Electronic Noise Shootout, Spring 2024

Monday 6 May 2024

It’s great that art doesn’t have to come from or go to any specific place, much as we’d sometimes like to forget that when we try to put our enthusiasm for it into words. Two months ago I saw John Wall and Michael Speers playing a live electronic duet at Cafe Oto, using a mixture of pre-recorded and real-time generated sounds in a way where you can’t tell where one ends and the other begins. Under the old rules, it would be classed as “absolute” music, a purity of self-reliance on form, structure and material that all relate to each other, even as all three attributes were constructed on the fly. If it referenced any tradition, it was to the relentless pursuit of the new. There was a similar, searching purity in the opening set by Lee Fraser, with a hyperfocus on dynamic and timbre. In contrast, Eye Measure’s curious work with “live coding and algorithmic composition” (partly in visible evidence during the set) referenced genres of popular music, taking loops associated with the clubs and then sublimating them into abstraction. The cross-cultural context implies the presence of a wider meaning to be drawn from the work, at least as a commentary on craft or at most as the basis of a disquisition of socioeconomic demographics. Of course we have the capability to do this for any medium but need to remain mindful that any pattern we determine will likely have been shaped by whatever analytical tool fell most readily to hand.

Seán Clancy: Four Sections of Music Unequally Divided (Birmingham Record Company). I dunno what any of the above has to do with Seán Clancy’s piece, except that its system of organisation draws inspiration from the past, utilising an open form of the type made famous by In C and adopting other American characteristics of the period. Bright pianos and warm synthesisers with added gamelan-type instruments start with what promises to be a rhythmic free-for-all before transitioning to the larger sections that form the substance of the work, with extended passages of dense alternating tremolos reminiscent of Charlemagne Palestine. Clancy’s liner notes reference Sol Le Witt and James Tenney. The latter may be inferred from his (checks note) “sheer joy of the plasticity of sound” but also, more pertinently, through his thinking on musical form and cognitive analysis of structure which is applied here to make a piece more complex than a simple tribute to minimalism.

Devid Ciampalini: Eterna (Dissipatio). Speaking of retro, Ciampalini is harking back to the past more self-consciously retro here, evoking earlier models of electronic music both in their surface and their style. Affectionate parody is the prevailing mood, beginning with a lo-fi imitation of the THX Deep Note before presenting ten ‘chapters’ which swing on a spectrum between electronic library music from the 1970s and crunchier DIY synthesis; at times achieving both at once. Ciampalini’s nostalgia is omnivorous: one track sounds like it was made in Coagula, so it’s not all analogue-adjacent, even while attempting to capture the look and feel.

Tewksbury: Floes: Volumes I​-​IV (self-released). Douglas Tewksbury’s four volumes of electronic drones consists of sixteen pieces of roughly equal length for a total of about three hours of music. I hate making such a glib and unoriginal comment but this really does sound like it could be edited down. Up until the latter half of Volume II everything is safely diatonic and simple, making for little more than inoffensive ambience. Things get a more interesting when some, but not all, of the pieces introduce more complex and ambiguous harmonic progressions, but then this makes the remaining pieces superfluous and you wonder if a selection would sound more compelling than the whole.

Technical Reserve: Cheap Heat (Party Perfect!!!). I guess this is retro because it immediately reminded me in a good way of those old Jon Rose LPs where he pits his 19-string cello against whatever was the latest in digital sampling and processing technology. TJ Borden’s cello is supposedly normal, but the improvisations with Hunter Brown and Dominic Coles and their computers as just as explosively anarchic. There’s a lot here: 19 tracks seventy-something minutes but it stays fresh because nobody ever seems to really know what they’re doing. This is harder than it sounds in free improv, supposedly reliant on technique yet really in need of desperation as the spur to invention. Technical Reserve takes us back to a simpler time when the gear doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to, albeit now captured with pornographic clarity. It’s rude and it’s noisy but, to pursue the wrestling analogies that crop up in the sleeve notes, for this audience that’s a cheap pop.

Hunter Brown + Eric Wong: Si Distributions (Party Perfect!!!). Brown again, gigging in Wong’s bedroom. You wouldn’t know it was a bedroom recording even as the room shapes what you hear (this is also how you don’t realise how much science has improved your life). The two of them cook up a pair of severe, spatialised noise studies that keep turning aggressive, but the harshness is tamed and sculpted by responding to the acoustic dynamics of the apartment, using the placement of their bluetooth monitors as EQ to exert stern but fair authority over brittle electronic sounds. Side one takes static and white noise, introducing some low sounds later for contrast. Side two is all about rumbling low frequencies to set the speakers juddering about the room until the distortion creates its own white noise, taking us part of the way back to where we started but still ending up somewhere else.

Learning Alphabets with Dominic Coles

Sunday 11 June 2023

Dominic Coles has been working on music that skirts along the edges of speech for some time, but on Alphabets he also skirts along the edges of music. As with his earlier Wandelweiser release everyone thinks their dreams are interesting, dreams are once again the material but not the subject. While that set of pieces transformed speech into short bursts of electronic noise, Alphabets presents itself as a lesson in translation. Most of the album is taken up by the fifty-odd minute alphabet 1: p-u-s-h, which takes snippets of speech from a recollection of a dream and juxtaposes the phonemes with a parallel context of associated electronic sounds. The sounds are thin and astringent, functioning as symbols instead of sensory allusions. The words are repeated, clipped short or cut long. “Repeat any word over and over and listen as it gradually loses its meaning in the mouth.” The electronic sounds may substitute words by repeated association, while simultaneously occluding any semantic connection between word, sound or reference. Silences are frequent, often seeming longer than the sounds.

Is it music? Yeah. With its pedagogical structure, somewhere between rote-learning and indoctrination, meagre sound resources and emphasis on language, Coles teases that he’s testing the boundaries of what might be considered musical while retaining the essential form and content. What really confounds the listener’s appreciation of this music is that it is impossible to ignore. It’s too alienating and intrusive to leave as a background, but almost too exhausting to listen to it closely. To take the piece’s apparent expectation seriously at face value, is to buy into a deeper conundrum that Coles is implicitly raising in his music, skewering the bien-pensant notions of music and language sharing some ineffable bond. As with any diligent pursuit of the idea, the more doggedly one pursues the supposed connection the further it recedes – this thwarting of assumptions may be the most challenging part. The album ends with two shorter pieces, each presented as applied learning from the first work: two more dream fragments with more verbal context yet also with greater periods of sound alone, perversely rendering both more disorientating that what has gone before.

Words as Music (II): Esmeralda Conde Ruiz & Dominic Coles

Friday 24 December 2021

Pandemic Art keeps coming, with the recurrent themes of online mediation and trying to build connections in unfavourable circumstances. Esmeralda Conde Ruiz’s Cabin Fever is a 24-hour audiovisual work made with online contributions from people around the world using video conferencing software. A selection of ten audio excerpts is presented on this album. From a global variety of locations and languages, performers relate dreams they remember, with accompaniment of sound effects, field recordings, other voices, music. The themes at work here in subject matter and means of presentation may seem familiar enough to us by now to feel comfortable, but the interest comes from the means of execution. The juxtaposition of words and sounds was apparently made through live performance, with all the glitches and time-lags that entails. “The software itself is the conductor, in choosing the foreground certain sounds or voices, all mediated by the ghost-mixer of the elongated gaps.” If this is the case, then it’s the album’s strength, as everything is permeated by tiny burrs and quivers in the transmitted sound, even at its most stable: a natural complexity previously denied to digital technology in music. Each piece here has a distinct character, but they’re all united by this hazy, inevitably haphazard presentation produced by means not yet fully realised, giving it an appropriately dreamlike atmosphere where loss of the message’s clarity gains meaning through the mystification of its transmission. A future history of online performance may regard this work as a small step, but a necessary one.

As an antidote to any fine feelings raised by Cabin Fever, Dominic Coles retorts from New York with the chastening everyone thinks their dreams are interesting. It’s on Edition Wandelweiser, but it’s startlingly brief and abrasive. The six pieces here “recount a series of dreams through the circuitry of a synthesizer and the processor of a computer, using the voice to drive various forms of synthesis.” The voice cannot be heard, as the resulting process generates a series of diverse electronic sounds pulverised into morsels that each possess a unique, terrible beauty. With abrupt starts and ends, often harsh and indifferent to your nervous state, they hold the fascination of phenomena in nature as observed in seismic shifts and lightning strikes. Dynamics are wide ranging and elements may or may not choose to repeat or vary. Silences are also frequent, but these heighten the structural tension in each piece more than relieve it: as often as not, your peak level meter will be held threateningly high even while you can’t hear a thing. The release notes include the texts of the dreams, if you’re interested.