More field recordings and music

Wednesday 17 March 2021

I wish the contradictions inherent in field recordings were great enough to make them interesting as a paradox. As material, they contain so much in themselves that to use them in composition feels obtuse, or forced, or redundant. As for authenticity, they’re either complacent or factitious. Over the past year, musicians have found themselves compelled to confront the medium as pandemic lockdowns confine them to solitude in their immediate surroundings. Now, suddenly, someone’s mundane environment has become tantalisingly exotic and remote for everyone else: each of us truly is different even as we are all the same.

But how can this situation be conveyed, beyond unaffected documentation? Mixing field recording and music is deceptively difficult. Anna Murray’s City Shadows presents three tracks of collaged recordings taken outdoors around Tokyo and blends them with samples, her own playing and a lot of effects processing. It evokes a city in twilight, a threshhold time when it is not quite itself, waiting to change identity. A strong single image, but the details lose focus between the unobtrusive music and the constant haze of traffic blurred through a tastefully arranged harmonizer.

Duncan Harrison’s compacted audio daybook Two Channels of Unedited Voice Memos is as artless as its title. Mono phone recordings, one in each ear as promised, served up with a disclaimer of any editing or synchronisation. Collage as omnium-gatherum, avoiding the problem common to field recordings and collage alike where the structure cannot support the content or the parts overwhelm the whole. Guitar doodles, ambient noise, muttering, junk, all are switched back and forth in a jumbled and supposedly candid portrait of the artist’s mind. Like last year’s Pressure Carcass release on Takuroku it protests its crudity a little too strongly, mistaking authenticity for substance. Needs more channels.

Week Nine is a collaborative audio collage with an overriding “precise” structure and work process. Teresa Cos, Julia E Dyck and Caroline Profanter exchanged sound files back and forth, adding, subtracting and manipulating segments in a systematic manner that I don’t quite follow but is clearly evident even as it remains inexplicable. Found sounds, electronic noise and snatches of popular tunes I happen to particularly dislike appear, disappear, reappear in a kind of aural kaleidoscope. The three tracks are sixty-one minutes each, which makes hitting ‘play’ a daunting prospect but to get the piece requires living with it more than dedicated commitment. It’s not so much music as wallpaper than it is music as landscape, a thing for contemplation, from time to time.

Lucy Railton’s work with cello and electronics keeps trying out new approaches to combining the two. The blurb for 5 S​-​Bahn presents the album as Railton playing her cello at her apartment in Berlin with the light rail tracks passing outside. Any preconception of one being foreground for the other quickly fades away. The sounds of Berlin predominate, with the musician’s cello and voice acting as augmentation as much as accompaniment. Together, they work as kind of an orchestra and the five parts of the album resemble a symphony, with each part emphasising a different palette of neighbourhood sounds or a different density of outside activity. Recorded last spring during lockdown, the reduced human presence casts the whole work as an ironic pastoral, even as the trains regularly pass in distant aspect or close-up. I had to double-check that multiple locations weren’t listed as the sounds are so varied. The music doesn’t pretend there’s no editing or mixing involved. Purely as a technical curiosity it would be interesting to know how much was put together and how much happened as-is but as this is art it really does not matter.

Lockdown Roundup: Lucy Railton, Melaine Dalibert, James Rushford

Saturday 23 May 2020

Responses to Covid-19 are coming thick and fast now. Quarantined from the wider world, musicians are making music alone, where they can. Cafe Oto, the bold experimental music venue in London, has responded to the enforced downtime by launching Takuroku, a new netlabel dedicated to recordings produced under lockdown. As you might expect, the dominant mood right now is directed by isolation; introspective and melancholy – at least based on the three I’ve listened to so far. (In case I’m seeming more interested in analysis than advocacy, I’d recommend each of these three to the curious.)

Lucy Railton’s Lament in Three Parts adds hidden depths to this emotional state. Her work for solo cello with some additional electronics was improvised on one day in late April, with processing added a couple of days later. The music sounds much more substantial than this description suggests: as an improvisation, it definitely draws upon something that has been stored up for some time. Railton’s recent compositional work has extended beyond her cello into the use of electronics and field recordings. Earlier this year, she presented a sophisticated collaboration with synthesiser pioneer Peter Zinovieff, RFG Inventions for Cello and Computer. Lament distills Railton’s music and moves the focus away from technology: when electronics first appear at the end of the first part, it sounds like amplified bowing adding a further sighing texture to the slow chorale. Part two is a sombre melody that passes almost monophonically for its first half (I’m no expert but it sounds like she’s using Pythagorean intonation). The briefer final part resolves the preceding long line with an otherworldly sheen, the electronics adding just enough to transform the cello into something strange yet still beautiful.

My previous exposure to Melaine Dalibert consists entirely of two solo piano works which I did not like. Un Long Ralentissement is another piano piece, made as a specific response to the pandemic. As before, Dalibert takes an almost obstinately theoretical approach as justification for his carefully placed single tones, but this time it works musically. Preciousness has yielded to tenderness, and the understated rallentando adds a flexibility and flow to this slow music. The process of things slowing down is experienced, not just demonstrated, and there’s a humanising element present in the recording that makes this piece perversely relevant.

I’ve just done James Rushford recently but here’s another solo piece, this time made as a direct result of lockdown. Ouarzazate is a solo performance on a Rhodes electric keyboard. It is thirty-eight goddamn minutes long; almost twice the length of the Railton and Dalibert pieces. The contrast in his approach to the keyboard compared to his organ piece Clerestory is instructive. To work with such a limited timbral palette over such a long, unbroken span of time, you’ve got to be good. Rushford’s playing starts contrapuntally, generously paced enough to open up contemplation yet never lingering, lest momentum be lost to aimless meandering. It keeps the mind guessing with occasional leaps in register and changes in pitch sets, opening up one fork in the path after another.