Where are we going? And what are we doing?

Thursday 10 June 2021

I heard Erkki Veltheim give a talk a couple of years ago which made me reconsider how I heard his music. I knew of his clear-eyed cynicism about the music business and admired how he took a reductive, positivist approach to playing and composing that produced music both questioning and liberating. It took a while to get my head around his talk about shamanism and the use of ritual and esoteric applications of form. In fact, I still don’t fully get on board with it, but hearing how his foregrounding of the intangibles informs and amplifies his use of impersonal structures added a new, complicating dimension to listening to his work.

Ganzfeld Experiment came out soon after: a solo work for electric violin with electronic processing and a video component. The title sums up the parapsychological zone the piece inhabits, where science blurs with mysticism. White noise pulses and phases throughout, at a rate matching the light and dark in the video – I don’t know if the pulsing aims to match or simply reference the alpha/theta wave frequencies used in old biofeedback meditation systems. It definitely recalls Brion Gysin’s Dream Machines and, more particularly, Tony Conrad’s movie The Flicker. Conrad’s violin playing is also recalled, but Veltheim’s approach is more insidious. Starting as faint electronic artefacts trailing from the white noise, it gradually emerges from the pulse with the bleached-out tone of amplified strings, stuttering without apparent concern for aesthetics. At its peak, before receding again, Veltheim’s playing is too florid to be considered minimal, too stern to be psychedelia. It’s a rigour of process in which expressiveness is earned and, presumably, unbidden by the player’s desires. The notes recommend playing with the video in the dark; I’d imagine it’s more effective the louder it’s played, too. How much of it is an experiment on the performer and how much on the listener is a question left to play on your mind.

Ganzfeld Experiment came out before the year of lockdowns, so its self-isolating qualities have become prophetic. It came to mind when listening to Julia Eckhardt’s Time Suspension (Back and Forth) on Cafe Oto’s Takuroku download label. An extended work for solo viola player created during a month of lockdown last year, its frail sounds are built on a foundation of self-reliance, time, memory and place. Improvising each day for a month, trying to repeat from memory what was played the day before with another minute added on the end, the half-hour recording moves backwards and forwards through time, each section opening up to both the recollection of past experience and expectation of the future. There’s a narrative thread, for us to find for ourselves. The room is present, anchoring time to one place as a stationary dérive in which one achieves greater awareness through mentally recapturing a place already visited. As it happens, there is also a video, photos of the sky overhead taken each day. The music’s ending is strangely hopeful, even transcendent.