Tone Glow 035: Judith Hamann
An interview with Judith Hamann + words on Jon Gibson and our writers panel on Tomoko Sauvage's 'Fischgeist' and Choi Joonyong & Jin Sangtae's 'Hole in My Head'
Judith Hamann is a cellist and composer/performer whose interdisciplinary and immersive work explores the interconnection of sound and the body. She’s spent much of her time traveling from place to place, moving where live music-making takes her, and worked on many collaborative projects with artists like her mentor, cellist Charles Curtis, and the composer Sarah Hennies. This fall, she’s bringing her live performance practice to recording by releasing her first three solo albums—Peaks, Shaking Studies, and Music for Cello and Humming. Vanessa Ague talked with Hamann on September 10, 2020 to discuss how she landed in Berlin, the making of her debut records, and what it means to find home.
Photo by Martina Biagi
Vanessa Ague: Hi! I’m so glad this worked out.
Judith Hamann: Thank you for doing this!
Well, thank you for agreeing to it! It was so awesome to listen to your three albums. They’re beautiful.
Oh, thank you.
Thank you! How are you doing today?
I’m good. I just went to see a sneak preview of a friend’s film at the sound stage studio, but it was way out of town. It was kind of nice to go out to the forest, watch a film, and then come back.
Was it an outdoor showing?
No, it was indoors, but it was where they do sound mixing for the film. So it’s just the people who work there.
I’m really glad to hear that you could go see a small film screening, because I feel like I’ve really missed going to movies.
This was the first time I’ve seen a film all year, I think. Actually, since February.
I was trying to remember this too, the last film I saw. It’s possible that I saw Uncut Gems last, but yeah, it’s been since February.
I played my first show since February, my first live show to other human beings.
That’s amazing. How did it go?
Well, the thing was, I got my friend’s two year old’s stomach bug that apparently all the little kids have right now. So I was horrendously sick the day before. On the day of I was so tired and weak and I was like, will I be able to make it? But I did. I played the show and then I played again the next night and I was fine by then. My friend, Lucy Railton, curated these nights. They were short sets by a bunch of different people, and it was magical just to hear people performing in a space. I’ve been to some outdoor things, but this was just moving.
Outside feels like a totally different experience because there’s distractors going on, but then when you’re in the hall, you just have the resonance of the room and it’s more in the moment, or at least that’s what I’ve noticed. So that’s really cool that you got to have that experience right now.
I know, I couldn’t believe it. But people have been doing crazy, beautiful stuff here. I mean, I accidentally moved to Berlin because of the pandemic.
One of the questions I was going to ask you was how did you land on Berlin? Because you’ve been all over the world!
Well, I haven’t lived anywhere for a couple of years actually, and I was going to continue with that plan, but I got locked down in Finland for three months on an island. So that was where I spent the first three months of the pandemic, which was kind of incredible in its own way. I was really lucky that I had somewhere to stay and that I had somewhere to work, and I was on this island so I could go for walks. Compared to so many other people I was very lucky, but also, I have never spent three months without being with another person at all.
Yeah. I was here in New York, and it was crazy because I realized at the end of May that I hadn’t hugged anybody in four months. Isn’t that wild? How did we do it?
And then it’s like, am I okay? Like, is this okay? I don’t know how I did it. But I also think there was so much stress and fear in that moment that I wasn’t as worried about human connection. I just hoped everyone was okay. But it’s so wild to think about because human connection is such a natural part of life.
How isolated is this Island?
You have to catch a boat to Helsinki and the boat takes like 20 minutes. Everything was shut down and everyone was being pretty strict and observing isolation and lockdown. There was a small market on the Island, but that was it. You would occasionally see someone at a distance, maybe if you were going for a walk, and you would wave.
I hadn’t been living anywhere, and was going from project to project. I was meant to go to Australia in June for a few months. My other “home” is in Southern California because I lived there for a long time. I still have a visa for the US but I couldn’t go to either of those places. And so basically I could become an island troll lady and just get a tent and a sleeping bag—they have these every man’s land rules in Finland, so it’s not like property in that sense—and wander around and sleep anywhere and no one’s going to make me leave. Or I could go to Berlin. Those were my only two options.
I decided to come here and now I accidentally live here. I’m really lucky that I’m an Australian citizen and I could get some emergency COVID funding support to keep me afloat while I decide whether to retrain as a locksmith. I’ve been jokingly serious about retraining as one for a while. Maybe the time is ripe to really go for it and become a schluesseldienst in Germany.
I didn’t even know that you could train as a locksmith. How did you find this?
I was just thinking about a trade that’s essential. I don’t drive, so I can’t become a plumber or an electrician or something. And then I was like, what’s a littler trade, where you don’t need a van necessarily? And I was like, locksmiths.
That is the perfect solution.
I mean, people are going to have doors for the foreseeable future. They’re gonna leave the keys inside or lose their keys. Even when the system is electronic, someone still has to fix them if they get broken. I also have problems with doors, generally, and this would help me overcome my door fear, which I think is just from touring a lot and not being able to use keys. There’s been some incidents.
What kind of incidents? Have you lost your instrument or not been able to get in where you needed to go?
There was one time that I was staying at a friend’s sister-in-law’s brother’s place in Brussels. He was a very nice architect. I went out for a coffee before I had to get my train, and then when I came back, I couldn’t open the door. I tried for half an hour and then I even got a neighbor to help me try to open the door and he couldn’t either. So I had to call this architect and he had to come home from work. And then he got there. And he just took the key and opened the door. Anyway, things like that happen.
Photo by Tomas Sundblad
I can imagine. So you mentioned that you spent a lot of time in Southern California and I’m assuming that was for your DMA, right?
How was that? Did you like California?
I hated it at first. And then by the time I left, I was so, so sad to leave. It really got to me in the end.
It’s partially to do with human beings. The first year I was there, I was in North County San Diego, which is one of the most expensive pieces of coastline in the United States. I didn’t adjust very well to that. And then I moved to South San Diego and I was just very fortunate. I stumbled into a community that really did not have to welcome me, in Barrio Logan, which is the historic Chicano arts district of San Diego. I don’t think I’ve ever felt such a sense of belonging and love in a neighborhood in my life and I’m not sure if I ever will again. Once I moved down there and I started connecting with the broader San Diego music and arts community, things just really changed. I was just so smitten and now I miss it. I miss the light. I miss the way the air changes in the evening when the Marine layer rolls in. I always feel a sense of weird relief when I go back there.
What led you to get your DMA there?
There’s this Morton Feldman piece that is almost a weird life trajectory thread. Someone gave me the CD of Patterns in a Chromatic Field when I was in my early twenties, and that was how I first heard about the cellist Charles Curtis. I ended up doing a concert at UC San Diego with a friend of mine from Australia for one of her programs, and I worked with Charles and we hung out quite a bit while I was visiting. And then, he was like, you should really, probably come here. I really wasn’t sure if I wanted to go back to studying, but he convinced me in the end and I’m so glad that he did. The work that we’ve done together, in a very beautiful slow, methodical way, has been really amazing and a very deep learning process. I love that Charles and I still work together and I love that we have that relationship.
You have this whole experience with all of these collaborative works and now you’re releasing your debut solo albums. How does that feel?
I feel a little bit better about it now. I was really anxious about doing this. I’ve been recording shy for a really long time, and I think it’s partly a tension because I’ve been doing this work for a long time. I also really love records and listening to records. But, for a long time, every time I attempted to try to make a recorded document that felt like a satisfying record—that also captured a practice that’s alive and changing—it never felt right. So I’ve been chipping away at trying to figure out how to do this for a really long time.
Everything was not necessarily meant to happen at once. That’s a little bit of a COVID interference in timelines. But, Lawrence from Blank Forms approached me a while ago about it perhaps being time to try to do something. And anyone who knows me knows that I’m really great with a deadline and I’m not so good without them, generally. So I think I actually needed the nudge.
Those records are Frankensteined together from many different attempts in different places. It’s so hard to make work when you don’t live anywhere. But also I am very lucky and I have incredible and very supportive friends. I have a friend in England who was just like, it’s ridiculous that you don’t have any solo work documented, and next time you’re here, I’m just going to book a studio, and then you can do whatever you want with it. I’ve been living with and thinking about this material and playing it once or twice a week probably for a couple of years. The Shaking stuff in particular is mostly what I’ve been playing solo live. So it’s work that’s grown and evolved over a hundred odd performances, I guess. The Humming thing is my repertoire—Sarah Hennies’s piece, notated music, which she wrote me and I learned and performed.
How did you bring that live atmosphere that means so much to you to the albums?
The one where that mattered most to me was Shaking Studies, because that is the one that only really exists as a live performance work. The Black Truffle record, Peaks, was the first thing that I made that was just to be a record. And then Humming is in between because the works were framed as pieces. It made it feel a little bit different. I finished that record in March on my island in Finland.
I am not a recording engineer. I can record things, but I was on an island with a really mediocre audio interface and two microphones and that’s it. A really good friend of mine had died and my life was canceled and it was really crazy. I was making this music for no one, in a way, or just for myself. But then, I actually played one of those pieces live last week for the first time. And it was so strange. It was a reverse process.
How did it feel doing it in this reverse way?
It felt strange and I felt nervous about performing it. I call all of these things studies because I really don’t think of myself as a composer with a capital C. I think they are studies in that they’re studying something or researching something, and studies aren’t meant to be finished pieces either. They’re about building some relationship or facility. It’s a navigation between the interface of the body of the instrument and the body of the performer.
I’d never done it in this way where it was like, I’m just gonna sit in this giant concrete box on this island in Finland with no idea what’s going to happen to any of this. I remember when they first started saying that there won’t be normal concerts for like two years, at least. And I was just like, what am I doing? At the time, I had zero perspective about any of the work that I made. But, somehow, I think they were the right thing. It worked out.
Not having that perspective, I can imagine, is really difficult for improvised music, but how did you end up making it happen on your own without an audience?
I was definitely imagining, not an audience, but I could hear my friends on my shoulder. I have particular friends who I know so well, and we’ve worked together so much for so long and they’re so in my brain, it’s like, even if they’re not there, I know how they would react. They were like the angel and the devil. And then sometimes I just had to be like, okay, well, you just can’t think about what this person would say right now because you’re just gonna psych yourself out. I don’t know, I was in a very strange place during that.
The Black Truffle record, I also made at an artist residency. I guess this proves the point that I can’t make anything when I don’t live anywhere, but if someone gives me a place to stay for a couple of weeks, I can record. It’s been strange that this one is out in the world because when I made it, I never imagined that anyone would want to listen to it. It was, again, a study for me, but it was a study in like, can I put something together in this way? Like, if I was going to make an ambient concrète record, how would I even do that? And especially because I was in an artist residency in a small town in Austria looking over a male, high security prison and all I had was a cello and the recordings on my phone and an upright piano. So working with this limited palette of things that I had, I was like, should I try it? Because I wasn’t making it for anyone else, I felt like I could ride the edge of cliché or sweetness in a way that I don’t think I would have if I had been self conscious about it.
With that particular record, I was missing home life at the time. It took me a while to even notice that all the recordings had sorted themselves out geographically, so that one side was all Mexico and California and one side was all Europe. There was a lot of nostalgia and homesickness and it sorted itself that way, intuitively.
Do you purposely seek out remote artist residencies or does that just happen?
After a little while of never having my own personal space or being able to do any work, it became clear that artist residencies were going to be essential for my sanity to break up the using-my-dresses-as-a-pillow time. Although, I’m just going to say, I made a vow at the end of 2018 that I’m never going to do that again, and so far, knock on wood, it has not happened. Not living somewhere and doing concerts all the time is very varied because sometimes you’ll be doing something really fancy, like you’ll be doing an LA Philharmonic organized thing and you’ll be at a terrifyingly fancy hotel. And then other times, you’ll be curled up in a ball shivering at 4am in your coat, wondering what you’ve done with your life. So the whole gamut of things happens.
I realized after a little while that the only way I’m going to emotionally and physically survive this and be able to occasionally do some actual creative work, which requires living space and time alone, was through artist residencies. So I just applied for so many of them and every now and then I manage enough structural luck to get them and then I go. It became my solution to my lack of housing. But now, with this place in Berlin, a lot of the time I walk into the kitchen and it doesn’t really feel real. It feels like I’m at a residency. I preserved some lemons, I made some mushroom ketchup, things that take time that you only get to do when you live somewhere. It’s slowly starting to feel a little bit more like maybe for a while, this is the thing, but I’ve been in this state of housing insecurity tension for such a long time that I haven’t quite fully relaxed yet.
Photo by Tim Grey
Well, it’s only been two months and it’s a total change. Do you think that you’re going to stay doing this for a while or like the second the touring becomes possible again? Or are you going to go back out?
I don’t think that touring will ever be how it was and I’m also not sure that it should be. I mean, even the last little while I was really trying to only do an international flight a couple of times a year because ecologically, international long-haul travel is awful. I was trying to figure out how to tour with less flying and more land travel instead. But, now that I’ve stopped, I look back on that time and I’m like, how did I even do that? How did I survive? How could I be that sleep deprived and exhausted? But, I miss playing shows and I miss my friends and people that I love. What if I don’t get to go to Southern California or Mexico city or Australia for another year? It’s not the same, and I miss people.
Yeah, totally. It’s so hard right now to remain connected with people and to all be in one place. I totally understand that it’s really different.
Yeah. And I know that I’m really not in a position to complain. I was in Finland and now I’m in Germany, of all the places someone who doesn’t live anywhere and travels could have gotten stuck in these times. I believe my good fortune. It could have been a really bad situation for me and instead, it worked out that I’m in a relatively safe place with lots of people that I love.
There’s this place 10 minutes from my house that has been doing shows across the Spree. They set up speakers and people play on one side of the river and then people listen on the other side. The way the sound bounces off the old buildings and water is beautiful, and there’s a natural amphitheater built into the park on the other side. It’s perfect. I’ve been going to a lot of those shows.
That’s amazing that you ended up so close to something so nice.
I know! I’m going to go out and play a [Horațiu] Rădulescu piece with Alpine horns there.
This is what I mean, I got really lucky.
Composer, multi-instrumentalist, and graphic artist Jon Gibson was born in Los Angeles in 1940. Gibson was a founding member of the Philip Glass Ensemble and performed in the premieres of Terry Riley’s In C and Steve Reich’s Drumming, and also performed with a slew of important 20th century artists including LaMonte Young, Christian Wolff, Alvin Curran, Arthur Russell, and Annea Lockwood. Gibson, however, also has a body of solo and ensemble works (both instrumental and vocal) that is relatively overlooked compared to his Minimalist peers. In light of his passing, we are dedicating this week’s “Download Corner”—here dubbed “Listening Corner”—to musings on some of his recorded works.
Jon Gibson - Visitations (Chatham Square Productions, 1973)
Earlier this year, my partner and I briefly got lost on a hike in the Adirondacks. The thing about a forest trail is that it’s very easy to see when you are on it, but incredibly difficult to see when you are not. Its subtle features—broken branches, dry, well-trod soil—become all but illegible. Wander just ten feet away, and you find yourself encircled by trees without visible distinction or orientation. Spin around, and you might never find your way back.
Visitations reminds me of being lost in this specific way. It’s a music-writing cliché to compare something to a forest when it is merely dense or busy-sounding. Much more difficult to achieve is a composition which always changes, but which never ceases to feel disorienting and multidirectional. I believe that this is the functional aim of much if not most minimalist composition—not, as people assume, formal austerity or repetition for their own sakes. Still, Visitations achieves this in a way almost no other piece does, even in the rest of Gibson's oeuvre. Whereas prominent minimalist figures including Philip Glass and Steve Reich (as well as Gibson himself across numerous other compositions) rely on dizzying, mathematical permutation or rigid geometric abstraction to realize their effects, Visitations follows no such diagram. It feels organic—almost seems to breathe—and yet totally alien at the same time.
One of the first releases on Glass’s Chatham Square label, this LP already felt like a radical break from a scene still in its relative infancy. This might be why, in a 2016 interview with BOMB, Gibson mentioned that he had started performing the piece live again: because, nearly fifty years later, there’s still nothing else like it. —Mark Cutler
Jon Gibson - Two Solo Pieces (Chatham Square Productions, 1977)
Thanks in large part to its presence on Alan Licht’s infamous Minimal Top Ten list in 1996, Two Solo Pieces has become Jon Gibson’s best known and most influential artistic statement. The A-side “Cycles” is especially notable in this regard, its overwhelming storm of pipe organ harmonics a clear precursor to the aesthetic so favored by many modern day droners. In B-side “Untitled” you have the kind of deceptively simple structure that is the keystone of much modern ambient. Simplicity is what allows ambient music to act as a vessel for the listeners own fancies; a kind of musical Kuleshov Effect that allows a flute playing minor variations on a melody to somehow evoke dozens of different images, emotions, and musical traditions. Even the cover, with Gibson’s own art as a kind of abstract guide to the music within, is reminiscent of the modern aesthetic.
Taken together, these two compositions offer a fully formed example, from all the way back in 1977, of the aesthetic and conceptual concerns of what would later on be called “ambient” and “drone.” That something so forward-thinking was ignored upon release is almost to be expected, but that it gained a second life decades later on is something of a miracle. —Samuel McLemore
Jon Gibson - Relative Calm (New World Records, 2016)
Relative Calm is a lush, four-movement composition that premiered at Strasbourg in 1981. It featured choreography by Lucinda Childs—best known for collaborating with Philip Glass and Robert Wilson on Einstein on the Beach—and, according to the original program notes, began its proceedings as the audience entered the theater. This entrance music featured elements of the titular first movement and set the stage for the environment that Gibson places people inside throughout this 70-minute work. When you hear the movement—anchored by synths and metallophones, gilded by autoharp strums and electronic flickers—there’s a grandiosity that feels like it’s constantly on the precipice of climaxing.
The second movement of Relative Calm, “Q-Music,” feels just like that: tremendous bliss and serenity, the perpetual glory of song and dance—is this what heaven’s like? The steady back-and-forth of the piano has a perceived hurriedness that’s brought down by the glistening percussion and synths. The way your sense of time and speed slowly changes allows for an active and passive experience of calming; Gibson’s composition allow the music and your own engagement with it to play a role in your relaxation.
That’s perhaps what sticks out most to me about Gibson’s work: the beautiful weaving together of human and art, something that would’ve surely been clearer if seeing this piece performed live with its dance. You hear that in the way these minimalist compositions, their structure detailed in the liner notes, still remain emotive. But it’s also present in the highly melodic and improvisational “Extensions RC.” I adore how you can hear the initial sound of Gibson’s sopranino saxophone and the way it expands outward with a glossy veneer. It’s a beautiful representation of music’s sacredness, how a person can play something and the sound that’s produced then has a life of its own. It’s a gift that his works can remind one of art’s infinite existence; Gibson may be gone, but his music lives on forever. —Joshua Minsoo Kim
Purchase Relative Calm at the New World Records website.
Jon Gibson - Songs & Melodies, 1973-1977 (Superior Viaduct, 2020)
Without any prior knowledge of Gibson, the opening piece of “Songs & Melodies” sounds less like a product of the 20th century ‘minimalist’ or jazz traditions than a deconstruction of medieval Early Music. The horns and strings lay down an open canvas of expectation as the listener waits for further development, the arrival of a beaten drum, a monophonic chant, any kind of exposition to fill the fertile ground being tilled. But the cyclical melodic lines simply repeat, like a powerful bellows patiently stoking a furnace, as the ear begins to tune into details of the open canvas itself: the rich, organic resonance of the physical instruments being performed.
This initial statement of purpose perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the album, as the listener proceeds through a gallery exhibition of similar demonstrations of form. “Song II” makes this expository idea explicit, as the introductory strings explore the natural harmonics that can be coaxed out of a single repeated note. The additional instruments that gradually add themselves are woven seamlessly into this singular tapestry, deepening the harmonic richness of the whole rather than standing in contrast to one another. “Melody” rewards a deep listen into the timbral space between and above the notes, as the ensemble is reduced to a single piano, played by Gibson himself. Here as before, the usual way of listening is subverted. Rather than the instruments serving as a medium to deliver melody, the melodies serve as a scaffolding to explore the expressive depth of the instruments themselves.
A useful point of comparison is Jim O’Rourke’s “Happy Days,” a piece that for much of its album-length duration explores the vast potential contained within a single note plucked between octaves on an acoustic guitar. The work seethes with tension and gravity that conspire to overwhelm the listener who failed to appreciate the full extent of what could be contained within such a simple premise. The pieces of “Songs & Melodies,” by contrast, sit like a careful arrangement of stationary objects on a table. The listener is invited to paint or sketch them from any angle or perspective she wishes, at any level of detail desired. The pieces generously reward an attentive listen, but also serve to ornament a room with bright and lively energy upon even the most casual listen. With the playful “Solo for Saxophone,” this decorative effect could be likened to an abstract painting or sculpture. The ear is drawn in to focus as much on the tasteful curves and angles of its melody as to the sounds of breath drawn across the reed or the tapping of the instrument’s keys.
On the opposite end of this analogy, “Melody IV” and “Melody III” fill the space wall to ceiling with perfectly balanced textures, evolving patiently as the listener’s eye explores their dimensions from beginning to end. The melodic shapes and rhythms of closing piece “Equal Distribution” are more jarring than anything encountered thus far on the album, having the effect of rousing the listener out of the meditative spell cast by the previous pieces. By its end, the cohesive unity carried through the rest of the album begins to unravel, as the instruments fall out of sync in both tempo and dynamics. But rather than feeling messy or chaotic, this disentangling feels playful. The players link arm in arm as in a circle dance, spinning continuously around a central melodic motif, until at last, out of breath and beaming, they all fall down. —Emily Wirthlin
Every issue, Tone Glow has a panel of writers share brief thoughts on an album and assign it a score between 0 and 10. This section of the website is inspired by The Singles Jukebox.
Tomoko Sauvage - Fischgeist (Bohemian Drips, 2020)
Press Release info: Fischgeist was recorded in a former water tank in Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg in August 2019. The nineteenth-century brick building consists of five layered circles, with a spiral staircase in the middle leading up to an exit to a hilltop. Inside, it's humid and cold, the temperature always around 8–10 ℃. The building’s acoustics produce a long reverberation that lasts up to 20 seconds.
‘One day between recording sessions, a man, a passerby, wanted to look inside the building. He told me that it used to be full of fish. For a second I imagined a huge round aquarium with loads of fish swimming around in circles. Then I realized that he meant dead fish were kept there, to be sold on markets during the GDR era. But the image of fish swimming in the space stayed with me.’
In conversation with the space of the water tank, Tomoko Sauvage searches beyond the limits of her self-invented ‘natural synthesizers’: porcelain and glass bowls, filled with water and amplified with hydrophones.
Purchase Fischgeist at Bandcamp.
Shy Thompson: As life remains, effectively, on pause for me eight months into this global pandemic, I spend a lot of time daydreaming about the kind of things I’ll do once I have the freedom to do anything I want. I miss some of the things I used to do and places I used to be able to go, and many of those places are probably going to be permanently closed once we’ve come through the other side of this. I’d be happy enough just returning to some degree of what felt “normal” before, I’m sure, but I think I want to do more things I wouldn’t normally do once I have that option.
Tomoko Sauvage’s Fischgeist is a romantic album recorded inside of a huge empty water tank. She lets the imagery of swirling fish guide her, and it gets me thinking a lot about my fear of water. I never learned how to swim when I was young due to a near-fatal experience of drowning in a public pool; submerging myself in water was not a thing that interested me much after that. I don’t go near the water at beaches, or even put on a swimsuit if I can help it. I haven’t even been to an aquarium since visiting one for a middle school field trip.
Art often makes me rethink my relationship with concepts that the artist sees fit to thoroughly explore, and Fischgeist makes me wonder if I really want to be okay with being afraid of water forever. To make music that is this strongly evocative of aquatic life—as Tomoko Sauvage has done for her entire working career—she has to have some positive experiences with water; I don’t think I want to lock myself off from that for the rest of my life. Once I can, I think I’ll start myself off easy and go look at some fish.
Ashley Bardhan: Everyone knows the ocean is creepy as fuck. We haven’t identified even half of the one million species estimated to live in it. The ocean is better at deepness than we are. Tomoko Sauvage made Fischgeist by hitting porcelain and glass bowls inside of a brick building in Berlin. It sounds like what it sounds like it would sound like—strangely organic, shrouded in grainy, growling, murmuring harmonies that hang about like dust from your stone-floored basement, or the low, passionate grumble of a dog’s stomach after the dog has eaten. Like the ocean, these songs scare me. I am particularly scared by “Kinetosis Study” and “Exit,” both of which tap and whine with such focused frenzy, I feel like I’ve been swimming in an indoor pool for hours, vaguely waiting for someone like a lifeguard to appear. No one ever comes. I experience a complacent anxiety, waiting for my fate that is only possibly, maybe sealed.
Sam Tornow: In ambient and soft experimental music, water is everywhere, often taking the form of background samples. Sometimes it’s even more upfront, as track and album titles and artwork. A cursory glance at the ambient and new age tags on Bandcamp or Spotify prove it. It makes sense. Humans are made of it; we rely on it for survival. It plays an important role in various ancient religions and philosophies. In the eighth chapter of the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu writes, “The highest good is like water. Water gives life to the ten thousand things and does not strive. It flows in places men reject, and so is like the Tao.”
How many artists delve into the sonics of water, though? Few, if any, have such a grasp on water and its sonic properties as Tomoko Sauvage. The Japanese artist has made a career out of her brand of hydromancy. Using underwater microphones, bubbles, natural harmonics, hydrophonic feedback, water bowls, and space, Sauvage has opened a new chapter in water in electroacoustic music, one where the natural element is a synthesizer. Water isn’t a background element—it’s the focus.
On her new record, Fischgeist, Sauvage records in a former water tank built in the nineteenth-century in Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg. Most importantly, though, is the reverb, which allows the sounds to ring out for nearly 20 seconds, which Sauvage takes full advantage of, helping to give it a more reflective sound than her previous works. Each piece on Fischgeist is an experiment. On “Deluge,” the drips of water come down like a rainstorm of varying intensities. Whereas on “Metamorphosis,” Sauvage explores the sounds she can produce with the bowls by doing what sounds like rubbing her wet fingers across the sides of them, which creates almost human squeals that echo throughout the five-story building, eventually becoming feedback loops, lapping over each other like waves.
Fischgeist is refreshing. It’s sparse—the reverb trails lead the listener into ever-changing light baths—and spending a prolonged time sitting with the sounds of water evokes a gentle primitiveness. No synthesizers droning over sounds of the sea. No tape loops emulating the tides by phasing in and out of time. Just water, a few microphones, and space.
Gil Sansón: From the onset, one feels that this record is trying to make a statement. This is music about something, trying to convey images and meanings, with the music being subservient to an idea. Is this a bad thing in itself? Not necessarily, but it somehow forces the reviewer to think in terms of illustration and extramusical concerns, in terms of representation. The tuned glass, the heavy use of reverb—it’s all done tastefully, but I’m not convinced that Fischgeist stands as music on its own without the images and associations of the titles; it feels a bit too overstated and lacking in substance, with the heavy use of reverb feeling more like a crutch than a resource. The sounds themselves are not unpleasant, but my ears are left wanting for content that matches the lofty goals and the overt seriousness of the music. It isn’t primal enough, and only the first track gets anywhere close to fulfilling the expectations of the title (“Deluge”). If the rest of the record would have gone around a similar, more fearless road, I would have enjoyed it; alas, this primordial and menacing sound is nowhere to be found in the rest of the album, which follows more typical templates with rather mixed results.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: The album opens with “Deluge,” a riveting piece I wish lasted for hours. It sounds like a distant field recording of wind and waves, coalescing into a white-noise smear that resolves with a train-like rhythm dissipating into static. That piece is the strongest on Fischgeist primarily for how the sound is abstracted—I’m not readily thinking about how Tomoko Sauvage made it. Elsewhere, if I’m not fixated on how she’s rubbing her fingers along glass bowls, I’m frowning at the overutilization of reverb to create a semblance of expansive space. The mystique often disappears and I’m sort of wishing I felt more immersed in these aquatic worlds. As is, it just sounds like straight-ahead electroacoustics.
Nick Zanca: Since Pauline Oliveros shuffled off this mortal coil and left behind an echo still reverberating, the lion’s share of contemporary deep listening practitioners fixated on site-specificity or natural elements have been (perhaps too) steeped in the psychology of play; rarely does the work transcend mere research and evolve into something that resembles proper composition. After quickly gleaning the press copy, I was ready to cast Fischgeist off as the kind of meandering experimentation that renders itself unfocused less than halfway through its runtime before pressing play—recorded in a former water tank, twenty-second decay, “natural synthesis”; surely these numbers have been done enough times to the point of congestion. Though I’m far from confident in how far this kind of palette can go after a start-to-finish playback, I’ll admit there was something vaguely compelling about these particular drones that elicit the same response I have to Eliane Radigue’s underheard feedback works or Michael Pisaro’s gong études; a sense of subtle distinction between pieces that feels nearly detached from its uniform locale.
Maxie Younger: Ghost of water, bubbles that rise, swirling, attaching to one another, surface in gusts of sound that travel through the air, refracting, translated to audio signal; to the ears it reads as something cavernous, an indefinite response begetting further calls. Fischgeist, a work of tremendous sophistication, proves itself worthy of its convoluted methodology from the outset, as the opening hiss of “Deluge” gives way to a wall of shivering clicks and siren wails emanating from Tomoko Sauvage’s porous terracotta “fortune biscuits.” Each new hydrophonic technique introduced on the album’s subsequent tracks is equally fascinating and esoteric. Fischgeist’s accompanying press release served as something of a companion guide to me as I experienced the album for the first time: listening became a guessing game, hunting through spectral processes to connect them back to their acoustic center of gravity. While each track is entrancing in its own right, I found “Kinetosis Study,” where Sauvage manipulates feedback from her instruments into a lush cascade of singing drones, to be the most transcendent, simply because it was the longest; I was afforded the most time to luxuriate in its environment.
At its emotional height, Sauvage’s work evokes the otherworldly, even as it generates from such organic source material. This could be owed to her recording space, a former water tank whose spiraling architecture is felt palpably as sounds brush up against each other, melding into soft, echoing waves that rise, dissipating slowly in the air. These intricacies of texture never cross over to become overwhelming; Fischgeist is adaptable to both active and passive listening. It is able to conceal itself, but never ceases to be known. The only stipulation for this experience, I believe, is one of environment. Such intimate, affecting work should not be heard anywhere but at night, in the dark: submerged.
Choi Joonyong / Jin Singtae - Hole in My Head (Erstwhile, 2020)
Press Release info: Music by Choi Joonyong and Jin Sangtae. Recorded by Taku Unami at T2 Stage, Oil Tank Culture Park in Seoul, Korea on February 7 and 10, 2020 and Dotolim in Seoul, Korea on February 9, 2020.
Purchase Hole in My Head at Bandcamp.
Samuel McLemore: There is no genre harder to pin down than electroacoustic improvisation (EAI). Criticisms about albums that are more conceptual gimmick than substance, or consisting solely of “air conditioner music”—as a friend’s mother once memorably proclaimed—can hold weight when looking at the the scene as a whole, but when you zero down to the individual level you can inevitably find inspired work like Hole in My Head.
Taking clear cues from two of the best albums in Erstwhile Records’s past decade, Choi Joonyong & Jin Sangtae follow in their conceptual footsteps, milking them for a surprising amount of mileage. Bits and pieces of stage performances—framed as something of a puzzle by the lack of visual element to guide the listener’s expectations—are mixed together in ways that emphasizes the sonic halo of environmental noise that surrounds them over any typically musical aspect.
It is indeed something of a relief to discover that the idiosyncratic and sometimes downright offputting sonic vocabulary that EAI traffics in is still flexible enough to be molded into intriguing music by new artists. After a period of invention and success where it truly felt like it might become the future of music, the past few years have been scarce in quality EAI releases. Artists continue to play the same old thing, and little of the shine of a new frontier in music has disappeared. For what used to be the ultimate mold-breaking genre this is a bit of a sad state of affairs. Perhaps I am at a point as a listener where I need the next breakthrough to happen before I can muster up real enthusiasm for it again.
Gil Sansón: Reviewing EAI releases is often pretty difficult. The points of reference one could use are often common knowledge to the cognoscenti but pretty obscure to everybody else. One can describe sonic events in detail but doing so can leave the reader clueless as to the merits of the music. Often the best a reviewer can do is to point out previous releases by the artists in question so that the reader can form an opinion based on the musical evidence and more or less get to know what to expect from a new recording.
Hole in My Head is, in many ways, typical of the aesthetics of Korean EAI and the two featured artists, as well as a good representation of the goals of the Erstwhile label, but it’s also a record full of surprises and rich in sonic detail. The mix of homemade and deconstructed electronics with percussive, non-instrumental sources is very effective; the listener never gets restless—nothing stays in one place for long—and the flow of the music maintains a nice balance between the (relatively) familiar and the unexpected. The album seems intent on having a dialogue between 1) the repetitive nature of the DIY electronics’ rhythms and 2) the uneven pulses of the natural and percussive actions captured as field recordings. The birdsong and the throwing of metal rods on resonant surfaces we hear exist in the same category of sound.
The album is at the same time rugged and highly nuanced, with violent interruptions that somehow arrive with perfect timing. Maybe this is an appreciation from a listener who feels at home in EAI territory, but Choi and Jin hit all the right buttons, and the limited means of expression never feel oppressive or narrow-minded. Somehow the history of the genre and its precursors comes through and the balance between the improvised and the deliberate post-production editing is natural and necessary.
Simply put, the album is a lot of fun to listen to and the runtime flies by, leaving the listener craving for more. Part of the pleasure is to witness the off-kilter rhythms attempting to coalesce into something akin to a groove, but they always end up avoiding it, as when the drum machine leads one into expecting a trope. Choi and Jin enjoy teasing the listener with unfulfilled expectations while also sticking with a method in which the familiar listener will know exactly what to expect. This duality is what makes the record so successful. The title of the album may have some fearing for a nasty surprise at some point, or frequencies so harsh that the listening experience will be some sort of endurance test, but that’s just another way of playing with the expectations of the listener. To my ears, at least, this is ear candy.
Jibril Yassin: Hole in My Head is a quiet storm, a claustrophobic experience that begins in marked silence. There’s little comfort in knowledge to be found here; knowing what Choi Joonyoung and Jin Sangtae are capable of doesn’t make this recording any less jarring. The song structures continuously undercut my expectations in a manner that’s uncomfortable yet wholly satisfying. What you get are nine recordings that sketch out feelings and moods—they seem content to leave it at that. Yet, Hole in My Head succeeds thanks to both musicians’ ability to play off one another. As a duo, Choi and Jin play it cool, utilizing sparse textures and avoiding the urge to leap for “big” moments. Save for the lackluster stopgap, “in my,” where the moments of brief organ, electronic percussion and synthesized gurgles seem slight, the two work well with a little tension. Take the pregnant pause near the end of “E”: it’s a pause that acts as a beckon before cacophony begins to stir, punctured by jarring blasts of noise. It’s not an abyss quite yet—not one ready to swallow you whole—but suddenly the tension is there and it transforms every moment of reflection thereafter into something more disquieting.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: There is no doubt in my mind that Hole in My Head is the best release on Erstwhile in quite some time, readily positioning itself in a lineage of records that started with the unimpeachable Motubachii. The key to that album and subsequent Taku Unami-featuring or -indebted works is in presenting the recording space as a site of unexpected possibility. Acousmatic sounds are conducive to sci-fi and horror atmospheres, and what’s at the heart of all that is a rendering of the familiar as unfamiliar, of allowing for second-by-second suspense. Hole in My Head, however, is stripped of any such associations with these genres; like many classic Korean unharsh noise albums, this wants to strip your experience of sound down to its barest elements: texture, rhythm, silence.
The rise of various underground music scenes in Korea throughout the past half-decade has exacerbated the feeling that the Seoul EAI folks haven’t moved far beyond what they were doing a decade ago. Hole in My Head is notable specifically because of how beautifully it’s recorded and edited, but also because it has all the hallmarks of Choi and Jin’s music: the fractured micronoise intensity, able to project a surprising amount of energy; the delightfully raw presentation, though with production here that makes it all go down easy; and the sudden jolts of sampled metal music, akin to the plunderphonics experiments that Choi does as Danthrax.
The occasional bouncing of ping pong balls naturally brings to mind Devin Disanto & Nick Hoffman’s Three Exercises, but this album frees you from a sense of responsibility. Disanto’s work in general is the result of specific procedures that you’re left wanting to map out; Hole in My Head is pure sound-as-pleasure, allowing you to experience the pure joy of Choi and Jin’s sandbox soundplay. I’ve always considered music from Choi, Jin, or anyone else in the Dotolim scene to be equal parts austere and playful. It’s still very much the same here, but I’ve never felt so strongly that they want to be entertainers; experimental music is rarely this fun.
Nick Zanca: There is an unmistakable kind of nervous anticipation that comes with listening to an Erstwhile release for the first time—beyond the menial production and location credits, the listener is given next to no context as to what the recordings contain; to engage with any of their releases is to be blindfolded, to flirt with surprise, to expect the unexpected. Hole in My Head reminds me of the aphorism commonly attributed to cinematic transcendental stylist Carl Dreyer about “using artifice to strip artifice of artifice”; the symbiotic relationship between birdsong, metal clangor and malfunctioning electronics fold to become uniform and what we end up with is a playful, tinnitus-prone take on the more austere “ambient theater” tantamount to Taku Unami’s collaborative instant classics. I must admit that the more startling, ear-splitting sections scattered across its runtime are probably what will keep me from repeat listens, but I still appreciate this work precisely for what it is: exercises in sonic suspense; the oneiric music of gravity.
Shy Thompson: The Seoul experimental music scene is hard to know much of anything about. It’s small, it’s not very well documented, and a language barrier prevents most westerners from learning much more. Until I get back around to my long-stalled efforts to learn Korean, I have resigned to letting the music speak for itself by way of what’s on offer from labels like Balloon & Needle, Manual, and Dotolim. Jon Abbey of Erstwhile Records has certainly done his part to get more eyes on the Seoul scene, by facilitating the recording and release of Objets Infernaux, an album I consider a top contender for the best of 2014—and now this, Choi Joonyong and Jin Sangtae’s Hole in My Head. Lacking the explicit knowledge of what these musicians aim to accomplish, I’ve developed some theories just based on what I can hear. Most of the Seoul-sourced experimental music I’ve heard strikes me as very cold and mechanical; experimental in a very literal sense, where a tool for creating sound is chosen and it’s pushed to the limit of what can be done with it to see what that limit is. When you listen to a release like the Music Made with Balloon and/or Needle compilation, Becoming Typewriter, or I Am Scratching a CD in a Room, you’re getting exactly what it says on the tin—and there is an appeal to such a clinical approach that speaks to my appreciation for the scientific method.
Hole in My Head surprised me for its distinct lack of a clear mission statement, and my inability to determine what it might even be. The album was recorded at Oil Tank Culture Park, a former oil storage facility that has been repurposed by the Korean government as an environmentally conscious center for performance and learning. I find the venue to be a startlingly apt analogue for the music; there are traces of the sterile, calculated noises that very well may have come from a machine, but a surprising amount of sounds that are unquestionably organic—the calls of nearby birds, the bouncing of what sound like ping-pong balls, the rolling of something long and metallic. What’s here sounds like it was made by human beings, and the sonic footprint of the space they’re performing in is evident; the T2 performance hall bounces these sounds off its metal and concrete walls in ways that allow you to create a sonic map of the space in your head. Most Seoul experimental albums feel like they could have been made in the vacuum of space, which is, of course, not a knock against them—but it is different. Hole in My Head is Choi Joonyong and Jin Sangtae in a context I’ve never quite heard them in before, and I want to hear more of it.
Mark Cutler: I’ve been thinking about the importance of roundness to sound art, ever since realising that most of my own favourite field recordings have involved round or spinning things: fans, blenders, washing machines, motors, wheels, marbles, singing bowls, pipes, bottles. This made me think back to my favourite sound art of the last few decades in particular—many of which were also released either on Erstwhile or on Choi’s excellent Balloon & Needle label—to all the artists who rely on round, rolling or spinning objects to generate interesting sounds. Then, of course, there’s what could be considered the basic unit of all electronic music, the sine wave. First heard perhaps, by human ears, through the pressure of a finger around the rim of a wineglass, the sound is that of circularity itself; the wave being the trace of a point around a circumference over time.
Then, by chance, this week’s issue features two albums recorded in disused tanks—more circles. This one was recorded at a performing stage in Seoul’s Oil Tank Culture Park, an impressive effort to reimagine six colossal, rusted-out oil tanks as an architectural playground. The stage and seating sit in the lopped-off ruins of a tank about a hundred feet in diameter. The concrete walls act as a natural amphitheatre, amplifying whatever sound is made within. The space’s gentle slope allows Choi to drop what sound like ping pong balls, billiard balls, metal pipes, and marbles, letting them bounce and roll toward a point of rest.
With Unami on the mics, the recorded material sounds as good as you’d expect. Nobody else on Earth can make a ping pong ball sound so full and resonant. In his hands, Choi’s movements and music are sharp enough to go toe-to-toe with Jin’s blasts of sheer electronic noise. Though the two do not mix as much as I would like, often coming instead in successive waves, but when they do overlap, as on the magnificent second track (“E”), the results are extraordinary. Jin’s hard-drive-platter screeches and glitchy clatter merges with Choi’s acousmatic bangs and rattles until we can no longer distinguish between them.
Sunik Kim: I'm so sorry to do this again, but—Hole in My Head has single-handedly exploded the boundaries of music for me in the same way as Straub-Huillet did for film. This is pure theater: I hear Choi and Jin in the decaying Roman Coliseum of Moses und Aron (painstakingly diagrammed), working directly with the material at hand, but steadily unfolding that reality (a billion motes of digital dust, the chirping of birds, the grinding of cicadas, rolling bundles of sticks (?), bouncing ping pong balls (??)), invoking—through ellipses, silence (which is never truly silence here), the highest possible registers and the lowest, the searing, scraping of object on object (on object)—the immense, infinite life hidden in even the most quotidian things and sounds.
Sure, this is what a lot of ‘experimental music’ of much lesser quality purports to do. But there is no trace of gimmickry here (even though there is a dry humor present throughout—as I’ve observed from personal experience, this crew traffics in the usual ‘person with a folding table full of random objects’ stereotype). This ratcheting, colliding, collapsing storm of real and synthetic blast beats is self-sufficient, positively heat-seeking, in its vision. Everything is laid out on the page. I don’t hear people fucking around with bits of junk; I hear nature (appropriated, transformed, alienated, but no less nature) speaking/singing through itself—not in a transcendental or religious way, but simply… as it is. Humming, seething masses of sound burst through extended ‘silences’—periods of pitched screeching and crackling, haphazardly marking out time (bearing the tension of Luigi Nono’s most carefully composed late works, careening around the void)—which then evaporate in an instant: a dull knocking remains, until the next torrent.
Though I’m probably taking this way beyond their original intention, the visceral presence of space here (3D, not just the flat L-R pan of recorded audio) reminded me of a quote from Nono, on a “new acoustic space” grounded in a fundamentally new “socialist structure”:
What sense, then, can there be in speaking about new acoustic space, new environments, a new psychology of listening, of new techniques, of höherer Mensch [higher man] unless they are related to new human social structures no longer based on exploitation or neo-capitalist or neo-colonial domination, in a word, socialist structures, or at least tending toward them? (in which socialism is to be created truly on the ground, and not by mechanically reproducing historically limited models, when what is needed is analytical-critical knowledge).
The primary goal of socialist revolution and construction is not the public experimental music playground-junk shop. But something about Hole in My Head gestures towards the reality in which that’s not such a ‘utopian’ or laughable concept. It implies a society where there is land, space, time for all—where, to paraphrase Marx’s famous quote, one can hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, and roll scraps of metal around for an experimental music album after dinner. A revolution in music is only ever that—a revolution in music—but I am grateful to Hole in My Head for offering the briefest glimpse into that currently nonexistent, but no less possible, reality: a glimpse put forward not didactically, but in the very being—presence—of the music itself. Thank you for putting a new hole in my head.
...Yet joyous leap
The flames from an intrepid breast. Shuddering
Exaction! What? death alone ignites
My life now at the end, and you extend
To me the terrifying chalice, the fermenting cup,
Nature! that he who sings you drink a draft of it,
His spirit’s ultimate enthusiasms!
I am at peace with it; I seek now nothing further than
The site of my own sacrifice. I am well.
O Iris, rainbow over plunging chutes of water,
When jets of silvery mist leap up
My joy will be the way you are.
—Hölderlin, Der Tod des Empedokles
Still from Ariel (Aki Kaurismäki, 1988)
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