Thursday 9th OctoberOctober 9, 2009
Tonight after a long tough day at work Julie met me in Oxford and went we went to dinner and then went to watch The Invention of Lying, Ricky Gervais’ new film, which is essentially not very good, lacking a decent plot, any strong characters or decent dialogue, but is still based around a rather brilliant conceit that will probably ruffle a few feathers, particularly in the USA… Anyway I got home late tonight, so am glad that I have been listening to the music I aim to write about now for a little while and I am not trying to find words about something I listened to the first time this evening.
The music in question is the album The Medium, by Haptic, the trio of Stevn Hess, Joseph Clayton Mills and Adam Sonderberg, who are joined on this release by Tony Buck and Boris Hauf on the first of the two tracks, and Olivia Block on the other. Now there is a reason I have spent a little time with this music before writing about it. The Medium was released as a vinyl LP on the Flingco Sound System label. The initial copies also came with a free DVD, which sets the music from the album to a film. Now the problem is, I don’t own a turntable yet. A few weeks back I very nearly bought one. I had every intention of doing so, having seen a well-regarded deck on special offer in an Oxford shop, but when I went to purchase one I discovered they had run out and were not sure when they would be back in stock. So I still intend to buy a turntable, but I am looking about for a good deal again.
Anyway, when Adam Sonderberg graciously sent me a copy of the release he included a copy of the DVD, but also knowing I didn’t have a turntable yet included a lossless disc of the audio on a separate CD. So I have a copy of the music in three formats, vinyl, CD and visually augmented DVD. My plan (and a good one I think too) was to listen to / watch all three formats on the same day and write a piece comparing them, so reviewing the music and the three ways of listening at the same time. However as the turntable is proving to be more of a task than originally planned I have decided to write now about the music on the CD, then write about the DVD sometime next week, and hopefully the vinyl sometime after.
So The Medium consists of two pieces of music, one on each side of the album. The first side, including Hauf and Buck was recorded and assembled in April 2005. the second piece, involving Block was put together nearly two years later in February 2007. The CD sent to me by Adam contains each of these tracks, plus a third track than combines the two into one longer work with a one minute bridge. This third track is what is used as the soundtrack to the film on the DVD. For the sake of this first write-up I aim to discuss just the first two tracks, as they appeared on the vinyl. I am not certain as to precisely who makes what sound in Haptic. Certainly Sonderberg has been known to use electronics and percussion in various settings before, and Hess was the percussionist in Pan American. Clayton Mills has worked with both before in the larger group Dropp Ensemble, whose excellent 2009 release Safety is one of my favourites of the year so far. In that group he contributed electronics of some kind so I assume he does the same here.
Like the aforementioned Dropp Ensemble disc, The Medium explores musical areas of rich, glowing beauty. While never really slipping completely into drone territory at any point the music focusses on swelling and receding tones, moaning excited percussion and slowly evolving layered sounds. There is a little “grit” applied via Block’s unidentifiable field recordings on the second track, but in the main the sounds we hear are lithe flowing drifts of sound accompanied by little pinpricks of colour, particularly on the first piece where good use is made of a muted vibraphone. The music is not all about tension, troublesome musical argument or conceptual playfulness. Right from the outset as soft tones smother murky pops and crackles the music exudes a slowly unfolding sense of stately beauty. Three minutes in and as layers of shifting clean tones and floating electronics rise into wave-like Â gentle swells a further very high pitched note comes in over the top. This is the lovely moment I mentioned briefly in last night post. I am reminded of a Turner sky when I listen to this music. Everything is rich, layered, full of powerfully emotive depth, and yet all about the overbearing atmosphere that grips you firmly and pulls you into the work, as if trying to drown you. This visual idea I have is interesting as I have yet to watch the film by Lisa Slodki that accompanies the music on the DVD, and it will be interesting to see if the visuals in my head bear any relation to Slodki’s approach.
So the two tracks here are achingly beautiful. they aren’t hugely challenging, they don’t suggest any deep conceptual meaning, I don’t even think they are completely improvised (I imagine extended improvisations have been recorded, layered and merged here, though I’m not yet certain) but the music is quite stunningly beautiful, not only in the obvious aural meaning of the word, but also through the delicacy and fine craftsmanship of its construction. It really isn’t just improv-lite however. So much is going on deep within the music’s viscous layers. Like years of weather-worn layers of torn posters on disused urban buildings little glimpses of colour shine through the broken surfaces. Little bits of other messages are glimpsed, sometimes fragments that stand apart from everything we hear above them, sometimes just elements that blend in. The later parts of the second side see many of the layers stripped away as well, revealing the muted scuffs of Olivia Block’s contributions below in more detail. Despite there being nearly two years between the recordings, and despite the change in additional musicians from track to track the mood and sonic palette of each side of the album doe snot change very much. This is a closely knit group of musicians with a carefully refined sense of their collective output. I can see this music appealing easily to people from outside of the usual circles of experimental music as well. While it is far from easy listening it is also quite elemental in its beauty and it pulls listeners in rather than push them away. Lovely stuff. I now just find myself wondering which I prefer, this album or the Dropp disc. I also have another vinyl release by Haptic awaiting the turntable as well, an older 10″ disc called Cristal on the Entr’acte label, whose increasingly great catalogue will also be augmented further by yet another Haptic release next week, a CD named Trebuchet. Lots of potentially great stiff to be wallowing in then. Next week I’ll watch, and write something about The Medium’s DVD.