Tone Glow 078: Lawrence English
An interview with Lawrence English + our Writers' Panel on Cucina Povera's 'Dalmarnock Tapes', Jean-Luc Guionnet & Will Guthrie's 'Electric Rag', and Éliane Radigue's 'Occam Ocean 3'
Lawrence English is a Brisbane, Australia-based field recordist, musician, organizer, and sound theorist. Since the early 2000s, he has released dozens of albums solo and in collaboration with William Basinski, Merzbow, Francisco López, and others. He is also head of the important label Room40. English has four recent releases: A Mirror Holds the Sky is an overpowering set of field recordings from the Amazon jungle; Observation of Breath is an exploration of the pipe organ housed at The Old Museum in Brisbane; Breathing Spirit Forms is an outdoor improvised set with David Toop and Akio Suzuki; and Material Interstices is an unsettling meditation on dream-states with Jamie Stewart as HEXA. Matthew Blackwell spoke with English via Zoom on July 13, 2021 about this flurry of activity, running a prolific label during a pandemic, recording in the Amazon, and surviving a whiteout in the Antarctic.
Lawrence English: How was your anniversary dinner?
Matthew Blackwell: Oh, thanks for asking. It was very good. We had sushi and we stayed in and watched a movie.
That sounds exactly right! That’s just what’s needed!
Yeah, we’re sort of frantically moving and so it was hectic trying to carve out some nice time for ourselves in the middle of all this (points to stacks of boxes). But yeah, it was very fun.
Excellent. Excellent. I have to say I quite enjoyed my visit to Iowa City. It was a nice few days.
It’s a nice little town. It’s just a little college town. Kind of a blue dot in a red ocean. And the university is great. The Writers’ Workshop is there, so authors come through and talk and create a good little culture here.
I definitely feel like it had that flow-through of bodies, which I think gives a certain energy to a place.
Yeah, I found in these college towns that—in Chicago, you can count on other people to do things, you know, there’s the venues that are already going. But here, if you want something to happen, you have to do it yourself. So there’s house shows and things like that, that people become more invested in. I think I’ve lived in towns like this my whole life and that’s one thing I really like about them.
Okay, so why have you lived in those kinds of places? Just by chance?
Well, in my day job I’m an academic, so it’s for the universities. I teach here at the University of Iowa right now.
In which department?
English literature. Yeah. Yeah, it’s fun. It’s all very tenuous and precarious, as I’m sure you know (laughs).
And can I ask if you’re tenure track, or what’s the—
No, right now I’m not tenure track. I’m looking for a tenure track job elsewhere. But right now I’m taking what they give me, and it’s fun to be able to stay here and teach. I got my Ph.D. here as well.
Okay. Yeah, our system is slightly different to you folks in the States. We don’t really have the tenure track idea as such. I guess there’s a kind of informal process of that. But it’s more that, up until maybe a decade ago, there were a lot of full-time positions, and it was possible that you would build up to an ongoing appointment whilst working inside a department or university. That has changed significantly, I think in the last decade, and it’s much harder to get any full time positions. It’s generally rolling contracts for a few years and then sometimes people are able to flip it into full time positions, but it’s really tough.
Yeah, I have a friend who taught there for a couple years, he got sort of a dual Ph.D. in Sydney. He’s at the University of Chicago, but he was in Sydney for a while. And he thought about moving down there and trying to make a go of it. It’s less competitive, because it’s so far away, and there are fewer people competing for the jobs, but it’s still quite a risk to move from Chicago to Sydney and try to make it work (laughter).
Yeah, definitely. It’s a huge thing as well, unfortunately, for us, at the moment. The government here is really antagonistic towards the university sector. During the peak COVID period, we had some social security that was brought forth from the government, but Universities was one of those sectors that were actually left out of that arrangement. So if you’re a casual staff member, or academic assistant, or sessional academic, there was no support whatsoever, and there was this huge attrition that went on. And there was also no financial pick-up from the universities themselves. So in the wake of this, because there’s a lot of international students that come here—I think education is our third largest contributor to GDP in Australia—there was this enormous shortfall and a bunch of the universities just laid off staff. You had that particularly in Melbourne, and it seems like in Victoria there has been a lot of staff that have been laid off. That’s partly to do with this anxiety within the government here around the role that the academy plays, or can play. They want to shut that role down as much as possible in terms of actually educating people and getting them to ask questions, which I think ideally is the ultimate role for something like the academy—not to provide answers, but to provide the tools and opportunity through which we can ask better questions.
Right, the same thing is happening here as well. Did you come up through the university system there?
I mean, I studied but I’ve never had a full-time waged job in my life. And the one time that I did have a kind of regular income was actually during my Ph.D. scholarship. I got to the end of that time, and to be really honest, I begrudge no one the desire to have full-time employment, because the idea that there is money coming every period of time, whatever it might be, is such a relief, kind of like mental relief, and obviously economic relief as well, that I think that’s totally understandable. And I really had to do some very serious reflection on how I’d got to that point, and whether or not I wanted to maintain that trajectory or to not have that anymore. But there wasn’t really much option, anyway, for me to do anything else (laughs). So here I am today, and I’m still enjoying the wonders of precarity (laughter).
It’s amazing that you were able to make it without a job for so long, or without a steady job, I suppose. I believe running the label, Room40, is your full-time job?
To be really honest, it’s a time and place thing. I am a little mature, I suppose you would say. So my period of coming into work was in the ’90s. Here [in Australia] especially, we had this period of recession at the very beginning of the ’90s, after that global economic bubble burst that was described by our then-Prime Minister as “the recession that we had to have”. This was like a penance almost. The then Prime Minister, Paul Keating, was very colorful with language, but also really a very thoughtful, very cultured, Prime Minister, one of the few that we’ve had in this country. And what was interesting about it was that it meant that there wasn’t any assurance that when you came out of university, or when you came out of school, there would be a job. So there was, for me anyway, this added layer of DIY, which I was already pretty involved in even when I was in school, doing fanzines and things. When I came out, I was really motivated to just make things happen as best that I could.
I’m the very fortunate face of the fact that Brisbane was incredibly cheap to live in when I came through, and that there was still some opportunities for writing. My first life was kind of as a freelance writer. Between like 1993 and 2003, I did a lot of writing. Totally freelance, for street papers here and some dailies. I wrote for Playboy and anyone, basically, that would take stories. Playboy is probably my most interesting story, because it was actually tethered to an interview I self-orchestrated with Russ Meyer, the film director. I actually flew to Los Angeles, in ’98, and basically did a two to three-week tour of North America doing interviews with people, and the Russ Meyer one was the most complicated to get, the most entertaining too, and also the one that paid all the bills. So I owe Russ Meyer, if nothing else, for that (laughs).
So you you flew out, got these interviews, but didn’t know where you were going to place them yet. And then you had to find takers.
Basically, yeah. I mean, some of them were just for me, like I went and interviewed Richard Kern and a bunch of New York groups that I was interested in at the time, and I knew that there was going to be a really limited audience for that. I think I interviewed Kathleen Hanna on that trip, maybe, and Jon Spencer. It was a bunch of people. And it was great. I was confident people would be interested in those stories, because at that stage, obviously, those two musicians were very well recognized here. And it wasn’t tied to an album cycle so they could be longer features. I ended up using those for a bunch of magazines here that no longer exist… because almost no magazines anywhere exist anymore (wistfully sighs).
Do you have those around? Physically?
Yeah, the printed issues.
Some I do. I have to admit, I’m not the best archivist, so some are gone. Also, to be honest with you, I was writing a lot during that time. I think I worked out that by the time I was 26, I’d written a million words for magazines, and a lot of them were for street papers, which were turning over weekly. There was a period there where I was churning out like 7000 words a week for street papers alone. And that was really, I mean, an insane amount of work. And also, it just meant that the kind of turnover was really high, so I didn’t keep everything. And in some respects I do actually regret that.
I found a box of minidiscs recently that I’ve been going through that have a bunch of the interviews. So I’ve had this weird moment of really getting very heavily back into North Mississippi blues, electric blues stuff, a lot of that stuff that came through with Fat Possum. And it kind of comes off the back of, weirdly, a Jon Spencer-related story. So after I saw Jon in New York, he came to Australia and I joined him on tour for a couple of dates as a kind of on-the-scene journalist person. That tour was actually when he was partnering shows with R.L. Burnside, so I got to meet R.L., Kenny Brown and Cedric, [R.L.’s] grandson, and spent a little bit of time with them. I knew R.L.’s work, because I think at that point, it had really started to come through. But I was just so enamored with the, like—he represented a time that I don’t think you can go back to now. I think there’s a really poignant question around the idea, can blues exist anymore as a cultural phenomena?
I mean this in excess of it existing as a kind of aesthetic project or form, and more examining how the conditions that informed the Blues emerged and developed, and how utterly different those circumstances are now. Because what Blues was, well certainly during the 20th century, it was this recognition of existential struggle and in some cases helplessness, across generations. It reflected on a lack of control in life and a recognition of pressures so much bigger than yourself, of a sense of being unable to change your destiny. But that work addressed a kind of deep recognition of the cruelty of existence and about this deeply ingrained sense of inequality. By contrast, today I think, if you look at related musical cultures and society more generally, there’s much more this proposition of a kind of responsibilization that goes into a lot of messaging in the music today, especially lyrically. There’s a wider adoption of that neo-liberal, capitalist idea where you have an opportunity, as an individual agent, to fulfill this projection of your dream of success and of removing yourself from whatever social, political or economic pressures you feel. All you have to do is work hard and generate money, then you can achieve it. And then you can be satisfied, successful, you can remove yourself from the kind of tethers be that precarity or what have you. That mentality did not exist for those Blues musicians. It did not exist for those communities, so I think that’s an interesting recognition to this twentieth-century resolution of the self, to be reconciled with these seemingly immovable macro-pressures. It was somehow a deep interior resolution, within the self and within community too. That exists in stark relief against the contemporary promises of extracting yourself from your situation through financial success, that’s something that has permeated through Reaganomics I guess, and into the last 40 years of certain kinds of popular music and culture.
So the blues singer’s work speaks to their experiences as a primary focus, not seeking to turn into anything more than a reflection on that state of being.
I think that’s certainly one way to think about it, the music is an examination and a reflection on those challenges, transposed into song but it comes from a life that is lived under those conditions. The thing is, the music and the culture that formed it were completely embodied by those blues players. That’s what I think was interesting about the music and the people making it, they were so meshed together. Inseparable you might say. I think the music, that pain and anguish was lived in a way where the conditions were so absolute. Those musicians and the communities around them had this kind of macro political, social, racial and economic pressure bearing down without any promise of that situation changing. It was just layer upon layer of pressure. And what you got out the other side of that was this very articulated expression of music, that I actually do think is kind of hopeful, even though it's from a place of incredibly hopeless. At the very least it is a recognition of the innate state of hardship and a way of dialoguing and communally sharing that suffering.
Now that might just be my radically optimistic reading of it. But I do think that there is a real, almost like, solidarity of suffering or something that exists within the music that’s really powerful. Now, obviously I can’t possibly imagine any of the conditions those people existed under, particularly here, because we have our own very complicated history around our treatment of First Nations’ people in this country, and it’s markedly different to what you have in North America. You have similar issues with your First Nations as well as that history of slavery and discrimination that absolutely informed this idea of blues music and ultimately gave the world so much in a musical and cultural sense. So we have a different story to tell in Australia, I mean we don’t even have a treaty with our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities here, we have so far left to walk. It’s just to say that it’s at least twice removed for us to understand something like the Blues, but I want to understand it and to honor it, as I find it really powerful and it was very much brought home in those exchanges I was fortunate to have with artists like R.L. Burnside.
Anyway, all of this is to say I’ve had this moment of returning to this work and to these musicians through discovering a bunch of these old interviews. I found a great interview with T-Model Ford where he’s talking about a whole bunch of things about his childhood. And I found this other interview with R.L. Burnside that I’d done either the year before he came [to Australia] or a year after, but he’s talking about losing a whole bunch of his family members in Chicago. That was why he went back to Mississippi. And it was just really revealing. At that point in my life I was like 20 or 21 I knew so little of the world and R.L. was a character from this completely other territory that I had not had a chance to necessarily engage with. So those interviews I did, I think were actually of great value in that period of my life. To be exposed to so much music—I mean, I saw thousands, honestly thousands, of bands, and got to listen to tons of music and got to talk to people that live completely different lives to me, and I recognized the kind of breadth of the world.
If you can find some number of those interviews, or even transcribe those minidiscs, you should get them out somehow.
Yeah, I mean, look, the honest truth is, some of them are terrible. (laughter). No, actually, to be really honest. I found this tape I made with Elliott Smith, which was on the XO record. He came down here and I met him as well. He was actually super, super lovely. I went to the soundcheck because I think I must have been doing a review or something for the show. The interview is—I listened to it and thought “God, why didn’t you ask better questions?” Like, why was it that I couldn’t articulate what I was interested in with him? And he’s so generous, so generous in this interview. It’s like he can tell that I’m trying to find something and I just can’t quite get there. I would have been probably 20, again. Maybe 22 by that point. It wasn’t entirely wasted, because it turned into an article, but I just feel like there’s so much more I could have asked, had I been able to consider a more sophisticated line of questioning.
You have to start somewhere. You have to interview people when you’re 20, so that you can continue on and get better later.
Yeah, and look, I will say that the last two years, I've actually come back to doing a lot of interviews with people, which are partly published by the label. The piece I did with David [Toop] last year, that kind of in-conversation piece that we published as a book [alongside Toop’s Field Recording and Fox Spirits]. I’ve just finished one that we’ve just announced with Robin Rimbaud [Scanner], and there was one with Alan Licht. I’ve just done quite a long one with Marina Rosenfeld, which is really great. And then later on this year, there’s two more books we’ll publish that aren’t actually announced yet. But one of them is with Phauss, I don’t know if you know them, a Swedish group from the ’80s and early ’90s. We’ve done this massive retrospective examination of the records that they made and also this tour that they did in North America in like ’91-’92, which made connections between a lot of people like Jim O’Rourke, and whoever that was active then, and Carl Michael von Hausswolff and Erik Pauser, the two people from Phauss. And then a beautiful new book on Steve Roden as well, which is celebrating a lot of his studio practice and the intersection between the installation and sound work. And I’ve actually loved doing that. That is entirely to do with the fact that we are in this situation right now. I have this gift of time that’s been so amazing. You know, it’s 20 years of the label last year, which is daunting, but I got to the end of last year, and I thought, actually, this is the most satisfied I’ve ever been doing this (laughs). And it’s because I’ve spent a lot of time concentrating on it because I wasn’t touring, and that has been really amazing.
Yeah, I noticed that. I'm subscribed to Room40 on Bandcamp and I’ve noticed that there’s been an uptick in releases over the past year.
(laughs). I apologize about that.
No, no, I savor it! I like this sort of constant flood.
Yeah, “flood” is a nice term to describe it. But I do apologize to people (laughter).
I mean, I choose it! You can unsubscribe and I choose to subscribe. But is this a conscious decision? Did you do this to sort of help people through the pandemic? Is it for financial reasons, or aesthetic…?
I think it’s a confluence of all those things. There were certainly moments last year where people said “I am short. Can we do something really quick?” And we did. And it’s important to do that. If they can pay their rent that month, awesome. Partly as well, I think people had time to actually investigate work that maybe they hadn’t had a moment to reconsider. Some of them were archival pieces, people suddenly were going back to the archives and were able to uncover things that, six months before, they wouldn’t have had a moment to glance through.
And also there are a number of projects that have been brewing away for a while that were coming to fruition partly because it was a 20th anniversary. I didn’t really talk about the anniversary last year, because I thought it’s in poor taste, you know—we’ve all got other things that are much more important to focus on. But there were a few things that were just starting to resolve that had been brewing away for a while. So there was a confluence, I think, of all of those things at once. Last year was by far the busiest year we’ve ever had, as well. I think the busiest year before this might have been 2016. I think we did 26 releases, something like that. Last year, we did around 64. Within that, there are pieces like Aki Onda’s Cassette Memories. There’s three of those, so there are a couple [releases] that were tied together as collected editions. But it was an incredibly busy year. And to be honest, like I said, the most satisfying year, for me, in terms of really heavily investing time and energy and focus into it.
In terms of your own work, you’ve got four albums coming?
(laughter). Maybe my timing is bad, I don’t really know. Yes, I do. I mean, they’re not all mine, to be totally fair. Partly it’s to do with the production challenges of the moment. I think some of them were a little bit held up, like the HEXA recording I was hoping would be out a little bit sooner than this. But yeah, there’s definitely some external forces at play there. Partly as well, I just turned 45. And I had these two projects that had been sitting patiently a while, the two editions that have a book and CD, A Mirror Holds the Sky and the Breathing Spirit Forms record with David Toop and Akio Suzuki. Those two were in some respects the beneficiaries of having this time that I’ve been able to really actually begin to understand what they could be.
Particularly the Breathing Spirit Forms recordings, I’ve had them for eight years. And there’ve been moments where I’ve returned to them and started to work on them but couldn’t find the way in. And then Akio came to visit last year and we presented this exhibition of his work here, Sense Of Ekō, a retrospective exhibition, which actually is on right now in another gallery three or four hours south of where I live, and I think his visit helped spur things along. He was here, David and I had been talking about some other projects, and I’d obviously spent a lot of time working on that book with him and the Apparition Paintings record. So I think that somehow both of them were very firmly in my mind. And when I went back to listen to the recordings I actually heard them in this entirely different way, which was great. And I have to be honest, that’s probably one of the last recordings where I was improvising with other people. I haven’t done that in a long time. And at that point, I hadn’t done it for quite a while either. Improvising was a really big part of what I was interested in, between maybe like 2002 to 2006 or ’07, I had spent a lot of time playing with people. And some of the greatest performative challenges I've ever faced were during that time, like playing with certain people that have really distinct styles or have very intense senses of focus. But David and Akio were so generous with the way that they opened the space for the sound, it’s so very easy to work with them. I mean, I’ve known both of them now for coming on… David, I’ve known for 20 years, and Akio I've known since 2004, I think was the first time we were in touch. So it’s quite a while.
But yeah, it was just a really great opportunity to come back, re-listen to these pieces, and hear things in them that maybe I didn’t hear the first time or the second time or the third time. And it just really unlocked itself. It was quite amazing. Actually, I have to say it was very quick. I found the parts of the conversation that really felt articulate. And then I just basically proposed these edits out of the recordings to David and Akio and both were like “Yep, that's perfect. Great.” It was that simple.
Could you explain a bit about the process of recording? It’s all outdoors, and you went to a mountain to improvise with… Well, you can explain the instruments that you’ve used. Some strange instruments like a sponge and a mirror.
(laughter). Yes, yes, that’s one of Akio’s favorites. It was interesting. David and Akio had come to Australia. I’d organized a series of performances for them around the country. Part of Room40’s other life, apart from publishing editions, is organizing. To be honest, that’s a big part of my life as a human being—a lot of my email is organizing things for people. So David and Akio had come, and I’d organized the show with them together in Brisbane, which was entirely for my benefit. If some people in the audience enjoyed it as well, that’s great, but it was mostly so I could enjoy a duet from them, because I figured it was the only time I was ever going to hear it. It was fantastic. They did two solos and a duet.
And then I’d organized a residency for David in the week before this show. He’d gone to stay at a place called Burleigh Heads, which is maybe an hour and a half south of here in Yugambeh country. It’s a really beautiful place, and somewhere I’ve actually ended up often. When I was young, I spent a lot of time in that country and I’ve actually come back to spending a lot of time there. I’m going to have a performance with Vanessa Tomlinson there in like three weeks’ time for a festival. So it’s become a very active place of creation for me. But David had this residency there and then Akio arrived, and they did this performance together. And then I took both of them to have a sort of micro-residency at this place called Mount Tamborine, which is about an hour southwest of Brisbane. It’s on a plateau. Incredibly beautiful, subtropical rainforest, very wet. There’s a lot of animal life there. It’s one of the few places locally that you can see the lyre bird, which a lot of people would know from the David Attenborough video that is priceless, and should always always be watched.
There’s also really amazing walks—it’s quite a beautiful place, and very cool, even in the summer. So they’re up there doing this residency, and I went up one day and was going to stay overnight with them for one or two nights. And while we’re there, we just essentially decided to go on record together. So the recordings that you hear are really, essentially field recordings, I suppose. There were two pairs of microphones recording in different locations that have merged together in the recording that you hear. But there’s no significant editing or anything like that. In the pieces on Breathing Spirit Forms, it’s pretty much just a section of time that is then played out. So it was an interesting way to work.
We did some recording during the day, and some at night. The ones at night were particularly fascinating, I have to say, because it was really unclear who was doing what, or where they were, and whether or not it was actually part of the performance (laughter). Because it was quite breezy on the mountain, which often happens in the evening, and there was a lot of insects going. I had this couple of small handheld synthesizers, and a shortwave radio, and a few other kinds of little handheld electronics. I remember trying to pitch the synthesizer to the insects so it was really unclear what was generating the sound and where it was coming from. And I remember that we could hear this breathing sound, which later on I realized was Akio, but it was unclear whether it was just the wind in the top of the trees or not. It was extraordinary. It was a really great listening experience to be part of, regardless of the performance as well, which was very enjoyable, but to be able to sense this reaching out into place was so powerful… and it had to be entirely auditorily based, because it was dark, really dark.
So it was really a great pleasure to do it. And for me, it’s a record that’s very loaded with memory and what was really nice was inviting David to write this text that goes in the book. You know, I’d forgotten a lot of the things that had happened. He recounts his story of me extracting a tick out of his ear. I’ve no recollection of that, probably because I'm always extracting ticks out of ears of people down here. It’s what we do (laughs). But he also recounts me talking about my childhood, at one point, which I had completely blanked on, ironically talking about memory and whether I actually have a memory of these places or whether the photographs that I have of those places are the memory now. And when he wrote that, I was like, “I totally remember that story,” but it was absolutely out of my mind until then.
Your liner notes are about how it’s almost like a jigsaw puzzle where you need all three of your memories to come together to recreate this experience. It’s bizarre how some people can remember in such detail an event that is completely wiped from somebody else’s mind.
Absolutely, that’s one of the things that I love about it. There is that great line from Bill Pullman’s character in Lost Highway, “I like to remember things how I remember them, not how they happened.” I think there’s something quite prophetic in that, for these kinds of circumstances, because it is so ultimately subjective. That’s something that I’m increasingly aware of, but also actually appreciative of. I like the subjectivity. And I think the subjectivity is the framing around an event, or a place, or a time, or a conversation, that allows it to be articulated personally, but also then shared in some way, like talking about this now. My recollections of that place are going to be very different to David and Akio’s. But it tells a certain kind of rendering of that story. And we can never know the whole story, in any case. So this sort of proliferation of stories, that kind of plotting out of a territory where something might exist, I think it’s really quite appealing.
Let’s talk for a moment about A Mirror Holds the Sky. This was similar [to Breathing Spirit Forms] in that you had a huge archive of recordings that sort of sat around for—it must have been more than a decade—from the Amazon, and you didn’t know what to do with them. And then you recently found a form for them during the pandemic, is that right? These recordings, I think, come from 2008.
Yes, yeah. So interestingly, the largest part of the resolution of the piece happened on the last trip I did before the pandemic started. And I owe a huge debt of thanks to Chico Dub at Novas Frequências festival in Rio de Janeiro. I think it may have been five years ago, we were together at a festival in Canada, Mutek, doing an ICAS meeting, which is International Cities of Advanced Sound, this group of festivals that dialogue together. And somehow we got to talking. I love South America, I love Brazil. And I think that even though Australia economically doesn’t necessarily fit into the notion of the global south, there is no doubt that we share some similarities and challenges with other southern hemisphere nations. So anyway we were talking about this, and I’d mentioned the fact that I had this enormous amount of recordings from the Amazon. I think he had just been to Manaus to work on a project. But he indicated that he would like to hear some of the stuff.
So, a couple years passed. And then he wrote and basically said, “Look, I want you to present these Amazon recordings as a piece for the festival in 2019. Can you do it?” And I was like, “Oh, yeah, I guess I've got to really figure out what to do with it.” And then suddenly, I felt this intense pressure to make the piece. I’d listened a few times over the years and extracted very particular recordings, but never thought of transforming the recordings into a whole piece.
There’s one short piece that has a very strong story for me, that is emblematic of the experience of field recording. There’s a piece on a record called Songs of the Living, this recording that I was really fascinated by that I made in the Amazon. It was on the top of a tower. There was a kind of old tourist village we visited, with a kind of bed and breakfast place and they had built this wooden tower that was incredibly dangerous to get onto. It swayed when you walked on it, and it was five stories tall or something like that, really ridiculously high. Anyway, one of the last days that we were there recording I went up on this tower and set up a bunch of recorders, and I had this parabolic Telinga microphone that I had set up. That was the only time I could make a recording that was across the canopy because it was very difficult to get high enough.
So I made this recording, and while the recording was happening, I could hear these things I thought were monkeys, because it was very mammalian sounding material, these vocalizations. And I was listening to this recording and just thought, this is really incredible. Anyway, years later, it was one of the recordings that I extracted out of this particular session. And I contacted people at the museum here, and some colleagues that work in the jungle. And no one could actually describe what this thing was. I kept saying, “Look, it’s a monkey. Can you identify it?” “Well, I’ve never heard a monkey that sounds like this.” (laughs.) So I went “Okay, well, fine…” Anyway, throw to about a decade later. There’s that great reissue of the Birds of Venezuela record, the Jean Roché one that David Toop actually has really beautiful liner notes for. Anyway, I put this record on, because I do love that record and I hadn’t listened to it for half a decade. Put it on, sitting there… And then suddenly, somewhere on Side A, it’s my monkey! Incredible! Like, “The guy was recording monkeys as well, this is amazing!” (laughter). So I was scouring through the notes, and then literally I got onto Google and just sat there [typing each] species of bird and playing its sound. And then eventually, I worked out that it was a pair of horned screamers that I’d been recording that have this incredible—
Horned screamers? (laughs). That’s the name of the bird?
Yeah, horned screamers. They’re amazing birds. Absolutely amazing, definitely worth jumping off at some point and having a little look at them. But yeah, I was able to kind of work this out. I think that was one of the moments where I started to really feel reconciled with the recording, somehow, that there were these anomalies that were slowly being solved after a decade of tentative investigation.
But the biggest challenge with that piece, that particular collection of recordings, is that it’s so loud in the jungle, there’s constantly sound, there’s never a gap, and it’s very full frequency. The only areas where it’s lacking is kind of low mids and low frequency sound. The rest of the time it is intense from one kilohertz up to 20 kilohertz. There is an insect calling in every frequency band, carving out its own little area in which it can be heard and potentially breed and continue its species.
So it’s actually really difficult to work with material like that if you want to make a composition, which is very much what A Mirror Holds the Sky is. It’s not what some people would call a pure field recording. It has takes that are not heavily edited, but it’s heavily composed in terms of the way that things unfold in time. Because I had something like 50-plus hours of material that I’d recorded in very specific environments, the other thing that I tried to reconcile with the piece was this trajectory of time and space and environment. That is, these things coexist right next to each other, but you can be 50 meters away from one environment and have no recognition that it’s there whatsoever. The limitation of the horizon of audition is so intense it feels like sometimes you get a meter [of sound] around you, and then occasionally a bird that’s really dynamic will cut through, like you’ll hear a screaming piha. You can hear those things anywhere, and I’m sure their call is partly to deal with this idea of having to cut through. Or howler monkeys are the other creatures that really cut through because they’re in a bandwidth that is not well represented. And also, howler monkeys the loudest mammal on the face of the planet, on the terrestrial planet (laughs). So it was really interesting to have to kind of negotiate that. And that was actually what took the time, was figuring out how to think about those elements and be able to have them coalesce in a way that was useful as a compositional device and as a listening experience for people to encounter.
That’s the first thing I noticed when I turned the record on, was just how loud everything was. And I was wondering if that was your very clever microphone manipulation or if it was really this loud.
(laughs). It’s bloody loud! It is. The thing that’s really interesting, even over a 24-hour cycle, like from two a.m. till eight a.m. or something like that, you can see that there is always a density of sound. Even at two o’clock in the morning, it’s thick with sound. But you can see these arcs, if you visually look at the waveforms and the amplitude over that period of six or seven hours, there are these periods of expansion and contraction, but there is always this baseline of frogs and insects and crickets that are just going all the time. Some of them are so loud as to hurt your ears. There were moments, particularly when you come out of the jungle, either very early in the morning or as the dusk was coming in, into the evening, that you’d feel that sense you have coming out of a loud concert, like that sense of diminished top end. It was extraordinary.
In the liner notes for this album you mentioned Werner Herzog, his Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, the Wrath of God. I’m going through kind of a Herzog kick myself.
I understand those kicks (laughs).
I’m trying to watch all of [his films] that I can. There’s a famous quote of his from Les Blank’s documentary about the making of Fitzcarraldo, when he’s in—
The fornication and decay quote?
Yes! I have it here, but it sounds like you know it. I'll put the clip in the interview. But do you agree with him? Did you get the sense that there’s a harmony in the rain forest, but it’s a harmony of murder and mayhem, or whatever he says? (laughter).
Look, I think, I think that’s a very European reading. I would say that. I mean, for us here [in Australia], the rainforest is not an unfamiliar place. I think that was what was really interesting about being there. I mean, there were certain theories… (pauses, considers). As a sort of antithetical position to take, my friend Caitlin Franzmann, who’s an artist, has this beautiful work that says “All fertility requires decay,” and I think maybe it shares some of the potentially less poetic reading from Werner’s explanation of the jungle. I think there is an intensity there that’s really profound, that’s palpable. Again, there’s the idea that you walk into the jungle and literally every square inch is occupied with something trying to survive and to continue its trajectory, and the trajectory of its species. So I think there is a real intensity there. I think there is some truth in that idea of it being murderous, but I don’t think it’s so much that. It’s more just that in the jungle you can see the world for what it is. And the world is not how we tend to want to believe it is. There is a lot of removal of civilization in the jungle. That’s really powerful and humbling. I think that’s the thing that I came away from the jungle being so in admiration of, its capacity to just reduce you to nothing but another animal in the jungle. That’s a really powerful feeling to have. I’ve had it a few times in my life.
There’s a great quote from one of the J. A. Baker books, The Hill of Summer, or maybe it is actually in The Peregrine, where he talks about this idea that if we could see the world as it was, we just we couldn’t look at it because it’s too much. And that’s our one great point of intersection, is John Alec Baker, between Werner Herzog and I. That is our point of great connection, Amazon aside—we’re both massive fans of Baker’s books. I had the great pleasure to send Werner his copy of The Peregrine that started him on that pathway.
Yes, yeah, which was great. I just watched a podcast where he pulls the copy off a bookshelf, my copy that I sent him, and talks about the book. And I thought “that's amazing.” I thought it was my one chance to pass something up the cultural hierarchy (laughs).
I was reading his book of interviews with Paul Cronin and he has a section where he lists things that everybody should read. And it's a weird list with like, the Warren report on the JFK assassination, just bizarre things, and The Peregrine is on there. And I was like, “Oh, Lawrence English made a record about that!” But I didn’t know that it went in that direction, from you to him.
I joke, but maybe it’s not a funny joke, that I’m partially responsible for the reissue of the book, because it was not widely circulated. I bought something like 150 copies of that book for people. I was completely and utterly obsessed. And actually, I found out about it staying at David Toop’s house. It was on his desk when I turned up one year, and someone had mentioned it to him. I picked it up and I read this one paragraph about the silence of an owl hunting. And I thought, “I'm gonna order that.” So I went downstairs, I ordered the book to be delivered when I got home from that tour, and then when I came back, I started reading it. It completely transfixed me. I mean, I love books. I’m not a great reader, I’m a slow reader, which, you know, my father was a really fast reader, and he could retain everything, but I don’t have that skill. And I’m so jealous of people who can do that. It’s amazing, when you meet people, the things that they can recount. It’s just so powerful as a tool, and I’m sad not to have that. But it was one of the few books that I was so engrossed in, and so transfixed by, that I had to read it slowly. I wanted to read a few pages a day and reflect on those pages. And when it got to the end of the book, I was like, “For God’s sake, just get in a boat, go across the channel and follow them into Europe for the summer! I don’t care what you do, just continue following the peregrines! I’m ready for another 1000 pages of this.”
And when I read it, part of the reason I wanted to send it to Werner was that it shared that deep sense of observation that I think is one of the qualities of his films that I love the most. So I ended up getting in touch with Doug Quin, who’s a fantastic field recordist. Doug makes really amazing work. His recordings of Antarctica were actually some of the recordings that I heard that made me want to go there, particularly his recordings of Weddell seals are just absolutely mind boggling. And actually, some of Doug’s writing around Weddell seals and Arctic bearded seals and their relationship to electromagnetic activity is really fascinating. He's a really interesting individual. He had worked on the film that Werner had done about Antarctica and provided some of the recordings, so he very kindly just introduced me to Werner. I sent him the book and the record and Werner wrote back with a very lovely email. And reading the email, I could hear him saying the words. He uses the words “transubstantiation of the man into the bird…” you know, “we swooped together…” And it’s true, there is this great sense of unity through observation that exists in that book. I think that’s actually also, even though [the book is] visiocentric, the pleasure of field recording. Ultimately, it’s this reaching out and ideally becoming embedded in an embodied relationship with listening during a field recording that’s really powerful and pleasurable, and not necessarily something that we are afforded very often. It can be difficult to maintain that state. But when you do have the opportunity to experience it, I think there's a deep sense of reveal that goes in excess of the kind of audition that’s taking place in that moment.
Another thing that you have in common with Werner is a trip to Antarctica, which you just mentioned. I wanted to ask you about that, because I’m not certain of the next time I’ll get to talk with somebody who’s been to Antarctica (laughs). What surprised you about it? I mean, you reckon it’ll be windy and cold and somewhat frightening. But was there anything about the experience that surprised you, or that you weren’t expecting, about being on Antarctica?
I think everything surprises you. I mean, there are so many things I could mention that catch you off guard. The proliferation of life was one thing. The desolation of life is another. I was very fortunate to be able to go with the Argentine military, to the Argentinian bases on the dogleg peninsula that kicks out [off the continent]. The countries that have the Andes passing through them have a direct line to Antarctica. The idea is that the Andes dip under the water and then come back up as a trans-Antarctic branch. So they have a very direct geographic link to that continent that is probably in excess of the other people that are signed up to the Antarctic Treaty. So to be able to go with them was amazing.
At one end, I was staying at Marambio Base, which is on an island off the peninsula. I think in the time that we were at that station, I saw one bird fly over the base, looking disoriented, like “Where’s everyone else?” There was a colony of King penguins that was not able to be accessed. And that was the only other life that we knew of on this particular Island. But then I went to stay at Esperanza Base, which is actually on the continent itself. And that base at the time had something like 50,000 Adélie penguin chicks, gentoo penguins, leopard seals, Weddell seals. It was incredible, the amount of life that was there. And the kind of narratives of life that were playing out, again, shared that sort of intensity with the Amazon, but in maybe more tangible terms, because there was no jungle to hide the narrative. It was played out right in front of you.
There’s a recording on that Songs of Living edition which was made there, and it’s a skua eating a baby penguin. I’d seen this penguin for maybe two days, and I could see it was clearly going to die. There’s nothing you can do there, absolutely nothing you can do. That is the nature of this cycle, its parents maybe being eaten at sea or whatever and it was, you know, slowly starving to death essentially. And one day, I found it dead and I set up my kit nearby it, because I knew that the skuas would come to get it, because that’s how the whole system works. And I had this incredibly detailed recording of the skua inside the penguin, kind of making these very wet juicy organistic sounds. It also actually tried to eat the microphone at the end, which is unfortunate because one of them got damaged. But you know, that’s the penalty you pay for trying to record skuas (laughs).
That itself probably sounded pretty great.
There’s a lot of distortion, it’s kind of like listening to a really good Kevin Drumm record (laughter).
The Viento album that you made in Antarctica is amazing to me because of your idea of relational listening, of trying to communicate your listening to an audience. I think that that album is exemplary of that idea because it’s [made up of] wind, which normally destroys a recording or makes it unusable. But you somehow harness it and make it feel as if the listener is there with you in a windstorm that has ebbs and flows and directionality. It’s amazing how you were able to do that with wind, which is sort of famously the enemy of the field recordist.
It is the enemy (laughs). Sometimes you’ve got to make your enemies your friends. The thing is, wind is the ghost, you know. You’re never really recording the wind, you're recording the objects activated by the wind. It’s like a woodwind instrument—you’re not recording the breath, it’s merely the articulation for the device. And that’s very much how I thought about the wind operating in those recordings. So for the piece that was made in Patagonia, we were delayed because of this storm that happened. To get to Antarctica with the Argentine military, they have one Hercules transport plane that can fly to make that run. They did when I went anyway, which was a decade ago now. But it has to be able to take off under certain conditions.
So when we got to Rio Gallegos, which is one of the main bases before you fly south to Ushuaia and then onto the continent, we were told we wouldn’t be able to leave for however long the windstorm went for. So it was great. You know, it was clear that this is something that happened all the time to all of the military families, because they send families down for the winter in the Argentine contingent. So all of the scientists and everyone is like, “Okay, well, let’s get the cards out, we’re gonna sit down to some cards and have a drink and some nice food for the next 48 hours.” And the first thing I thought was like, “I'm going outside. I have to record this right now,” because it was so visceral, like physically intense, the experience of this kind of wind [that] you’d never get here but under the most extreme circumstances.
And what was great was, you’d talk to a lot of local people in Patagonia and say, “What do you like about being here?” “It’s flat and it's windy.” (laughs). Well, you’re definitely right about those two things! It’s like you have these enormous plains with no trees. And if there was a tree—there were very fleeting trees—they were all kind of curved over like very decrepit, elderly people. The base where I was had a lot of abandoned buildings in it so I was able to go out and record a lot of the kind of metal sheeting in these abandoned military bases that were there.
And then by contrast, in the Antarctic there were a series of blizzards that we went through. I actually have a lot of contact mic recordings, or actually they’re hydrophone recordings, almost geophonic recordings, of the buildings, because the whole building would shake during some of the really intense windstorms. A lot of the recordings were made during this particular storm that actually precluded us leaving for a few days. To make the recordings, I had to travel some distance to get away from the base. And I remember one morning, I went out quite early, because it would just be going 24 hours a day. It was still quite dark and I walked up to this kind of weather station. It had a weather station and a grotto and I used both of those locations to record it. Because [from there] you could record downwind and get all of the activity but not get the distortion most of the time.
And I remember, it was probably only 500 meters, it wasn’t far, but I just remember walking back to the base. And you have your body covered up, but I had this small gap between my goggles on my face and the top of my hood coming down, and there’s this little stretch of exposed skin there, and it literally felt like someone just had a chisel and a hammer and was hammering my head, it was so cold. I just remember this intense pain there. And you’d be walking back through the snow, which by that point is starting to build up so it’s hard to walk. And I just thought about all of those explorers during that time where there was that great period of exploration and conquest there. I thought particularly of those English explorers that really weren’t prepared. At least the Norwegians knew what they were doing, they didn’t take donkeys, for Christ’s sake, to Antarctica. It’s just stupid. But I thought about them trudging through that snow And this is the point where I thought to myself, I totally understand how they just laid down and died in the snow. This is brutalizing and I’m doing 500 meters (laughter). And they were trying to do like 20 kilometers a day. So I really started to appreciate the particular circumstances that those people must have faced and my hat is off to them for having to negotiate that kind of stuff, because it is really fatiguing. The folks that work down there in the winter are just machines, they’re incredible human beings working in one of the most complex and potentially dangerous environments you can be in.
Did you have permission to go out there and do that? Or did you have to sneak off? Because I imagine it was very—
(laughter). Look—(more laughter). Look, if I was with the Australia Antarctic Division, I would not have been allowed to do that. The Argentinian military are incredibly generous, and/or not particularly interested in the people that turn up to do this thing. They’re like, “You guys take care of yourselves.” I had several experiences that were pretty near misses for distaster. I had to swim to rescue equipment on one occasion, so I swam in the Antarctic water. They said I’d never have children, but I proved them wrong (laughter).
I got stuck in a white-out, which came in very quickly. I went to record penguins at dawn, at like 4 a.m. and I’d recorded till maybe about six in the morning. Then I turned around and started walking back towards base, maybe like two or three kilometers. It had taken like 40 or 50 minutes to walk there. As I came up the hill, I could see this beautiful, incredible white curtain coming slowly across the water. And snow is not my natural environment at all. I was watching this thing coming across the water and I remember standing there thinking like, “That’s so beautiful.” And I could see the ocean just disappearing, and disappearing, and disappearing. And then I could see the front of the glacier disappearing. And then I started to think “Wow, okay, that’s not gonna stop.” I had this moment of like, “Okay, what do I do,” because I had water, but I didn’t have any supplies and I had tons of gear that I was carrying.
So I’d bought myself a GPS that I traveled with, because I thought it’d be important to be able to orient myself, and literally within maybe 25 minutes, I couldn’t see more than like three feet in front of me. So what had taken 40 or so minutes to walk from, took about six and a half hours to get back to. I had to go through some pretty stupidly complex terrain and I remember turning up at the base after I’d done that, and the commandant was like (heartily) “Ah, you’re back!” And I was like, “Yeah…” I said, “Were you gonna send anyone out to, maybe, look for me?” And he’s like, “No, we figured you’d come back one way or another.” I was like, “Okay… thanks.” And that was kind of the extent of the exchange. I mean, literally, I could see the communications tower at the base, and I was able to get a reading on the GPS, and I just walked towards the communications tower. That’s how I did it.
So you did have a direction. That’s the dangerous part, is getting turned around and then…
Totally, yeah. So I was very, very fortunate. I mean, I think you have to be responsible in those situations. I did do a few things that were, I think, naïve. I’ve become a lot more conscientious of research, and I was [conscientious], really, around that Antarctica trip, because I knew that it was somewhere that I didn’t know. In the jungle I feel at home, but in cold environments, that’s not my go-to at all. We just don’t have that kind of environment here in Australia, except in the Alps, and it’s pretty fleeting at best.
Well, we've been talking a long time we've only covered half of your—
No, no, I could listen to these stories all day. I do want to ask you about the HEXA album, though, because I was reading the liner notes and trying to understand this recurring dream that you have. Could you just describe the dream? There’s a sort of machine underneath your childhood home?
I know it sounds bizarre, probably because it is. But I think the dream then and the dream now are different. And that’s what I think’s been fascinating about this particular experience is that, obviously, even in my dream state, I can’t maintain the same fears or anxieties or curiosities that I could as a kid. When the dream first started happening as a kid, it was because the underside of my house was really weird. I talked to my partner, who I knew at the time, she often says, like, “Your house iwas just a spooky house.” You know, it’s a big kind of wooden house with this very strange, half-developed underside that was partly a storage area, partly this area with this weird dirt that was like lunar dust, and this very strange concrete pit that would always attract junk in it somehow. We’d always have like leftover beds or, you know, my grandparents would move things in there. A strange kind of area.
And I think because it was so unruly and unsettled all the time—it was also dark under there—it felt kind of scary, I guess. But I would have this dream about being in this place, and there was this one section that used to be, like it was filled with concrete. In the concrete were old ceramic pipes that had been broken, that were open, that probably went nowhere, that must have been the original sewage system, or water system, or whatever. So you can see those and if things fell into them, you can never get them out. I’m sure there were action figures that were lost down there and other kinds of toys, you know, there’s always that great fear.
The other thing that I didn’t really talk about in the notes, but I’m sure was part of it, is we had a stormwater drain that ran through our property. I was obsessed with bearded dragons when I was a kid—they’re a kind of lizard—and we had a pair of them that lived in the yard. There was always this one patch of dirt in the yard that never grew grass. And one year, I saw the lizards laying their eggs there. And I waited and I waited for them to hatch. And they never did. And I dug up the area after that. And what I realized was, literally like less than a foot under that ground, was the stormwater drain. And that’s why the grass never grew there. And I actually chipped open the concrete of the drain, so you could see inside and hear inside the drain. So I think all of that stuff was a confluence of stimulus that led to this dream of thinking that there was this thing under the house, but it was this very tangible sense of being called into that thing.
It was always the sound that called you there, like a really heavy pressure. And when I went into the place, it just got heavier and heavier, like there was this sense of physical pressure, which I’m sure was probably some kind of anxiety, like that fear that you have in your dreams, where as things become more intense, you physically feel it in your dream body. And I think that was what I experienced with it. So to have it come back to this dream last year was just a curious moment. I think it really was to do with the fact that I live in a very green area, but it’s not far from the center of the city, like two kilometers behind me is the city center. And we live quite close to a kind of arterial road, so there’s always sound, like civilized industrial sound, going on all the time. And during that first period of the lockdown here, that really radically transformed. The Field Recordings from the Zone piece is very much also a kind of meditation on that, and also that kind of recognition of the old world and the strangeness of that old world that we just took for granted. And then at the same time there was this new availability of certain kinds of sounds versus others.
I think that is where the recurrence came from—I was familiar with the night here, I knew what it sounds like. To have it so radically changed obviously triggered some kind of recognition of another sense of being unsettled. Certainly that dream from my childhood was one of two dreams that really did unsettle me, that I still have a memory of. That’s what’s interesting, you know, I’m not a big dreamer. I’m not like one of those people that can wake up and retain dreams. But there are some that really stand out. And this one, definitely, I think about it, and I can feel it. Which is very rare for me.
And then the album sort of grew out of this dream. Were you able to communicate the feeling behind the dream to Jamie Stewart in a way that was somehow productive?
Yeah, we had a conversation because we’ve been talking about this idea of an industrial sleep record before this. That’s what was interesting, like we talked about in the periods we don’t sleep well, there are certain things that really can help you sleep. And the industrial drone of a plane, for me, is like the ultimate kind of sleep zone. I was amazed, I hadn’t been on a plane for 14 months, but I had to go on one, like, a month ago now. And I had this fantastic moment when I got on there. The first thing was like, “Well, I've gotten taller, or the seats have gotten shorter.” That was my first thought. And the second one was, “Well, I wonder if I’ll be able to fall asleep.” Literally as the plane is taxiing, the air conditioning goes, and I was straight out. You can’t change the good things.
Can you really sleep? Because I can’t sleep on planes.
There’s some secrets that I can share at another time (laughs).
I’m very curious, because any overnight flight or any flight over eight hours, and I dread it.
Yeah, it can be really fatiguing if you’re not comfortable. I think probably mine is just like a state of general exhaustion. So I can be like, “Wow, this is some time where I don’t have to check my email? Great, I’m out!” But yeah, we had this long conversation about that, and Jamie, I think, also has a pretty dynamic relationship with sleep from time to time. I think those kinds of dreams, but also those experiences, the sort of tangible part of dreams that linger into the waking hours, was something that he definitely had a connection to. So we basically just started trying to find the kind of tangible material that meditated on that somehow, that fleshed out those kinds of feelings.
I hadn’t listened to the record since we finished it quite a while ago, and I just listened to it the other day as I was checking a master for digital ingestion. And it was interesting that, for me, at least, it does represent that sensibility of a kind of unknowable place. I recognize the elements, I can recognize all the sounds in the compositions, but the way that they work together and where you settle inside them is not stable. And I really like that, I love that. I love the fluidity that happens where your consciousness tends to land in music. And I don’t just mean from my work, I mean from lots of work. I like it when you’re not told where to be, and you find yourself being invited somewhere. Maybe you didn’t even know that place existed in the piece, but it presents itself to you as this spectral doorway or something. And when you’re in there, sometimes you can never hear the piece the same way again. I really like that, even if it’s not intended, the resolution that that sometimes brings to a work.
It is a very heavy piece, although it’s not harsh or abrasive or even dissonant. And so perhaps that is part of the heaviness, is in trying to find these places. This is sort of an unstable piece, and you’re constantly looking for these places to settle.
I definitely wanted to present that sense of pressure, which I think is part of that experience of dreaming and dream logic, that the control that we feel that we can maintain in the waking hours is removed. I think that’s partly where things like anxiety in your dreams come from, is that sort of illogical or dream-logical way of having to negotiate things that you think that you know, and that you do know, in some way. But there’s always something that just twists the perspective that you get on that thing that you think that you know, that tells you something else, or it suggests something else, and you have to react to it, but you can’t react to it in the way that you would in the waking world. And that tension, as I get older, I find it more pleasurable. I think for children, it’s really frightening. And I know for me, I definitely would wake from these dreams and not be at ease. But there’s obviously some value in it because I still retain those experiences, I still retain those memories, and I don’t necessarily retain tons of memories from my childhood. But there are a few things like that, that really have not just been a memory that I hold onto, but also hold some kind of meaning that maybe I'm not fully aware of that I think is useful.
On Bandcamp one of the tags for this album is “David Lynch.” And I feel with this sort of dream logic, there is a logic to it, but it’s inexplicable or inarticulable. But there are specific scenes in David Lynch’s films that put me in the same mind, like the monster behind the dumpster from Mulholland Drive. These sort of scenes that come out of nowhere, and they feel right, they have a sense of logic, even though you can’t perhaps explain it in any other way than through, in his case film, and perhaps in your case through sound.
This is the record that we’ve made after that piece with David, doing the factory photographs work [HEXA’s commissioned “sonic response to David Lynch’s Factory Photographs”]. I got to meet David when he came to do the exhibition here, and he very graciously listened to me blather about my experiences of watching Eraserhead as a teenager, and Eraserhead was the first film that I ever saw where I thought about what the world was like beyond the frame, because of sound. You watch that film, so much of the film is described from outside the frame, because all of those shots are incredibly tight, in very small spaces. But there is this expansive sense of sonic territory that he lays out in the sound design with Alan Splet that is incredibly revealing about the greater environmental setting for the characters and for the places.
And I explained this to him, that it was this pivotal moment for me of being able to recognize that there is a way to describe something without having to show it in cinema. And I think you do the same thing with regard to music. And this HEXA record, for me, has that characteristic about it, it’s describing this thing that is sitting exterior to the focus point of the music itself. Maybe you start to think about that place that’s in excess of the thing that presents itself as the focal point. I want there to be that tension there, I want you to be able to reach out beyond what you assume the horizon of audition is, into this other thing that is there. And the invitation is there to do that, and particularly in some of the pieces, maybe it’s not extending outward, but extending under. There’s this sense of depth that I was hoping to get into some of the pieces that was almost like having to excavate to get to those sounds. And if you keep peeling back, you peel through one layer and another layer and another layer, eventually you get to this place which is, at least for me, the place where my dream was taking me into. Maybe you get to find out what it is, and I don’t! (laughter).
I guess each person could decide what it is for themselves according to their own dream logic.
Absolutely. And that is part of the pleasure of this. It’s the pleasure of field recordings, the pleasure of making work, that we can talk about these things. And it’s a great chance for conversation. I mean, for me, the real value in art making as a practice is the chance for conversations like this, where we can talk to ideas that are in excess or in parallel with the work itself. If someone encounters that work on its own, they will have a relationship—I mean, hopefully—they will have a relationship with it. If they choose to look deeper, then there are all these other things that can feed into that.
I know for me, a lot of my cultural education is because I got interested in something. I heard something that I’m very interested in that opened up a whole other piece of me, like the kind of interconnections between something we’ve been talking about, Werner Herzog and the soundtracks to Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo, Nosferatu, the Popol Vuh connection is fantastic from that period. And that opens up a whole bunch of other things, it’s just this mesh that happens with all of the things that you consume. I’ve been so fortunate to have people like David Toop in my life, who is this endless source of “You should check this out… and you should check this out… have you heard this thing?…” And we now have that kind of back and forth for various kinds of music recordings and photography. We're both big fans of Japanese twentieth-century photography, so I’ve often been passed back photo books that I should check out. That kind of exchange is actually for me, at least at the interpersonal level, the real value of music making amongst a group of friends and peers. Whatever you want to call it, it’s that kind of exchange that happens. And I’m a fortunate case study of how that can— you know, I could’ve traveled an entirely different path, but I've had some people that have been incredibly generous to me, that have helped me define my interests, broaden my interests, and have presented things to me that otherwise I may not have come across. I’m always indebted to those people for that.
Yeah, that’s great. That’s really beautiful. We're almost out of time, but before we leave I do want to ask you about Lauren Berlant, who, unfortunately, we lost recently. But I wanted to give you an opportunity to say a few words about them, because I know their work was so important to you, for Cruel Optimism and probably for other things as well.
Lauren is a perfect example of what I was just talking about. They were incredibly generous with their time, with their thoughts, not just for me, but for everyone. They were a very generous individual and they were excited by ideas. They were restless in a really focused way. They weren’t willing to settle on things that some people might just take as a priori positions. And I think that was one of the very special qualities that Lauren was able to maintain throughout their work. For me, obviously, Cruel Optimism is a huge influence. That was a basis for how I could make that work. I can't pull work out of the sky. I’m always jealous of musicians who can say “I made this album because I was working with a piano, and I made an album,” or “Here’s a coke bottle and a fork, and I’ve made this beautiful improv percussion thing.” I can’t do that. I don’t have that inside me. What I need is a frame and the more tightly bound the frame, the better.
I think what was so important to me about discovering Lauren’s work in those moments, around the time that Wilderness of Mirrors had just been released, was that they described this situation, the idea of cruel optimism, this idea of attachments and maintaining bad attachments, that seemed to completely consolidate my thinking about how it was that we had arrived at this particular period of time, you know, which has been an amazingly dynamic decade. We got into this twist a little bit earlier than you folks in North America, we’ve had a conservative government here for about a decade now. We’ve been through several prime ministers in that time, they’ve been flipped out by their own party, but the party has maintained power here. So we had that kind of radical repositioning happen a little bit before you folks did.
I guess I could see this thing coming, those albums responded to that and I think there’s still a lot more to come now. More challenges on a great many fronts, but also more moments to celebrate solidarity between us. Shared passions, shared interests, share pains. I like to maintain, as my friend Terre Thaemlitz describes, a sense of radical optimism. Terre’s a nihilist and we entertain each other no end, with our opposing positions. But I think there’s actually a lot of crossover between nihilism and radical optimism, let me just say that, a conversation for another time. But Lauren’s work, I think, will continue to resonate for a very long time to come. I think we’re only just beginning to recognize the presence that it has as a mindset for future researchers to begin to move forward with. And I hope that with their passing, there is this opportunity to more deeply engage with the work that’s there in the next decade, and begin to extract out the complexities of it, which I think will happen.
Okay, well, let’s end on that radically optimistic note.
Okay. great talking to you. It was really, really a pleasure.
Lawrence English’s music can be heard at Bandcamp. Room40’s releases can also be heard at Bandcamp.
Every issue, Tone Glow has a panel of writers share thoughts on albums and assign them a score between 0 and 10. This section of the website is inspired by The Singles Jukebox.
Cucina Povera - Dalmarnock Tapes (Mappa, 2021)
Press Release info: The Dalmarnock Tapes is a collection of previously unreleased tracks by Cucina Povera. They were recorded in 2017 during snowstorm flurries in Dalmarnock, in the east end of Glasgow, Scotland. Cucina Povera is the alias of the Glasgow-based sound artist Maria Rossi, who is originally from Finnish Karelia, the European region that borders Finland and Russia. Cucina povera refers to a style of southern Italian traditional cooking evolved out of precarity and making do. Rossi’s music shares that same ethos of simplicity. Her experimentations with voice and field recordings create gossamer loops – heavenly repetitions and soporific undulations; an utterly sublime and ethereal language that is all her own.
This new series features stunning, celestial vocalisations from Rossi over eight tracks. The recordings were made in the dark, winter months when she was briefly renting a very cheap, rundown studio space in a damp, old warehouse in Dalmarnock. She made it there every day despite bad heating in the building. The snow piled high that year. It was also a period in Rossi’s life when she was moving house every couple of months. The tracks reflect that mildly disturbed and displaced feeling, with a sense of aloneness at their core.
Purchase Dalmarnock Tapes at Bandcamp.
Gil Sansón: Cucina Povera refers to the type of cooking one does with whatever’s at hand, a notion I’m very familiar with and one I always felt shares a lot with improvisation and music making. Very often, the ideal conditions are not present and the way an artist deals with contingency can be the key to understanding the music. Here, the voice of Maria Rossi (using mainly Finnish, we’re told in the liner notes) is the main ingredient in the dish, looped, harmonized, put on top of percussive elements in ways that feel both happenstance and quite deliberate. Often, the feeling is that of lullabies, with the hushed voice sounding both intimate and solemn. For instance, “Naapurista kuuluu lattian natinaa,” the longest track of the album, is deceivingly simple an effect, but it’s carefully layered and the effect is hypnotic and warming, seemingly going nowhere but lovingly making its point.
It would be quite easy to “improve” on these songs by adding foreign elements, tasteful guests and so on, but thankfully Rossi refrains from this temptation and offers her menu wholly homemade, giving both an intimation of a geographic space with personal connotations for the artist, and producing a testament to the power of the voice and the ways it can create a listening experience outside time. We can easily imagine ourselves in one of those cold northern beaches with black pebbles instead of sand, creaking as we walk by, accompanied by a familiar voice. The limited palette works very well here, it’s great when an artist knows her materials and trusts them enough to carry the message, without all the second guessing that can come when an artist follows logic beyond instinct. The Mappa label is having a great year, with very impressive releases. This is perhaps my favorite so far.
Sunik Kim: This is the language of dub techno translated into pure vocals, with fascinating results. The comparison might seem like a bit of stretch, but it holds water as the album progresses: Rossi’s compositions are propelled by a base of endlessly looping chordal, rhythmic vocal waves, refracted via spatial delay effects—mimicking the grainy, dense thrums that propel the greatest dub techno tracks. She also—like dub techno—explores timbre and texture over extended durations, drawing out, in real time, the subtleties of recording the voice, all of the tiniest environmental factors that might influence how the vocals sit and interact with each other, examining how different physical spaces intermingle in the abstract context of the hand-crafted “track.” The subtly mindblowing nature of this approach can be observed about halfway through “Lämpö”: Rossi’s filtered, warbly and tinny vocal suddenly explodes into vivid detail midway through a phrase, gaining a new body, resonance, and place in the mix—a tiny shift in the grand scheme of things, but one that, in the context of Rossi’s compositional system, changes everything.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: Dalmarnock Tapes is a suffocating record for me. Passive listens have proven impossible to sustain, as these tracks’ constant start-stop rhythms—something more pronounced because the voice is such a distinct, identity-creating instrument—leaves me unable to rest easy; I feel compelled to listen more closely. But engaged sessions have shown these compositions to be frustratingly tedious. On Cucina Povera’s Tynni, the field recordings and electronics positioned her vocals in more of an art-pop context despite their clear roots in choral traditions. That’s at least partially how I’m reading them here given the production techniques employed (minimal as they may be). The result is a middle ground between a more traditional, straight-ahead recording and a more peculiar outré effort, unable to provide the joys of either mode in full-fledged form.
On Cucina Povera’s equally vocal-centric 2019 album Zoom, there was a smidge more variety present that, in conjunction with the untitled tracklist, allowed for ample intrigue. Here, the vocalizing all devolves into a lethargic mush, and the tracks feel hollow when anything notable is added: the field recordings on “Kahleet” provide too neat a contrast to be compelling, and the looping that occurs on “Kurki” is too simplistic to provide any feelings beyond, “well, that’s a loop.” It’s all laid a bit too bare, but also not “pure” enough in its presentation to truly let the vocals steal the show. The most damning element of Dalmarnock Tapes, though, is that there’s no overarching emotion or mood that emanates from these recordings, and without any interesting happening on a technical level, I’m left twiddling my thumbs in a muddied fog of vocals.
Maxie Younger: I find Dalmarnock Tapes’s various looping outtakes mostly unimpressive, threading the needle sparingly throughout a seemingly interminable 43-minute runtime: “Lämpö” has the pleasant, otherworldly lilt of an anonymous SAW II track: the clinking and clattering of shackles at the edges of “Kahleet”’s haunting soundscape sends quiet shivers down my arms. As products of cold snowstorm isolation, these tracks certainly seem to reflect some faint idea of loneliness, blanketed in dull white: chilled, static nights: the rancid whiff of a lit and snuffed match, smoke rising in soft spirals.
But a project so minimal as this lives and dies by the strength of its loops, and I just don’t find most of the ones collected here compelling enough to devote any grand chunk of time to; they smack of the kind of situational transcendence that inspires awe in the moment of recording but dissipates upon playback. In other words: yeah, I get why these have been sitting on a shelf for four years. The thing about the simple cooking Cucina Povera’s name references is that it should be simple to clean up, too. Dalmarnock Tapes stacks plate after plate into the sink; hey, I don’t mind washing dishes, but how on earth does something with such humble origins become such an ordeal to resolve?
Mark Cutler: In pretty much my lifetime, the task of multi-tracking layers and layers of one’s own vocals has gone from a time-consuming and costly studio process to something TikTokers can do on their phones. Consequently, the last twenty years have seen a shift away from the mere stacking of vocals into one-person choruses, in favor of explorations into the surprising dissonances that can arise when a voice gets tangled around itself. Such seems to be the inspiration for this project by Maria Rossi, recorded four years ago but only released this year. Though Dalmarnock Tapes includes some non-vocal recordings—mostly unidentifiable but sonically interesting clangs and clatters—for the most part we are hearing Rossi’s vocals waft by in sometimes busy, sometimes sparse arrangements.
Sometimes, these vocals hiss with sibilance, crackle with distortion, or clip abruptly in to or out of the mix. If Rossi were recording in a high-end studio, with a sound engineer behind the glass, these kinds of “errors” would be smoothed out or rerecorded entirely. Consequently, if we are to take the ethos of Rossi’s project seriously, it is precisely these which should catch our attention most—and they do create a sense of intimacy, which allows us to imagine Rossi, likely hunched over a MacBook, in a room with blacked-out windows. (Or wait, I’m thinking of Visions.)
Unfortunately, the strongest track, to my ear, is also the one that most flagrantly violates the self-imposed limitations of the album: closer “Olen oluen oljen” features relatively few vocal loops, over what sounds like a snippet of recording detritus with the delay and reverb slowly ramped up. The underlying noise interacts surprisingly with Rossi’s voice, bringing out bassier tones which contrast with the often-flutey lilt of her unadorned voice. While other tracks include various similar sounds, none come together quite as well as this one. Luckily, this is territory Rossi has continued to explore in the years since she recorded Dalmarnock Tapes. If the reader is interested, I would point them towards those releases, before they approach this comparatively minor work.
Jean-Luc Guionnet & Will Guthrie - Electric Rag (Ali Buh Baeh Records / Editions Memoire, 2021)
Press Release info: Maxed out and burning hot nasty, Electric Rag brings together the electric organs, electronics and alto sax of Jean-Luc Guionnet, with the closely amplified drums and percussion of Will Guthrie. After years of playing together in the minimalist pointillist free jazz noise core trio ‘The Ames Room’ (with Clayton Thomas on bass) Electric Rag offers up another point of view on a musical history of nearly 15 years of playing together. The 8 titles of Electric Rag draw on their various experience in electronic music, free improvisation and experimental sound research, however the music is deeply rooted in their love of jazz, in its most potent, aggressive and antisocial form.
Purchase Electric Rag at Bandcamp.
Sunik Kim: I thought I’d heard it all, but the particular type of distortion driving this music is brand new to me. It’s somehow squashed, flattened, dense, and harsh, while still retaining a secretive, detailed timbral and textural subtlety, opening and closing, narrowing and widening, with the thrilling twists and turns of the most carefully considered electroacoustic composition. Guionnet and Guthrie clearly have an extremely strong shared understanding and mission: the two often meld together to the point that it feels like a hand-cranked automaton is playing both drums and organ with relentless, pseudo-mechanical abandon.
I’ve made it clear in previous reviews that I’m usually skeptical of free improv as distinct from free jazz. Often, the former seems to center on the individual, their athletic technical abilities—even their public stature as an improviser—or a fetishization of the unmediated “purity” of improvisation, at the expense of the actual music itself. If this album were recorded in a more conventional manner, I might feel similar reservations here. But the sheer oddness and freshness of the actual sound here dispels those reservations: Guionnet and Guthrie are undoubtedly skilled performers, but they are also thinking several steps beyond the act of performance itself, about the end product—the recording, the contexts in which it will be situated, where it sits in the current historical and cultural moment. The fact that I dragged in a robot analogy to describe the music—which moves with a level of detail and interplay that only humans could achieve—only emphasizes their successful attempt to decenter the improvising individual and disperse them into the music. Electric Rag is ultimately a contradictory unity of human and technology on several different levels—player and instrument, performance and recording, recording and listener—with the clashing and unfolding of these contradictions enlivening the music and pushing it far beyond your run-of-the-mill experimental jam session.
Nick Zanca: What an anomalous duality it is to hear a recording obscured in dirt and distortion, saturated and squashed to shit, and to somehow still be given ample bandwidth to imagine the room where the interplay emerges. At its most genuine, this production ecosystem is a satisfying rarity that runs a wide enough gamut—flashes of Coltrane’s Olatunji Concert, Soft Machine’s Third, This Heat’s eponymous, Steve Reid’s Nova, Noise’s Tenno all come to mind—although whatever fiery feelings are stirred up often render themselves tethered to the age of the record in question. I’ve rarely encountered a sensation like this on a recent release, let alone on such improvised and unsuperficial terms; one can certainly hear the history between players, an incessant urge to introduce new timbres, a psychology of play so studied over it turns serious. The whiplash is quite welcoming.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: The secret to Electric Rag is how its constant noise, production techniques, and mic setups conjure up fiery energy despite each track being tamer than first impressions would leave you to believe. What results is a multitude of careful balancing acts. There’s the tension and release, of course, but also a sense that Guionnet and Guthrie are trying hard to capture something they know can only come through in post-production—it’s music that’s bigger than the both of them. I appreciate the constant back-and-forth I have in my mind when listening, where I can revel in the cacophony, but also zoom in on each artist’s contributions. That sense of mental space that Electric Rag creates, where I’m able to freely move between different modes of listening, only makes these pieces feel multi-dimensional, alive, like I’m both a listener and an active participant in the madness.
Samuel McLemore: A classically skronky sounding free improv duet in the Euro tradition. Good stuff for those who are already fans of Will Guthrie and Jean-Luc Guionnet and less important for everyone else. This isn’t meant as some kind of cheap dismissal. Since the appeal of the free improv genre is built around the individual personalities and idiosyncrasies of its performers, and not (necessarily) on their technical skill or compositional acumen, my general experience has been that the more familiar you become with a player’s history and style the more you will like how they sound. With the right context, an album like this one—which objectively is a bunch of ferociously malfunctioning electronics and incessantly banging drums—can sound like a conversation between two old friends. Once the shock of atonality and extended technique has worn off, this intimacy is, I think, the enduring appeal of all free improv.
Mark Cutler: It’s a testament to these two artists’ sheer overflow of talent that, depending on your taste, Electric Rag might not even make your top five of albums they’ve released this year. Here, the duo lets loose with a series of frenetic, abrasive improvisations, much louder and more demented than anything they explored together as part of jazz trio The Ames Room. The idiom might be free jazz, but the palette makes me think of ’00s noise rock—Guthrie’s blown-out percussion and Guionnet’s hissing, circuit-bent electronics almost remind me of listening to the nasty, bitcrushed guitars of Arab On Radar or AIDS Wolf, as an angsty, deeply unpopular teenager. These songs, however, never converge toward a semblance of melody or rhythm; rather, each track tends to take a single motif and let it spin out, examining all its lopsided angles. Fragments of a sax lick or organ chord sputter in and out, as though Guionnet’s performance has already been cut to slivers and pasted back together. It’s a fun, relatively approachable album from these two powerhouses of French improvised music. And hey, if you don’t like it, one of them will have something new out next week.
Gil Sansón: Two improvisers whose work takes delight in subverting common assumptions about what improvisation is and should be, delivering the goods in a much anticipated release. This is the type of album that becomes lauded before actual listening, people will put two and two together and assume it’s great, based on the hefty resumé of each artist. Guthrie and Guionnet already take pleasure in disrupting inherited notions; Guthrie likes to record in the red, compressing frequencies and breaking other taboos in the free improvisation tradition, and Guionnet can go as far as tearing down the fourth wall, and blurring any distinction between artist and listener (his collaboration with Éric La Casa being particularly representative of this aspect).
So while expecting of this album a full rewrite of the rules is premature, a good deal of expectations are ensured nonetheless. As with much of Guthrie’s work in recent years, there’s a lot of full-on, sausage waveform plateaus, and Guionnet’s contribution adapts to the form. This is the type of free improvisation that gets into noise territory—there’s much overlap, sonically and conceptually, with early Merzbow. So in a way, nothing new under the sun, but from the point of view of sound and sheer pleasure in the more extreme type of EAI, this is a fine record. I particularly like how Guionnet shapeshifts, in some places switching between sax and electronics almost imperceptibly. In many ways, Guthrie is the opposite of the idea of the good improviser—one who listens before acting and who doesn’t overwhelm the other improvisors in a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. Again, it feels that Guionnet moved to Guthrie’s territory rather than meet him halfway; perhaps Guthrie’s overall approach, with its flattened dynamics, may be a bit too much.
Orthodoxies aside, I think it’s obvious that the desired effect here requires this suspension of certain tenets of free improvisation, and the amplification of others. I mean, both musicians sound like they’re having a great time, and by doing away with things like call and response and swell form, they avoid a great deal of predictability, even if they do that by being quite predictable in other aspects. Essential listening? Probably not. Both artists have sizable catalogs, and this seems less like a big statement than a celebration, a document of two artists enjoying themselves and creating a sound object together.
Dominic Coles: In Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, the media-theorist Friedrich Kittler imagines a soundscape at the end of the world. He doesn’t describe the tangible sound of violence which constitutes more typical collective imaginings of the apocalypse, but rather the acoustic qualities of whirring machines, the electrical hum of communication centers, and the still ambiance of our digital information technologies left functioning in the wake of this violence. Jean-Luc Guionnet & Will Guthrie’s explosive record, Electric Rag, channels this imagining, creating a series of tracks that evoke Kittler’s post-apocalyptic soundscape.
Each track uses rhythmic and melodic repetition to create an inert, mechanized logic that brings to mind the deep impact of gears crunching into place and the frenzy of flipped relays. In “The Rubdown,” Guthrie’s repeating pulse becomes the structure around which Guionnet’s squealing, electronic emissions grow and develop. As the track progresses, Guthrie adds further divisions of the pulse while electronically processing the original rhythm into a seemingly massive, blown out bell. In one form or another, each track employs this same strategy: a sonic state is established through repetition and then complicated through various improvised acts of layering, addition, deletion, and decay.
In Kittler’s soundscape we can postulate a gradual change in the quality of sounds emitted by these machines. Without human intervention, they will begin to falter before finally ceasing to function. More than anything, Guionnet and Guthrie’s improvisations emphasize this process of inevitable disintegration. In this sense, Electric Rag is best understood in conversation with Jean Tinguely’s Homage to New York, a kinetic sculpture from 1960 that famously caused a fire in the MOMA’s Sculpture Garden. Using motors, gears, and Rube Goldberg-like chain reactions, Tinguely’s sculpture slowly destroys itself, creating and emitting sounds reminiscent of Guionnet and Guthrie’s improvisations in the process. While all machines tend towards entropy, Guionnet and Guthrie’s incendiary playing requires vast reserves of energy, focus, and nuanced listening in order to develop and delay a fully entropic state. This constitutes one vital difference between Tinguely’s sculpture and Electric Rag: there is nothing natural about Guionnet and Guthrie’s tendency towards entropy. Rather, this record constitutes a virtuosic effort at regulating chaos.
Éliane Radigue - Occam Ocean 3 (Shiiin, 2021)
Press Release info: Performed and recorded in September, 2019 at the Abbazia di Santa Maria Assunta, Bologna, Italy, the 3rd volume of ‘Occam Ocean’ features the pioneering French composer’s radical thoughts on time, tone and timbre carefully manifest thru the trio’s fingers and strings in the model of preceding volumes, also for France’s Shiiin label. Incredibly patient in its sustained drones and incremental developments, the results return an experience that really only comes with Radigue’s work, among a few others, holding the ability to generate moments of revelatory epiphany from the subtlest alterations.
Where previous ‘Occam Ocean’ instalments fielded a mix of solo and duo works (Occam Ocean 1) and a broad orchestra (Occam Ocean 2), this one is perhaps most focussed in its triumvirate of works written for solo, duo and trio configurations of Julia Eckhardt (Viola), Silvia Tarozzi (Violin) and Deborah Walker (Violoncello). The first, for Tarozzi and Walker resonates with an intense immanence as the Violin’s icy high register is underlined by glyding lower end Violoncello contours, creating a unique weather system of mid-air dissonance, which makes Walker’s lone performance on ‘Occam VIII’ only appear hauntingly nude by contrast.
When all three players converge at ‘Occam Delta III’ they create a more sublime tension, adhering the composer’s instructions to follow a razor fine line between microtonal frequencies and making the piece’s technical challenges feel effortlessly natural, really honing in on tones that resonate the pharynx and get up in your head quite unlike anything else.
Purchase Occam Ocean 3 at Boomkat.
Vanessa Ague: The phrase “this is music that resists remembering” is scattered throughout the booklet that accompanies Occam Ocean 3. Every essay hints that you may never hear any one of the three pieces on the album the same way twice, that this is music that exists purely in one moment at a time. Éliane Radigue herself often explains that this is the very heart of her recent compositions—to explore how sound exists in time and space, and how that existence can never be repeated or predicted.
The pattern of each piece on the album is similar—they’re all acoustic drones that begin with a grainy, distant pianissimo, eventually blooming into powerful, full-bodied harmonies with a smidge of dissonance that resolves into silence. Radigue has been composing different Occam Ocean pieces since 2011, and Occam Ocean 3 is another example of the power of sound in slow motion, and the sheer command and restraint of both Radigue and those who play her music. Each note is sustained until every last drop of sound has floated away, each moment shows the potential of musical simplicity.
Experiencing Occam Ocean 3 is remembering a snapshot in time, not necessarily every melodic motion, harmonic change, or textural shift. My memory of the album is inseparable from the music I heard when I listened. I listened to it first in my matching pajamas as I lit a lavender scented candle and the sounds of New York on a Saturday night bled into my room, then on a gray day as I worried about what my future holds. As promised, I heard something different each time: The first, I felt comforted, full of warmth and cool weather coziness, the second, I felt less focused as the music floated away, just far enough so I couldn’t grasp it. In the glacial pace of ever-evolving tones, what I was left to hear is a reflection of myself. I can’t imagine something more powerful.
Sunik Kim: To many, Radigue is inseparable from her ARP 2500 synthesizer. Her 21st-century turn towards the purely acoustic realm raises an interesting, if false, tension: aren’t pioneering composers supposed to search for ever-more advanced technologies, the “new,” the “unheard”? Why turn away from that towards the basics, to those fundamentals which have been around for centuries? The most surface-level, uncharitable reading of this kind of switch-up frames it as conservative, a clinging to the past, a refusal to keep with the times. While I’m sure there are certain instances where this is true, this could not be further from the case for Radigue.
Radigue’s acoustic work, as demonstrated by Occam Ocean 3, is a concrete advancement of themes present in her synthesized work related to natural cycles, duration, spiritual teleportation. Far from being an “acoustic version” of Adnos or Trilogie de la Mort, Occam Ocean 3 emphasizes the fact that what makes a durational work like this compelling is not the end result as some abstract, ossified product, but rather the end result as the endpoint of an extended process. The purely acoustic approach uncovers certain aspects of this process that may be obscured in her non-linear synth-and-tape constructions: it emphasizes limitation—the piece must be performed in real time, by real performers, in a particular space, etc.—thus rendering the end result, with all its glimmering subtleties, that much more awe-inspiring. The music becomes an act of conjuring.
Dominic Coles: In 2019, I attended a performance of Radigue’s Adnos I - III. It was my first concert experience of her work, and in particular, I was struck by the absolutely uncompromising nature of this music and the intense physical and psychic demands this piece made of its audience. With a duration of over three and a half hours, listeners sat on the floor with the support of something resembling a prayer cushion. Throughout the performance, my mind wandered and my body ached. The music developed at such a slow pace that I lost track of its form. My attention would drift, and suddenly, I would no longer recognize the material at hand—we were somewhere else entirely. When the concert ended and I made my way home, my mind felt completely blank, as if scrubbed clean. I was exhausted.
Dialogue around Radigue’s music often centers the raw beauty of her work—it is gorgeous, reflective, and deeply powerful. Part of its impact, however, lies in its striking ability to induce something resembling a meditative state. This meditative position is usually not a pleasant one—our minds drift and conjure dark thoughts, a glimpse of the violence repressed deep within us. Like dreams, these pieces bring to the surface the psychic phenomenon buried deep within. Radigue’s work is harrowing in this sense: it creates a listening position that stages our most base horrors in the hopes that they can be let go of. Her work activates this listening position formally, in particular through expanded durations over which her materials develop at a glacial pace.
Radigue’s newest record, Occam Ocean 3, sensitively performed by Julia Eckhardt, Silvia Tarozzi, and Deborah Walker, finds her compressing materials into tauter, simpler forms. The result is three immensely beautiful pieces that do not activate anything resembling the deep and generative listening positions produced by Radigue’s electronic works. By temporally compressing her materials, she allows for their more rapid accumulation as well as for quicker transitions between them. As such, material changes that would previously have taken thirty minutes now take three. The first two minutes of “Occam River II” display this temporal compression. The piece begins with extremely fragile harmonics on the violin and cello but only one minute into the piece, a stable pitch emerges and the harmonics dissipate. One minute more and another pitch enters. These entrances, and the development of material constituted by them, are far too hurried—it is a compromise given the absolutely resolute nature of Radigue’s other work.
This is not to say that this music is not immensely sensitive and gratifying. The above criticism is in no way an attempt to detract from this fact. I will absolutely return to these pieces, as I will over and over again to her earlier electronic works. In light of our recent discussions around the role of criticism, perhaps we can reframe critical writing as emerging from a place of care insofar as negative criticism attempts to hold artists to a higher standard. We do this because we love music—because it enriches our lives and gives us meaning and purpose. The endless crush of positivity does nothing but enable hordes of commodity fetishists to sell their wares. I want music to be much more than a product, to be more than a form of social and material capital. Don’t we all?
Nick Zanca: Theodor Adorno and Edward Said were both fixated on the aesthetics of ‘late style’—a framework derived from the output of artists in their twilight; an about-face toward finitude before a shuffle off our mortal coil. The former Frankfurt School fountainhead heard late Beethoven’s grandiosity (his Ninth Symphony, the Missa Solemnis, and so on) as music in exile: a composer in full command of the medium, eradicating communication with his social circle in exchange for alienation, “relegated to the outer reaches of art, in the vicinity of the document.” Using Adorno’s texts as a jump-off point, the latter Columbia professor dedicated an entire book-length text—posthumously published, as it happens—to contradictions and complexities on naked display in the final work of writers like Jean Genet and Thomas Mann, that liminal space of literature unto death where cohesion is no longer a concern and where nothing is left to lose.
As far as longform contemporary composition is concerned, I couldn’t think of a work more fitting of the archetype than Eliane Radigue’s ongoing Occam Ocean series, an open-format collaborative expedition which she first embarked on ten years ago on the eve of her eightieth birthday. Late style announces itself through description long before pressing play: eschewed are those glacial-paced electronics she’s known for, along with any formal notation, for that matter; utilizing liquid imagery and appropriating William of Ockham’s principle of parsimony—“the simplest, the best”—a performer’s technique and organic bond to their instrument serve as the sole compositional material. Any semblance of a score is purely psychological; the trajectory of each piece leads to landscapes continents away from the meticulous crossfaded circuitry of her ARP 2500.
After a particularly staggering sturm und drang sophomore edition for orchestra, this third offering pares the scale back down to a patient string trio, recorded in a monastery in Italy. This time, friction appears as the focal point; between bow and string, what is heard reads as ripples rather than waves, depicting waters less tranquil and washy than the past two entries, but all the more compelling. Particularly startling is this set’s microscopic attention to harmonic placement against the grain—decay is not so much anticipated as it is cast aside until the precise point of its arrival. No matter the source of the sound, sitting with each Occam Ocean installment start-to-finish feels like a dip in the bardo pond—of all the intermediate states that Radigue have inhabited in her seven-decade career, these carry a heady retrospective gaze, a striking sinking feeling of impermanence, a post-tonal blanket in which I would happily drown.
Gil Sansón: One of the great musical moments of the century came when, after working for decades with her analog synthesizer, Éliane Radigue decided to take her patient sound world into the instrumental sphere. Her work has retained all of its essence, but has gained so much in terms of grain, here in evidence aplenty, with string instruments as the medium and all the un-synthesizeable complexity of a bow dragging slowly across a string. Occam Ocean has earthly sound of traditional music, here slowed to a crawl to allow the listener to inhabit the sound, and giving the typical Radigue impression of a surface which appears static, but which reveals itself to be full of rich detail upon close inspection.
The Occam Ocean series of works is very much still underway with this recent addition. If previous pieces employed large, loud forces to stunning effect, this one focuses on the smaller sounds of string instruments, but the result is equally as spellbinding, if perhaps more monochromatic. One gets the impression that, just as sometimes performers need a few years to understand the style of a composer, a full immersion in the work requires time and effort. Here, the interpreters show an intuitive understanding of Radigue’s music, far beyond any talk of systems, tuning ratios and similar, formal concerns. Radigue is one of the essential composers of the twenty-first century, and her work is like nothing else, while also feeling as natural as breathing. (Often, when listening to her music, I feel that I’m hearing the sound of the instruments while they breathe.) So far, all of the entries in the Occam Ocean series have been essential, and this one is no exception.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: “We can choose to work within a very narrow branch of music, but music is really so very, very large,” Radigue once said in response to her transition to acoustic instrumentation. Such a statement may feel like a head-scratcher from someone whose oeuvre can appear minimal in scope, but that’s the appeal of Radigue’s entire artistic output: it demands an understanding of the granular changes both within and between pieces. Water has been a longtime influence for Radigue, and the way she’s talked about it (“If a stone in the river moves, the river is not changed, but after a long time it becomes something completely different”) is all about understanding its enormity, of the interconnectedness of all nature, of revelations only being revealed upon closer inspection.
Occam Ocean 3 provides opportunities to experience all those things, and at its best, leaves you in a state of complete suspension. This isn’t to say that I’m left “transfixed” or “lost in the music,” at least in the way I understand people to use those terms; instead, I am simply removed from myself, from all thoughts and context. I feel small, but am not thinking about my smallness, I revel in the subtle gradations of these bows moving across strings, but am not compelled to think deeply about them. It’s incredibly similar to being in the ocean, of doing nothing more than existing. When all is over, it’s that contrast between time spent in/by the water and away from it that leads to a deep consideration for what has happened. And as with the best Radigue releases, Occam Ocean 3 leaves me in a state of deep reconsideration: what about music do I assume I have figured out, and how much more is there still to explore, to feel, to let overtake me?
Mark Cutler: Bodies of water have to be the #1 most ubiquitous motif in the world of experimental music and composition. If water does not literally appear in recorded form—splashing, swirling, lapping, pouring—it is still ceaselessly invoked, emulated, referred to in titles and depicted on album covers. It therefore takes significant ingenuity to take water as a theme without falling into redundancy or outright cliché. With the extraordinary, colossal Occam Ocean project, Éliane Radigue proposes to approach her subject by embodying it, in its overwhelming scale as well as its endlessly proliferating forms.
True to the name, the principles of Occam are simple: Radigue develops each piece in person with the performers, around an image, or memory, or experience of water. The pieces have no written score, but can be taught by one performer to another, if they so decide. The performers are many, but I’ve come to recognize about a dozen frequently appearing names, which tend to gravitate into pairs or trios. When Radigue dies, these collaborators will presumably be the sole authorities over the Occam opus; whether and how long the works survive will depend primarily on their decisions.
Since meeting my partner two years ago, I have become a beach person. In the brief New York summers, we try to get to the shore once, sometimes twice a week. Yet it is difficult to explain, even to myself, what exactly one does on a beach. Sure, we may swim once or twice, if the water is warm enough; I typically bring a sketch book and a book book so we can draw and read. Yet these combined still can’t account for the hours and hours which slip away each time. The ocean, for its part, basically doesn’t change—from trip to trip, or, indeed, from decade to decade. Sometimes, when I look straight out from the water’s edge, I wonder how far back in time I’d have to go before the view in front of me perceptibly changed. To the beginning of industrialization, perhaps; or perhaps centuries further.
The Occam pieces might take their inspiration from bodies of water, but they are hardly serene. They don’t so much flow as insist, drawing the listener’s attention to the smallest variations of pitch and tone. Radigue’s performers tend to labor at the high and low extremes of their instruments’ capacities, when wood and strings begin to audibly rattle and whine. A piece may commence sparsely—a single, sustained note, barely distinguishing itself from the silence—and then, over twenty, thirty, or fifty minutes, rise to a dissonant, deafening chorus. It may, at a harrowing pace, take on the vaguest melody, or it may settle into a rippling drone. Because the pieces change so gradually, it is difficult to wrap one’s mind around a performance in its totality, to describe how it flows and changes, even if one has just heard it.
Of course, the beach isn’t the ocean. The ocean shows up at the beach, and one may technically be in the ocean while one dawdles around in the surf. Few, however, ever find themselves truly in the ocean, beyond the sight of shore and without the protection of seacraft. Most of us only linger at the very margin of the ocean; we look at it, but as an over there, as though it were across an impasse. What takes place in it—the eating of fish by other fish, the movement of cargo ships, the steady growth of a country-sized garbage island—seems unrelated to our leisure.
I’m not totally sure how many Occam pieces exist right now. Radigue’s IRCAM page lists 74, in various series and for a baffling variety of instruments. There are Occam works for tuba, organ, and bagpipes, as well as contrabass recorder, birbynė, and harp. Some of the works are arranged into water-themed groups like River or Delta, while others (Hexa, Hepta) suggest a cryptic, internal numbering. Contrary to an oft-repeated claim, the series is not totally acoustic either—there are instalments for EMS synthesizer, unspecified electronics, and one for something called a spring spyre.
It seems logistically impossible that anyone but Radigue has heard all of Occam Ocean, given that the individual pieces premiered in countless cities in at least fifteen countries around the world. I’m not sure how many of those performances were or will be recorded, or how many recordings are slated for release. The works across all three volumes to date represent just a fraction of the first three years of a project which will soon enter its eleventh. The consequence of all this is that even Radigue’s most frequent collaborators likely haven’t experienced more than a sliver of Occam Ocean—just as likely, they never will.
One trip this summer, I got caught in a powerful surge. I was standing maybe chest-deep in the water, far enough out to jump the coming waves before they spilled over themselves and onto the shore. As I bobbed over each crest, I could feel the accompanying trough—when water tends to flow away from the shore, back towards the ocean—drag me several feet further out to sea. I was not immediately concerned; for a time, I could still plant my feet upon the sea floor. Soon, though, I could feel the sandy ridges lurch and dissipate beneath my outstretched toes, each foothold yanked from beneath me before I could reach it.
I tried to swim against the surge, but I could feel myself slowing down, running out of strength and breath. I was at the limits of my abilities, and barely swimming fast enough to stay in one place. The shore was not out of sight, nor even all that far away, but I looked at it as though across an impasse, unsure if I could safely reach it. I knew the conventional wisdom about rip tides, but I also knew this wasn’t exactly a rip; I wasn’t sure whether, if I let it, the surge would ever deposit me any closer to shore, or whether it would just drag me out of sight and hope of rescue. I thought, if I just got close enough to reach the ground again, that I could trudge my way through the current and back to land. So I swam, thinking I might die, doing this. I have made a decision, and I might die.
I don’t know how to evaluate Occam Ocean—or the small fragments of it I’ve heard to date. Each piece is simple to the point of austerity, but they collectively suggest a vast ecosystem of ideas still yet to come to view. The Occam works can be punishing for both player and listener, requiring a focus and persistence many cannot give. In return, they offer glimpses into the worlds of sound that can be plumbed from a single instrument, or even note. With no written scores and only one recording of each piece to judge by, it is not even possible to surmise when and how often a piece conforms to Radigue’s designs. I understand that all this is intentional, that Occam Ocean is, on top of everything, an incredible act of trust, even faith, by a composer who has spent most of her life committing her ideas directly to pristine ribbons of tape.
I didn’t die. I did eventually swim far enough ashore, to a spot where I could at least dig my heels back into the sand, and slowly, carefully make my way back, as waves continued to crash over and around my head. My partner and I have been to the beach a few more times since, but I don’t feel as confident as I once did, letting the waves lift and lower my body as they hurdle towards land. I don’t know—perhaps I was never in that much danger, that day. For now, though, this is what I think about, when I look out to the ocean from my puny vantage on the shore.
Thank you for reading the seventy-eighth issue of Tone Glow. Radical optimism, baby.
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