CD Reviews

Wednesday 9th November

November 10, 2011

A busy day today, getting a lot done, catching up on the email backlog, cooking and eating a great lunch with Julie, starting to write my review of Grundelweiser for The Wire, and this evening, as well as listening to the music I am about to review, I turned in my top ten records of the year to the magazine. I haven’t felt comfortable with this kind of thing for a few years now, and as we are less than halfway into November and the pile of unlistened to CDs here remains of small skyscraper proportions I feel even less easy about it than ever. If The Wire print the list this year (they didn’t last year) then I will add some further notes here and alter the list to include anything further that may have crossed my path. If the list doesn’t get printed then I’ll do the same as last year and pretend I never wrote it!

So, to tonight’s CD. before writing, I should add that returning to CD listening over the past few days after the intense experience of the Grundelweiser festival hasn’t been easy. Everything I have played has seemed loud and dramatic, for obvious reasons, and readjusting my senses to more active music has taken a bit of time. The CD I have listened to the most though, while not particularly quiet does require a similar kind of closely attentive listening. The disc in question is a release on Windsmeasure, a collective release by five (I think) New York based field recordists, that is, as far as I can tell, a collection of five live performance excerpts from a concert in the city that gives its name to the CD’s title- Phonography Meeting 070823. The five musicians (should we call them phonographers?) are Scott Smallwood, Sawako, Seth Cluett, Ben Owen and Civyiu Kkliu. As well as provide the music for the CD, each of them also wrote a few notes on field recording for the liner notes, which range from the thoughtfully humorous (Smallwood) to the pictorial (Owen) to the obliquely impenetrable (Kkliu’s concrete poetry). The entire package, being on the windsmeasure label is of course lovingly designed and printed.

Now, according to my CD player, there is only one track on this disc, and while for certain there are many points in the piece whereby the sounds cut from one recording to another, its impossible to tell where one composer’s work starts and another’s ends. The liner notes state that the performances run in the same order as listed on the sleeve, so i could hazard a guess at who has contributed what here, but somehow it doesn’t seem important, and I would prefer to treat the CD as one single work collectively curated. So a lot takes place in here, ranging from some of the clichés of field recording, but done very well, to some very nice, far more abstract work. I am on record a few times this year saying that I am bored of hearing certain sounds presented in familiar, uninteresting ways. This disc opens with the sound of running water, I think a rainstorm, with water gushing from somewhere alongside one constant, rapid and loud drip that gives the sounds an odd sense of metronomic rhythm. Yes, I have heard a lot of CDs of water-related field recordings, but here this is done well, and the recording has enough personality of its own to keep it interesting, just as it doesn’t outstay its welcome either, moving on to other sounds after just a few minutes. We also hear children shouting, another familiar trait, but there they are muffled voices, perhaps at a shopping centre, with other peculiar sounds foregrounded alongside, including something that sounds like the call of an elephant. The reason this CD works for me (and it works very well) is through its constant stream of sounds that make their mark on you, present you with their varying qualities, lead you to wonder what you are listening to, and then merge into something else, something often quite different again. So we have the children, perhaps playing kazoos?! and then a lovely section of soft crunching sounds, gritty and rough in texture and impossible to identify, followed by a series of extended buzzing and humming, maybe domestic appliances recorded, maybe computer feedback, its hard to tell, but these sounds are nowhere near the gushing water that opened the piece and take the music to somewhere quite different.

One of my concerns about field recording, and then musical compositions based upon their arrangement, is that it can be a very easy thing to do. Digital recorders are cheap these days, and throwing a few sound files into sequencing software takes a matter of minutes. Occasionally I receive CDs that sound like little time was taken over them, and often it feels like little original thought, or little compositional integrity has been applied to the music. This is not the case with Phonography Meeting. The sounds here are all interesting, all encourage curiosity and closer listening rather than just present themselves inactively and the album oozes a feeling of love and care. To quote Scott Smallwood  from his excellent liner notes; “So many recordings have been ruined by inability to still my hand and heart, I get too excited!”. The passion shown here comes through in the music, there is nothing relaxing or ‘ambient’ here, everything grabs your attention and feels like it has something to say. These are the essential differences with field recordings for me. First there is the search for sounds, new sounds, difficult sounds, hidden sounds, unusual sounds- and then they are pulled together in an intelligent and caring manner. Although recorded live at a concert, and so all presented in one evening I thoroughly suspect that the work here was carefully chosen and considered before it was used. When utilised this way field recordings will always win me over, as this album does very nicely.

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