Tone Glow 081: John Oswald
An interview with John Oswald + our Writers Panel on Park Dong Ryul's 'Lost Time' and Park Jiha's 'The Gleam'
John Oswald is a musician, composer, and media artist based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, he experimented with sampling and alternative modes of music distribution via projects like Burrows (1974-75), which features audio of William S. Burroughs cut up and re-arranged, and Mystery Tapes (1980- ), which consists of unattributed music compiled to cassette. He is most well-known for creating “plunderphonics,” a genre that recontextualizes recognizable samples, or “sonic quotes,” influencing artists from Negativland to Girl Talk. More recently, Oswald has been focusing on his Rascali Klepitoire project, for which he mines the classical repertoire from Beethoven to Varèse to compose new works. Matthew Blackwell spoke with Oswald over the phone on October 14, 2021 to discuss his education under R. Murray Schafer, his livestream performances during the pandemic, and the ways that plunderphonics and the Mystery Tapes have adapted to the age of YouTube and Bandcamp.
John Oswald: Matthew Blackwell? John Oswald here.
Matthew Blackwell: Hello! How are you?
I’m doing quite fine. How are you?
Oh, I’m fine. I was interested to hear in your email that you were acquaintances with Phillip Werren.
Ah yes, thanks for reminding me. We were stuck on a mountain for a couple of weeks once. And then I had various encounters with a university here in Toronto—York University—while he was there, but I don’t recall seeing him there. I spent some time with him in Banff, Alberta on a mountain, and prior to that I got to Simon Fraser [University] to work with the World Soundscape Project in the Communications Department there with Murray Schafer just after he [Werren] quit.
How did you find yourself on a mountain with him?
We were both in a seminar, the International Choreographic Seminar, and we were two of the composers who were there with six choreographers. I’d applied to go as a choreographer but they accepted me as a composer. Each day over the course of two or three weeks we were given an assignment to create with one of the choreographers a finished piece to show to the public that evening. And on a couple days to surprise us, they gave us two assignments, saying we’ll do a lunch-hour concert also. So we had to come up with at least two dozen pieces over the course of two weeks working with six choreographers each. It was fun; at least it was fun for me.
Phil did some very interesting things. When I said I was with him on a mountain, we were on a fairly low mountain, but he and one of the choreographers had spent, when they were assigned to do something that evening, many hours that day climbing up a bigger mountain and then climbing back down. They figured out how to do a piece where there was one tape loop that criss-crossed across the stage. This piece of analog reel-to-reel tape would have been, I don’t know, a hundred yards long? And it was a record-playback thing, so the dancers were walking along this switchback path, which is the way you get up mountains. They were calling to each other, and their calls would get recorded by, perhaps it was two tape recorders, by tape recorder one, and then a while later it would echo back as if you were speaking into a canyon or something. Then it would just keep doing that and multiplying. That was very clever and it was all done in one day of conception and preparation. I was very impressed by that.
Were there any recordings of these performances or was it a one-and-done thing?
Yeah, in fact I think I have some U-matic video tapes that might be documentation of those, but who’s got a U-matic video playback machine? I don’t know how available they are.
So you did not overlap at Simon Fraser, or did you?
No, I don’t ever remember meeting him there. I’m pretty sure he was gone when I arrived, which would have been in the fall of 1974.
When you got to Simon Fraser, how was the political atmosphere? I know it was very intense in the late ’60s, but by ’74 had it calmed down?
I couldn’t compare directly, and it wasn’t something I was focused on. This was on top of another small mountain, Simon Fraser University. I went there because Murray Schafer was there, in fact. And then another guy had just arrived to teach in the Communications Department there. Several years later they formed an Art Department covering dance music, theater, etc., but those didn’t exist back in ’74 and there were a lot of creative-type people in this Communications Department, including Murray and Barry Truax, who arrived that year. Barry was responsible for encouraging me to do things. And Murray was fascinating.
[Ed. note: Oswald writes, regarding the recent Vertical Time / Aparanprecis single: “vt was concocted in the Simon Fraser U Sonic Studio during my short time there; and the full-length aparanthesis formulated a quarter of a century later were fundamentally influenced by my exposure to Schafer’s World Soundscape Project.”]
You went there to work with Schafer particularly?
He was the only teacher who I knew was there and that I was interested in studying under. I don’t know how much I knew about him at that point, though. I thought when his name was announced on our national radio, they were saying “our” Murray Schafer, like he was “our” composer (laughter). A year or two prior, he had formed a cadre of interesting individuals at the World Soundscape Project. The previous summer, Bruce Davis and Peter Huse traveled across Canada and recorded hundreds of disappearing sounds, things like old foghorns and various things, animals and trees that were disappearing or becoming extinct. And they also did interesting things like ask everybody all along the way for directions, so there was an interesting one-hour documentary that was put together of people just, in a myriad of dialects, saying [in exaggerated accent] “Well you go up over the mountain there, and then you turn left over there...” (laughter) and they found their way across Canada that way. It was called Directions. There’s a good series that I know Barry Truax, who I mentioned, put out, ten CDs of these programs that they put together that were broadcast on national radio up here. They were extremely good. The Bruce Davis ones—one is called Work and the other is called Play—are extremely musical.
I was sorry to hear that we lost Schafer about two weeks ago. Did you keep in touch with him?
Yes, just recently. Two or three weeks ago, yeah. It’s odd, last year at this time I had seen Murray just briefly in passing. I was doing an online performance—oh boy, that’s about the hardest thing to do, livestream things—for Tonspur in Vienna. There was a question-and-answer at the end and they asked me about Murray, whether he was an influence. And I had used various resources trying to make the livestream interesting, so for the question-and-answer period there was a Zoom kind of set-up that had various people, some of whom were watching or listening to me, and several others who look like they’re just watching or listening to anything. Some of the celebrities included Barack Obama and Donald Trump, and there was Murray Schafer over at one side, who seemed to be listening to me talking about him. Although it was prior-ly video’d footage.
So some of them were real? Real-time people, actually watching?
But you’re not gonna reveal who’s who?
Hmm, who asked the question about Murray Schafer... it might have been the cellist Anne Bourne, who is somebody I know.
I noticed that you’ve been doing a few videos over the pandemic. What makes them so difficult compared to a live performance?
The one that I did for Tonspur was a live performance, and that was perhaps the difficulty. I had a conversation with Scanner, Robin Rimbaud, who had also done one for Tonspur, and we just chatted about how it seemed to be more difficult, and in a sense stage-fright generating, to do one of these live things because you’re walking along a technical tightrope where things could crash. And actually they did crash, about forty minutes into my piece, and then I was reinstated and I made an insert afterwards for the document about the part that crashed. It’s just more difficult than doing live shows. Though I try to keep any kind of live shows I have to do down to minimum technology because it’s more fun.
The last concert I did was on Sunday, and it was with the bass clarinetist Laurie Friedman on bass clarinet and me on saxophone. Then we had two surprise mystery guests, one who was known by Laurie and who got to play in our encore, and the other who was not known by our mystery guest, who was Jean Derome, nor Laurie. She was hidden, and they couldn’t figure out what was going on when the fourth voice came up, but it’s somebody that I’d just met in the last few days at a festival in Saguenay, Quebec, called the Festival de Musiques de Création—Festival of Music Creation. The new player was a baritone player who does really fantastic playing in spatialized places, Ida Toninato. She was our secret surprise player. Do you know her?
No, but I’m sure I can find her though. What pieces were you playing?
It was totally improvised.
Which makes it easier, and not stage-fright inducing.
Do you improvise often?
As often as I get a chance, because I usually play the alto saxophone and that’s not something that I do on my own, that’s something that I do in a musical-social sense. I need to play with other people. This particular edition of the festival, which has been going on for decades now, was focused on the saxophone. For some reason I was selected as the keynote speaker about the saxophone and about improvisation and [was selected as] the closing act. So I got to play with some really good saxophone players. Jean Derome is great. And for my keynote speech, I had a special guest, which was Lisa Simpson.
Have you seen any of my Simpsonics on YouTube?
(laughs). Yes, I paused for a moment because I was trying to make sure you meant that Lisa Simpson.
Ah yes, there are probably a couple Lisa Simpsons around, but I don’t know if there’s another one who is a saxophone player.
Right. I have seen the clips on YouTube where you drop Charlie Parker or somebody into her sax solo.
Yeah, yeah. So those things were interspersed into my keynote address. And the great thing—it was also improvised. Back in the ’90s especially, I used to do a lot of talks to various groups, particularly at universities, and I always improvised my talks. Which is probably a foolhardy thing to do, but I did. But I had a special aid this time which was new to me, which was a translator that was but built into the Apple iOS. I think it’s their own app, which can be a live translator. So I would speak, and the iPad would give a readout of what I had said and what the translation was, and then the default female voice would say what I had just said in French, which I can’t speak. This was an almost totally French community, Quebecois French. Then the audience would laugh because she would almost always get it wrong. I was in the town of Jonquière, which she translated as “junkyard” on one occasion, and various other things on other occasions. It was fun not having control over the translation.
You did this for the liner notes for the YouTube video “Shards from the Rascali Klepitoire,” too. Didn’t you translate and then re-translate them back into English?
Yes. That show was replacing the fact that I was supposed to appear in Brno, Czechia at a festival there in July or late June. When it was getting nearer and nearer to that time, I finally said that I’m not gonna cross the ocean at this point, I can’t get on an airplane, and it just seems Covid-ly dangerous in Czechia right now and not a good idea to do that. So we agreed that I could make a video appearance instead. The show is pre-constructed by me but trying to give a sense of being a live presentation for the audience there. Because, again, English is not their first language, I put Czech translations in my introductions on there.
Will you describe that video? I watched it and it’s very interesting. You’re taking… Well, I’ll let you describe it, and then how about we run your explanation through a Czech translator and then I’ll put the English re-translation into the interview?
[re-translated text follows]
(laughs). All right. The concert that was performed, the hour-long concert, is or was my conductor’s symphony orchestra. That is clear for that. So we played a few songs that I came up with. The first, in fact, I’m just introducing, and it was a live video that was made from the third performance of Linda Catlin Smith and I called Orchestral Tuning, which for those who haven’t seen it yet involves some hugging within the orchestra, hugging musicians. That video was introduced and then there was my conducting debut with the Olio Orchestra here in Toronto. This was followed by Varèse Universe, in which you get a nice view of our panoramic view of our Milky Way, filmed by NASA. And was there anything else I didn’t remember in that show?
I think it ends with Glenn Gould.
Oh yeah (laughs). “Glenn Gould’s additions.” Amazing his performances. My piece that was inspired and made possible by his game. And of course I should mention J.S. Bach also, who was involved.
[end of re-translated text]
(laughs). Yes, somewhat involved.
And it was inspiring for me to make pieces that were featured in this show, which all fall into the Rascali Klepitoire, taking pieces from the classical repertoire and transforming them in some radical way.
Do you mind explaining the reasoning behind that? Do you have an issue with the classical repertoire as it’s performed on stages? I noticed that you seem to hate Bolero’s prominence.
Oh yeah, well so did Ravel. He really disliked the fact that it was his most prominent, to use your word, piece in his repertoire, not performing repertoire but compositional repertoire. He wished that people would play other pieces of his and not that one. It’s the only piece that I can think of by Ravel, who is a fantastic composer, that I just won’t stick around for the whole performance after hearing it once or twice because of its, well, its redundant nature.
There’s a lot of conventions in classical music that I wish were otherwise. One is the reiteration of large parts, for instance, in symphonic form. If you take the example of Beethoven, who I’ve done this the most often with, he’ll compose for the performers to play the whole big first section of the piece and then, “Let’s play that again,” so that you get it before you get the variations and transformations that are going to happen. I think that was a very reasonable thing to do when he was composing these things to be premiered and performed for many people to be heard just once in their lifetime. You’re given a bit of time to absorb a lot of musical information and a lot of variety and the wonderful things that he would compose. He would let a previously uninitiated audience into these new pieces.
But here in the 21st century we have so many performances of Beethoven, and we have recordings, and we can sometimes listen to it in the supermarket. We don’t need to hear all that redundant material. We could, I think, get complete satisfaction out of a much more compact presentation of Beethoven. Perhaps an extreme example of that was when the Ensemble Modern invited me to compose a piece for them. We had a discussion about it and about their relation to Beethoven as a German ensemble and they encouraged me to do a thing that I proposed, which would be the nine symphonies of Beethoven in a span of somewhere between half an hour and forty-five minutes. The result is thirty minutes long. It doesn’t feature everything that Beethoven presented in the approximately six and a half hours that it takes to perform all nine of his completed symphonies, but when I did a first pass at this it became pretty easy to reduce everything down, to get rid of redundancies and parts when the band just plays the same thing in different keys in order to get somewhere else. That reduced the six and a half hours down to about two hours, so then there was a lot more of an abridgment and a selection made in making a nice little thirty-minute piece, which just seemed so tailor-made to the Ensemble Modern, which is a sinfonietta, also called a small orchestra. As a small orchestra, it’s much more of a sports car than most large symphony orchestras, which are in some cases kind of like a Hummer.
Am I right in saying that your current project is to take all or most of these Rascali Klepitoire pieces and put them out in an omnibus? Or “omnibi”?
Yes, yeah. So the “omnibi,” or “omnibus” plural, is quite a few recorded projects and projects that will hopefully get recorded, either lying about or in the can. There’s about seven hours of material that could fit into the Rascali Klepitoire, some of which I don’t really care if anybody ever hears again. I’m surprised that there was so much material because I’ve styled myself as more of a Webern, concise kind of composer that wouldn’t have that much music to present. This gets to Bandcamp, which my record company Fony is using as a platform for presenting stuff now, after quite a few years of stalled or never-accepted projects, to put out the Rascali Klepitoire stuff which I’ve been doing under that genre description since the early ’90s. I guess that’s thirty years’ worth of stuff now. To get some of it out, on very short notice I made a decision to put out something on Bandcamp, which is the first Rascali Klepitoire piece, the Classics from the Rascali Klepitoire EP, which I guess you’ve got? Or heard?
Yeah, and there’s more to come. I’m pretty sure right now, because of this piece that I’m working on which I’m extremely excited about, called... well it’s spelled R-E-F-U-S-E, and I’m not sure how you’d pronounce that. I’m curious how you’d pronounce that?
R-E-F-U-S-E? Refuse [pronounced like the verb]?
You said refuse [like the verb]?
Yeah. Or, I mean, it could also be refuse [pronounced like the noun].
Exactly. So the title was taken from that Edgard Varèse quote, “Modern day composers refuse to die.” I first saw that quote when I bought a copy of Frank Zappa’s first album, Mothers of Invention’s Freak Out!, within the liner notes inside the double album. It was also one that came out in the summer of 1966, and somewhere between 1965 and the summer of 1966 I first started reading about Edgard Varèse but hadn’t heard any of his music. A fascinating figure. When I was commissioned by the Turning Point Ensemble, a group about the size of the Ensemble Modern in Vancouver, to compose a piece that would go on a program of works of Varèse, there were fifty years before the commission came up between the summers of ’65 and ’66 when I started experiencing the output of Zappa and Varèse. Thirteen years before that, the year I was born, Frank Zappa was thirteen years old and he was paging through Look magazine, an American picture magazine, and spotted a picture of someone he assumed was a mad scientist, just had the look of a mad scientist, but in fact was a composer. The guy’s look excited him a lot and the description of him having made a composition for percussion instruments only excited him even more. But at the time, like when I was thirteen years old, he hadn’t heard Varèse yet and it took him a couple years to find that particular record.
So it was a great kind of convergence of things and it also gave me another opportunity, which I had taken on one or two occasions before this composition in 2015, to focus on that period in the mid-60s when I was first getting the opportunity to experience a lot of different music, around 12, 13, 14, 15 years old, and going back to all that music I heard to make new pieces, or make very referential pieces. So reFuse is very referential of everything I was listening to in a state of wonder and with a lack of ability to figure out anything that was going on. You know, I had never seen a live symphony orchestra. In a way it was just sound for me, but it was exciting sound. I was trying to make a new piece that had that kind of complexity that just makes you listen to the sound rather than just being referential for the sake of being referential. So another piece that would definitely, I think, be on the Rascali Klepitoire’s six-piece package would be this Varèse Universe that you heard a more abridged version of in the “Shards from the Rascali Klepitoire” video.
Hearing you talk about these liner notes in this era in your life reminds me of that piece that you wrote for The Wire two or three months ago about liner notes that you found in your record shop growing up.
Yeah, it’s the same period. I’m glad you saw that. I was focusing on that really pivotal period for me. I like listening to things, I like looking at things, etc. etc. Tactility is really important to me, and it may all be equally important, but since we’re talking about music, I got a transistor radio sometime in the early ’60s, a gift from my parents that had AM radio and shortwave radio on it. I spent a lot of time listening to both. I was particularly fascinated by shortwave radio because there’s many things on there that I couldn’t figure out what they were. There was also a lot of opportunity to transform or distort the intended signal, to include the noise that shortwave radio emits. Very slowly tuning away from a station and hearing how the frequencies would shift in what you were listening to and how the sound would, in a sense, go away or disappear to be replaced by something else as you went across the band. It was probably, in a sense, my first musical instrument because I spent a lot of time playing that thing. And then I got a little record player, one of those that has the lid on it, and it had four speeds, 16, 33 1/3, 45 and 78, and I would start playing all my records at the various speeds. Some music sounded a lot more to my taste at a speed other than the one that was specified on the printed material on the record. A particular example was Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which sounded really great at 78 to me. It reminded me a lot of the gamelan music that I had found at about the same time.
So there was the record player, and I was in a band around 1964 or ’65 in which one of the things that I did was playing records, but there wasn’t any real turntablism in what I was doing. I was just putting a record on (laughter) and we would play along with it. There were all those things, and then I started buying records in album format much more voraciously around ’64, ’65, ’66. I kind of tapered off as we got into the ’70s. My vinyl record collection, which I still have out in the garage, is almost all from that period and a lot of that music has a huge influence on things that I like, things that I’m interested in, things that give me a lot of satisfaction to go back to and to transform in some way, which I was already doing back then. I got my first reel-to-reel tape recorder, also a gift from my parents and kind of a surprising one because it just kind of came out of nowhere, around ’66 I guess. So I started playing around, listening to things backwards and manipulating the tape a bit, and doing a bit of editing which resulted in the “Barelys” and Chuck Berry playing a part in the plunderphonic genre.
I was about to say that with all of these things, you can draw a direct line from twiddling the knob on the radio or playing a record at different speeds to the Plunderphonic album.
I have a question about the Plunderphonic album that I’ve never seen you answer in any other interviews.
Oh good (laughs).
I know you’re probably sick of talking about it, but I have a…
Oh, I’m not. When somebody asks for a definition, I’m never able to give the same definition twice, but no, I’m happy to talk about it.
My question is, in the press release that you put out in 1989, you said that the CRIA [Canadian Recording Industry Association] confiscated the physical CDs and then “crushed” them. I’ve always been fascinated by that “crushing” of the CDs. I wanna know the whole story of the physical CDs, did you have to mail them somewhere and then they got destroyed?
No, and I hope I get exactly what happened correctly. You got some of that information in the booklet, the 69 Plunderphonics 96 booklet.
That’s the story of when I was threatened and of my getting a lawyer who was able to talk to their lawyer because they were golf buddies and to come to some sort of an agreement over the telephone about what would satisfy them. It probably said something about this list of things that would satisfy me and might satisfy them, which started off with them giving me a record contract to do more of this stuff, which they rejected (laughter) and then worked its way down. Somewhere in the middle was the one they chose, which I was extremely happy [about]. One of the things in there was that they would tell me what they were going to do with these CDs that I was going to give them, all the ones I had left. They said, “Well, we’re going to crush them.” That was reported in either the Toronto Star or the Toronto Globe and Mail around that time. So nobody witnessed the crushing of the CDs, we were just told that’s what happened, along with the crushing of the masters, the 3/4-inch U-matic tape which was used to transfer the master tape to a CD pressing plant.
They didn’t seem to realize that any digital copy that I had at that point, which would be ’89… in ’89 I didn’t have a DAT machine. Oh yeah, I had Beta TTM tapes with everything. So anything transferred in the digital realm from one thing to another is a clone, so there were clones of what they took to be the master tape, for making more CDs. Which they suspected I might do, but I couldn’t afford to just keep making CDs and giving them away for free. I was glad to get them off my hands.
That answers my other question, which is that it’s sort of like a whack-a-mole game where they destroy these CDs, but there are copies, and they knew that there were copies floating around.
That was part of the deal, which is that they wouldn’t harass anybody that I’d already given a copy to.
I see, OK.
I remember, I think it was Charles Amirkhanian at KPFA who said “Well if the FBI comes over here trying to get this CD, we’re gonna fight.” I did realize that with the little bit of promotion I was getting and word of mouth, that people would find ways to hear this if they wanted to. And it took me out of the CD distribution business, which wasn’t a business at all, because again, I was giving away things for free and those things cost a bit of money. So it was impractical for me to continue to do that forever.
Now though, the distribution is done for you, because Plunderphonic pops up on YouTube in various forms.
Yeah, and that happened back then in various forms. It was not long after that that somebody at MIT put the whole thing up in 16-bit 44.1 CD format, in fact another clone, as a download so that anybody could download the tracks. There were various people—there was the Copyright Violation Squad who set up various posts, a few in different countries, where if you mailed them a 90-minute cassette they would dub the thing onto the cassette for you and send it back to you. Various people continued to distribute it in various ways. It was, in a sense, more difficult, at a much smaller scale, than what would happen at the turn of the century where you’d have things like Napster and other kinds of distribution that allowed other things that became notorious, other plunderphonic projects by other people, that could be distributed in the millions without any effort at all.
More difficult to acquire, but also more difficult for the CRIA and other people to clamp down on.
I think a lot of this hinges on Negativland’s affair with Island Records and the Irish band U2. I think Negativland’s brilliant way of dealing with a really onerous lawsuit that was really difficult and financially backbreaking for them was a good way of establishing that it’s really bad publicity for a big record company—and I think there are other examples too, like giving onerous fines to grandmothers who had accidentally downloaded a movie or some tunes or something like that—that it just wasn’t a good idea, publicity-wise, to go after people like me or Negativland or, another good example, a quite popular plunderphonic artist, would be Girl Talk, who I don’t think had any trouble at all. Not that I’ve heard of.
Not that I’ve heard of either. This is different per country, though. I lived in Germany for a while and did get threatened for downloading things (laughs). When you’re distributing your own work that might be questionable copyright-wise, do you, or is it even possible, to target it per country based on copyright law?
(laughs). Well you’ve just reminded me that back in 1990 I guess, having settled this arrangement with the CRIA, RIAA, CBS Records, Michael Jackson, etc., one independent musical entity here in Canada suggested to me that we could make more of these CDs in, I think it was Bulgaria. We could get them pressed there and distribute from there as if it were an off-shore enterprise. I said I’d be fine if they did that, but I legally said I wouldn’t participate in distributing more of these.
Before we go, I want to ask you one more question. You might not answer these, because they’re about the Mystery Tapes.
(laughs). That’s true, I might not. I don’t know everything about Mystery Tapes.
We’ll see. You can be as obscure as you want to in your answers. They’re easier to get now because there’s a couple on Bandcamp.
There’s no liner notes?
Are you waiting for a reply on that?
(Laughs). Alright, I’ll put “dead silence” in the transcription.
Well if you want things to be mysterious, hopefully any liner notes you might come across will make things at least mysterious, and hopefully maybe even a bit more mysterious.
Have you ever had anybody recognize pieces of the Mystery Tapes and tell you about it?
Yes. And that’s OK. In my adjudication of the Mystery Tapes, if something comes up and then we realize, “Hey, this thing which sounds really great is getting really popular, and so let’s replace it with something else.” I think you know there are version numbers where there are revisions and adjustments and additions and subtractions from the various titled Mystery Tapes. So you might have X1 v. 1 or X1 v. 3.3 on cassette. And you sent for these cassettes which were made individually, they were run off in real time. Usually when an order came in, they would get the latest version of something. I can’t mention any specific examples, but there were things that just became a little too recognizable. Then going back to the Mystery Tapes for the Bandcamp releases, what I was interested in was the same thing, if it was something that’s now just too common, I would look up a source, usually on YouTube, and say “OK, has anybody put this up on YouTube? Oh, there it is,” and go and see if more than a dozen people had accessed that particular upload. If there were hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands or millions of people who had gone to that video, it seems like maybe not the best candidate to be on a Mystery Tape.
So on Bandcamp, you can change it in real-time and you don’t have the older cassettes circulating. Well, I guess you have the downloaded versions out there...
The fantastic thing about Bandcamp is that it is hugely similar to this tape distribution that we were doing back in the ’80s. Having produced a bunch of records, LP and vinyl records, and then going through a period of putting things on CD, there was the necessity, because I never did any CD-r distribution, the necessity of making a commitment to hundreds or thousands of copies of a particular thing. There wasn’t the opportunity to do revisions, or if you wanted to do revisions on a repress of something, that would entail a noticeable extra expense, possibly considerable expense. Reprint packaging, etc. In the Bandcamp world, things can change day to day or hour by hour, so the version numbers of the Mystery Tapes, for instance, continue and can be referred to if you’re paying attention to what’s going on on Bandcamp. And there’s also the greater advantage for the listener and consumer to then get the updated version if they want without going to the extra expense of mailing in for another copy of that particular Mystery Tape.
Right. So you can download the MP3, and then download the updated MP3, and have a running file of all of the versions of the same tape.
Yeah. Or you can download an AIFF, or… It’s familiar, it’s in a way nostalgic for me. It goes back to that period of that kind of production in the ’80s, which then goes back to the mid-’70s when I was putting out the Burrows project on reel-to-reel tape and editing in leader tape between the various tracks so you wouldn’t have that pre-echo print-through. It feels a bit like I’m the manufacturer and have the challenge of fitting in the formats set by Bandcamp, which are OK. A bit of a big job making Bandcamp releases is that each track in an album will have its own visual attached to it, so for each release there’s quite a bit of visual content to work on and in some cases [more], if you have booklets to go with it, etc. etc. They’re design-wise and creation-wise similar to any kind of production that I’ve made for any format in the past, but then when it gets to that point where I ask “Do I manufacture this, or not?” there isn’t the—getting back to our first bit of discussion—there isn’t the stage-fright of “OK… I’m sending this off now... and am I going to get test pressings back from this vinyl plant that are gonna make me sad, or…?” All of those things have been alleviated. So it’s pretty great. One thing that I can mention about Mystery Tapes which I think was announced, is that I’ve been working on a little square object that has the entire catalog of Mystery Tapes on it. I’m pretty sure that it’s just a bit far off into the future that that’s available.
Fantastic. So all the Mystery Tapes, or at least a version of each of them?
A compilation of all of them. And in a new format to access tracks randomly, etc.
I’ll look forward to that. Is there anything else you’d like to mention before we go?
People ask that question, and there’s something about that question that always makes my mind go completely blank. Oh! But I did think of something. This thing that I’m working on now is for yet another livestream broadcast, and quite separately from that a Jacob Collier-scale audio production of it, well over 100 tracks already and there’s still a lot of material coming in, of that particular piece reFuse. [Ed. note: after the interview, Oswald sent this note via email: “i recollect referencing Jacob Collier as an example of the sort of maxitracking i’m currently assembling for reFuse, without mentioning the pioneering work, perhaps unbenounced [sic] to Collier, of Paul Dolden, who also passed through the SFU Sonic Studio a few years later than i. and i’m also reminded of Zappa’s 48-track Dog Breath Variations (1969).”]
So I’ve got 16 musicians doing 30 parts which is about the size sinfonietta that reFuse was originally composed for, all working in isolation and sending in video and audio for their part, and I’m assembling it together. It’s a really interesting challenge because there’s a lot of formatting issues, and then there’s the design issue of so much material and making something out of that. The intention is to make a new piece in addition to a document of the performable reFuse piece, and the new piece might be more plunderphonic than Rascali Klepitoire.
I imagine if everybody’s recording themselves, the quality of each performance is variable.
Yes, but not to a huge degree. But it’s good that you brought that up because in the days of the first pandemic lockdown a year and a half ago—or more than that, in March and April of 2020—the second orchestra within days of each other, a full-size city symphony orchestra, put out one of these Zoom-looking kind of things. “Here’s all of our musicians at home playing this piece.” I looked at it, and I can’t remember what it was, I think it was a little bit of Aaron Copland’s kind of sweet little up-tempo dynamic bits. I really, really liked the sound of it, the sound of everybody playing in their homes and a variety of acoustics, but mostly fairly dead and fairly close-up as opposed to listening to an orchestra that’s been recorded in a symphony hall, which has always seemed kind of distant to me. I just realized now having said that, this was done by the TSO [Toronto Symphony Orchestra], the first one that I saw and really enjoyed, and several of those players are recording for this thing [reFuse]. Several players are principals of TSO who have been sending in parts for me, just over the past week. So it’s a nice full circle for that kind of format, and I just really welcome this variety in the way the instruments sound on the thing. And it’s something that I’ve got all sorts of tools to adjust if there’s background noise that I don’t like.
It sounds like a giant project (laughter). Do you have a timeline for it?
Yeah, yeah. I’m looking forward to it. I think this is going to be keeping me busy for a while. We don’t have a broadcast date yet. Originally it was slated for the end of November so I’m giving myself a personal deadline of that.
I’ll keep an eye out for that and for the Mystery Tapes Box set. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me. It’s a real pleasure.
Sure. I’ve really enjoyed your questions.
Thank you, Matthew.
More information about John Oswald can be found at his website.
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.
Park Dong Ryul - Lost Time (Warner, 1992)
Purchase Lost Time secondhand at Discogs.
Jinhyung Kim: I first ran into this album a few years ago while talking with Curtis Cambou at his record store in Seoul; his label's reissue of Puredigitalsilence's Circumfluence was my point of entry into Korean experimental music. He showed me Lost Time while explaining how so many of the more “out there” Korean releases from the ’70s to ’90s were obscure one-offs—products of short-lived undertakings that fell on deaf ears and never made it out of the country. There were experiments, but ’til the mid to late ’90s, scenes were very rare. Lost Time itself got about 500 copies pressed; Cambou said less than half actually left the warehouse, and most of the unsold stock was likely destroyed.
This context admittedly made me listen more closely than I otherwise would have. On the face of it, I hear little that’s remarkable in these reverb-soaked flute leads and synth palettes, or in the compositions painted with them. I also don’t really care for the invocations of nature or musings on “Korean-ness” present in the track titles and liner notes. I’m partial to certain details, however: the bassline on “바람” has a satisfying breadth, rising and dipping in a cycle that anchors the music, and the nimble, freewheeling improvisations on “꿈 I” are a genuine delight—there’s a breakdown with a synth cello playing solo toward the end that’s a charming palette cleanser. Lost Time may not do much for me, but moments like these help me to see what pleasure Park Dong Ryul must’ve taken in making it. He was an employee for Warner Music Korea; I don’t picture him as an iconoclast or a scenester—just some guy taking advantage of his job to access novel equipment and create something personally meaningful.
Sunik Kim: Park traffics in over-familiar new age-ish tropes here, but there is undeniably a knottier, darker edge to his compositions that elevates this beyond your average Discogs-core fodder. (Of course, the only comment for this release on Discogs—which is going for anywhere from $87 to $400—focuses almost entirely on the number of copies pressed, and dedicates two whole words to the music itself.) To chain several comparisons here—which is just where my mind goes when I hear this kind of music—Park’s digital orchestra veers between Zerg theme sliding electric guitars and melted, Fire-Toolz-esque wavetable stabs, sometimes even taking on a threatening, nocturnal energy reminiscent of the DuClare Chateau theme in Deus Ex or Coil’s moonlit arpeggios.
Park’s reticence to lean fully into an identifiable “mood”—instead lingering in an uneasy middle zone—is simultaneously what makes the release stand out from the pack and what makes me unsure of when I would really sit down to listen to it again. The whole affair is ultimately too sleepy to be truly compelling—my attention span for this kind of stuff has waned tremendously over the past several years—but when Park’s Art of Noise-esque level of attention to spatial detail rears its head on the more rollicking tracks, the appeal is hard to deny.
Marshall Gu: The magic of this album comes from Park Dong Ryul’s synthesizing Eastern scales and instruments with Western synths, and creating a new world to explore. The cover says as much, with its cognitive estrangement of taking familiar objects but inverting the colours: red sky, white trees, red lake. That balance of familiarity and difference is made explicit in the accompanying liner notes to “사라진 고향” that mention a hometown that now looks different than how Dong Ryul remembers, “The images of my hometown, which I have kept in my heart, have changed so much that it is not easy to find the house where I was born,” as a melody practically whistles over the sound of children playing faraway. These are folk melodies to Park, but contextualized in a new environment of ’80s new-age synths without ever sounding like muzak or crossing the line to ambient. These songs are also distinct from one another: “바람” is slightly louder and fussier than the other songs, sounding like a world on the move, while the first part of “꿈” is far gentler in its raindrop-like synths.
My favourite is “잃어버린 시간,” announced with an endearingly-dated synth bass before Park introduces the melody, a very traditional East Asian melody played on the Korean flute daegeum. That sound, shrill and high and simple and perfect, makes me think of the traditional Chinese music that my mother played when I was young (different instruments but a similar sound), and then I read the liner notes where Dong Ryul explicitly mentions these concepts of ‘home’ and ‘mother’: “When you think of the word hometown in your head, your mind will soon be at ease and at peace. It’s like being in a mother’s arms…” These all sound like folk songs to me, modernized with a synth shimmer and occasional percussion track, and proof that Korean folk songs from 1992 can make their away across the ocean through the Internet and make this Chinese-Canadian think of a home that he’s detached from.
Gil Sansón: I’m not a fan of new-age music in the slightest. It’s at best naïve and one-dimensional, and at worst deeply insincere and artificial, the music itself a red flag for the ideas behind it. As new age began to gain traction and specific aural signifiers, it yielded timbres that were compromised both by their ambition to imitate existing instruments and the narrow frequency ranges forced by data storage limitations. As a consequence of this, the vast majority of music released with the “new age” tag has aged quite badly, and this album is no exception. Personally, historic importance does not necessarily mean historic relevance, though I’m open to accept that a record like this one may have enough value as a cultural object to merit a reissue or reappraisal. Hopefully predisposed against the genre itself, I find little to enjoy here apart from the fourth track, which mixes acoustic instruments, field recordings of children at play, and a very simple flute melody. The air given to the music, as opposed to the digital synth-heavy claustrophobia of the other pieces, offers a hint of what could be possible within the genre given a healthy distance from the mystique of early digital workstations, their limited sonic range, and their artificiality. Towards the end of Lost Time, there’s a more critical approach toward the new tools of the era—namely, a music with a more atemporal feeling, with a return to field recordings suggesting a cinematic dimension along with the traditional combination of drum and reed.
Jude Noel: There’s an interesting recursive feedback loop that takes place between me and this record each time I sit down to enjoy it. While it was Park Dong Ryul’s intention to conjure a dreamlike vision of his hometown by combining live daegeum (flute) and percussion with new-age electronic production, it’s the now-dated synthesizer that elicits nostalgia in me, a Westerner listening thirty years later: hauntologies within hauntologies. The songs with more explicit fusion of traditional Korean folk and synth like “On the Way Home” are charming, but perhaps too kitschy in retrospect for me to get immersed in Dong Ryul’s aural worldbuilding. I was, however, really impressed by the moments on Lost Time where Dong Ryul focuses on probing surreal, dissonant space on the keyboard, like on “Dream I/II,” where he improvises wildly across hypnagogic pads. It’s a stark departure from the record’s cozy, nurturing mood, which makes its presence all the more uncanny.
Shy Thompson: As an aloof teenager that listened to music more than I talked to other kids, I endured a lot of accusations that I only liked the things I liked because they were more “obscure” than the things other people liked. Frankly, it was true. I was drawn to things I hadn’t heard of before, things that were hard to know about, things that resisted being known about. This is still true, and I’ve spent a lifetime trying to figure out what’s actually wrong with that. I’ve had no success figuring out what someone’s problem might be with that thinking, but I’ve come to my own conclusion about why I’ve continued to nurture that predilection.
I decided I like Park Dong Ryul’s Lost Time before I’d even heard a second of it, and I’m confident in my ability to justify that. I don’t need to regale you with the history of this rare record to validate its unearthing; one of my esteemed peers will probably do that. I don’t need to make a case that it’s a hidden gem unlike anything I’ve heard before, either; if it was mediocre, I’d feel even more strongly. We usually define artistic movements and moments by the extraordinary—both the good and bad—as critical signifiers, but I don’t believe you’ll construct a complete understanding of anything only by looking at the edges of the bell curve. The mean is where most of anything resides; it’s where you’ll find populist ideas, where you find what feels comfortable to most, and it’s the bedrock upon which those aforementioned movements and moments are built. There’s a lot of humanity in the mean that you’ll never see if you gloss it over as a general rule.
The mean is also the resting place of most of what is forgotten. What makes music such a potent form of expression to me is its ability to be made by anyone, for anyone, and understood by anyone who has the patience to simply listen. I like to be surprised by something exceptional like anybody else does, but I also find a unique fulfillment in hearing what’s on someone’s heart because they felt the need to let it spill out; there doesn’t have to be any other reason. Lost Time is a very personal record—that’s clear from the liner notes even when run through machine translation—and it was important to me that I hear it because it’s been buried and largely forgotten. I made the determination later on that it’s not a mediocre record, but that’s separate from why I feel it’s worth remembering. My interest in the obscure, I finally realized, is an exercise in feeling more human: listening, empathizing, and understanding other people, unclouded by pretense or pedigree.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: Longtime readers may notice that the Writers Panel has returned this issue with a slight difference: We have, for the first time, included an album that is not a new release or a new reissue of archival recordings. In wanting to emphasize the importance of music discovery, as well as pushing back against how many music publications operate—as in, tethering most writing to current press cycles—I thought it’d be nice to have the Tone Glow writers tackle an older album that I’ve held dear for years, Park Dong Ryul’s Lost Time. It was only after assigning this record that I noticed a rip of it was already posted on YouTube. Things felt a little less special, maybe.
As I sat down to listen to this record again, I found myself noticing a major difference between my typical music writing—reviews for new releases—and the mindset that goes into crate digging. Whenever I go to a record store or peruse virtual ones online, I always check to see what Korean LPs are in stock, as music has been an important way for me to connect with a culture I never grew up in or knew. As such, while Lost Time isn’t an album I love strictly for its music, it is something that felt like a marvel to finally have in my hands: Here, at last, was an album that veered into more unconventional territories from an era in Korea when such things were especially rare. In its chintzy atmospheres I heard Korea’s love for the saccharine and heart-on-sleeve. In its melding of traditional and contemporary sonics I saw a post-military dictatorship Korea grappling with rapid changes—something felt in other works from the time, most notably Im Kwon-taek’s masterwork Sopyonje (1993). In the field recordings that define,“굴렁쇠,” a track whose title refers to the hoop rolling game played by children, I could hear both a loving documentation of a specific time, but also of deep yearning for the past.
The reality is that it didn’t matter what this album sounded like to me; it simply existing and me hearing it felt like I was finding another piece of the Korean-culture puzzle that still remains foreign. With Lost Time, I’m able to get a fuller picture of the more adventurous records of the time, its new-age-leaning sounds connecting it to other records: Yon Seok-won’s early ’90s LPs, Yasha’s Yasha Collection (1992), and Jung Suk-won's 恋人 (1993). 1992 was also, of course, the year that Seo Taiji would come to define the entirety of a new, contemporary version of K-pop, rendering pop stars like Kim Hyun Chul—who made city pop and soundtracked Blue in You that year—obsolete. It’s apt that this is an album about the way one’s hometown changes upon revisits—how you only really know a place when you return to it—as this album couldn’t have come at a more crucial time. Korea, as we would all see, would start becoming something extremely new.
There’s an alluring mystique to the synth blips scattered across “꿈 I,” while a sense of dread otherwise permeates the follow-up track, and it’s this multifaceted portrait of the unknown that I love: the future, whatever it holds, is both scary and exciting. Though I may never feel complete in my understanding of Korean culture, I think that’s what keeps me coming back; there’s always a vague sense of familiarity amid the confusion. And good records are always like that; they help me get a better understanding of a culture that is ultimately infinite in scope. To even get a smidge more knowledge feels special, like I’ve stumbled upon a gift meant just for me.
Park Jiha - The Gleam (Glitterbeat)
Press Release info: How often do we consider light? We revel in the soft wonder of a sunrise or the majesty of a glorious sunset, but all through the day its quality and texture is continually changing, second by second, in ways we rarely register. That beauty is the inspiration for The Gleam, the third album from Korean composer and instrumentalist Park Jiha. She distills light into sound, from the first flicker of morning on the horizon in “At Dawn” all the way to the moment when full darkness falls again in “Nightfall Dancer,” capturing the essence of it in notes and silence.
The album had its origin with the piece “Temporary Inertia,” she explains, which was created for a performance as “a meditative improvisation in a bunker designed by the architect Ando Tadao, where the ceiling had an open light way going across the room, it slowly moves during the day and leaves a very special impression when inside. I thought I could capture the emotions light gives me being just as an observer, the textures, intensity, warmness... the constant movement of light itself seems to look inert at points and needs time to be seen, to reveal things and angles you wouldn’t realize otherwise.”
Like its predecessor, Philos, The Gleam is a completely solo work, all the music composed and played by Park Jiha on the piri, a type of oboe, the saenghwang, a mouth organ (shown on the album cover art), the hammered dulcimer known as the yanggeum, and glockenspiel. There’s a stark clarity to the sound, yet it’s never spare or empty. There’s a searching warmth to what she does. It’s minimal without being minimalist, occasionally presenting itself with the formality of traditional Korean music that is her background, although she feels that the distance she’s put between herself and that teaching is “really what made my music what it is now.” At other times her playing is an improvisation that spirals free into the sky. It all comes together into a beautiful whole and it always flows with a natural rhythm. Like everything, it breathes.
Purchase The Gleam at Bandcamp.
Zhenzhen Yu: There’s a quote from Terry Pratchett where he, very keenly, describes the phonetic depth of words which convey light; it’s something I always think about when I encounter onomatopoeia. A glint is the sound light would make if “it reflected off a distant window”, and glitter-glitter is the sound of “tinsel [...] chiming together.” And gleam? “Gleam was a clean, smooth noise from a surface that intended to shine all day.” Park Jiha’s Philos and Communion, though founded in post-minimalism, were impossibly lush projects: rhinestoned with fairy-like gayageum, their packaging soaked in vivid color. But despite its further simplification and cold, bare aesthetic; there’s nothing impersonal about The Gleam— it’s only an aerodynamic variation on that selfsame light. On the cover, Park’s face is replaced with the clean statement of a saenghwang; irresistibly arresting opener “At Dawn” demands attention through the isolated, one-dimensional plane of that “titular” organ. Its continuity, acting as the spine of the record, frays across the span of “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans,” and sparkles with star-lit lambence through “Nightfall Dancer.” The aseptic radiance at the heart of The Gleam is distilled and unraveled, but never terminated.
Jude Noel: The opening quarter of The Gleam pierces. Jiha spends the first two minutes of the record blowing glassy, bubble-like shapes on the saenghwang. These sibilant constructions are tinged with foreboding—formed solely to be punctured. Her piri arrives like a laser, sharpening and widening its focus as it refracts through the translucent sound field, intensifying as it scrapes the upper register. This initiation is painful at times, but necessary, pushing through apertures and filling the inner space with beams of light. Jiha’s droning piri playing reveals smaller shapes in its path like flakes of dust floating by the window in the early morning. Scraped strings and shallow breaths dance and tumble in their newly illuminated space.
The Gleam’s illustration of dawn is a bit on the nose, but so fixated on its subject that the ultra-lyrical approach works. The record generally moves in a linear fashion, the piri contorting into more complex shapes as instrumental elements pass through. The hammered dulcimer that dominates the record’s middle section is somber and evocative, but at the same time leaves me pining for the amorphous minimalism of The Gleam’s bookending tracks. Jiha’s attention to hissing, buzzy textures is exquisite, and best appreciated when a single note loudly bores into your chest.
Maxie Younger: On The Gleam, Park Jiha scores light in the manner of a blunt instrument. The astringent, steely twinges of her yangguem and the svelte wails of her piri etch sunlight in sharp relief against darkness. These tracks are largely arid and unsubtle, even as they feign timidity; consider opener “At Dawn,” which introduces its namesake with reedy, hollow blares of sound that decay quickly into the ether of Jiha’s recording space. The album’s middle suite of, presumably, daytime—stretching from the shrieks of “Light Way” to the circular ostinatos of “Restlessly Towards”—loses itself somewhat in the pocket, stewing in ethereal monotony long enough for the mood to dull significantly. Perhaps this effect is cleverer than it seems; I’m all too familiar with the post-lunch, mid-afternoon slump.
The sunsetting-dusk duology of “Nightfall Dancer” and “Temporary Inertia” makes for an effective closer. The former blends field recordings and twee glockenspiel into a sumptuous meditation on twilight, the first truly synergistic piece of the lot; the latter zooms out from temporality to discuss light in the abstract, paced methodically with blinding shudders that give way to wistful, bright shreds hammered gently on the yangguem. The Gleam ultimately isn’t a project that benefits much from its inspiration; the album’s patient efforts to compliment such an encompassing concept render it mostly inert and anonymous. The glow it emits lacks in warmth.
Zachariah Cook: I was out walking on a rare sunny day in the Midwest when I first heard Park Jiha’s new album. My respite from seasonal gloom came into focus with “At Dawn,” a spare droning piece in which Jiha’s piri (oboe) smolders and wails like a raging sunrise. Though she flirts with the sonically intense, the sharpness of her instruments’ textures are of a warm, organic quality—think of the way the sun’s sting makes you want to jump into a pool.
An even greater palliative is “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans,” a euphoric pairing of piri and saenghwang (mouth organ) inspired by Murnau’s silent film. I’ll remember it fondly when I think of music composed with silent films in mind, like Michael Nyman’s modern score for Man with a Movie Camera. There’s something especially moving about hearing Jiha’s “Sunrise” on its own, though. She intuits her way through the piece with unexpected deliberation, showcasing a strong ability to evoke a sense of narrative or character sans visuals. At once an affectionate waltz and a delicately somber dirge, it is the richest track on the album.
Another moment of pure pleasure is “Nightfall Dancer,” a lullaby consisting of Jiha’s incredibly expressive yanggeum (hammered dulcimer) and her twinkling glockenspiel. Its reflective ambience offers solace from a chronically online world where drifting attention is punished by a zombie-like onslaught of notifications and updates. To stick with Jiha throughout this album’s slower, more demanding points, such as “Temporary Inertia,” is to be enveloped in a flow state as she uncovers soothing rhythms and patterns that could extend indefinitely. “The Way of Spiritual Breath” has a belabored start, bringing the track name under scrutiny. At first, it’s hard to tell which of her four instruments are responsible for the discordant creaking and other sounds of friction. Soon, though, Jiha finds order in the din and rewards us with one of the most natural grooves on the album.
At some point, I realized that the sunny exterior I was enjoying this music in looked quite different from the Meditation Hall associated with Jiha’s live performance of this material. Footage of the Hall in Korea’s Museum San depicts a dim space in which natural light spills out from an arch in the dome-shaped ceiling. What this space reveals is the locus of Jiha’s attention—light that is not unbounded and all encompassing, but pointed and specific. Thankfully, her music is both.
Gil Sansón: As I write this, Russian forces have captured Chernobyl. There’s a feeling of inadequacy looming over me as I attempt to address this work by Park, in such a strong contrast with the awful reality of war, that it takes an effort to focus on something as abstract as music when a peaceful nation bears the aggression of a much stronger neighbor under a one man rule. Still, precisely because the contrast is so blatant, my wits and guts are drawn to the music, perhaps in defiance to militarism and in praise of inner gardens.
In principle, every time I read about a contemporary composer drawing material from traditional instruments I can’t help but be a tad suspicious; it’s such a common trope that it often predisposes me to be extra critical. My trepidation turns out to be unfounded as soon as I press play. True, the choice of instruments, with all their cultural baggage, is fully present in the music. The composer’s intention to turn light into sound (she mentions light in architectural spaces that are designed with sensibility to it, as in the buildings of Tadao Ando, as inspiration for the music), and the palette she uses is more than suitable, especially with the mouth organ, to convey the images of light into music.
Nothing here rushes to any finish line; on the contrary, the effect is of light breathing calmly. The traditional instruments ensure that the sound retains a good amount of grit—real sound made with real instruments, with little to no studio embellishments, showing maturity and confidence in the material. Things do get a bit close to new-age aesthetics in places (“Light Way,” for instance, with the dulcimer over a pedal tone seems inhabits a similar stylistic ground to Laraaji) but Park seems in control anyway.
The context in which I write this makes me want to hear some acknowledgement of the world’s disharmony, but this isn’t something Park should be blamed for; the music is earnest and put together with care and elegance. In general, I find the pieces that use the material sparingly are the most moving (the first two tracks and “The Way of Spiritual Breath,” which combines the sweet tones of the dulcimer with the rather harsh scraping of the strings for contrast, offers some acknowledgement of harsh realities). In any case, the pastoral feeling can function as a balm in a world ruled by empowered imbeciles deaf to harmony and peace. The Gleam has a nice flow, becoming close to a lullaby near the end with its combination of reed instruments and glockenspiel—my favorite moment on the album.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: In the past, Park Jiha has noted how she considers her music to be universal, that any mood summoned from her work is “dissociated from personal identities.” It’s an interesting notion given the traditional instruments she wields, and it broadcasts her desire to treat the piri, saenghwang, and yanggeum as tools that can transcend myopic ideas of what they can be or achieve. In the past, studio recordings captured that idea through contrasts: [su:m], her duo project with Seo Jungmin, often had passages that would freely traverse more traditional and contemporary modes; her debut album Communion had jazzier inflections due to Kim Oki’s saxophone and clarinet. Even Philos, which was largely a solo endeavor, still had one track with with a recited poem and another with field recordings. With The Gleam, there’s fuller confidence in the music itself to capture a full spectrum of emotions.
Park looks to light for inspiration, and track titles point to the numerous ways it can shape a landscape. “Nightfall Dancer” has the semblance of a tranquil performance set outside at night, and the glockenspiels adorn the atmosphere with a shimmering gracefulness. “At Dawn,” with its initial piercing tones, feel like the jolt of life that quietly arises via fauna in the early morning. Even “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans,” its title a direct reference to the Murnau film of the same name, traverses a whole array of feelings. In the movie, light creates a foreboding sense of terror, is the lone witness of presumed death, and becomes the warm accompaniment to a heartfelt kiss. As Park’s saenghwang hums and wails, it’s meditative and deeply emotive, every swell recalling the otherworldly sound of whale vocalizations, which in turn makes one consider the smallness of their existence. And it’s that smallness it invokes—The Gleam’s ability to have us surrender to music’s grandiosity—that makes every track so arresting despite any perceived simplicity. Park’s explained it herself before: “Music does not try to explain—it makes you feel.”
Vanessa Ague: The Gleam is all about light, but most of the album is anything but bright or airy. Park Jiha takes a slowed-down approach throughout the record, exploring delicate, interwoven repetition, drones, and melancholy melodies to illuminate a sense of light’s shifts from morning into night.
This approach works well on tracks like “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans,” which features two drones in harmony that gently grow and fade in a facial groove, repeating a sense of tension and release like the sun as it appears in the morning. The faster track “Light Way” also proves successful, blending a gritty reverberation with a sharp, stilted pluck. Here, Jiha finds a balance between abstract sounds and her melodic impulses.
The Gleam’s greatest strength, ultimately, is its concept: There’s a constant sense throughout the album that the music is moving based on the wavelike motion of light. In the moments where it finds a delicate balance between each layer, the album begins to illuminate the feeling of light darting across a wall or streaming in through a window without needing any visuals at all.
Shy Thompson: There’s a part of me that gets a little sad when I listen to an album like The Gleam. This shimmering stunner of a performance owes its radiance to Park Jiha’s appreciation of the resplendence of light—how it moves, how it gives character to the spaces around us, how it cloaks us in its warm embrace, and how it can sometimes leave us in the bitter cold. The fickle fluctuations of the natural world have been a muse for artists as long as human beings have nourished the cellular desire to create, and it’s resulted in a plentitude of unique interpretations, bounced back into the collective consciousness from that naturally reflective stuff our hearts are made of. For me, though, it feels like I’m standing on the selfish side of a one-way mirror—the light comes in, but the raw data scatters across the surface, never to be parsed and printed back out. In other words: I’m not often moved by beautiful things, and it bums me the fuck out.
But there’s a silver lining in this glitch in the programming; I’m keenly aware of how an artist’s interpretation of beauty is moving to me, which reinforces the conviction of my values. I thrive on the electricity of human expression, and successfully building bridges of understanding makes me feel more alive than breathing. Park Jiha’s music makes me feel something—not because I relate to what she’s trying to convey, but precisely because I can’t. I paid a little more attention to the light and shadows that danced around me as I went about my day, treating the music a bit like a conversation. I know The Gleam succeeds for me for two key reasons: I felt a desire to actually engage with the concept, and—at least from Park Jiha’s point of view—I think I get it just a little bit more.
Marshall Gu: I actually prefer Park Jiha’s second and third records to her more popular debut; whereas Communion was special in its interweaving of Korean and American instruments, Philos and The Gleam focus more on the former. By isolating these instruments and presenting them in very spare (if any) harmonies and sustained tones, Jiha is able to take up your entire “field of vision," so to speak. She gives you sound, yes, but she also gives you space. The result is a purity that reminds me of Kali Malone’s pipe organ: a strange and wonderful atmosphere built out of seemingly so little. The piri and the saenghwang are both instruments that are so fascinating because there is truly no Western analogue; the saenghwang on “Sunrise” sounds like an organ being played inside a whale.
It’s clichéd to talk about song titles with instrumental music but the song titles of The Gleam are clearly deliberately chosen, starting “At Dawn,” catching “Sunrise,” experiencing “A Day In…” until inevitable nightfall. Harmonies are slowly added in, including gentle yanggeum on “The Way of Spiritual Breath” and then glockenspiel on “Nighttime Dancer.” And similar to how the album plays like the cycle of the day, each individual composition plays like a cycle within that. For example, the first sound you hear on “At Dawn” sounds like someone running their fingers on a glass rim, a sharp sound that materializes and then floats in the air for a few seconds before pouring its breath into the next note. The feeling I get listening to The Gleam is that I’m witnessing the transfer of energy from one cell to another, a process that Jiha reminds me can take time and occurs at a microscopic level. There’s beauty in the sunlight, in the gleaming, in the evening. If only we stopped to look.
Thank you for reading the eighty-first issue of Tone Glow.
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