Tonight’s CD is a difficult one for me. Difficult because although I quite like it, I struggle to work out how to approach it really. It is a recent release on the Monotype label by the American computer-based composer Kim Cascone. Now, somehow I have mostly managed to remain ignorant about Cascone’s music over the years, only hearing little bits here and there. While on the whole this has been an accident, I must admit that, viewed from the outside, his CD titles and graphics have always put me off a little, and even this new release, named The Knotted Constellation (Fourteen rotten co-ordinates) comes wrapped in a digipack covered in zeroes and ones complete with liner notes that list the technical hardware used to make the music, and proudly declares that the CD was constructed solely with Linux. There is of course, nothing whatsoever wrong with this outwardly technical approach to communicating about the music, it just hasn’t often appealed to me personally. What I do like about this release however, is that while often there are sounds that are clearly either computer generated or treated, this isn’t a CD that is more interested in its own technology than its musical content. It remains however, a curious release.
The album consists of a single thirty-two minute track, but it is made up of many smaller sections that sit clearly apart from one another, mostly separated by a second or two of silence, but often so very different to each other that they feel like short separate works rather than parts of a larger whole. The sounds are probably a fifty-fifty mix of field recordings, heard both unprocessed and treated, and computer generated sounds, or at least perhaps, sounds that have been treated so much that they no longer resemble anything other than a computer. The liners credit a host of names with different parts of the CD, but each of these attributions is a little oblique, with C. Spencer Yeh credited with “violin gauze”, Christopher Cascone with “hospital gauze” and Mike Rooke with “white light gauze” amongst others, and a worldwide list of field recording sites also added. This isn’t your average layered blend of tasteful recordings and instrumentation however. The disc opens with a few seconds of the chimes of a church’s bells, only to stop and be replaced by a slightly removed, pitchshifted and gradually warped computer appropriation of them for a few a couple of minutes before again this cuts out entirely and pops, crackles and digital hum mix with dripping water, overflowing guttering and other unidentifiable taps and scratches. Then these leave and other sections arrive, ranging from the obvious birdsong to airport tannoy announcements to a bizarre loop of a man’s cackling laughter, fed through a filter that somehow makes the sound more sinister as it pulls it away from sounding entirely human.
The Knotted Constellation (Fourteen rotten co-ordinates)(and what a great title that is) does actually spring a few surprises like these. When we think the music has settled into a pattern of synthetic digital squiggles it suddenly hits us with a completely disparate field recording for a few seconds, or steps up or down a gear on the drop of a hat to keep us alert. The press pack for the release describes the music as “a cinematic sound narrative that moves the listener through a series of auditory fields” and from a purely descriptive point of view that is exactly what we hear here. Where is struggle with the disc a bit though, is with how I am meant to process this cinematic sound narrative- what is is telling me, how to I connect with it, either emotionally or aesthetically? There are some great little sections of sound here, some nice use of field recording and a subtle, controlled approach to both synthesised sounds and those developed from the instrumental contributions made by others to the album. Where I perhaps struggle though is with working out a suitable response as a listener. The way the separate parts all sit segregated by a second or three of silence (Cascone describes these as the “digital black” that frames the separate “constellations” doesn’t really allow a fluid connection to the CD, and instead my response has been a combination of surprise as the music shifts approach abruptly quite often and a kind of puzzled approach as I have tried to work out any sense of real purpose and direction that might be found in the music. Without, I should add, very much luck.
This is a pleasing disc though, a kind of subdued, less clichÃ©-ridden approach to musique concrÃ©te, full of surprise but without the traditional cut and splice energy. I suspect that I am in fact missing something important- that the compositional style here Â is crucial to the work somehow and the choice of sounds is far more than arbitrary, but as it stands, as much as I like the separate parts of this release, and as much as I can admire the technical subtleties and recording quality of the work, I continue to find it hard to pull it all together into something that works as more than the sum of its parts. As I say, I suspect this may be my failing rather than any particular flaw in the music, and certainly i will pay more attention to Cascone’s work in future having hear this release, but for now this one remains a bit of a puzzle.