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.
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
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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 timeproject, 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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
The first time I heard Hans-Joachim Roedelius was on the track “By This River” on Brian Eno’s Before and After Science. I didn’t know who Roedelius was, but I knew I loved that gently lilting, mournful song. Nearly forty years later, it still moves me the same way it did the first time I heard it. There are few musicians whose work I can honestly say this about.
To my thinking, there’s a pretty clear divide running through Roedelius’ prodigious fifty-plus-year output. There’s the music from the kosmische/krautrock era that he made primarily with fellow musician Dieter Moebius while playing in the groups Kluster, Cluster, and Harmonia. While I appreciate the value of this music on a socio-historical level, too much of it feels thin and whimsical when it isn’t fumbling toward a kind of abstracted, prog-esque sound (though if you’re curious to investigate, Musik von Harmonia is propulsively forward-thinking and fizzing with ideas and inspiration). The music is both a definitive product of its time, and a fossil from it.
With the temporary suspension of those groups came the start of Roedelius’ solo era. His first efforts, Durch die Wüste, from 1978, and Jardin au fou, from 1979 are jarring, uneven works that find him shuttling between introspective tuneful pieces that contain the seeds of his eventual florescence, and quirky, cartoonish tracks that come across as perversely disruptive, even silly. His next album, Selbstportrait, was the breakthrough and revelation. It’s a confident collection of intimate, revealing tracks that offset candid emotion with brittle, tenuous-sounding electronics – an unlikely fusion that, surprisingly, works. By embracing fragility and risk, and jettisoning the outlandish and carnivalesque, Roedelius created a new kind of warmth for synthesized sound. The results are rich with mystery, melancholy, and the excitement of stepping into new terrain.
Selbstportrait II from 1980 is a clear continuation of the work started in Selbstportrait. While there’s a more lighthearted, sunnier aspect to some of the music on Selbstportrait II, the album is no less exploratory or emotive for it. Nonethless, to my mind, Roedelius wouldn’t hit his stride again until Wenn der Südwind weht. On this album, his fifth solo, he comes up with a playful variety of styles buttressed by an underlying sense of gravitas and a commanding uniformity of voice, exemplified in both the tender, minute-long “Goldregen” and the ominous, pulsing epic of “Saumpfad.” The following year, Roedelius released Flieg Vogel Fliege, another gem of mellifluous, cascading sketches, jaunty bursts, and gently brooding melodies. The final track, “Wanderung” is a glowing orb of sound and a fitting end to the hike the title refers to.
I should mention here that establishing any sort of order to Roedelius’ catalog is not my goal. He’s been involved with more than 160 recordings so far, and I’m neither a completist nor an archivist. Added to that, there are inconsistencies to the numbering of records, as well as subjective categorizations. For example, there are solo albums that are considered by Roedelius to fall within the Selbstportrait series that aren’t designated as such, at least by name, Flieg Vogel fliege, being one. Then there are possible oversights, such as two different, wholly separate and unique albums called Selbstportrait Volume VIII – one is subtitled Introspection, the other is Wahre Liebe. All I’m hoping to do is celebrate a musician whose work has moved me and shaped my tastes while providing me with hours of genuine pleasure, inspiration, and solace.
After Flieg Vogel Fliege, Roedelius began working again with other musicians. Since I’m focusing on the solo work, let me say that much of the material from these collaborations doesn’t exactly interest me. There are two solo albums, however, that he recorded in the midst of these collaborations that need mentioning. The first, Wie das Wispern des Windes, from 1986, features Roedelius on solo grand piano. He’s at his most Harold Budd-like on a number of these tracks, and if you consider yourself a fan of Budd, then check out this album immediately. The second is Plays Piano, a live recording from 1985 (released in 2011) that sees Roedelius once again on solo grand piano: twenty-one sketches that capture his mercurial imagination in motion – and a spryer version of “By This River” as well.
In 1991, Roedelius released Piano Piano. In musical notation, it refers to the term “pianissimo” which is a directive to a musician to play a passage or piece of music softly. Roedelius is once again at the grand piano, and his resolute, passionate, unadorned playing eliminates the line between the composed and the improvisatory. There’s a quiet intensity at work throughout as if one had walked in on him daydreaming and experimenting at his keyboard. The surety of his touch, the varied approaches in style, and the range of mood and melody are all indicative of a confidence and expertise honed and developed and caught in full flower.
Four years later, Roedelius released Selbstportrait VI – Diary of the Unforgotten. The album includes a personal essay of sorts in which he writes about his early years as a musician, living in a sprawling estate building in Forst, West Germany, with his musical partner, Dieter Moebius. After a year of squatting and living without heat or running water, the two were able to set themselves up and get down to making music while also becoming more self-sufficient and learning to live off the land around them. Eventually Roedelius married a woman (whom he doesn’t name) and together they had a daughter, Rosa. Roedelius writes:
“…Rosa, our first child, was born, not long after our wedding, at home in front of an open fire whilst (my own) music played softly in the background. This fireplace birth had a profound effect on my daughter, with Forst enduring for her as an image of paradise entered. Which it had always been for me as well, from the beginning to the inevitable, bitter end.”
That inevitable, bitter end took shape in the form of the nearby Würgassen nuclear power plant, “constantly being shut down for some fault or other.” Roedelius further states that “a rise in leukemia and cancer-related illnesses in the area,” forced his eventual departure.
This feeling, rooted in the actual experience of a utopia gained and lost, goes to the haunted, wounded, core of Roedelius’ Selbstportraits. There’s a built-in bereft quality, heightened by his playing alone. But it’s the sorrowful, melancholy melodies that tell the real story. Even his lighter, happier work in the series is marked here and there with a musical stain or blemish. The impact of his brief idyll in Forst, when he was young and in love, discovering himself, his family, and his art, reverberated through his life and indelibly formed him as a musician. But the beauty and wonder from that time survive in his music, too.
Selbstportrait VI is a highlight of the series, with standout tracks including the blissful “Remember Those Days,” the ragged lament of “Du” with its minor mistakes left in place while the tape runs, the steady tranquility of “Schoner Abend.” Frankly, I could point to any track and recommend it. The centerpiece though is “Hommage à Forst” an epic, 24-minute collage, loaded with Cluster and Harmonia samples, granulated room tones, field recordings from the grounds of the estate, and what sounds at times like an old film projector. It’s one of the least “musical,” most directly autobiographical tracks Roedelius ever created and, in light of the meaning of Forst for him, one of the most fascinating.
So now, here in 2020, we come to the latest Selbstportrait, Wahre Liebe (True Love), available on the Bureau B label. Apparently, Gunther Buskies at Bureau B asked Roedelius if he was interested in creating another installment in the self-portrait series using all the old gear he’d used to record his earlier albums: “a Farfisa organ, drum machine, tape-delay and a Rhodes.” Roedelius dove in, and the result is a stunning thing, a work of true love, and a necessary expansion of the Selbstportrait series. Each track embodies the specific ideas and moods that are Roedelius’ own but there’s no straining toward the epic, no sense of an artist unearthing his difficult late period work or attempting to define the ultimate meaning of his legacy. It’s just Roedelius doing what he’s always done best – presenting more musical plein air gouaches, quick and light and immediate, yet saturated with color, feeling, and depth.
Furthermore, there’s no sense of time passed or lost, nothing elegiac. He sounds as solidly connected to the foundational source of his musical imagination as he did when he first ventured into the realms of his solo work. His wit and creativity and feeling are as fresh and alive as they ever were. Wahre Liebe is a brilliant addition to a catalog already brimming with great work.
Before getting off the bus, I take a look around to see if anyone else has been riding with the driver and me for the last twenty minutes.
There’s just one more, a mountain of a man asleep in the back, taking up two seats. His legs are open wide and his head is tilted into the corner behind him. His jaw hangs low as if he were asleep in his living room. From the looks of him, he should be snoring but he’s not.
We’re at the last stop, the stop where the driver usually tells everyone to clear off, but tonight he doesn’t say a word. Then again, there’s a yellow plastic chain separating him from the rest of the bus, so I don’t know if he’s actually said something. That, and he’s got a mask over half his face.
Approaching the curb, I look up for traffic. I already know there probably won’t be any cars, just food delivery people wrapped from head to toe silently whipping past on e-bikes.
But there is one guy, short, thick, jacketless, with a Ray Davies “Come Dancing”-era comb-back. He’s standing in the bike lane of all places when there’s nothing but empty space around, yelling into his phone:
“I TOLD YOU, YOU CAN CHANGE EVOLUTION.”
Any other day, I would’ve let the moment pass. But with everything about city life that on a person-to-person level I’ve grown accustomed to – taken for granted even – suddenly gone, the indie movie cliché of the crackpot with a leaky theory about what’s really going on around here, man, stood out. Behold, your newly unemployed security guard, losing his shit with nobody around to notice or care.
I do that city thing though, and keep walking.
I turn the corner by the bank and head to Cooper Square plaza, a space that’s usually busy with skate boarders, pot-smoking bike messengers, residents like me walking to or from work, folks out for the night.
There’s nobody around. A fresh breeze gusts from the south and smells surprisingly clean. Less traffic, less pollution: one silver lining. Without all the headlights and ambient light from apartments and restaurants, the traffic and street lights glow with an almost sentient intensity. It’s beautiful. All of it. The silence, the surrounding darkness, the emptiness.
Beneath all of this is a horror story. And as I walk, I see ambulances parked mid-block on every other street, with warning lights whipping and flashing…
This playlist is an attempt to reflect some of the uncertainty permeating the city. The feelings of abandonment, of isolation and fear and doubt. It’s also an attempt to catch some of the unintended beauty revealed in the wake of all the people who have gone inside or gone away or gone missing.
I miss them. I miss us. In some way, I’ll miss this version of the city when it’s gone. Yet I can’t wait for all of this to be over.
The gist of Slow Machines seems to be one of drifting. Of letting go of any kind of rigidity or formal structure to float away to a looser, unfettered dimension. Grigoni’s languid yet precise playing on his dobro, pedal, and lap steel guitars works to conjure images of an eternal Southwestern landscape while Vitiello’s electronics, field recordings and effects (as well as his application of clicks, ticks, and scratches from the Tinguely-esque kinetic sculptures of Arthur Ganson on the first track) keep the music grounded in the physicality of the here and now. Together the two artists strike a lively balance that suggests vast expanses of space and time without explicitly referencing the celestial.
Grigoni’s gentle picking and strumming on most tracks creates a spare pointillist specificity that hovers over Vitiello’s beds of glowing, swelling effects. “Purpling Cloud” finds them slowly building up the sense of a gathering storm, with a kind of breezy playing from Grigoni buttressed by softly distorted growls from Vitiello. The piece ends in a rainy patter of notes, bringing with it a feeling of dry heat and the peppery smell of petrichor.
The rain suggested in “Purpling Cloud” reaches land and seems to float in the distant background of “A Clearing,” but the track never lapses into an ambient cliché of dreamy stasis. This is thanks to Vitiello’s subtle intrusions and ruptures as well as Grigoni’s muted, wordless vocals, which both echo and harmonize with his playing. The closing track, “Transparent as a Hanging Glass” throbs with a more pronounced bass sound while reversed guitar notes and glinting harmonics throughout add new textures and dimensions.
Each track on Slow Machines is part of a larger mood, yet the album is never monotonous. It’s packed with intriguing details and ideas, and plays out in a fresh and surprising fashion. I find it both a much-needed antidote to our current craziness and a source of solace. And if you like it as much as I do, check out Grigoni’s earlier 12k release, Mount Carmel. It’s a beauty.
While I’m suggesting other work by these artists, check out this new release from Vitiello, And the room into my buzzing head. With just an open window and an Aeolian harp – a harp that’s played by the wind blowing across its strings – he’s captured a rich and lovely recording of both the lulling swells of the harp and the vibrant sounds of life outside his window. From a startling array of birdcalls to the muffled thrum of drowsy insects to the evocative, heralding call of a distant train. It’s a surprisingly emotive variant on John Cage’s “4’33” and a soothing sonic strategy for these self-quarantining times.
The recording begins with excerpts from an interview with marine scientist and ecologist Carlos Duarte describing what happens during the annual spring bloom in the marginal ice zone of the Arctic, the transitional space “between the open ocean and sea ice,” according to the Norwegian Polar Institute.
Owing to the general deep freeze and the lack of steady warming sunlight during the winter season in the Arctic, there’s relatively little biological activity beyond extant organisms feeding off leftovers from the preceding season. But starting around February each year, the sun slowly re-emerges, melting off snow cover and thinning out ice, and with that the spring bloom is on. Within a few weeks, ice algae begins to photosynthesize, and diatoms and plankton begin to bloom, depleting the carbon dioxide in the water and creating the largest carbon sink in the biosphere. No small thing, as this also helps sustain life – the phytoplankton alone produces half the oxygen the human race relies on. Through various levels of food chain predation, those diatoms and other organisms ultimately become meals for birds and mammals indigenous to the region. Once stripped of their nutrients, what remains sinks to the ocean floor and is consumed by the organisms there that are in turn fed on by other organisms, and so on.
Life, in other words. Non-human life. Not that the Arctic has evaded the crushing impact of a human touch. It remains to be seen what effect the climate crisis will have on the region but the prognosis is dire. To go back to Duarte, he states near the end of his interview that while the rest of the world is looking at a two-degree threshold for an increase in global temperature as a kind of limit for our chances to contain the effects of global warming, the arctic has already blown past that to become the leading area for developing climate change. He sees the region losing all of its ice in the future, sea ice as well as glaciers on land, with no way to prevent any of it from disappearing. Anyone paying even the slightest amount of attention to news like this knows that dangerous rises in sea levels are just the beginning of what we can expect to come our way…
Rather than collapsing in despair in the face of such information, Winderen captures the sounds of this crackling, chirping, whooping ecosystem in full swing. Moaning seals, singing whales, the sounds of blooming plankton, clicking crustaceans, and melting ice are all pristinely recorded and cast in a multi-dimensional 35-minute symphonic drift. Two versions are offered: a headphone mix and a speaker mix, with slight differences between the two in terms of material. In terms of affect, I’d have to recommend the headphone mix. From the comfort of my chair, it was a unique pleasure to be submerged into the unexpected warmth of the marginal ice zone, a place teeming with life forms I felt sure I could have leaned forward and plucked from the speculative space Winderen opened in front of me. It’s a rich and strange world, well beyond the reach of most of us, so getting contact with it, even in this form, is a rare gift.
And it’s a pleasure to be reminded that we are surrounded by life and mystery, not just greed and cruelty and hopelessness.
The time may already be here when we, as a species, will have to think beyond ourselves when we think about the future. Many of us won’t survive the destruction of the natural world that’s coming. What can we do to ameliorate some of that destruction? To preserve at least some of what makes this place so singular and precious?
Spring Bloom is a work of both inspiring imagination and deep compassion – things that seem to be in dangerously short supply right now. Do yourself a favor and check it out.
So, I recently posted on Twitter that in these self-quarantining times, I’d been listening to a lot of solo bass, double bass, and cello and really enjoying the variety of melodies, rhythms, and textures I was discovering. A friend innocently suggested that I put together a Spotify playlist and that was all it took.
Here are two playlists (though they’re not strictly solo works). Enjoy and stay safe.