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.

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.