Friday 31st JulyJuly 31, 2009
Even more tired than usual tonight. I worked for a long time today from very early this morning, and when I got home a little while back this evening and poured myself a well deserved glass of bad wine it went straight to my head. So listening tonight hasn’t been easy. I began by playing a busy, complicated improv record that was on the pile here and found it close to unlistenable, not only because it was a tough listen in general, but because my tiredness and slight intoxication wouldn’t allow me to follow it easily. So I took a bath, drank a strong coffee, came back and listened to something very different.
I actually played the new Stefan Thut / Manfred Werder split release on the Wandelweiser label, a disc I had managed to play a couple of times earlier this week, on both occasions late at night when just going to bed for some reason. The CD is named im sefinental, which refers to the site at which the recordings took place, the Kilchbalm glacier area of the Sefinental mountain district of Germany. Stefan Thut is a name I only know as a violinist. His excellent realisation of Tim Parkinson’s Violin Piece score was released a few years back on Wandelweiser. On his im assen raum, the first of the two tracks here, he takes the role of composer, and is credited on the sleeve alongside Werder with performance, but you could easily be excused for asking what either of them do to deserve that description on this piece. The track is thirty two and a half minutes in length, and from start to finish the recording is dominated by the sound of water rushing. It isn’t clear if we are hearing a fast flowing river up close, or a waterfall of some kind, but the recording is definitely made outside, and very well done. There is a persistent grey roar throughout, with other incidental sounds here and there, wind, passing aircraft, and right near the start of the recording a weird moment when a fly of some kind comes very close to a microphone, making me jump in my chair as if it was about to land on my ear. I suspect if you were to write a list of the things you may find on a field recording made near water in a remote part of the countryside all of those things appear here. What does not appear to be present are any kind of instrument, or human intervention of any kind, at least, not without the closest, strained, perhaps even slightly slightly subjective listening anyway.
If we listen very very carefully, and with the approach that there is something to be found if you listen hard enough, then maybe there are deliberate sounds made by the performers to be heard here. But then maybe not. The very brief liner notes to the piece (they might actually also constitute the score, I’m not certain) read:
between sound and noise
These words suggest that there is human intervention here if we listen hard enough, and after two or three listens I do suspect there might be something to be heard. There are the occasional, maybe quite innocent shuffling sounds, and at one point the quietest, tiniest of brief , high-pitched tones, maybe from a violin, maybe from the mouth organ Werder is known for playing, but then perhaps maybe neither and the sound isn’t there at all.
You wouldn’t be going mad, or couldn’t be accused of being a poor listener if you said that Manfred Werder’s piece here, named 2008Â³ is no different to Thut’s. There is a slight difference in the microphone position I think, as the rushing water is very slightly less dominant here, tiny insect-like sounds can be heard, which are presumably insects, and it may well be raining, with distant rolls of thunder audible now and again. Any of the above sounds might actually have been made by the two performers as well, though I doubt it.
Werder’s piece is thirty-four minutes long and is accompanied by the following brief text:
a mountain range
a river delta
Twenty-two minutes into 2008Â³ there is a sudden, most definitely deliberate sound to be heard, a loud crack, as if someone had plugged a cable into the back of a guitar monitor. It lasts a split second, resonates momentarily in the space surrounding it and disappears, not to be heard again. The sound does seem to change the colouring of the natural sounds we hear straight after. Maybe the rain gets heavier (was it just a sharp clap of thunder after all?) and birds seem more agitated, twittering a little more persistently now. I find myself wondering if that sound was indeed made by the performers? I really think it was, but I don’t feel certain, and the temptation to rewind the disc and listen again is overwhelming, but I resist and let the CD play on for its remaining twelve minutes, during which time I detect no further unexpected sounds.
So from one perspective this is a CD containing two nice environmental recordings. From a pure field recording perspective they are nicely made, and their playback sets a gentle, pleasant mood for the listener. The problem is though, the two recordings are apparently compositions, and they are apparently “performed” by Thut and Werder. So of course we expect sounds. We sit and listen carefully, on the edge of our seats waiting for something to happen. But it doesn’t. Or it does and we don’t notice. Or maybe we do notice but we doubt ourselves. Listening to these two pieces caused me to wonder about these things. What am I hearing beyond the obvious? Is there actually anything there? What did the “performance” consist of? Were sounds made? Should I have heard them? Was that not an obvious noise? Could it have been something else?
I really did ask myself these questions. Whether or not they are the questions that Thut and Werder intended the listener to be asking is not clear, but it is this odd mystery that lead me to enjoy this CD. Its a bit weird sat late in the evening in your dressing gown listening to the sound of a waterfall (or similar) in the German mountains. Even weirder when you find yourself listening hard for any sign of musicians, feeling like you are going slightly mad for trying. I don’t doubt that it is this kind of query, a challenge to what we should expect from a musical “performance” that is at the heart of these two composers’ interests. I enjoyed playing along here, completing the triangle that has the musicians and the environment at the other two corners. I do need to listen to this again though, when completely sober and with my wits about me a little more. Maybe then it will be more clear as to what there is to be listening to, or maybe I’ll spend another hour straining my ears as those once witness to the Emperor’s New Clothes strained their eyes. A curious release indeed.