CD Reviews

Saturday 17th September

September 18, 2011

Ah boy that was a long exhausting week. I’m pleased to have tomorrow off. Before writing about tonight’s CD, let me point you to an advert box over there on the left and down a bit, for a concert taking place in Oxford on the 1st October. This will be a free concert that will feature the premier of a prose score by Patrick Farmer, to be performed by Rhodri Davies (harp) and Tim Parkinson (piano). I’d be surprised if its not very lovely indeed. If you are in or near to Oxford, or even if you aren’t, I thoroughly recommend making it along.

So, today, when I haven’t been working so hard that every muscle aches and my brain has frazzled, I have also managed to spend some time with a new disc of field recordings by Ernst Karel. This release, issued on the Gruenrekorder labels named Swiss Mountain Transport Systems. It  contains, perhaps not that surprisingly, nine recordings of assorted vehicles/cablecars/helicopters etc… operating in the Swiss mountain ranges and recorded on various dates between July and November 2008. The recordings are all, I believe, untreated, unprocessed and unedited pieces. So the various tracks differ depending on what is captured here of course, but all of these pieces are well recorded captures of everyday mechanical systems that somehow take on a life of their own separated from the sides of Swiss mountains and transplanted, via a CD into the room I am listening in here in Oxfordshire, England. There are two ways to approach an album like this. One is to read the liners carefully, noting precisely what we are listening to, and trying to picture the machinery and processes that produce the sounds we hear. The other is to treat the recordings as abstract works of sound and just try and enjoy them in that way, perhaps as if they were made specifically as music. I usually choose the latter option, primarily because I prefer the mystery of listening in this way, but with this particular album, having had some experiences with cable cars and funicular railways over recent years, albeit it at English coastal cliffs rather than Swiss mountains, and having always hated the experiences because of a problematic fear of heights that I suffer from, the process of remaining the journeys captured on this CD was an intriguing, perhaps even uncomfortable one.

So the recordings here range from noisy, clattering, whirring industrial sounding pieces that I would have guessed were more likely to be factories than transport systems, through to a (somewhat dull compared to the rest of the album) recording of a passing helicopter, and some fantastically detailed, hugely engaging recordings of short trips up or down mountains in cable cars, funicular railways, and the like. My favourite two pieces here are the last two on the disc. The eighth track captures a journey made on a funicular railway built in 1910. The piece begins with what sounds like distant rain against a roof, some automated, electronic chimes and the sound of a railway car, recorded from the inside but I suspect with a window open, clattering and banging its way along a line. As a lifelong fan of the sound of railways this piece, like others here wins me over every time, but its not just the train-like qualities of the recording that work for me, but the other less easy to identify sounds- odd swirling effects heard in the background, little scrapes that soon alike South American pan pipes appearing here and there, the squeaks of ageing materials going about the same routines they follow every day. Then at one point everything sounds more immediate, and the sound of straining metal becomes a little more apparent as it seems as if the railway car passes through a tunnel of some kind. Then from nowhere an odd sound not dissimilar to somebody whirling something quickly around their head appears, along with some loud hisses of air. What these are I have no idea. The track ends as the car can be heard entering a more enclosed space and slowing down before a stillness is followed by a rattling of keys, metal doors sliding open, human voices suddenly appearing, saying thank-you in a few languages and disappearing along with footsteps away from the microphone.

The final track is of a cable car ride, which begins with a lot of loud banging and scraping for a few seconds before everything is suddenly cast into a kind of stillness that is not silent, as we hear a distant hum and the sound of everything out of the window, but a strange, very beautiful kind of stillness that really hits home after a few minutes when the sound of church bells ringing somewhere below can clearly be heard. Then unbelievably brilliantly, the rattle of cowbells and the call of cattle appear. The contrast between this journey and the one that preceded it is very marked. While the funicular railway clattered and banged its way up or down the mountain, so this cable car, just suspended in the silence, pulled along only by a faintly humming, but thankfully constant motor casts our hearing beyond the carriage itself, onto he events taking place below. Placing this track at the end of the album, after all the hustle and bustle of other pieces is a masterstroke, a return to calm after the chaos. Then, as this final ninth track reaches its last couple of minutes, and the cable car reaches its destination, we are suddenly again cast into an echoing indoor space, and the distant hum of the motor becomes a cavernous roar as the sound of the car being pulled up or down the wire is amplified by the enclosed space.

Describing the pieces in words like this doesn’t do them justice. For me the most interesting “straight” field recordings are those that reveal sounds that we might not expect, or cast the listener into positions he or she may not normally expect to find themselves. These recordings achieve both of these factors. Karel’s recordings are interesting and engaging not only because they are filled with sounds we don’t expect, and cannot easily identify, but because they also paint pictures of what is going on that we can only guess at the accuracy of. They also all have a sense of the journey about them, the pieces that capture complete trips up or down a mountain in particular, with the excited chatter of people before a journey begins, the hush while it is taking place and the discussion immediately after frequent elements here.

Interesting stuff to help you imagine a journey then, but also a good listen from a purely abstract perspective. The real qualities of these pieces are possibly to be found somewhere between the two approaches- an understanding of the processes involved in the recordings help, but the added mystery of unidentifiable sounds make for a more intriguing listen. A fine set of file recordings either way, unusual and engaging gin a way that so many other discs often are not. A very nice evocative cover image as well.


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