This is an interesting release. Its also the only recording I have written about here without actually hearing all of it, given that the work consists of a DVD containing thirty hours of audio files, which I began playing early yesterday morning, on my day off, and which finished playing at around 3PM this afternoon, while I was at work. I also missed a few hours last night when I went over to Julie’s place, and again four or five hours overnight while I slept. In the context of the work though I don’t think its a big problem that I missed large chunks of the recordings, and actually waking this morning to hear the it playing quietly added an extra dimension to the experience, as at first I had forgotten it was playing, and slipping slowly out of my slumber at 5AM to hear a group of people walking past a barking dog (as was happening on the recording at the time) was a strange, unsettling experience.
Improkup! is credited to a group of anonymous people, and certainly it is the product of a large group, but at the heart of the work lies Mattin, perhaps unsurprisingly. I think I should note here that I personally have a lot of time for Mattin. While I don’t always (often?) agree with his ideologies, I have a great deal of respect for his commitment to them, his dedication to what he believes in and the energy he puts into his work. However much value someone may apply to his work I think it is extremely unfair to accuse him of not being serious, or that what he does is merely the act of an enfant terrible out to shock. A lot of thought goes in to what he does. He has also always been exceptionally friendly and supportive of me down the years, despite obvious differences and times when I have been openly critical of him, and takes the time to send me little emails explaining a little of what he is trying to do with some of his works, as he has with this Improkup! release. I have to say though, that while there is little here that is aesthetically pleasing in line with traditional musical values I found this DVD of audio files a really interesting thing to engage with even before Mattin had said very much about it.
Details of the event that is documented cross the thirty hours of recordings can be found here. To be honest, I have actually found myself paying little attention to precisely what unfolds over the recordings, partly because my absence for large parts made that difficult, but also because I have quite liked the abstract elements- hearing things I recognise but not really knowing how they form a narrative with each other, or what came between them. Essentially though, Mattin and a group of others arranged to meet up at a particular place in the Basque country in the summer of 2011, where they then travel around in search of a building to break into and squat. So we hear conversations in cars, a lot of walking about, “silences” when the handheld Zoom recorder is left unattended, a brief period of furtive activity as a disused factory is broken into, and talking. A LOT of talking, in various languages, sometimes audible, sometimes less so. There is probably a lot more in there besides that I missed while absent as the piece played.
There are obvious political references in here that relate to the fact that a group of people acquire a building for themselves, taking the property, doing as they choose with it etc. I’m not sure what else there is to add on this side of things however. What does interest me quite a lot (and apparently interested Mattin also) is how the whole thing can be considered when viewed in the light of modern experimental music. Mattin talks a little of how this work can actually be considered to be improvised, given that a group of people set out without knowing precisely which sounds they will make, or which will be captured by the recorder. We can draw comparisons with the age-old quandaries of improvisation- is there really such a thing as improvisation when musicians bring particular routines, practices and histories to a concert setting? Is then there any improvisation in Improkup! when the activities of the group were planned in advance, and (I am guessing) the majority of them had done similar things before? Like in an everyday recording of an improv concert, the precise way individual elements created by separate people fit together are partly dictated by intention, partly by chance, but ultimately, this sounds like a recording of a pre-determined set of occurrences, as does so much improvisation in this day and age… Then can we consider this recording in the way we might think of field recording? Certainly the record button has been pressed on the recorder with the intention of capturing specific events, and many external sounds have been caught incidentally in the process. This is field recording isn’t it? Even the Zoom recorder used is one popular with those in the field recording area. There has been however, no editing applied to these recordings, and no real attempt to produce something of particular aesthetic value. This is a recording of an event, or events, a documentation process rather than the selective decision making of field recording. Is there much here of particular interest from a purely sonic perspective? A few moments when things go quiet and distant environmental sounds creep into view aside, no probably not. The period during which the group can be heard talking, indecipherably in the echoing factory space has some nice qualities to it, but these wear off after hearing them for a few hours. So how actually does Improkup! differ to any other experimental music release? Its a lot longer. It takes a bit of effort to queue all of the audio files up to play in a continuous stream. Beyond that though? I could of course outline many significant aesthetic differences, but as a set of processes, well there is very little different here. We might even consider the recent, in my opinion very important work of Manfred Werder along these lines as well. Does it matter if the “musicians” are not making music, or even that the sounds on the recording were not made with an audience in mind? If Werder places the onus on the listener, on those experiencing a moment, creating an event from it, then similarities can certainly be drawn.
The pleasure with this DVD for me however has come entirely through my personal engagement with it. I very much enjoy longform listening experiences. I have attended a fair number of concerts that have lasted for several hours and have demanded the focus and attention of the listener. Several of these have seen me fighting off the effects of tiredness, trying to listen rather than let my mind wander, my eyes begin to close. Yesterday I listened to Improkup! playing quietly in the room behind me for about six hours, with just toilet and food breaks interrupting the experience. I spent much of the time sat reading and drawing, my focus not entirely on the audio, and yet I felt a kind of half-connection to what was playing, as if the quiet in the room here, broken up only by the light hammering of rain against the window was replaced by this additional soundtrack. It felt like I was in the car with Mattin and friends as they travelled to wherever they were going. I detuned myself from the conversations, which were anyway only occasionally in English, and let the recording exist as there as a natural background. Only when something notable occurred on the recording, maybe the car stopped, a phone rang, voices were raised, that my attention was brought back to the details of the recording. I don’t usually listen like this. I normally try and focus closely on the recording in question. Allowing Improkup! to exist in the background, both during the day and then again when I went to sleep last night was an unusual, slightly unnerving experience for me. Another moment really struck me. I left to head to Julie at around seven last night, and when I departed little was happening on the recording, just some scuffling and banging about in a large space, all very distant and not intrusive. When I returned, maybe four hours later voices were chattering excitedly. Although there had been a long break between these events the voices still came as a shock on my return, and I wondered how things had gone from one set of sounds to the other. Then when I got home from work this evening, and the recording had long finished, i found myself wondering how things had ended. Did everyone say goodbye and walk off in different directions? Did the recorder just run out of memory? I could go back and play the last few moments of course, but somehow that doesn’t feel like the right thing to do. I wasn’t here to hear it as it played out naturally, perhaps I shouldn’t hear it at all. Walk out on an improv concert you can’t go back and experience it again, and while obviously this was a recording, and I wasn’t there in the squatted factory before leaving it, it feels strangely similar to one. Perhaps its partly because I didn’t have to go through the usual rituals here of pressing play on a CD player, or because the music didn’t end after forty minutes that I was able to consider the experience of listening to Improkup! more as an live event than as part of the normal CD-listening processes.
Though I doubt many will agree with me then, I found engaging with this release a fascinating and worthwhile experience, one that asked a lot of questions of me, perhaps not the ones Mattin and co wanted to ask, but questions all the same. Its no small undertaking to go through the experience of listening to this, but I recommend doing so to those that, like me, enjoy spending time seeking out new ways of listening and engaging with thoughtful, different work.