CD Reviews

Wednesday 28th September

September 29, 2011

Something of a curio tonight, a CD from the (I think) Chicago based musician/composer Nick Hoffman, whose music I have come across a few times before in these pages. This new release is a CDr named Bermuda, put out by a Belgian label called Young Girls Records (their website is here to keep you from the trauma of googling for it). Before I even played the disc the release makes quite an impact, as it comes wrapped in a collection of a dozen or so sheets of folded, colour-copied paper covered in disconnected images- scraps of collaged photographs, vaguely geometric drawings on graph paper and who knows what else. This “zine” (its been a few years since I used that term!) is the work of someone named Yves Billet, and how it connects with the music I am not sure, but its vaguely surreal nature does flow through into the music on the disc.

There are two tracks here, the first named Eerie Indiana, and the second Bermuda. They are each very different. Eerie Indiana is a twenty minute long collage piece in something vaguely relating to the musique concrete tradition. There are a number of metal percussive sounds heard throughout, cymbal crashes, distressed scraping sounds etc, plus a lot of small motorised sounds, clicking, whirring and buzzing, but these are spread about between a series of short sampled field recordings. So the piece opens with a brief blast of twittering birds and a swell of stroked cymbal, but throughout we hear tiny grabs of canned laughter, roaring waves, bits of radio, audience applause, quite a lot of barking dogs, all placed in seemingly awkward, obtuse places, as if the music has been put together to active avoid  the normal aesthetic choices heard in this area of music. The piece reminds me a little of the new Taku Unami / Takahiro Kawaguchi album in its almost kitsch use of sounds that deliberately invert the normal acceptably tasteful choices we expect to hear- so when the percussive parts mix well with a buzzing radio or a whirring motor they are suddenly interrupted (undermined?) by a loud sample of a barking dog. There is a surreal element to it all, but also a sense of playfulness and mischief of Unami, circa his Malignitat albums. While the track doesn’t really gel together (probably quite deliberately) as one clear statement its a lot of fun to listen to and be initially surprised by, before you slip into that kind of listening mode in which you expect anything and so nothing really surprises, similar to the Unami/Kawaguchi disc, which has taken up a lot of my time this week.

The second piece on the disc is really very different however. Its main element is a cheap-sounding, cheesy synthesiser that is played in a series of two or three note repetitive patterns that continue for several minutes at a time, spaced apart with short gaps every so often. Alongside these, actually quite irritating semi-drones of an almost motorised nature there are samples and recordings of applause, slow hand clapping and frantic audience cheering, an extended, rather beautiful capture of rain falling against and out of overflowing guttering and a final blast of weird audience laughter. The first appearance of applause could be mistaken for part of a live recording, the crowd cheering on the two-finger synth patterns, but it becomes obvious that this isn’t a “live” recording quite quickly when not only does the cheering click in and out of the recording, but also you realise that no audience could really be so enthusiastic about such tedious synth patterns… could they?

Bermuda seems, to me at least, to belong to an unrelated, coincidental group of musicians/composers that are seeking to challenge what a listener might expect from a CD. The usual categories- live recording / studio recording / instrumental / electronic seem to be under threat, and Hoffman here seems to seek to confuse and confound as much as anything, weaving together music that doesn’t flow in the normal manner, isn’t scared to step outside of conventional taste categories and tries to avoid any easy genre terms at the same time. The obvious question we are left to ask then, is does the music have any great value beyond this sense of disrupting the norm? Is Bermuda good to listen to in and of itself? Well, its not bad, particularly on the first play through when its more surreal elements remain loaded with surprise, but the problem with music like this, that seeks to disrupt the usual patterns of aesthetic taste in quite such a dramatic manner, is that it actually quickly gets quite irritating to listen to, (and that is certainly the case with the synth sounds on the title track here) and as with all surrealism, extended exposure to the same ideas veers dangerously close kitsch. Listening to this album four or five times, it became decidedly less interesting on subsequent plays, but on the first listen, Bermuda comes as a surprise, or at least it would have done, if you hadn’t just read this review… Still, a thoroughly different release, both musically and visually. Click the image to see more detail.

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