Cassette Reviews

Saturday 22nd October

October 22, 2011

And another cassette… this one is another that seems to have been released quite some time ago (2009 in fact) but was only sent to me relatively recently. It is named Edition: 1 and appears to be one of two cassettes released simultaneously by Fraufraulein, the New York based duo of Billy Gomberg and Anne Guthrie. Whether it is still available, or whether it’s twin can still also be purchased, I don’t know, but I only have the one to listen to here. The tape contains some improvisations with Guthrie playing French Horn, Oboe, Flute & Percussion, and Gomberg playing Synthesizer, Chinese Flute & Percussion that fade into field recordings made by Guthrie on a trip to China.

Now this is the first of the tapes I have reviewed here in which the sound quality really seems to have hurt my enjoyment of the music. The improvisations in particular sound horribly murky, full of hiss and enveloped in a cloud that seems to render everything dull and colourless. When the music ends and the last bit of tape runs out before it stops there is still more sound to be heard coming from the speakers than at your average Radu Malfatti concert. This is definitely a case of the tape having an impact and not just the original recordings being low quality.

Anyway, side one opens with an improv piece that lasts maybe a bit more than ten minutes. Its hard to get a handle on this piece. Guthrie takes to playing her horn as we have come to recognise it, remaining tonal throughout, meandering through little bits of semi-melodic playing that reminds me of a kind of lo-fi Feldman without the repetition, if that makes any sense at all. Gomberg seems to suffer the most here at the hands of the cassette medium. His contributions, which were clearly quiet in the first place are smothered so much that its often hard to trace them at all, and the cohesiveness of the music and any interplay between the duo feels lost. The faintest sounds of the city break through every now and again, and bits of synth abstraction find their way to the top every so often, but if the duo are working closely together here to knit an intertwined piece of music (and I’m not sure that they are) then I struggle to connect with it. Maybe though, that’s the point.

Then near the end the first side a field recording of massed chattering voices in a Chinese tongue floods into aural view- much louder and easier to focus on than the improvisation. This little piece lasts just a few moments but works really well here, a kind of abrupt juxtaposition of sounds to end the first side. Turning the tape over, we start off with a further field recording, this time I think on a train, or bus, or something similar, as a gaggle of happy, chattery voices is matched by an automated tannoy announcement of some kind. I’ve hear many field recordings like this down the years- it seems de rigeur when visiting a foreign country to record such a situation, but the piece is still very nice, and leads into a lovely little improvisation that is quite different to the one on the previous side. The horn and synth are replaced by percussion, little tinkling sounds, rattles, scrapes, a momentary harmonica-like sound and the occasional tone. Its a quiet, refined affair, and the use of mostly percussive, pinpricks of sound allows the music to be affected less by the tape hiss. We then hear a series of field recordings, more crowd chatter, and a lovely recording of a female voice singing in an operatic style at the other end of the resonant space in which it must have been recorded. Sorry to keep going on about the same subject, but I would have loved to have heard this track on a CD…

I keep returning during these cassette reviews to the same questions about how much the medium is allowed to impact upon the music, and then how much of this is intentional. With this particular cassette the sound quality was noticeably poor, leading to a sensation of underwater-ness and a worry about how much I am missing that just doesn’t work well with how I normally listen to music. If all of this is intentional, if the experience of listening to such a fragile mechanism of playback, with all of its added layers of interference is considered to be a positive thing then I am going to have to find a way to adjust how I normally listen. For now, I am just left with the sensation that listening to this Fraufraulein release was a struggle against the elements, and that if I had heard this music on a CD then my enjoyment would have been considerably greater. I’m not sure if that makes me old fashioned or quite the opposite…

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