Kenneth Goldsmith, Day: 2 Reviews

Two Attempts at a Review of Kenneth Goldsmith’s Day:

Kenneth Goldsmith
(The Figures)

In his new book, Day, New York based poet, DJ and visual artist Kenneth Goldsmith has done for the New York Times what Duchamp did for toilets and Warhol for soup cans: turned an everyday object into a powerful piece of conceptual art. Coming in at Joycean 836 pages, Day consists of the entire text of the late edition of the New York Times, September 1, 2000, hand typed into a computer, and formatted in sequence, page by page, starting at A1 with “All the News that’s Fit to Print” and ending on F8 with the Potamkin Auto Center’s warning that “we are not authorized to perform recall or original factory warranty work. LTD NYCDDA#88761 DMV #7048316. Sale ends 9/4/00.” If that doesn’t sound as thrilling a finale as Ulysses’ “yes I said yes I will Yes”, it’s because, for better or worse, this is a different day, in a different place.
Day is the latest realization of Goldsmith’s hip-hop inflected take on conceptual art, which began in the 1980s with his painted oversize totemic self-help guides, followed in the early 1990s by No. 111, his epic poem of found/heard phrases ending in an r sound, and Soliloquy, a transcript of every word Goldsmith uttered during the week of April 15-21, 1996. Call it conceptual literature if you like. William S. Burroughs, whose cut up method still seems very much mired in traditional tools of authorship like intention and decision when compared with Goldsmith’s bold appropriations, famously observed that literature was fifty years behind art. While sampling and appropriation have become commonplace in music and the visual arts, they remain thoroughly unexplored in literature until now. While scholars like Craig Dworkin are Reading the Illegible, Goldsmith has discovered a new kind of concrete, found poetry that speaks to contemporary questions about the legitimacy of sampling, and of the relationship of authors to texts and texts to the media in which they are manifested. In the process, he has fabricated an experimental literature that is, finally, legible, all too legible.
“Well,” you will say, “but you didn’t actually read the whole thing, did you?” No, of course not. Does anyone actually read the whole of the New York Times, front to back? Sure, you may think that you do that, but unless you’re a very unusual sort of person, chances are that you don’t read the fine print of every ad, go through every public announcement, or read every line of every one of the mutual funds quotes in the Business section.
To read Day then is a quite different experience to picking up the day’s paper (and when I say read, I mean browse, surf, investigate). By recontextualizing an extremely familiar textual artefact, Goldsmith reveals the enormous variety of discourses and linguistic codes that are tangled up in that familiarity. Each one of these discourses comes with its own set of reading practices that allows us to ignore, skip through, read attentively as needed. What Goldsmith has done is to level the playing field, leaving the source text, now formatted as “literature” or “poetry” in book form, to resonate as it is able to. Through all of this, a certain narrative tension remains: coming after 196 pages of relentless coded stock quotes (C6-C17), Andre Agassi’s defeat in the US Open (D1) takes on a pathos otherwise unimaginable. Whether this pathos emerges out of a process-driven moment of inadvertent juxtaposition, or from pity/admiration for the author/typist’s singular act of keyboard-tapping self-mortification is left for the reader to determine.

Kenneth Goldsmith
(The Figures, $20)

In his new book, Day, New York based poet, DJ and visual artist Kenneth Goldsmith has done for the New York Times what Duchamp did for toilets and Warhol for soup cans: turned an everyday object into a powerful piece of conceptual art. Coming in at Joycean 836 pages, Day consists of the entire text of the late edition of the New York Times, September 1, 2000, hand typed into a computer, and formatted in sequence, page by page, starting at A1 with “All the News that’s Fit to Print” and ending on F8 with the Potamkin Auto Center’s warning that “we are not authorized to perform recall or original factory warranty work. LTD NYCDDA#88761 DMV #7048316. Sale ends 9/4/00.” If that doesn’t sound as thrilling a finale as Ulysses’ “yes I said yes I will Yes”, it’s because, for better or worse, this is a different day, in a different place.
Goldsmith’s bold act of appropriation provokes two questions: who would actually read such a book, and, perhaps more tellingly, who would actually buy it? It’s certainly true that Day costs 20 times as much as the newspaper that Goldsmith has “retyped”. But, as Walter Benjamin suggested, one does not necessarily buy a book in order to read it. The book as object confers a certain fetish value on the text it contains – a fetish value which Day exposes. Flipping through Day’s pages, it becomes clear that nobody actually reads a newspaper “from front to back” – language and code spills out everywhere in an excess that is normally contained by the newspapers neat columns and sections. Tom Wolfe once spoke of batheing in the New York Times, rather than reading it. But defamiliarized by Goldsmith’s singular act of keyboard tapping self-mortification, this is now a text to drown in.

Previously unpublished.

David Toop – Sound Body

David Toop – Sound Body

David Toop’s Sound Body hums and glows with life, five gorgeous morphing electronic tracks that continue Samadhi Sound’s exploration of quiet, minimal, melodic music worlds created by the likes of Harold Budd, Akira Rabelais, Fennesz, Derek Bailey, David Sylvian and others. These remarkable soundscapes have only become possible in the twenty-first century, when improvisation, digital composing and mixing, and traditional music forms from around the globe all mutate and fuse in ways that surprise and delight.

“Originally I wanted to make a record that was almost silent,” says composer, improviser and journalist Toop. “This came about because I had been listening to rooms and other spaces or environments in which dramatic and dynamic sounds were absent, and so became more and more sensitive to very subtle sound pressures, shifts of atmosphere, sounds of the self, faint external sounds, structural movement, our dog’s breathing, and so on. But because I was recording instrumentalists and then reshaping these recordings in the computer, the ‘space’ I was hearing was compromised continually by the editing process, so each piece grew in response to this, and then grew in response to the response. I kept stripping back as I added, trying to keep the character of each individual player, trying to build a ‘virtual’ ensemble, trying to stay close to my original intention of a ‘silent’ record, trying to make pieces in which intensity counterbalanced a certain stasis, in which sound pressures behave as a kind of quiet noise.”

Toop studied fine art and graphic design at Hornsey College of Art and Watford College of Art and Design in the late 1960s, then in 1971-2 took part in the first improvisation workshops led by jazz drummer John Stevens. Having played improvised music since the beginning of the 1970s, he has also recorded shamanistic ceremonies in Amazonas, appeared on Top Of The Pops with the Flying Lizards, worked with musicians including Brian Eno, John Zorn, Prince Far I, Jon Hassell, Derek Bailey, Talvin Singh, Evan Parker, Scanner, Ivor Cutler, Akio Suzuki and Jin Hi Kim, and collaborated with artists such as theatre director/actor Steven Berkoff, Japanese Butoh dancer Mitsutaka Ishii, sound poet Bob Cobbing, visual artist John Latham, and novelist Jeff Noon. In 1998 he composed the soundtrack for Acqua Matrix, the outdoor spectacular that closed every night of Lisbon Expo ’98. His first album, New and Rediscovered Musical Instruments, was released on Brian Eno’s Obscure label in 1975; since 1995 he has released seven solo albums, including Screen Ceremonies, Pink Noir, and Black Chamber. He has also written four groundbreaking books on music, currently translated into seven languages including Ocean of Sound, Exotica and Haunted Weather.

Produced during a period of research on the effect of digital technologies on improvised musical performance, Toop’s Sound Body is a disk in which the real and the virtual fold into each other creating hallucinatory but warm soundspaces. The virtual ensemble here includes a cast of fourteen playing everything from harp (Rhodri Davies), to violin (Angharad Davies) to rubber bands (Japanese sound artist Haco) to torn paper (Miya Masaoka) to stones (Gunter Müller) to water-immersed bottles (Lee Patterson). A variety of voices also enter the digital mix, including the late John Latham, Japanese writer Kenji Siratori and Missy the Dog. Toop himself plays a variety of guitars, wind instruments, a laptop and percussion, and edited and mixed each piece over a protracted period of time, slowly building up the rich and complex sound world that you hear.

What is a Sound Body? “In English, sound body means a healthy, strong body,” says Toop. “Implicit in the expression is an idea of the whole body. But actually I feel that the body is a collection of fragments. My idea of the sound body is the context in which music takes place. This can be a physical environment, a virtual environment, a setting such as a festival with its attendant scenes, a way of life, or a conceptual idea of what sound work is all about.”

So this Sound Body is a meeting place, where different kinds of sound, different kinds of musician, different ideas and experiences come together. We all live in this sound body as we move around, taking in our environments, whether out in the wild or media-saturated. Things that don’t go together, that happen in different times and places discover new ways of co-existing in Toop’s digital mix which renders them neither natural nor unnatural but always beautiful.

“I feel like a visual artist who has suddenly been given the opportunity to work with more concentration, more intensity, at a deeper level,” notes Toop. “There’s an ambiguous materiality about sound which connects strongly to the visual universe, yet has qualities that are quite distinct.”

Unfolding patterns; static color fields; chance meetings; silence; gorgeous abstraction and fierce materiality: you will discover these and more as you explore Sound Body.

Originally published as a press release for Samadhi Sound, 2007.

Two Rat Drifting Recordings: On Eric Chenaux and Ryan Driver

Eric Chenaux – Sloppy Ground (Constellation CD)
Ryan Driver – Feeler of Pure Joy (Rat-Drifting CD)

Eric Chenaux and Ryan Driver are a key part of the rhizomatic network of Toronto-based improvisers and musicians who record for the Rat-Drifting label. Both play together in a variety of ensembles including the excellent Reveries, Sandro Perri and Josh Thorpe’s groups, and they even have a synth and guitar duo called the Guayabaras. Most of the time, they inhabit a no man’s land in between traditionally structured songs and improvisation, using folk, jazz and bossa nova songs as the basic for quiet acoustic psychedelic exploration. Both of these recordings focus more on the folk song end of their repertoires.
Sloppy Ground is Chenaux’s second record for Montreal’s Constellation following the awesomely monochrome Dull Lights, one of the most austere folk recordings I’ve ever heard — something like a William Wegman painting turned into a folk song if you can imagine that. On Sloppy Ground, the sound is like a 1960s British folk record, Martin Carthy or Full House period Fairport Convention, warm and coiled, but still with that characteristic chattering of strings at the high end of the sound spectrum. There are electric guitars, violins, an Echo harp, and even a rock song, “Love Don’t Change” with a burning guitar solo. Chenaux has a soft, strong voice and the songs themselves are gorgeous, complex and mostly about love.
Although Ryan Driver has appeared on a lot of other folks’ recordings, notably the remarkable country rock improv outfit The Silt, this is his first solo record. Driver is a remarkable improviser, coaxing beautiful sounds out of everything from a rubber balloon to a ruler to an old analog synth. He also has a terrific voice with a Curtis Mayfield style falsetto even. The songs here are mostly folk/country ballads from an imaginary country: they sound like JJ Cale, Joao Gilberto, John Martyn, soft but powerful and precise. But there’s also live favorite “Spinning Towers” which is given an anthemic rock treatment, and “Why the Road?” which slowly shifts from folksong to hazy “Rock Bottom” period Robert Wyatt mysticism. Toronto’s alt.folk queen Jennifer Castle duets with Ryan on the opening “You Are Beside Me”. Various members of the Rat-Drifting group, including Chenaux and Martin Arnold drop in to play some guitar too.
“Am I lovely?” asks Chenaux on the first track of his disk. It’s a funny question because both of these guys are so committed to an aesthetic of humility, a soulfulness that shines out because every lame bombastic gesture that might obscure it has been subtracted. Meaning that unless you’re willing to listen in, you might not even notice anything was going on. These are both powerful, accomplished records though, and yes, both of them are lovely.

Originally published in Signal to Noise, 2008.

Mix Tape, the Art of Cassette Culture: A Review

Mix Tape: The Art of Cassette Culture
edited by Thurston Moore
Universal Publishing HBK, USD $22.50

Cassettes are the new vinyl. Well, not quite, but from Aki Onda’s remarkable improvisations with multiple cassette recorders and archival street recordings in his Cassette Memories series, to Sublime Frequencies’ compilations of Cambodian cassette pop found in suburban Californian libraries, to Mix Tape: The Art of Cassette Culture, an elegant meditation on all things magnetophonique edited by Thurston Moore, the cassette is being resurrected, and today, in the age of the mp3 and digital recording, revealed in all its glory as a fully formed fetish object.

Not coincidentally, this happens to be the very moment where most of us are throwing away our collections of those fragile, user-unfriendly plastic boxes with their hand made labels and cheap packaging. German philosopher Walter Benjamin talked of the way that the newly obsolescent object reveals its history precisely at the moment it is abandoned by the market. Vinyl junkiedom grew up casting a backward glance to the end of the nineteenth century with industrial processed black petroleum disks inscribed with sounds. The cassette tape (for those of us unlucky enough not to have owned a reel to reel, like Tony Conrad who contributes a 1960 r to r mix!), first produced by Philips in 1962, marked the jump of music into the post-World War II information age, where sound slowly mutates into data, to be read off a strip by a machine, disembodied even from the tactility of the needle on the groove. Moore here delivers a delightfully goofy song of praise to the sound coming off these strips of magnetized plastic, with their “healing analog tones” placed in opposition to the “cold heart” of digitized sound.

Moore – who was a guest curator for New York gallery Exit Art’s 2001 “LP Show”, a vast and fabulous exhibition of LP covers – is fascinated by the cassette, and in particular the mix tape – as a DIY production. He dates his fascination to reading a Robert Christgau review in 1978 in which Christgau talks about his favorite Clash album being a mix tape of non-LP B-sides that he has made for his friends – a hand crafted reconfiguration of consumer culture, given away as a gift. These themes resonate throughout the rest of the book – the mix-tape as art work, as mating call (or in other cases, break up laments) and gift economy, or as narcissistic reflection of the compiler’s tastes and obsessions.

Mix Tape consists of a sequence of reproductions of favorite mix tapes – inserts and the actual cassettes – from a series of Moore’s friends and colleagues, along with short notes and reminiscences about the circumstances or qualities of each tape. Included are contributions from John Zorn, Jim O’Rourke, film-maker Richard Kern, poet Dodie Bellamy and writer Mary Gaitskell. Not all of the stories (or mix tapes) are equally interesting. And at least one of the mixes (square, one sided) looks like a CD, not a cassette, which kinda ruins the uh cultural specificity here. Perhaps predictably, most of tape making is done by boys, while most of the women in the book write as recipients of cassettes from guys, raising the question as to whether cassette culture is mainly another technologically mediated way for geeky boys to express their passion or egos. Having said that, this book, like the best mix tapes, is charmingly idiosyncratic and soulful – a collage of a bunch of collages, a copy of some copies, another sign that the acts of appropriation in the news today in downloading scandals have their origin in “the true love and ego involved in sharing music with friends and lovers.” What is left is not the image of people breaking copyright law, not even the musical content of the tapes themselves, which, decade by decade, decay, but the passion, for music, for another person, for whatever, inscribed in hand-written lists, xeroxed montage covers, and names written in felt tip over mass-produced plastic media.

Originally published in The Wire, 2005.

Harold Budd’s Avalon Sutra: A Press Release

Avalon Sutra by Harold Budd

Avalon Sutra is to be California-born American minimalist composer and pianist Harold Budd’s last recorded work. Best known for his collaborations with Brian Eno, contributing his stunning piano work to key recordings such as 1980’s Ambient 2: Plateau of Mirror, Budd has produced a series of remarkable minimalist compositions and recordings, including Pavilion of Dreams, The Pearl and The Room, which have earned him worldwide respect. Working in a space laying between jazz, classical music, electronica and rock, Budd has collaborated with the Cocteau Twins’ Robin Guthrie, Daniel Lentz, XTC’s Andy Partridge and saxophonists Marion Brown and Jon Gibson, and been a major influence on the development of contemporary ambient and electronic music.

A series of brief, snapshot like compositions, made all the more fragile and impermanent by Budd’s glistening piano work, Avalon Sutra has a bittersweet, autumnal quality – the composer’s trademark “loveliness” deepened and perturbed by the brevity of these pieces. If “ambient” music characteristically works to sustain a mood of intimacy, warmth, meditative ecstasy, such moods, which are certainly present in Budd’s work, are never allowed to last too long on Avalon Sutra. There’s a cumulative sadness and beauty to the way that these mood pieces linger briefly, stop and transform into something new. Budd’s gorgeous, angular string arrangements amplify this feeling.

Avalon Sutra had its genesis in Budd’s native California. “Before my son was born,” Budd recalls, “my wife and I took a weekend holiday to Catalina Island, which is off the coast of California, the main town there is Avalon. While I was there I thought wouldn’t it be nice to write a poem like Jack Kerouac or Allen Ginsberg which is called “Avalon Sutra.” My wife and I were kayaking in the Pacific off Catalina Island. I thought, as soon as I got to land, I’m going to start writing this poem. Of course, to my disappointment, I never did that but the title stuck with me.”

If ambient music is music to accompany a space, Avalon Sutra’s sustained but brief compositions suggest vast landscapes, spaces experienced in transit, high speed aerial shots, vistas seen from particular turns in the road, the impermanence even of vastness itself … or perhaps simply the impermanence of music in these vast spaces. Not surprisingly, Budd claims that he’s “far more interested in architecture, design, sculpture, than music. it’s had a profound effect on me for the last 40 years.” In particular the work of Mies Van der Rohe, the Bauhaus and Frank Lloyd Wright, all masters of sleek, elegant, economical statement captured Budd’s imagination. “Wright had string quartets come and play for him, while he was flirting with his wife – in Arizona of all places! I thought, what a wonderful idea.”

Musically, Avalon Sutra hearkens back to early twentieth century twelve tone composer Anton Von Webern’s short pieces for string quartets – one of the key reference points for post war American minimalism. Budd also expresses a fondness for German/American composer Claus Ogerman’s gorgeous string arrangements for Antonio Carlos Jobim and other Brazilian master musicians in the 1960s and 1970s. He shares with Ogerman a lushness and generosity, and an unrepentant commitment to beauty.

“I’ve committed myself to an ethic of loveliness,” says Budd, “and I’m still there. I have no qualms whatever. When I committed myself to so called loveliness, it was a political action. I was consciously dissociating myself, and becoming antagonistic toward the American avant garde. My political statement was to remove myself from the heroes of the revolution: John Cage, Morton Feldman and so on. Suddenly I was totally alone: isolated, hated, sneered at. In a really bad place. But I knew I was right. That was the end of my academic, new music, avant garde career. But it opened up a world that had not existed before.”

Into this new world, a number of generations of electronic composers have stepped. Los Angeles based composer and software designer Akira Rabelais is best known for his subtly distorted interpretations of Satie’s Gymnopédies, and his marvellous reworkings of traditional icelandic laments on the recent Samadhi Sound release, spellewauerynsherde. On the second disk of Avalon Sutra, Rabelais takes a fragment from one of Avalon Sutra’s tracks and spins it using his software Argeiphontes Lyre, into a 70 minute abstraction that calls to mind Morton Feldman’s String Quartets. Budd pronounces Rabelais’ remix “generous and loving.” As with some of Rabelais’ other appropriations, there’s an enormous respect for the integrity of the original sound material, along with an audacious ability to rechannel sound in unexpected directions. “For heaven’s sake,” Budd continues. “Somebody else has really picked up on what I missed from myself: all that space, all that time, all that generosity. Akira did it. I should have done it, but I didn’t!”

Budd claims that Avalon Sutra will be his last composition and recording, bringing to a conclusion thirty years of sustained musical activity. Asked for his reasons, Budd says only that he feels that he has said what he has to say. With characteristic humility, he concludes “I don’t mind disappearing!” Whether or not it finally turns out to be Budd’s last work — and to speak only of the gorgeous string arrangements, which represent a new development in Budd’s oeuvre, we hope that it isn’t — Avalon Sutra is Budd at the pinnacle of his creativity, a master of meditative beauty.

Originally published as a press release for Samadhi Sound.

Black Mirror: Reflections in Global Musics: A review

Various — Black Mirror – Reflections in Global Musics
Dust-to-Digital CD

The “black mirror” in the title of journalist/musician Ian Nagoski’s compilation of recordings of musics from around the world is the stone, shellac and carbon surface of the 78 r.p.m. disks that were made of between the two world wars. If the premise of a compilation of music from around the world recorded between 1918 and 1955 seems initially like a broad or extravagant one, Nagoski takes responsibility for his own selections and orderings, seeing in them not some scientific or anthropological grouping of sounds that are “objectively” connected and ready to be analyzed, but rather a series of lateral, intimate, contingent connections produced by chance, pleasure, repetition and the marketplace. Thus a lovely bagpipe track by Scotts Guardman Henry Forsyth from the 1930s morphs into a South Indian nagasvaram track into a West African rhumba from the 1950s into a Polish gypsy wedding music track. The listener is forced to confront the mix as a series of human sounds, discovered by Nagoski no more than a thirty minute drive from his hometown of Baltimore, and costing a total of $125. What is revealed then is Nagoski’s taste and imagination, both of which are rather exquisite, as well as a series of trajectories into a variety of musics that the listener may or may not be familiar with, for further investigation and enjoyment. The blueprint for this kind of activity, as Nagoski points out, are archivist/compilers like Harry Smith, who created historically definitive collections of music that are also highly personal montages of their own record collections. The difference here is that Nagoski presents a path through a whole world of sound rather than a particular region or culture. It’s a risky venture, but the intention here is not to sum up anything but to create a path, and the path of Black Mirror is a delightful one.

Bird Show – Lightning Ghost (A Review)

Bird Show – Lightning Ghost
Kranky CD

Kranky continues to be a one stop shopping resource for contemporary drone based music, a genre which has developed beyond the clichés of ambient music in ways that surprise and delight. A case in point is Bird Show, a project of Chicago’s Town and Country member Ben Vida. Green Inferno, the group’s first Kranky release from 2005 was a beautiful but relatively placid disk, mixing environmental recordings from Japan and Puerto Rico with warm drones and Arthur Russell-style intimate vocals. A list on the CD cover included the following: “The Fall”, Chris Marker’s film remarkable meditation on time and place, “Sans Soleil”, David Tibet, Areski and Brigitte Fontaine, Werner Herzog and Robert Wyatt: tough acts to follow. But Vida’s evident fascination with mutant folk cultures and the world of traditional ecstatic trance producing musics has deepened on Lightning Ghost, which is the product of a year of playing live. Many of the tracks are built on percussion jams which sound like Psychedelic Underground era Amon Duul I – as does the lo-fi home studio production. While Amon Duul really was a collective, Bird Show feels more Apollonian and introspective, like a digital reconstruction of a traditional music – or a community dreamt up in a bedroom. There’s something very moving, very much alive about this. Zimbabwean thumb pianos, guitar lines out of King Sunny Ade, vocal chants and horns that sound like Jajouka – still you would not call this a “hot” sound. One thinks of Jon Hassell circa Aka-Darbari-Java and his fourth world music, an idea whose time may finally have come – musical techniques, practices, from all across the map, converging in sustained tones, without being absorbed into New Age universalizing sludge. Easy to write off as cultural appropriations, these kinds of experiments, whether from Sublime Frequencies or the Boredoms can also be seen as attempts at engagement with other cultures and traditions. The devil is in the details. As post-colonialist critic Gayatri Spivak says, there are “no guarantees”. As for Bird Show – so far, so good.

(Originally published in Signal to Noise, 2006)

Akira Rabelais – Spellewauerynsherde

Akira Rabelais – Spellewauerynsherde
(Samadhi Sound)

Spellewauerynsherde: Spell. Wavering. Shard. Spell as in speaking, incantation, a digitally constructed matrix of words and voices, summoning up a strange, distant past. Wavering: the shivering of those voices as they dissolve and recombine in Rabelais’ rich filtering systems, turning into pulsating, frequency rich drones. Shard: fragments, of voices, of ideas, of memories, of the past, brought back to life again.

As with his earlier release, Eisotrophobia (Ritornell, 2001), in which LA based electronic composer Akira Rabelais transformed recordings of Erik Satie and others, Spellewauerynsherde is built up from found sounds, in this case, a series of field recordings of traditional Icelandic accapella songs recorded in the late 1960s or early 1970s on Ampex tapes and then forgotten about. After discovering the neglected tapes, cleaning them up and digitizing them for a library, Rabelais became fascinated with the heartbreaking sadness of the voices and began to think of them as source material for a series of compositions.

In working with the tapes, Rabelais was very careful to preserve much of the sound and shape of the originals – giving some of the tracks, such as the lovely track 5 an almost Duchamp-like “found” quality — they sound barely touched, hardly “compositions” at all by most people’s standards. “I didn’t want to abstract it so much that it lost its essential quality. The truth is I have no idea who the people on this recording are, and I don’t speak Icelandic, so I didn’t want to damage the fabric, but I wanted to set it, make a really nice frame for it. Cast it in a certain light.”

The frame that Rabelais uses was constructed using a piece of computer software called Argeiphontes Lyre, which Rabelais developed in the early 1990s — a flexible tool for filtering and mutating sound sources, turning them into the remarkable pulsating, shifting sound fields and strange choral effects to be heard on Spellewauerynsherde’s track three for example. In contrast to much of the contemporary electronic music scene, which remains heavily dependent on commercially available software, and which mostly consists of running through every possible combination of the potentialities within such software, resulting in a glut of music that is basically indistinguishable from each other, Rabelais has worked continuously on developing software that can achieve his various sonic goals. “I think that anyone who’s making electronic music today is selling themselves short if they don’t attempt to write software, get their hands in. You can do fine without it, but you’d be better off giving it a shot. It’s like trying to write without learning to read.”

Even though Rabelais’ use of the software has an iterative, mathematical aspect, in that it can be used to crank out numerous mutant variations on a particular block of sound, he claims that he sees writing software as similar to writing poetry. “I have this Magical Realist kind of bent, where I write in random, aleatory processes. I can tell myself it’s in order to do a specific task, but there’s always a chance that it won’t exactly do what I tell it. Things can blow up and sometimes when they do, it’s more interesting. The software is just an extension of myself. I’m not a gear whore or an engineer. I try to write what I need to write, that’s all.”

Rabelais then decided to throw his own unconscious as a tool into the mix: “When I was working on it, I would do an iteration of filtering and editing and then I’d burn it on a disk and play it, put it on repeat in my bedroom and sleep to it. Have all these strange dreams and let it creep into my subconscious. Sometimes a little unsettling. And then I’d work on it some more.”

If the tracks on Spellewauerynsherde are ultimately built around the complexities of digital programming, the framework of title and text that Rabelais gives the music is equally important and transformative. In fact, Rabelais says that he worked simultaneously on the editing and processing of the sounds, and the extraordinary texts that accompany the music, as well as the seven long, mysterious track titles, drawn mostly from the Oxford English Dictionary’s definitions of the words that make up the title of the piece.

“The thing I love about the OED,” says Rabelais, “is that they don’t give you a straight definition of a word, the way Merriam-Websters does — “this is what this word means”, which I hate. I also hate the idea that you can only spell a word one way! There should be at least four of five ways. If you read the OED, you can see how words and ideas change, it can be used one way for a hundred years, and for the next hundred years it takes on an ironic meaning, a twist. It shows how things change over time. Which is something I embrace with music: things should change over time.”

What Rabelais has come up with in Spellewauerynsherde, is a haunting spiritual disk that sounds at once medieval, especially framed by Rabelais’ beautiful texts, while at the same time, on the cutting edge of electronic music. Digital technologies, with their use of permutation and combination of seemingly unrelated elements, bring us back to the world of magic, which also sought to transform matter in ways that give it spiritual significance. Spellewauerynsherde brings back voices from the edges of history, tapes gathering dust in archives, and transforms them into ghosts that thrive in the digital era, albeit in sometimes monstrous forms. “I’m a transmitter,” says Rabelais. ““Below as it is above”. I try to connect to something ineffable and then transmit it in some way.”

Marcus Boon

originally published as a press-release for Samadhi Sound, 2004

1970’s Algerian Proto-Rai Underground: Review

1970’s Algerian Proto-Rai Underground
Sublime Frequencies LP

Rai is familiar to most of us in its post-1980s incarnation as Algerian singers from the city of Oran such as Cheb Khaled who sang impassioned songs over drum machines, synths and Nile Rogers or, more recently, Dr. Dre style production. The roots of the music can be traced back to Bedouin music performed at weddings and other celebrations, transformed in the early twentieth century by stars such as the fierce Sheikha Remitti who introduced street slang, blunt sexual talk and the like to the traditional music, with its flutes and hand-drums. In between these moments lies what Sublime Frequencies calls “proto-Rai” – music made in Oran in the 1970s, after a period of assimilation of various foreign musical styles, after Algerian independence, and subsequent censorship by the Marxist government which sent the scene underground to seaside cabarets around Oran.
The disk is a revelation from start to finish – even for people already familiar with figures such as Bellemou, known as the “godfather of Rai”. The sound is driven by a solid bed of percussion, saxophones and trumpet that wouldn’t be out of place on an Afro-Cuban dance track. Accordions provide an organ-like warmth. The recordings come from 45s released by local Oran record labels which proliferated in the 1970s (tho Rai’s broader fame coincided with the ascendancy of the cassette, beloved of cab drivers around the world), and they sound lo-fi and funky, like a rare 1970s garage or funk side. Song titles like “He, Who Doesn’t Own a Car”, “I’m Still Getting Drunk … Still” and “The Nurse” strike a strange North African gangsta defiance. Stand out track is Cheb Zergui’s Ana Dellali (“I Cuddle Myself”). Zergui introduced the electric guitar into Rai and his sound is rhythmic and tough, as rock ‘n’roll as the Ethiopian Mahmoud Ahmed or Morocco’s Nass el Ghiwane, both from around the same period, and looking forward to Sublime Frequencies recent Tuareg rock discoveries such as Group Doueh and Inerane.

Marcus Boon

(Originally published in The Wire, 2008)

Global Ear: Toronto, on Rat Drifting

“Strange lads”, says performer Aimée Dawn Robinson, looking towards the makeshift stage that fills a part of the front room at Tranzac, an Australia and New Zealand social club that is the current center of experimental and improvised music in Toronto, in particular for the ensembles associated with excellent local label Rat-Drifting. On stage are The Reveries: Ryan Driver kneels on the floor with a mike placed in his mouth, strumming a quasi-ruler with a very elastic bass sound; Doug Tielli plays guitar and has a nose flute strapped to his face, through which he makes muffled sounds; Eric Chenaux, also strumming guitar, sings through a harmonica that is shoved up into his face. The group lurch through a set of standards including Jobim’s “Useless Journey” and “The Nearness of You”, filled with beautiful harmonics and stuttering guitar sounds that sound like Derek Bailey and the Hi-Los, bound, gagged and dosed with sedatives, then thrown into the boot of an old Cadillac, from which they continue to play, presumably for their lives. The room is almost empty, as it is for most Rat Drifting shows, and the Bluegrass band in the back room sounds louder through the walls than the guys right in front of us. A Friday night crowd of drunks staggers by the front window, peering through the glass and making faces at what they see. Strange.

Toronto’s experimental music scene has always had a hermit-like status in its hometown. Pianist and radio-work composer Glenn Gould refused to talk to people in person towards the end of his life. CCMC, the collective that has included Michael Snow, John Oswald and many other key Toronto improvisors, were famous for weekly shows to a mostly empty room at their performance space, The Music Gallery. More recent experimenters like Sarah Peebles and Nilan Perrera also remain virtually unknown to the city as a whole. Nobody seems too bothered by this. Rat-Drifting co-founder Martin Arnold compares the scene in Toronto to medieval monasteries which “were fierce places in terms of saving information that had come down to them. There’s still that abbey ideal here that this stuff is going on some place and you can join it if you want but if you don’t, it’s OK, because it’s going to be there anyway. It’s a place where you can remove yourself from given strains of cultural production and consumption.”

Rat-Drifting began when Arnold, an Edmonton-born composer and folk music fiend, traveled up to York University (where James Tenney also taught, and where I do now) to assist former CCMC member and improvisation guru Casey Sokol in a performance of Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning. During work on the piece, Arnold met a number of Sokol’s younger students, including Ryan Driver and Doug Tielli, who all started playing downtown. Through this network, Arnold also met Eric Chenaux, former bassist of Canadian indie pop band Crash Vegas, as well as playing with his own post rock outfit Phleg Camp, and together, inspired by the efforts of Constellation and Alien8 in Montréal amongst others, they began Rat-Drifting in 2002.

Since that time, Rat-Drifting has gradually evolved into a whole ecosystem of cross-linked ensembles, most of which have produced highly impressive CDs. There’s the Reveries whispery distorted standards on Blasé Kisses, the Draperies’ synth and guitar improv on l’histoire du chapeau, Arnold’s pet project the Marmots’ Scratch Orchestra-like psychedelic jug band on Treacle Wall. And then there’s The Silt, whose two CDs, Red Whistle and Earlier Ways to Wander are full of glorious unlikely rock songs that emerge almost at random out of the conjunction of the three improvisors, Tielli, Driver and Marcus Quin, many of them sounding like Neil Young (another Ontario son) played at 16 r.p.m. Soon to come are the wobbling Beefheart-like big band Saint Dirt Elementary School, The Ryan Driver Quartet, featuring Driver’s gorgeous Chet Baker signaling through the flames vocals, and a remarkable half hour reworking of the traditional “Tam Lin” by Arnold for the Draperies and Toronto new music ensemble Array Music. It all sounds like an imaginary urban folk music – created for a place that has few obvious folk traditions other than native cultures, or the tradition of buying records made in other places.

Chenaux speaks of the label’s enthusiasm for improvising around song. “The song is older than anything. People like songs wholeheartedly here. It’s a great form for fucking with – and jazz standards allow so much.” “Those songs have so many valencies,” agrees Arnold. “They give you all the lushness and kitsch you want, but they have a history of being improvised on in the most serious way, and a lot of material to mess around with harmonically and melodically. The farther it gets from jazz, the more I like it.” Rat Drifting’s most recent success in this song-warping vein is Flocklight by Josh Thorpe, which consists of transcriptions of sections of songs by Tom Waits and The Shaggs, time-stretched so that they’re eight times longer than the originals, which form the basis for a series of remarkable ten minute plus pieces performed by Chenaux, Thorpe and others on a variety of string instruments. The result sounds like country’n’gagaku – very slow spiralling melodies that go round and round.

In describing their music the Rat-Drifters favor words like “slackness”, “laziness”, and “languor”. Chenaux speaks of his love for Cardew, Howard Skempton and Gavin Bryars’ amazing 1,2, 1,2,3,4, which he’s performed with the Draperies, a composition in which a group of improvisors all play along with tapes heard through headphones that slowly go out of synch, creating a strange hallucinatory drift between the different performers. Which is sort of how Canada, a place terminally drifting away from itself, feels too.

“If you live in New York or Berlin or London,” says Arnold, “I don’t think you can even imagine the Reveries. Chicago and Louisville have histories of music that’s unbelievably raw and slow, but it’s exemplarily slow. It’s not just slow, it’s “Will Oldham slow.” And I like Will Oldham, but it’s very hard for an American not to be exemplary. So even if they’re doing washed out psychedelic music, it’s got to be the most washed out psychedelic music, and I think you hear them entrepreneurially placing their imagination.”

The Reveries’ sound, built around guitars and distorted vocal sounds, strips away most of the obvious signs of a recognizable song, leaving a hazy harmonic fog that sounds at once nostalgic and psychedelic, a distorted, drugged out, improvised memory. As improvisation, each piece retains a lot of the affective powers of song without retaining the shape or form. Arnold says he’s fascinated by “music that isn’t meant to be listened to – people practicing; lounge jazz at the end of the night when no one’s there; people whistling or humming to themselves; Elizabethan consort music, the stuff that was written for amateurs.” “Hopefully it doesn’t come across as theater,” says Chenaux. “I like the things that happen when you’re concentrating on something else, if you’re gardening or writing and you’re humming or whistling, the way that you make a melody happen when you’re not playing close scrutiny to it.”

Originally published in The Wire, 2006.