CD Reviews

Friday 22nd July

July 23, 2011

Ben Owen is a fine designer and letterpress print worker whose CD sleeves for his winds measure label and other places are the source of much jealousy on my behalf. He is also though a very good musician working with field recordings, and tonight’s CD, named 05012009 FP is a recent solo release of his, issued, oddly not under the winds measure banner but as a separate self released project. Before discussing the music, its inevitably a beautiful object, a white CDr wrapped up in three cards printed with abstract black on white splodges. The music itself is very nice indeed as well, all field recordings but works of character, mystery  and individuality, which in my opinion are three of the virtues that make for good field recording work.

The minimal sleeve notes give little away, and add to the degree of curiosity that surrounds the four tracks here. They are as follows:

“frying pan, hudson river, new york, ny.
recordings in preparation for underfoot/sound in the frying pan installation.

Beyond this short note, the track titles reveal a little more, but it isn’t obvious what we are hearing in these pieces. The opening track of the album is called two pipes. It consists mainly of two groaning, whistling sounds that at first made me think of some kind of owl-like birdsong, a low hoot followed by a slightly higher one, but closer listening, and the repeating pattern they form as they remain present for much of the fourteen minute track suggest otherwise. We hear water gurgling closely, not running water but lapping against a harbour maybe. A greg industrial hum sits behind everything as a distant backdrop. Cars can be heard driving about in the distance, and on occasion there are sudden bursts of engines starting up nearby, presumably moored boat motors. A while back while away somewhere with Julie I sat for a few minutes at a harbour listening to the sound of a tied up boat rocking gently against the harbour wall, and I wonder if this is what we hear on this disc, as the slow momentum of the sounds have a vaguely tidal feel to them. More likely we are hearing wind blowing through pipes, given the track’s title, but you never know. The piece is very beautiful, kind of hauntingly so, as its clear right from the start that we are listening to a single recording of one place, but the contents of that aural space have a peculiar sensation to them, as if alive, with the two pipe-like whistles sounding alive and in conversation.

The second piece, shorter  at six and a half minutes and named walk wind rain has a similar feel but is louder, more present and here the whistles seem to have grown to loud groans and are wrapped up in a deeper, more dense field of grey industrial sounding background hum and we hear rain hitting the surface of the already splashing water. Here there is more of a feel of urgency and natural energy as wind buffets the microphone and the feel of an oncoming storm is found in the music, the roar of engines and I think at one point a helicopter seeming to build in the music to coincide with the natural activity. Four minutes in, a door seems to close and footsteps go up stairs as the outside conditions seem suddenly shut out and we hear the sound of water running through something or other but recorded from indoors. Again, much of what I hear here may be incorrect, but again this is all part of the charm of the music and its sense of mystery.

The third track, ceiling mid level seems to follow straight out of the second, and we hear this kind of rumbling watery sound continuing, heard through a wall perhaps, or running down a plastic pipe. The recording sounds like it was made indoors, but the storm outside can be heard clearly, rain coming down hard at one stage, and strange groans and scrapes apparent here and there alongside other knocks and bangs that I couldn’t begin to try and identify. A motor starts up again, which makes me wonder if what we are hearing was recorded inside a boat, hence the proximity to the water, but who knows.

The final piece, the seventeen minute long track in hull thankfully wasn’t recorded in Hull in the north of England, but instead seems to have been made by placing a microphone somehow in to the hull of a boat. So of much of the time we hear a hollow amplification of water sloshing about, somehow removed from the busy hustle that could be heard distantly through the other three tracks. The piece is very calm and strangely unnerving, the feeling of being inside a dark metal shell deep down in a boat perched on water coming across very strongly. This feeling of slight danger is exacerbated by the occasional sudden roar of the boat’s engines, momentarily clouding out everything else for a few seconds before cutting out again.

In many ways, wondering about the exact source of the sounds here, and whether we can identify them correctly is missing the point. The music on 05012009 FP is very beautiful, very nicely recorded and indeed something of a mystery, but its the choices made by Owen that impress me the most here. This CD isn’t just about documentation, or about revealing sounds we perhaps might not have otherwise spotted, but it is about creating a sense of place, with a narrative coupled to it that becomes somewhere to inhabit, feel part of and respond to, even if we are not actually sure where we are. The four tracks here tell their own stories, each slightly different, and each revealing enough to keep the tale interesting, without giving the game away. Owen seems to have chosen places to record that have a musical feel to themselves anyway, the sign of a good ear picking out sounds that, once removed from the visual elements that go with them somehow become more interesting than they would be if we could see what was making them. Again that sense of mystery, of the slightly veiled, allowing us to fill in the gaps, create our own story for the recordings here to soundtrack adds something special to the music here. Great stuff then, a really quite captivating hour of music. I’ve just noticed that only fifty copies were pressed. Ben’s website suggests some are still available, but I’d move fast if I were you.

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