Electronic survey, not yet weary

Thursday 30 September 2021

Electronic music tends to polarise even the individual listener, where the extremes of appreciation and disdain map out like an inverted bell curve. For each piece that realises the potential for new, exciting and unheard sounds and forms, there is at least one that utterly fails to reward your attention. (I blame the formative French tradition of exquisitely crafted snorefests – a fetish of technique and finish.) I’ve got a stack of recent releases of electronic music here which I’ve been meaning to deal with so I’m going to run through them quick, with this jaded attitude in mind.

Familiarity breeds contempt, and once you’ve dabbled with electronics a bit yourself you get surprised by how much music starts to resemble your own preliminary doodlings. That’s not to say that just anyone can fool around with software and be as good as, to pick a name at random, Dumitrescu, but that a lot of it lives or dies upon the question of what to keep and what to discard. Taku Unami’s Takuroku album Stardust is “100% computer programmed music” and it’s fairly pretty but I think you could be just as pleased by downloading a copy of Coagula. Madalyn Merkey’s Crushed Shells, on the other hand, is gentle and playful, while using the fashionable analog Eurorack modules and a Waldorf Blofeld with a capriciousness that never sounds stiff or heavy-handed. Both kind of slip back and forth between being less or more than they seem, with Merkey’s set of pieces having greater resilience.

The synthesiser duo of Richard Stenton and Zach Dawson have put out their debut release 7balcony. It sounds like a lot of effort went into making something both conceptually grating and sonically ingratiating. As such, it falls between two stools and is excessively dependent on the goodwill of the listener. This could go over better with a live audience, where all the activity seems to mean something, especially if the venue is licenced. The last track ‘microphones hanging from tall buildings’ is apparently just that and is the most confident piece here.

Another debut duo is Alex Christie and Ryan Ross Smith’s acres, which carries the sensation of improvised electronic music, both in its strengths and weaknesses. Nice crunchy electronic noises kick in and out with a pleasing arbitrariness but occasionally things come to an impasse and it sounds like the musos are struggling to make the music do something, in the hope that things will stay tastefully harsh. Unlike the two preceding albums, Paul Abbott’s Deorlaf Z (version) for XT Deorlaf X Live sounds like an artistic struggle without pulled punches. An extended live reworking of prerecorded materials using electronic (and real) percussion, excitement builds, then ebbs away only to resurge later, with the longeurs becoming excusable as a necessary part of a larger process. The live situation and the attendant materials of popular music form the substance of this piece, as opposed to simply clothing it.

Simon Balestrazzi (electronics) and Paolo Sanna (percussion) have put out a set of Disrupted Songs made from sonic found objects. They are exercises in serious play, making or taking nicely-defined sounds that would suit an earnest lower-case improv session, but then they repeatedly interrupt each other, creating a more complex structure of continuity and discontinuity. Each piece takes unexpected turns without ever descending into a free-for-all, placing the unfocused into sharp relief.

Finally, I have to mention John Chantler’s Eli Licking Ice, a glorious 25-minute slab of synthesisers spun through mobile speakers in resonant space. It drops us in media read with a wonderfully clear but chaotic mix of electronic sounds that are truly diverse and discrete. At first it seems as though things are about to go out of control but events settle into a wayward flow of their own course. As the piece continues the sound opens up and you hear acoustic events within the room, particularly a snare drum that buzzes along in sympathy. Even as sounds loop and swoop or swing from side to side, both sweet and cutting, or both at once, everything seeks out a harmonious balance, although perhaps in ways that are not readily obvious. Also, it’s a welcome addition to Takuroku’s guest dog series.

Drones Club: Allotropes, John Chantler

Thursday 25 February 2021

Been immersing myself in a succession of glorious sonic baths lately, all luxurious warmth and invigorating refreshment. Allotropes is the duet of Jim Hoult and Stephan Barrett, collaborating remotely on this piece between Sweden and London. However this was achieved, Night Signal flows as organically as any live performance by two musicians in the same room, even as it is made out of the digital and electronic manipulation of fixed media. The source material apparently originates from tiny samples of clarinet multiphonics and bells, taking the rich harmonic and timbral characteristics of each sound and continuously finding new material to be worked out of each subliminally short snippet. Each sample is extended into long, streaking clouds of sound which continue to reveal fresh details without needing any heavy reworking, while retaining a consistently deep, velvety character throughout. It’s a profound type of sensory pleasure, and the forty-minute duration feels just right.

John Chantler’s No Such Array works in a similar way, an immersive experience that opens up consciousness rather than crowd it out. He’s been building his own, small synthesisers, battery-powered with portable speakers. No Such Array is a montage of performances with these devices in hall in Gothenburg last October, with Chantler making use of the space and the handy size of his instruments to suspend and swing the speakers to add to the resonant complexities. Higher pitched, a little rougher-textured and more acerbic than Night Signal, Chantler’s drones skate over and across each other to produce sounds that are more bracing but no less pleasing. With its shorter duration, one complements the other as a shot and chaser, to be alternated at will.