all, like swimmers in the sea,
Poised on the top of a huge wave of fate,
Which hangs uncertain to which side to fall.
And whether it will heave us up to land,
Or whether it will roll us out to sea,
Back out to sea, to the deep waves of death,
We know not, and no search will make us know;
Only the event will teach us in its hour.

The Shahnameh (Tales Of Kings) is the poem by Ferdowski from around 1000AD which interweaves the history and myths of Greater Iran in its 60,000 verses. One section of the epic poem is devoted to the tragedy of Rostam and Sohrab, in which a young warrior of mixed Tartar/Persian descent goes into battle against the Persians. He ultimately comes up against his own father, who does not recognise him as his own, and who mortally wounds him with a spear. It is a tale which has obvious attractions for the displaced, the unwanted, those who do not belong. It was turned into an opera by Loris Tjeknavorian, a man who was born in Armenia, and who spent his formative years in Iran, but then exited pre-Revolution to live in Austria and the US. The latest artist signed to Touch is a twenty-six year old unquiet heart from Tehran named Sohrab, after the character from Ferdowski’s poem. Touch say that he “like so many, is displaced within his own country and occupies a similar internal cultural isolation”. The intolerance of musical performance in Iran in particular – his only gig prior to a recent Touch-sponsored event in Berghain being broken up by the Iranian police – understandably make Sohrab feel that he does not belong there. In fact, while he managed to assemble the album there, he is no longer in Iran, having since been geographically displaced to Berlin, where he is claiming political asylum.

The whole issue of Sohrab’s displacement inevitably takes on more significance when you hear his debut release A Hidden Place. As a piece of experimental electronic music, perhaps predictably it doesn’t sound recognisably like the product of Iran. But then again it doesn’t sound much like the product of any particular culture, country or scene. One thing you can say is that it somehow manages to resemble a Touch release or, more accurately, several Touch releases. The combination of field recordings with electronic soundscapes is perhaps most reminiscent of Biosphere, at least Biosphere in Geir Jenssen’s earlier more percussion-free days. Opening track “Susanna” trickles into view like a stream over smooth pebbles, its gently ebbing rhythm gradually being carried into increasingly expansive spaces. However as the piece progresses, odd noises emerge from deep in the mix, noises which sound like garbled snatches of communications, like misfiring mobile phone reception or even glitchy cable TV reception. These feature even more prominently, along with some harsh electronic hum, on “Pedagogicheskaya Poema” a track which is texturally more like BJ Nilsen’s Invisible City, an album which sketched an unidentifiable city through its networks rather than through its inhabitants themselves.

But it isn’t the rhythms or the textures which linger in the mind most: it is the moods, or rather the contrasts between the moods. A Hidden Place is at times quietly optimistic, but more often it feels pessimistic, even threatened. Around each and every neon-lit corner there is a shadow and a tangible mood of fear. The title track is a disconcertingly barren, wind-swept plain, only interrupted half way through by some yelling – perhaps excited, perhaps panicked – voices; the only time that the recognisably human intervenes on this otherwise conspicuously deserted album (the album’s artwork adds to this feeling of abandonment, with its photos of derelict buildings and empty, dark corridors). This isn’t even its most jarring moment: that belongs to the two seconds of scabrous static in the middle of the otherwise merely mildly menacing “Pedagogicheskaya Poema”, two seconds which make little sense in the context of their immediate surroundings, two seconds which feel like they have been excised and dropped in from elsewhere, a sudden and severe displacement which serves to remind the listener that nothing about where this record comes from or is going to can be taken for granted. It could be said that, as a result of all of these sudden switches in mood, A Hidden Place is slightly lacking in a sense of its own identity. But isn’t that, after all, where we came in?

The album finally bleeds onto the shore, scattering birds as it does, with the melancholic, echoing chord progressions of “Zarrin”. However, it is unclear at present where Sohrab will wash up. As I write, he is spending the festive period in a refugee camp in Brandenburg. He possesses some limited freedoms, the means to communicate, and the means to continue making music. What he is not in possession of is his own destiny, his fate being in the hands of the German authorities. I hope for a peaceful ending to to this particular stanza, and that he is able to build on the considerable promise shown in A Hidden Place.

Oxus, forgetting the bright speed he had
In his high mountain-cradle in Pamere,
A foil’d circuitous wanderer – till at last
The long’d-for dash of waves is heard, and wide
His luminous home of waters opens, bright
And tranquil, from whose floor the new-bathed stars
Emerge, and shine upon the Aral Sea.

Machinefabriek – a year-end round-up

Have I actually written about any Machinefabriek releases this year? He is having a relatively quiet year, I guess. According to Discogs he has only had 14 releases this year, including CDs, mp3s, a DVD, cassettes, and the format he has done most to single-handedly keep alive, the 3″ CD. To put that figure into context, there were 21 in 2007. As ever, some are only fleetingly available, and I’ve probably missed out on a reasonable number of good ones as a result (such things are inevitable with the Machinefabriek catalogue), but there are a few I’ve managed to get my hands on towards the end of this year which I’m actually very keen on, which show Rutger Zuyderfelt in a variety of different settings, with a number of excellent collaborators.

There are a fine pair of pairings. The pairing with English clarinetist Gareth Davis is one that I know works, having seen them perform together at the North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam earlier in the year. It works because Davis is such a fine improviser, such a good exponent of the instrument’s quieter possibilities as well as its more conventional ones (and can therefore meet Zuyderfelt head-on across the full dynamic range), and because he gives Zuyderfelt such a wide array of sounds to work with. The four tracks were spontaneously composed, with Zuyderfelt on a guitar and electronics set-up. For the most part on Drape they are operating at a quiet level, sometimes barely perceptible even. They are unafraid to play nothing, content to listen and contribute only where they can add something; there is an audible tension. It begins with just the sound of breath, Davis blowing through his instrument, while ebows are gently held to strings, while on Part 2, a dark and shifting assortment of sine waves and deep tones is met with occasional growl and whine. Only on the last track does an ominously vibrating string cause Drape to actually begin to rise above a forceful whisper. Drape is out now on Home Normal.

A similar hushed intensity can be perceived on his pairing with Ithaca Trio. Oliver Thurley from Leeds is all three members of the Ithaca Trio, and he, or should I say they, wrote a nice letter suggesting they collaborate on a split CD, which emerged a few months ago on Experimedia. I sometimes feel like doing similar myself; asking Zuyderfelt just to follow me around, and provide some sort of ambient electronic soundtrack, perhaps. Or to remix my life. Again, this may be some very quiet music, but there is a lot going on. The Ithaca Trio tracks manage to combine droning and glitchy electronics with live instrumentation (double bass, piano, sax, percussion) and field recordings (bird song, barely-there chatter), leading to something at times quite dense, and always atmospheric. The ever-shifting nature, combined with a background of echo and unidentifiable small sounds, make this music that blurs the boundaries between the real world and the recorded. Perhaps the unintended is in fact one of the other members of the Trio. Machinefabriek’s side opens in more expansive fashion, before the gently pulsing atmospherics of “The Desolate Delay” lead into the harsh “The Harmed Harp”. In the latter I can only assume that Zuyderfelt is actually subjecting a harp to a number of practices which may contravene the Geneva Convention as unsettling scraping, splintering, cracking, and creaking noises puncture the deep rumbling drone and oscillations. I’ve never been a fan of the split CD format, as unlike the split LP, the transition between artists can jar. But here the Ithaca Trio side just bleeds into the Machinefabriek side, as the album highlight “For Ailing Health” almost sounds like one of his slow-building pieces (I’m sure he, or, they, would take that as a compliment) as it collects breath, cymbal, skronk, and lots of coughing as it winds its way up to the plateau.

Piiptsjilling is the quartet of Machinefabriek with Jan and Romke Kleefstra, and Mariska Baars. Like his collaborations with Baars’s Soccer Committee, this is a Machinefabriek album with words. Albeit words in (West) Frisian, a language spoken only in the north of the Netherlands, by around half a million people. The law of probability suggests you aren’t one of them. In fact, Jan Kleefstra contributes poetry to Wurdskrieme, while the others add mainly processed guitar. Like the Machinefabriek/Davis record, this was recorded pretty spontaneously over a couple of days, and it has a very pleasing ebb and flow to it. Sections of near-song, with semi-diaphonous vocals from Baars, drift into wordless drone, then into spoken word, and into extended periods of improvised guitar (the outro to “Tsjustere Leaten” actually reminds me of one of the darker sections from Fahey’s Red Cross). For something recorded so quickly it sounds remarkable cohesive, and never less than compelling; possibly even my favourite Machinefabriek of the year. There is a whole other album culled from the same sessions (of course there was), released on Spekk, but I haven’t heard it. Law of probability suggests it is likely to be very good.

Another release explodes this collaboration apart, as both Machinefabriek and the two Kleefstras also feature, on separate tracks on a limited edition White Box CD called That It Stays Winter Forever, along with White Box’s Liondialer. It gets increasingly less opaque as it goes along, the sound of instruments, primarily guitars, appearing out of the haze. The Machinefabriek comes in at around twenty minutes (or, in Machinefabriek measures, three inches), twenty lovely minutes of shimmering tones, deep bass notes, and popping electronics, a combination which reminds me of that other student of the guitar’s extended sonic potential, Oren Ambarchi. The Kleefstras combine with Anne Chris Bakker to chop out some sparse echoing guitar into an increasingly biting wind of static and hiss. I’ve no idea what Jan is muttering about, but here he sounds as portentous as a Dutch David Tibet. The contribution of Liondialer (the duo of White Box boss Danny Saul with Greg Haines) begins with unadorned, unprocessed guitar, the first time I’ve heard such a thing in many hours now. Such a state can’t last, obviously, and it all gets sucked down into a deep echoing chasm, before being eroded to nothing in an abrasive second half.

And so there ends another Machinefabriek year. Given that the quality of his solo work seemed to be peaking in 2009 with Dauw, it is commendable that he has continued to push himself by continuing to seek new situations and new approaches – in particular, I’m impressed by the quality of his improvisation in collaborative settings. The fact that everything (it seems) is released means that there is nowhere for him to hide anything substandard; the fact that there appears to be nothing substandard, is truly remarkable.

*Postscript: I’ve just received an email from Machinefabriek which suggests that “early 2011″ will include 4 CDs, one 12″ piece of vinyl, one 10″ piece of vinyl, one 5″ piece of vinyl, a cassette and, of course, a 3” CD-R*

Photo by Scott McMillan

Mark Fell, Multistability (Raster-Noton)

Multistability

Multistability is the branch of Gestalt psychology in which things are perceived in more than one state. It is usually used to describe images like the Necker Cube, or the Rubin Vase, those strange optical illusions which, when you try to focus on them, seem to pulse between two different and wholly contradictory forms, but can also be used with reference to auditory trickery. Trickery like this new album by Mark Fell, one half of Sheffield’s Raster-Noton duo SND. Given that Fell’s last solo album, 2004’s Ten Types Of Elsewhere, focused on “a link between objects and alterity through spatial and temporal deformations, twistings, rotatings, reflections and stretchings”, I think it is fair to say he has form in this field. Or that field. Or both.

Multistability is the sort of album which is released in late November to make those publications which have already compiled their best of the year lists (not guilty, thankfully) look absolutely ridiculous. Monolake did likewise last year with Silence, and Multistability shares with that album both a surgical sonic precision and the sense that its creator has been listening to a lot of very current music; as such, it fits well with the recent Raster-Noton 12″ series, including the razor sharp Kangding Ray release. It begins with a staccato techno clarion call which almost immediately starts varying tempo and mixing with glitch and a rhythm which sounds like a metal ball being dropped onto a metal plate from height. The tension between those warm synthetic sounds and cold, harsh textures continues to fascinate throughout in a variety of settings: Track 5A reduces these elements to morse code like strings, while the miniature 5B sees techno organ stabs swapping, swapping, swapping with harsh, spitting noise. The fastidiousness of the arrangement is highlighted best on 9, electronic melody blended together with a rhythmic composition to match a Chris Corsano drum solo, the beat sliced til it is wafer thin, and assembled with the finesse of a Michelin starred chef.

As with Ten Types Of Elsewhere, Multistability both lacks – and indeed benefits from the lack of – SND’s more linear, rhythmic obsessions, being more fractured and abstract, with a more minimalist approach which encourages us to dwell on the sounds as much as the patterns, and in particular on the interaction between different elements. For a minimalist electronica album, the amount of non-linear information that it requires you to process can be confusing, at times completely overwhelming; it swings violently from left to right, speeds up and down without warning. Listening to this outside on headphones, I’ve actually found it difficult to walk in a straight line; the bushes and gutters of North London are not safe when I’m listening to this. Different rhythms and sounds compete for the same headspace, channels fading in and out in disorientating fashion – you lock onto something, it vanishes, and something else arrives in its place. Multistability.

Mats Gustafsson, Needs! (Dancing Wayang)

Needs!

Woah, a new solo album from the mighty Mats Gustafsson; surely this will be a loud exhibition of powerful saxophone, the sound of one man squawking his lungs up through his instrument, the sort of record to set alongside solo albums by the likes of his sometime collaborator Peter Brotzmann. Well, no. Not at all. This isn’t a solo record by the Mats Gustafsson who plays with Brotzmann or indeed in his usual band The Thing. So is it a solo record by the Mats Gustafsson who plays live electronics with Sonic Youth? Actually, it isn’t quite that either. Perhaps it is best to think of this, as in fact the label (the consistently excellent Dancing Wayang) does, as a “duo” album: an album by two duelling Gustafssons with the sound made by the saxophonist Mats being slashed at by the electronics of the other Mats until it is disfigured way beyond the point where it could be recognised by Adolphe Sax himself.

So this really isn’t a regular solo sax album. Even when Gustafsson is playing his horn on Needs!, he isn’t doing so in anything approaching a conventional fashion. The source sounds he is more interested in are breath and clicks; he processes these in real time and adds layers of overdubs, moments of extreme quiet meeting moments of abrasive noise. The staccato saxophone pops at the start of the title track are quickly consumed by electronic static, so much so that this begins to sound more like an album that you’d find displayed with the power electronics records in Second Layer, rather than in the jazz racks of Honest Jons, which is in fact where I picked it up from. Serrated, crunchy shards of visceral noise are continuously and vigorously rubbed into your eardrums, if it wasn’t for the gasping for breath (Gustafsson usually, me sometimes) I feel I could be listening to Wolf Eyes at times. The album even teases you with a title like “Ethiopian Swing”, making you think that it might be a piece inspired by his work with The Ex, riffing on one of their Getatchew Mekuria pieces. Of course, it is nothing of the sort, it sounds more like an angry man letting the air out of a balloon whilst trapped inside a huge empty iron tank. The title of “It’s Amore” is similarly misleading, leading you to follow the tiny winding metallic percussive trails that are being used to lure you into the depths of this most fascinating sound world, for Needs! is one of the most dynamic and sonically inventive things I’ve heard this year. God bless Mats Gustafsson. Both of them.

Ensemble Economique, Psychical (Not Not Fun); RV Paintings, Samoa Highway (Helen Scarsdale Agency)

Samoa HighwayPsychical

Has Brian Pyle, of Starving Weirdos fame, ever been busier? It feels like only a few months ago that I was writing about Ensemble Economique’s rather marvellous Standing Still, Facing Forward record, released on the Amish label, praising the way it blended “the kosmische with minimalist classical to create something powerful and cinematic”. With this pair of (even) new(er) albums Pyle has pushed even further out into the fields of drone and imaginary soundtracks. So intense, and so good, is this burst of activity that I’m beginning to wonder why the hell I’m still calling him “Brian Pyle, of Starving Weirdos fame”.

Last heard on an experimental side of a split LP with Taiga Remains on Blackest Rainbow, RV Paintings is Brian and Jon Pyle’s fraternal formation. With Samoa Highway, the first LP to be released by the Helen Scarsdale Agency, they have produced a more focused set of deep meditative drone and ever-so-slightly creepy field recordings. The title refers to a bridge that runs through (their home) Humboldt County, passing a local airport. And so “Millions” begins with the sound of jet airplanes screaming through a haze of humming guitars, but the muffled bangs and rumbles in the background almost relocate the piece across the world to the Tora Bora mountains. As with several tracks on the album, the fog slowly clears to leave peaceful melody line; piano in this case, organs more commonly. “Mirrors”, with its churning strings, begins like a cousin of “With You At Brandy Creek” from the last Ensemble Economique record, before increasing layers of echoing voices, footsteps and watery drip consume it: a cellist busking in the underpass that connects California to the netherworld.

Pyle’s new Ensemble Economique release is everything that the last one was but more so. More kosmische, more ethnic instrumentation, and much much more cinematic. Given all those elements, it unsurprisingly sits well in a set of records that includes the soundtrack work by Can and Popol Vuh (it even looks the part in its gorgeous movie poster sleeve). A horror movie air of menace pervades, from the wailing of synths that swamps the tablas of “Hail”, to the ghostly voices of the title track, and to the spiralling, tension-building wall of psych guitar supplied by Charalambides’s Tom Carter during “Real Thing”. The closing track “Bonfires” brings the ethnic percussion and the screaming instrumentation together with a truly unholy cacophony of echoing chants and tolling bells. In taking his vision to the big screen, Psychical marks a big leap forward for Pyle. Available now from Not Not Fun, and elsewhere.