Saturday 30th JulyJuly 31, 2011
Today was a nice day. I had the day off of work and half intended sitting at my desk all day catching up on a large number of outstanding administrative tasks, but the day was lovely, warm sunshine woke me relatively early and so Julie and I headed off to the River Thames in West Oxford and after a walk along the banks sat and read for a good few hours, catching the sun a little and working up a thirst that we quenched at a nice riverside pub. The day was great, and then in the evening I went and met up with a friend for something to eat, though my enjoyment of the quite nice food was tempered by the bad music he insisted on playing throughout it. I got home late, but here anyway is a simple review of a CD I’ve played once or twice recently and then have been spinning since getting in this evening.
The disc in question is another release on the Gruenrekorder label, a further disc in their “silver box” series of field recording works. I call the series “silver box” because the releases each come in a silver CD sized tin, identical apart from a round black sticker on the front and a sheet of tracing paper containing track listing and sleeve notes inside. This one is named Ultrasonic Scapes and is a set of ten recordings by Eisuke Yanagisawa. The tracks here are field recordings, each captured in real time and presented as such here without any post production treatment, but the difference here is that they each are recordings of ultrasonic sounds usually inaudible to the human ear but captured and converted here using a bat detector, which I guess must apply some form of real time treatment to the sounds or we wouldn’t be now able to hear them…
So the pieces are fascinating. There are recordings of streetlights, automatic gates, a TV and other manmade electronic items, but also sounds captured from bats and cicadas and other pieces that, even though titled I cannot work out the source object for. Now as a piece of documentary exploration (and indeed the liner notes actually describe the release as “another soundscape documentary beyond our audible range”) this is interesting and quite surprising work. A kind of dull cloudy sheen of static fills the background of each of the tracks, thicker and heavier on some than others, but over this we hear a kind of brittle, stark sounds emanating from the various objects. Some pieces have clear rhythmic Â patterns driving them, and this seems, perhaps not surprisingly, to be the case with the manmade items, so the streetlights pulse with a kind of electronic sounding squelch and spluttering cough similar to an analogue synth fed through a Max/MSP gate of some kind. The eight track, Dell, which quite possibly relates to a recording of a computer hard drive resembles the kind of mysterious revolving distortion patterns often heard if you pay attention to shortwave radio frequencies. The bat recordings and the chorus of cicadas don’t have the same sensation but are both quite eerily unnatural in how they sound here, the cicadas in particular sounding more like an old steam locomotive picking up momentum as much as anything else.
So, as documentary recordings of this hidden world out there, as a way of revealing the mass of activity that we don’t normally identify with, this disc is a nice eye opener and a clever indication towards how vaguely musical forms can be found by accident in this manner.I fin myself asking the same question however that I have asked a number of times of late. Does good documentary make for good music? Is this CD enjoyable, or mentally stimulating when put on the stereo and listened to? What was the purpose of this disc’s release? Merely to highlight in a semi scientific way this area of sonic research or as something to be sat down and listened to considered as an artwork? Such thoughts are of course packed with loaded questions in themselves and indeed art, as with beauty is in the eye (ear) of the beholder- one person’s uninteresting idea is someone else’s conceptual masterpiece, but I can only present my own personal opinion, and for me these ten pieces offer me little that makes much in the way of a musical, or emotional statement to me. This isn’t to diminish the value of the work as interesting and perhaps important documentation, but for me where these pieces fall down, as something like Lee Patterson’s Egg Fry succeeded, is that they don’t really make for particularly riveting music. Once you get past the element of surprise at exactly what you are hearing, my interest wanes. Incidental, found musicality can be great, as the frying egg proved to me at least, but here on these pieces, with the exception of the momentarily more interesting clatter and chiming of a piece named 6th Floor, the way the sounds sit, generally just present and looping rather than evolving or decaying, isn’t that interesting over more than one listen. We come back again to a word I have though about often in relation to CDs of field recordings- purpose. What is the purpose of this music? What purpose was instilled into it by its composer? I sense little more than fascinated documentation, but I’d have liked to have heard something more.