We have enjoyed previous releases Growl and Necropolis by Åke Parmerud, the Swedish electro-acoustic composer, and now we have Grains (empreintes DIGITALes IMED 18150), the latest collection for this label. As before, we have the monochrome high-contrast sleeve art which appealingly plays with digital “textures” and explores its own imaginary spaces. This time we’re hearing some earlier gems form his 1990s catalogue. The main event might be Grains of Voices, a 1994-95 composition that was commissioned by Swedish radio as a dramatic form of sound-art; we might consider it radiophonic almost, were it not for the lack of a clear linear narrative. Instead, Parmerud is making a generalised statement about the diversity of the human race, by using sampled, found and recorded voices from around the world. He intends thereby to present as much information as he can about the human spirit in a deep / wide sweep; I like the idea it might be seen as “vocal graffiti”. It’s all about different languages and cultures, yet the basic idea is to reveal some commonality, something about our shared humanity. On paper, this may sound a bit “worthy”, like some committee-designed UNESCO statement about mankind, but sonically speaking it’s a compelling jumble with plenty of rich detail; and it refuses to draw any conclusions about what these artificial patterns in sound might mean. As ever with this composer, the craft of assemblage is pretty immaculate; not a wasted moment, lots of concrete events; it’s as much a vocal mosaic as a wall of audio graffiti.
More human voices on Les objets obscurs taking us even further back to 1991. This is intended as an “audio riddle” in four parts; at one level, we’re invited to guess what we might be hearing as we work through these four short works, plus there’s a friendly French-speaking woman adding some context at the start, with a further textual riddle (I think she’s pretty much asking “what am I?”, but it sounds so much better in French). All of this was done to pay homage to the INA-GRM foundation, which Parmerud respectfully regards as a “very honourable institution”, and which prompted him to try and emulate the historical traditions of musique concrète. Duly noted, but I would say he’s also emulating the surrealist René Magritte at his most playful; I’d say it’s legitimate to “read” a Magritte painting as a visual riddle, of sorts, and everyday objects were massively important to his visual lexicon. Parmerud’s suite contains the “solutions” in the final part, but the answers conceal more than they reveal, and are also intended to set us a new riddle, one without an answer. How metaphysical!
Still more voices on Alias, a 1990 work which, in a very oblique manner, is attempting to say something about the life and music of Carlo Gesualdo. This Renaissance composer of madrigals is the gift that just keeps on giving, not just to lovers of that genre but also to composers and conceptualists. In 2017, for instance, we noted Alessandro Bosetti with his Gesualdo Translations work, a very bold statement using amateur singers that really challenged our received wisdom about the “chromatics” that have made Gesualdo so famous. Parmerud’s take on the subject is a bit more elusive; the first part remakes a John Dowland song, in order to raise questions about that most fraught of subjects, the relationship between the creator and the work of art. The second half samples some Gesualdo motets, fragments and processes them in an electro-acoustic way and blends in music from the first half, thereby attempting to x-ray the inside of Carlo Gesualdo’s brain. Highly effective; even if you have no interest in the subject matter listed above, the musical process here does indeed create convincing impressions of the way the human brain might operate. Fascinating.
French musician eRikm has certainly moved far beyond being simply labelled as a “turntabler”. We heard one of his serious compositions Doubse hysterie in 2016, released on Monotype Records; now here are three recent-ish works, published on the Canadian electro-acoustic label empreintes DIGITALes. Of these, Draugalimur scores high for ambition, criss-crossing themes of fantasy story-telling, epic science fiction cinema, and landscape audio-painting of the wilds of Iceland, all the above underpinned with whispered texts drawn from traditional Nordic sagas. Erik’s aiming for a huge sense of scale, a panorama that can include old whale-slaughtering quays in its sweep, yet he never loses sight of the tiny details that give it all substance. Despite the rather grim tone, this piece does indeed convey the intended “journey” sensations that are the goal of so many composers in this area.
Poudre contains field recordings of fireworks, a topic which has been used by so many phonographers in the past I often wonder what mileage is left in it. 17 minutes of explosions, treated with studio processing, are combined with the happy whoops of Berliners who set off fireworks on New Year’s Eve; eRikm takes a pessimistic quasi-philosophical view of the entire episode, and sees it all as an indicator of alienation in society. Not much listening pleasure in the piece either.
More successful, and another with grand ambitions, is L’aire de la Moure 2, another semi-fantastic piece that combines a survey of an area of natural beauty with dreams of flying. The area in question may be in Australia, since he refers in his notes to the sacred rock of Uluru (more popularly known as Ayers Rock). The site may be under threat in some way; there are vague allusions to risk management and natural disasters, but clearly the monumental scale of the place has stirred the composer’s imagination. He drew further textual ideas from Bruce Chatwin, Paul Virilio, and the writings of Paul Eluard, and his own childhood dreams of flight. A heady mix, then, of fantasy, dreams, sacred sites, and even magic — all bubbling away in the forge of his imagination. The extremely dynamic and textural electro-acoustic sheets of sound are mixed with planes flying overhead, and texts in French read by insistent male and female voices. L’aire de la Moure 2 thus succeeds in connecting with the “greats” of musique concrète composition, with its strong resemblance to works by Parmegiani, Luc Ferrari, and Pierre Henry.
A fairly ponderous release, with its weighty ideas embedded in the music and the printed text, but a solid and rewarding listen.
Another solid set of electro-acoustic compositions by the great Monique Jean on Troubles. This particular genius deeply impressed Stuart Marshall with her 2012 album Greffes, when he dug the “violence apparent in these audio autopsies”. No less dark is today’s Troubles, with a nice grim abstract art cover and two heavyweights slugging it out in the musical arena.
T.A.G. had me rooted for 25 mins with its solid, mesmerising push of sound; one thing that struck me was her stark lack of baroque detail, by which I mean the digital frills and curlicues which often beset other composers on this label when they overcook their work in the studio. This piece delivers its stern message with no fancy preliminaries. I often get lost reading the highly abstract descriptions on these Canadian releases, but this piece has a meaning I can just about fathom. The acronym T.A.G. unpacks into Trottoir, Ashpalte, Goudron, and the work began by making observations about the weight of people on the streets agitating the gravel. Observing a crowd of protesters may have been one starting point for Jean’s ruminations, but she ended up seeing the mass of people dissolve into “energized shapes”, evidently transfixed by their errant movements; she saw a world of collisions, tensions, and forces moving down bifurcated paths. Urban malaise is a regular theme for phonographers (Philip Sulidae comes to mind), but Monique Jean never settles for bland recordings of street vistas, and does it with conviction, and strong ideas about society and mankind. It ain’t a pleasant vision, but there’s a lot of hard-nosed reality baked into these digital cloppings. It ought to be required listening to anyone who dreams of taking up architecture, or town planning. They’d soon learn what they have to contend with!
Out Of Joint may not have the immediate bone-crunching faculties of the above, but its generally macabre tone and pessimism are welcome elements, to say nothing of its majestic sweep. The starting point was something to do with Shakespeare, but this is not an attempt to “re-present” that canon of literature in modern compositional form. Monique Jean began by deconstructing a number of interpretations of Macbeth across time — movie versions, stage versions, rewrites. This isn’t to mean she directly sampled the soundtrack of Polanski’s Macbeth for instance; the process that is relevant is “across time”. She’s attempting nothing less than a compression of several different viewpoints and interpretations, attempting to “graft” them together in her music (the Greffes album was full of such grafts). How has history dealt with the “moral and ethical issues” raised by Shakespeare? That is the theme that interests her. At the same time, it’s the multiplicity of voices that she likes, moving away from the attempts to form a single critical consensus of the canon (a problem that has arguably bogged down English literary criticism for at least 100 years). In doing this, she reflects some of the great contradictions and contrasts that are embodied in Shakespeare’s work, what is referred to here as an “entwining of the coarse and the sacred”. It’s much to her credit that she conveys this without using any spoken word at all; Out Of Joint is mostly abstract sound, though with some suitably eerie sound effect recordings such as rainfall and crows calling. A detailed, blackened suite of sheer genius.