Shuta Hiraki – Voicing In Oblivion – Escaping Nostalgia

Nostalgia is a dangerous source for art. Too much contact with the past can provoke an overload of material, much of it deceptively comforting. By further wallowing in it, by straining to recoup what’s been lost to time, the true nature of what’s longed for can be replaced with a sentimental facsimile, or worse, it can result in a self-portrait of creeping despair.

Shuta Hiraki (who also goes by the name Obalto) explores the complex experiences of nostalgia, loss, and the erasure of time with his latest album, Voicing In Oblivion, released on Rottenman Editions out of Spain.

According to the website, the album was “created mainly with old LP records left by his mother in the warehouse, mixing her own recordings of old upright detuned piano from the Nagasaki Sound Bath Museum with field recordings recorded on cassette.” In reaching back into the past, Hiraki has come up with something that pays homage to the meaning and power of personal and cultural history while reframing it in evocative new contexts.

A delicate tension runs throughout Voicing In Oblivion, starting with the first of its four unnamed tracks. Over reverb-laden organ music that sounds very much like a cicada, we hear the sounds of a young child speaking – a classic nostalgic trope. Hiraki quickly moves on, opening up a somber ceremonial atmosphere filled with a mournful shakuhachi flute, portentous atmospherics, irregular crackling, and washes of organ. As a deep rumbling rises up, a spare yet stentorian drum announces itself – but any further suggestions of ritual soon fades into the solitary sounds of someone or something sifting through dried leaves, accompanied by crickets and a distant chiming bell. A broken chord is suddenly played on a piano announcing a change of scenery, followed by individual prodding notes that sound as random and absent-minded as they sound intentional. Someone feels palpably present in the moment of the recording. Is this the child we first heard, now grown? Is it a random sample? Should we even try to create a narrative from these fragments? There’s a secret at the heart of this track that makes for a compelling encounter.

The second track is a bit more stable in comparison but only just. After a brief sound like something heavy and solid being placed on a flat surface, a lush, swirling, orchestral loop sets up – rendered almost campy in effect by being decontextualized – casting a haze over everything. Just as quickly, the glamorous aura is encroached on by a gentle, recurring atonal piano stab, which is soon followed by the appearance of a dogged, hollow, rattling sound. Eventually the piano and the rattle are all that remain until they’re joined by a distant vocal loop. The track continues to unfold and mutate, following an intuitive logic before cycling back to the scrapes and rasps of unseen objects from the material world.

Nothing is fixed or static on Voicing In Oblivion. Every track is suspended in flux, evoking a changing set of circumstances and emotions while suggesting that the past is not finished or even definable, but something that continues to evolve as much as any given present moment. By extension, our relationship to that past changes accordingly.

Hiraki builds up and subverts the many moods he so meticulously creates, yet instead of reveling in chaos, he reveals unexpected spaces and fresh perspectives. He’s attuned to the value of contrast and context, and the third track provides the starkest example. Field recordings, orchestral and operatic samples, forlorn, detuned piano, and the sudden appearance of a whispering human voice stating, “I see nothing… I hear nothing…” all fuse and pull against each other over its nine minutes before resolving in what sounds like a locked groove of an LP. The past and the present are at odds on this track, with neither side establishing primacy.

The final track opens with the crackle of an old LP before settling into a glowing serenity of sorts, complete with bright, chiming notes from a piano’s upper register. Soon enough, a somber pulse takes over, bringing with it the brief, plaintive tones of the shakuhachi. That pulse is sustained through the rest of the track, flaring up at times into ringing voids, pulling back at times to near silence. Hiraki introduces and soon retracts pipe organ, pinched vocals, and muffled fumbling sounds suggesting something being built or dismantled, maybe both, before the track stumbles and crumbles into dead silence.

While the album is dedicated to what is lost to oblivion, the atmosphere is anything but morbid. Surprising and full of emotion, Voicing In Oblivion is also a homage to everything that leads up the moment of loss as well as everything that comes after. Life, in other words.

Moving Furniture Records – Welcome to the Neighborhood! Cuspa Llullu by Anla Courtis and Daniel Menche | Various Weights by Frans de Waard and Martijn Comes

Finding new music is so much easier – and so much more challenging – now than it was when I was younger. While I miss the space and culture of record stores, I’ve found that without a curatorial framework, I’m compelled to look everywhere for something fresh. This can be a dizzying pursuit, but when you come across an artist or label that lights you up, the thrill of the encounter makes the time you put in feel unquestionably worthwhile.

Moving Furniture Records out of Amsterdam is a new discovery for me, though they’ve been putting out music since 2018. Once I began exploring their site I quickly realized that I’d been aware of much of their output over time but had never considered a context for any of it. Orphax, Machinefabriek (whom I’ve written about here), Gareth Davis, Merzbow, BJ Nilsen, and Kassel Jaeger are just a handful of the folks that have recorded for them. I can’t believe it took me this long to put it together.

What particularly snagged my attention was Cuspa Llullu, a new work by experimental musician Anla Courtis (of Reynols fame) and Daniel Menche, fellow experimental musician and a recent contributor to the Touch Isolation comp.

The first of Cuspa Llullu’s two tracks, “Sumaq T’ikraq” starts with a deeply satisfying springing sound – a struck metal string, presumably – that resonates and drones before morphing into beautiful overtones. More springing sounds are soon followed by insistent tapping and hammering on metal, undergirded by the sound of someone sifting stones or scraping the coils wrapped around a metal string. From this sparse, exploratory welter and its elemental character, a binding sort of spirit takes hold, and the piece begins to acquire momentum, accumulating depth and weight and dimension as it expands. About halfway through its twenty minutes it seems to detour to a trainyard where we hear the sounds of hydraulic steam blasts, the gong of distant bells, and the penetrating buzz of a drill heard through a floor or wall. Then the binding spirit returns and we resume our course, heading inexorably toward a clattering, throbbing, blistering totality that’s both soothing and mind-expanding. I’ve taken many trips through this piece already and I can’t get enough of it. You’ll want to use headphones for listening. And don’t be shy about the volume.

The second track, “Achka t’asla,” feels somewhat more focused in comparison though no less galvanizing. For the first half of its eighteen minutes, metallic strikes and thuds float restlessly on tumultuous waves of static that plunge and crest and writhe beneath a seamless, echoing dome of feedback. Courtis and Menche gradually cover that scene with a scrim of static and electrical confetti before folding in the unexpected but perfectly apt moans and howls of a squalling guitar in feedback hell. The piece fades to black, but the startling sounds and evocative atmosphere conjured up reverberates long after.

This is a fresh and visceral record, one that you feel as much as listen to. If you’ve got a taste for gritty atmospherics, check it out.

Hot on the heels of Cuspa Llullu, I came across Various Weights by Frans de Waard and Martijn Comes. While not a strictly collaborative effort, the album instead finds the two artists working independently yet providing each other with foundational sound material to create from: random synth and field recordings, a processed recording of a stylophone, and “recordings of the Web’s first Software-Defined Radio by the University of Twente.” From such seemingly low-key material, de Waard and Comes dig deep and come up with tracks that are vast and psychically enveloping.

De Waard’s “There Are No Two Pianos” is a thirty-two-minute trip through a psycho-geography of fuzzed sounds and rough, crumbling textures, found and manufactured, that swell and recede, fuse and evaporate. Disembodied voices emerge from the aether and pass, leaving no trace or contextual foothold. A round, chthonic drone rides alongside for a stretch like an inquisitive leviathan before peeling off to other depths. A monophonic chorus of high-pitched tones later adds a piercing sense of unease, but that too eventually fades. About two-thirds in, de Waard strips nearly everything away, leaving only the resonating aftershock of what used to be. From that breathtaking nullity, a warm shimmer rises up, like a sun-warmed cymbal being struck, and the trip continues. Though the track ends in a tangle of echoing voices as if one had arrived in a station – radio, train or otherwise – it’s clear that there’s never been any set destination to speak of. Something familiar and otherworldly courses through this piece, and it’s that unnameable yet distinctly present absence that gives it so much of its power and allure.

Where de Waard’s track conjures a liminal soundscape, Comes’ “Boundary of Intersections” is more like a moody avatar, an austere, alien presence, impressive in its single-mindedness yet mysterious for the same reasons. As it hovers and bobs in a glowing steady-state, it slowly reveals more of itself, opening out to release rays and waves of sound that bend and swell and appear to occupy tangible space while remaining diaphanous. As the piece progresses, subtle cricket-like textures occasionally ride the fringes, and a faltering morse code tone makes a sotto voce appearance here and there. But nothing disturbs the trance-like atmosphere. Around the halfway point, the monolithic nature of the piece is swept aside and an irregular series of rising tones begins, taking flight from a rumbling base before dissolving into the occluded atmosphere. With each flight, I feel those streaming sounds rising through me, and I feel part of myself going with them, wherever that may be, every time I listen. And as mysteriously as it began, the piece ends. Rare stuff, here.

If all this weren’t enough, Moving Furniture also has a compilation of shorter pieces available for perusal. I strongly recommend that you check it out as well as the rest of their catalogue. I know I’ll be busy for a while.

Marja Ahti – The Current Inside & Marja Ahti and Judith Hamann – Portals – Uncharted Voyages

The atmosphere surrounding the earth is made up of five distinct layers. Heading skyward, we start with the troposphere, which is the atmosphere we live and breathe in. Beyond that is the stratosphere, followed by the mesosphere, the thermosphere, and the exosphere. Lacking any concrete boundary, each layer is distinguished from the one preceding it by a decreasing difference in temperature brought on by an increase in height.

Scandinavian musician/composer/sound artist Marja Ahti was commissioned by the French audio/visual institute Ina GRM to create something based on the idea of travelling through those layers. “The Altitudes,” the opening track of her latest album, The Current Inside, put out by the Hallow Ground label from Switzerland, feels surprisingly earthbound – yet all the more compelling for it.

Rather than offering conceptual program music that becomes more barren, abstract, and blood-freezingly crystalline as it progresses, Ahti instead conjures up a kind of breathing sonic organism that seems to grow and transform itself with each aspiration. The twenty-minute piece develops in a series of measured, layered, swelling tones that build out of silence and recede back into it. What surprised me at first listen and delighted me in equal measure was the early inclusion of field recordings containing squawking geese, chittering sparrows, and the drip of rain from a ledge landing in what sounds like a shallow, pebbled rut. Ahti gradually moves away from those effects but their earthy, recognizable presence remains in spirit, keeping what comes after it rooted in things material and concrete.

Not to suggest that all is even-keeled tranquility. “The Altitudes” glowers and hovers and throbs, with sounds staticky, mournful, accusing, crackling, or discomfitingly whispery and hair-raising, all of them cycling and mutating with each new iteration. Ahti’s continual stops and starts build and maintain a tremendous and satisfying tension so that when the end is eventually reached, one is left with a feeling not so much of being finished as of being released from the grip of something. You have been moved while listening but through a space with no fixed dimensions. It’s a powerful piece of work.

“The Altitudes”

The four shorter pieces that make up the rest of the album almost function as a suite. The titles – “The Currents,” “Lost Lake,” “Fluctuating Streams,” and “Sundial” – might suggest a thematic portrait, but nothing so straightforward is presented. What holds them together is Ahti’s command of her materials and her ability to create and shape the space in which they exist.

“The Currents” is spooky and spectral, a brief but creepy slice of the sounds one might hear from a night spent in a haunted house. In “Lost Lake,” an uneasy blend of metallic strikes, glowing bell tones, the crackling sounds of footsteps on leaves and twigs, and the odd plink or splash of water evokes emotion without shaping or manipulating it. “Fluctuating Streams,” the highlight of the group, is composed of layers of long tones and overtones, tentative wordless vocals and deep, magnetic rests that swallow up all the sounds that precede them. It has the pace and cadence of ritual and ceremony but without the suggestion of anything remotely spiritual. The final track, “Sundial,” is filled with the sounds of camping: the hushed roar of a campfire, the cry of seagulls, the distant laughter and screams of children playing. But a persistent presence of ominous, layered tones insinuates itself into the speculative scenario, functioning as a reminder of an underlying unease or limit that can’t be transcended.

“Fluctuating Streams”
“Sundial”

One comes away from listening to The Current Inside with a recharged awareness of space. The spaces Ahti creates and explores in her work are intimate, segmented, elongated, vacuous, distended with pressure. They evoke uncertain emotions and forestall any opportunity to name or resolve them. With repeated listens, they reward with the continued revelation of hidden textures and new ideas.

Concurrent with the release of The Current Inside, but independent of it, is Portals, a single, twenty-two minute track featuring Ahti in collaboration with cellist Judith Hamann, released by Café Oto. Overcoming relative isolation while stuck in lockdown, the two artists traded tracks while composing Portals, relying on field recordings as well as cello, magnetic tape, and electronics. Aptly named, the piece takes listeners to all manner of locales, both actual and imaginary while never settling anywhere. Waves splash and land on a beach, a door opens somewhere, wood creaks, fat sizzles before mutating to static. An unidentifiable object is pounded and breaks into pieces. Nature and domesticity are witnessed and captured but no narrative is imposed. The disjointed, decontextualized material keeps one hooked and curious while Hamann’s sometimes sonorous, sometimes piercing, sometimes beseeching cello adds warmth, color, and emotion. Deep with intrigue and mystery, Portals is a keen response to the deprivations of lockdown and a crafty antidote to it.

Touch – Isolation – Natural Selection

In the early days of the coronavirus lockdown, Touch launched their Isolation project. In exchange for a nominal subscription fee, Touch began offering bi-weekly emails containing two previously unreleased tracks (and one back-catalogue track) from their line-up of artists.

To anyone familiar with the Touch label, this was something to be excited about.

Now that they’ve reached the end – twenty-eight tracks, totaling three and half hours of music and sound – I can tell you straight: if you can afford to, buy it. Touch is offering the entire collection as a one-off album. To call it a worthwhile investment is to grossly understate its actual value. What they’ve assembled is a both a perfect distillation of their ethos and output as well as an essential compilation for anyone interested in the ways that music and sound engage and hybridize while creating something new in the process.

By purchasing this, you’d also be helping out a lot of artists whose lives and livelihoods have been upended by COVID-19.

Starting in the natural world, Isolation opens with “Surge,” a head-clearingly windswept track from Jana Winderen (whom I’ve written about elsewhere), recorded at a family-owned farm in Sweden where she’s been staying with relatives since the start of the lockdown. (I should mention that it’s worth your time to look up the stories that go along with many of these recordings, all of which can be found on the musicians’ individual Bandcamp pages, and are accompanied by gorgeous photos taken by Touch co-founder Jon Wozencroft.) Chris Watson follows Winderen with the brooding “Gobabeb,” which uses field recordings captured in the Namib Desert in Southwest Africa. Bana Haffar, a new addition to the Touch line-up, is next with “Conference of the Birds,” offering a tense standoff between seething, pulsing static and the simple calls of an array of birds before settling them into an ethereal rapprochement.

And then we’re off, expanding the parameters of approaches to the project. With “Rewilding,” Mark Van Hoen (one half of drøne, a band he shares with Touch co-founder Mike Harding), combines a sub-vocal radio broadcast (intoning such phrases as “Your fundamental nature is beyond your choice…”) with some simple chords on his piano and the wildlife sounds recorded around his house, which had become more pronounced thanks to the lockdown’s reduction of traffic. Next, “Away,” from Richard Chartier seems to eschew any notions of “natural” field recordings altogether by creating, as he’s done in so much of his work, an enveloping, granulated sound that suggests something both empty and teeming. In the process he subtly calls into question ideas about what nature actually is: A swamp? A tended garden? A concept?

Zachary Paul’s “Aeolus” is the epic, heart-rending sound of forty-seven layered violin tracks, and is matched in beauty by the comparatively austere guitar/piano follow-up,  “Kizuna,” from Christian Fennesz and Ryuichi Sakamoto.

And at that point we’re only seven tracks in.

To be honest, this compilation is overwhelming. And I haven’t said a word yet about ELEH or Geneva Skeen or Simon Scott or Oren Ambarchi or UnicaZürn or Bethan Kellough or Strafe F.R. or Philip Jeck or Rosy Parlane or Claire M Singer or Heitor Alvelos or Charlie Campagna – all of whom contribute many more highlights.

To reduce these tracks to bytes or blurbs would be a disservice. They really need to be experienced firsthand. The trouble is – and this is the best sort of trouble – most everything on the compilation is fantastic.

Isolation is a bounteous, polyphonic gift to Touch fans, newcomers to the label, lovers of field recordings, lovers of music, or anyone feeling starved for contact with the world outside. Listen to it straight through. Listen to it in reverse order. Play it loud or dial it down. Anywhere you dive in, you’ll be met with work that’s gritty, smooth, jarring, soothing, warm, cool. I can’t stress enough the rewarding impact of it. I urge you simply to get it. It’s something I know I’ll be returning to long after this lockdown is over.

Gultskra Artikler – Kasha iz Topora – Trailblazer

Erik K. Skodvin’s Miasmah label has beguiled and seduced me more than once with its intriguing design work alone, tempting me to snap up a CD before having heard a note inside it. In nearly fifteen years, I can’t recall a time when I was ever disappointed.

Kasha iz Topora by Gultskra Artikler (aka Alexey Devyanin) almost escaped my notice the first time I came across it back in 2007, only because the cover art was so markedly different from the usual sepulchral Miasmah vibe.

When I got it home and played it, the differences continued. What struck me then as moody and mysterious and even at times creepy – as sounding like five different albums crammed into one, in fact – still strikes me that way. What deepened all that mystery was the fact that the album’s copious liner notes were written in Cyrillic. As it turns out, they contain an updated version of an old Russian fairytale “about a man with an axe that makes flying porridge.” The idea seemed to be that the music on Kasha iz Topora was a kind of soundtrack to that story. While that may be the case, none of that information has ever contextualized the work for me – something for which I’m truly grateful.

Kasha iz Topora is first and foremost the sound of things, the late night confessions of the left behind objects in a second-hand shop. On the opening track, “Po Derevne” (“In the Village”), a wonky guitar is accompanied by a keening Casio, and what sounds like a wind-up toy, a clinking stack of obsolete tokens, and a rusted carpenter’s rasp.

“Po Derevne”

Musique concrète to be sure, but with an emphasis on expressing and conjuring emotion instead of highlighting technique or artifice. The album unspools and blooms and mystifies and changes its mind again from there. It’s a challenge to determine what’s actually played from what’s sampled, yet the pleasure lies in letting the totality of it animate your imagination with speculative images of what on earth could be making that sound.

“Kartoshka”
“Medicinski Rabotnik”

Surprisingly, considering the frequently grotty, fingerprint-smudged, silt-choked sounds, the music almost achieves a kind of sunny transcendence, particularly in some of the later tracks like “Votpusk.” But even a word like that is almost too suggestive. Kasha iz Topora makes and follows its own path, and that path is wide open.

Thomas Köner – Motus – Motus Operandi

For the sake of argument, let’s say there are two fundamental styles to musician and installation artist Thomas Köner’s body of work. On the one hand, there’s his low-frequency soundscape material, best represented by the shockingly prescient, early ’90s arctic trilogy, Nunatak, Teimo, and Permafrost. (1997’s Nuuk could be easily folded into that group as well).1 These are extraordinary, almost psychic renderings of brutal, unforgiving landscapes not normally conducive to human habitation, music that is creepy, comfortless, and convincing in its authenticity. Köner’s early sound – rumbling, chthonic drones, menacing pulses, and metallic swells, all impeccably recorded – was developed here, and it’s astonishing to listen to any of these albums now and realize how profoundly influential that sound has been. Nunatak, for example, was released in 1990 and it sounds comparable to anything of its ilk coming out today only much, much better.

Untitled (Track Three) – Thomas Köner – from Nunatak

On the other hand, there’s Porter Ricks, the minimalist dub techno outfit Köner operates with Andy Mellwig. Their first album, the also hugely influential Biokinetics, built from long, looping, layered club tracks, was released on Chain Reaction back in 1996, and helped establish the aesthetic for everything that was to follow on that legendary label. Twenty years later, Porter Ricks released the Shadow Boat EP on Tresor and then the full length Anguilla Electrica in 2017. Where Biokinetics feels thematically and stylistically unified if also the product of a particular period in time, these later works feel both updated and diversified. Energetic, edgy, even at times slinky and sexy, they stand, with Biokinetics, in considerable opposition to Köner’s solo work.2  

“Shadow Boat” – Porter Ricks – from Shadow Boat EP

Yet if there’s something besides Köner himself that connects these two approaches, it exists in the form of the unheimlich, the unsettling, unexpected touches and effects that he secretes into so much of his music. Squelching, rubbery, tactile sounds, unnervingly present, juxtaposed with off-kilter rhythms riding steady beats. Strategically placed incursions of gritty, fizzing, smudged, or serrated effects that provide oddly sensual texture and surprise. Choices that seem inappropriate when you first encounter them but that when you listen to them again seem absolutely right.

Köner’s latest album, Motus, on the Mille Plateaux label, presents an innovative synthesis of his moves toward both sonic topography and the dance floor.

It’s a murky, mysterious thing, full of secrets, contradictions, and questions. The cover art alone might tip you off to all that, but if that’s not enough, the eight track titles further mystify, coming off like a match test with no right answers:

EXTENSION (Attack)

COGITATION (Decay)

POTENTIAL (Sustain)

EXPRESSION (Release)

SUBSTRATE (Binaural)

OSCILLATOR (Luminous)

SUBSTANCE (Suicide)

SYNTHESIS (Carnal)

It’s like a smoke screen designed to push you toward concentrating on the music. As for the music, the steady submerged rhythms here and there represent the Porter Ricks style but the unrelenting, churning, earthbound atmosphere put it in Köner’s soundscape camp, only the terrain explored here seems purely speculative. As for the unheimlich, this music throbs and gyrates and mutates on a cellular level. It’s from this world but not of it – you feel it beneath your skin like a subdermal merging of a subway system with your lymphatic system. It’s hard to single out individual tracks as highlights because the whole thing coheres so completely that to isolate one unit of it feels like vivisection, but the longer tracks, EXPRESSION (Release) and SUBSTRATE (Binaural), work to really pull you in and rearrange your chi. (Unfortunately, I’m unable to load any tracks from this album.)

The first time I heard Motus, it slipped right by me. I wasn’t focused – I wasn’t listening – and it wasn’t grasping at me either. It just was and it was up to me to come around to it. Now that I get it, I find more and more in it each time I listen.

FOOTNOTES:

1. I also feel compelled to mention 2012’s Novaya Zemlya, named after an inhabited island off the north Russian coast that served as a nuclear test site. This recording presents another hostile soundscape, one poisoned by human interference. A subliminally quiet album – though not without its shakingly subterranean depths – and a beautiful one, Novaya Zemlya is a continuation and expansion of Köner’s unique approach to soundscapes, and highly recommended.

2. To those of you already familiar with Köner’s oeuvre, I’m aware of the absence here of a number of his works: La Barca, Tiento de las nieves and Tiento de la luz, for instance, as well as Kaamos, Zyklop, and Daikan. There’s much to say about all of them. Perhaps some other time.

Paleman – Music for Three Cymbals – Cymbal-ism

A lot of music seems to be popping up lately from artists who are, like everyone else, homebound for the foreseeable future. Owing to the cabin-feverish nature of its origin, much of the work feels half-baked to me, like lo-fi sketches toward something rather than work lived with and seen all the way through.

An exciting exception is Music for Three Cymbals, the latest EP from Calum Lee, aka Paleman. Lee has said up front that the EP wasn’t intended for release, that it was more the end result of constraining himself to the use of “two microphones, three cymbals, some mallets and delay and reverb.” While that might be the case, what he’s come up with has the heft and impact of a solid, finished piece.

It opens appropriately enough with “Cymbals 1,” an exploratory mission into a resonant, cavernous space marbled with ghostly calls from seemingly unidentifiable sources. A steady almost subliminal rhythm played with mallets establishes and sustains tension. The track builds and insinuates, yet there’s no final encounter. When it ends, it’s as if a limit has been reached, and you’re left helpless at the edge of an unlit abyss, staring into a void with the unsettling sensation of something unseen staring back at you. Chilling stuff, and not to be listened to alone in the dark.

With the exception of a few minor crescendos and flourishes, “Cymbals 2” has a cyclical, meditative fixity to it that conjures up ideas of private rituals. Lee starts out hitting his cymbals gently enough to produce a metallic ring that’s matched in volume by the sound of his sticks hitting his cymbals, and he maintains that long enough to stretch a listener’s notions of time (in the best psychedelic sense.) While there’s a reverberant suggestion of dub in play here, this track mostly – and favorably – puts me in mind of Moritz Von Oswald’s Vertical Ascent from 2009. Lee’s sensitivity to timing and structure, fortified no doubt by his background in jazz, and extended by his prolific output as a purveyor of techno and house tracks, keeps everything moving forward, both quickly and slowly, without anything ever becoming dull.

The entirety of “Cymbals 3” is built on a low throbbing tone that sounds as if it was created by Lee playing a cymbal like a singing bowl. Once that tone is established, a muffled, persistent drumming sound emerges, a cycled measure of six beats, soon paired with a metal-against-metal rhythmic scrape. Once those sync up, bright, individual metallic strikes cut in, hollow-sounding and windswept, like an aluminum flag pole being struck by its swinging counterweight. Lee further thickens all of these rhythms by running them through a delay. Everything builds to a head and then he pulls it all back to just the original throb and a scattering of receding delayed strikes before the track fades. It’s a moody, mysterious thing and a highlight of the album.

“Cymbals 3”

The closing track offers an unsettling pilgrimage into a different though no less ominous zone than the first track. The evocative, rumbling Lustmord-esque sounds Lee extracts from his limited gear suggest to me someone who has devoted plenty of time to exploring the sonic potential of his equipment. “Cymbals 4” is deep space music –oceanic and celestial at once. Lee keeps these realms alive with massive metallic gouges and trumpeting solar flares. And there’s nothing in this 11-minute track that I can point to as any sort of obvious percussive sound. It transports and transfixes me every time I listen to it. In fact, the whole EP does.

Erik Griswold – All’s Grist That Comes To The Mill – Piano Revival

In 19th and early 20th century Australia, the piano played a surprisingly prominent part in the development and proliferation of Western, non-aboriginal culture. Colonists and immigrants, flush with money from the Victorian Goldrush, bought unprecedented numbers of them to garner a bit of prestige for themselves, leading to a boom in Australian piano manufacturing that lasted up until the 1930s. At one point, there were more pianos per capita in Australia than anywhere else on the planet. However, the novelty of player pianos and the hulking, unwieldy bodies of pianos themselves – as opposed to, say, guitars – led to their eventual decline in popularity. This also resulted in a lot of pianos being repurposed as shelf space or simply dumped.

There’s something uniquely painful about a neglected or abandoned piano. Darwin referred to ginko trees as living fossils. To me, an old, disused piano is like a living dinosaur – something that should be looked after, not forgotten about.

Clearly, I’m not the only one who feels this way. Architect Bruce Wolfe designed The Piano Mill, and it stands in the forest in the intriguingly named Willsons Downfall in Australia.

The Piano Mill by day

Housed inside its versatile yet utilitarian structure are sixteen upright pianos, gathered from nearby towns and packed in side-by-side, two per wall. Far from perfect, the pianos exist in varying states of playability, with the mostly in-tune pianos on the upper floor and the more questionable specimens occupying the lower. (The third level of the building is left empty and open to airflow.) Owing to the compact nature of the Mill, audiences have to stand outside of it during a performance, with pianists being the only interior occupants, though a few translucent windows provide a partial view in. Wolfe installed eight louvers in the walls that can be opened and closed to release or manipulate any sounds that emanate, making the building itself as much of an instrument as the instruments inside. For more information and some nice visuals, there’s an interview/article here.

In 2016, pianist and composer Erik Griswold wrote and took part in All’s Grist That Comes To The Mill for the Mill’s inaugural show, and this year, Lawrence English’s forward-thinking label for experimental music and sound art, Room40, has happily seen fit to re-issue a recording of that performance.

After kicking off with a thunderous blast that recedes in decay, the album quickly plunges into the aptly named “The Hive.” Sounding at first like a Cocteau Twins B-side, “The Hive” soon heats up into a menacing, swarming froth of sound. Yet as it progresses, one hears the quirks and personality traits of individual pianos rising to the surface before they get swallowed back into the turbulence. The track serves as a convocation of musician and instrument, a conjuring of the latent histories in each piano, and a palate cleanser for the adventurous array of music to follow.

“Forest Birds,” a spry, playful duet for piano and bird, courtesy of the bird life in the surrounding forest and the natural sounds filtering in through the open third floor, is followed by the first of three interspersed interludes: “Plucking,” “Grader Blades” (a piece for hammered, tuned grader blades – a nod to the work done to clear the forest area), and “Strumming.”

“Nancarrow,” named for legendary composer, Conlon Nancarrow, who famously wrote music for player pianos, and “Crashing Waves” are up next. “Nancarrow” is appropriately manic, with bright, banging chords flitting from one piano to the next, cut through by a series of random, soured scales before coming to sudden stop and then a resolute plunge into a psychotic, vertiginous cacophony that’s somehow strangely liberating. “Crashing Waves” picks up this theme, sending up cascades of chalky, ascending notes that build to a blistering peak before being cut short by the air-clearing ring of struck grader blades.

“Nancarrow”

“Magic Square,” with its 12-tone, stochastic structure, comes off as a spiky, destabilized jig while “Lightning and Thunder” features frantic glissandi, pounding, upper register notes, and vigorous percussive effects produced by the players slapping, whacking, and practically tap-dancing on the bodies of their instruments. (In a certain way, it sounds like the collective temper tantrums of children everywhere who’ve been forced to practice their scales when all they really want to do is play outdoors.) The gentle hiss of rain heard between the impressively timed, furious bursts provides a striking counterbalance.

“Lightning and Thunder”

“Three Great Parlour Themes” is a highlight of the album. It offers a revealing sampler of some of the individual qualities of each piano through renditions of “Für Elise,” Chopin’s “Prelude in E Minor,” and “Claire de lune” – piano recital classics, all. As each piece unfolds, the melody is transferred from piano to piano, with some doing a serviceable job of hanging onto the imperfect-yet-recognizable intonation and others dissolving into wobbly, waterlogged semblances of the original, all while a steady rain drips throughout in the background. Wince-inducing humor is balanced by a mournful, haunted quality. That mournful quality put me in mind of Leyland Kirby aka The Caretaker’s devastating Everywhere at the end of time project, with its songs of another era exposed in their brittle finery yet slowly falling prey to faulty, damaged memory. Griswold’s themes of crumbling histories, the fragile finitude of human life, and the restorative powers of art are all on display in this powerful track.

“Three Great Parlour Themes”

Suitably, the album closes with “The Lift,” and its ascending, hymn-like melody drifting up from some very tired-sounding but still standing pianos. There’s a well-earned moment’s rest at the song’s end, then the steady applause of a satisfied audience drifting off into the night.

The Piano Mill by night

Thanks go to Michael Hannan for his review of Michael Atherton’s, A Coveted Possession: The Rise and Fall of the Piano in Australia, which provided me with information about the piano’s early prominence in Australia. Thanks also go to Erik Griswold for his time, patience, and technical assistance.

Longform Editions – Three Works: Stop. Stay. Listen.

Longform Editions out of Sydney, Australia, is dedicated to “creating a space for extended, immersive music pieces from around the world.” Founder Andrew Khedoori has said in interviews that he wanted to create a forum for long-playing work and deep listening as a kind of antidote to the ways listening habits have been manipulated and truncated by the instant access of streaming services. As he put it in this article:

“I get the feeling, if only anecdotally, that there’s a lot of skipping going on… Because streaming platforms are so easily accessible, you might not treat the music with as much consideration and care as you would if you’ve spent money on a physical product.”

Who isn’t guilty of this? It’s all too easy to blow past something if your interest begins to flag for a millisecond, and you haven’t actually purchased the music you’re listening to. No investment? No commitment. Next.

But why should everything come to us so easily? What’s so troubling about making an effort to understand something? Why not meet the artist halfway? Some music comes to you, some music you have to make an effort to get with. Much of the music that challenges me becomes the music I continue to listen to. The music I grow with, that grows and changes with me.

A fraction of the music I’ve heard at Longform Editions easily fits into that category. And there’s much there to discover.

Current Harmonics by Jasmine Guffond is built around the influence of harmonics in electrical currents and waveforms, and was presented as a sound installation at the Linach Dam in Germany’s Black Forest. Through sonically mimicking the energy produced by the flow of water through the dam and the shifting frequencies in the current harmonics, Guffond creates a feed of throbbing tones that braid and blend, soar and plunge, harmonize and diverge. To sit and listen to it is both galvanizing and daunting, like having a staring contest with your better self. What really gets me about it though, among the many sensations it stirs up, is the ways my breathing gets synced with the piece’s fluctuations. I feel this music – and it is deeply musical – and ride it out, all its ups and downs, every time I listen to it. It’s unnervingly immediate, an inhuman yet uncannily emotional creation, and when it ends, I want to go back and listen to it all over again.

Current Harmonics – Jasmine Guffond

Spencer Stephenson, aka Botany, composed Fourteen 45 Tails from the final beats and run-out grooves taken from a stack of 45s stashed near his workspace. After making a loop of each recording, he positioned and layered them in an ever-widening sonic space. What starts as a kind of cyclically accruing inventory in which you’re consciously aware of each note sung, each ringing plink on the piano, each scrap of pop and hiss kicked up from the old vinyl as it appears and then repeats, becomes, through repetition and the strategic use of reverb, a free-floating trip into a glowing, resonating, celestial realm. It is a merciful release of yourself from yourself. As Stephenson puts it:

“While some of the singles I sampled were acquired during record store trips as expected, most found their way to me from the collections of deceased relatives. This reminded me of a theory that a friend of mine mentioned when his grandmother passed away: that maybe the afterlife is actually the tiniest sliver of time right before brain activity ceases, stretched out by some neurochemical mechanism as to become a virtually infinite dream-state, so that a life seems to never quite end to the one living it. In reference to that idea, Fourteen 45 Tails is made out of the final moments of fourteen records that once belonged to people who’ve long since lived – or from another perspective may still be living – their own final moments.”

Fourteen 45 Tails is a powerful, positive requiem, comparable in my thinking to early recordings of Gavin Bryars’ magisterial The Sinking of The Titanic. Check it out:

Fourteen 45 Tails – Botany

Windblow by Ekin Fil (Ekin Üzeltüzenci) begins with four long, distant, plaintive notes. Before they can complete a second cycle, a sour note cuts in, almost like an old, piping “error” sound on a computer, followed by an intermittent rumbling. From there, Windblow gently throbs and glowers, ringing with muffled guitar sustain, occupying space while refusing to assume a shape. Fil’s voice drifts in, breathy, fading in and out, until a massive, metallic resonance takes up, pushing everything aside. As the song hovers, textures evolve but the elements the music is made from never change. The melody – one note, maybe two – persist. There’s a process at work, nothing arbitrary, but still wholly mysterious. Then, as the melody begins to change, to brighten even, the piece fades to silence, just before something new begins.

Fil describes Windblow as an audible interpretation of “the mingling of different perspectives of an image or various perceptions of a sound from different angles.” For its remainder, it continues to do just that, shifting modes and moods while orbiting some unnamed object or idea, maybe even orbiting notions of perception itself.

Windblow – Ekin Fil

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the bold graphics on the cover of each album at Longform, graphics that on closer inspection reveal a kinetic, semaphore-like typography. I will also mention that Andrew Khedoori is the founder of Preservation Music, one of those labels like Factory or Warp or Miasmah that, through the power of their design work alone – cheers to Mark Gowing – can convince me to buy their music before I’ve heard a note.

But more to the point, I think Longform is offering up some striking, inventive, adventurous music, and plenty of it. In these days of lockdown and sheltering-in-place, what better time could there be for not only exploring it, but really listening to it.