John Young’s new CD on empreintes DIGITALes comes in a beautiful deep blue, with minuscule letters in black. You have to tilt the disc slowly against the light of day to read, but then again; who reads the text on the discs themselves? empreintes DIGITALes, with its completely original packaging (I’m surprised no one else has followed) supplies ample and full documentation on the foldout hard-paper cover, which you slide out of the outer cover. It’s very elegant and stuffed with information.
John Young (1962) is one of those prolific and talented New Zealand sound artists, whom we have come to appreciate very much. Personally I raised an eyebrow over his humorous and discerning electroacoustic text-sound piece “Sju”, which recently was released on a CD called “New Zealand Sonic Art 2000” from The Music Department of Waikato University in Hamilton, New Zealand. That piece deals with the different pronunciations of the Swedish word “sju”, which means “seven”. It is very hard for any English-speaking person to pronounce the word in a sensible way, but even within Sweden there are at least two major ways of pronouncing it — in fact according to social class, usually! — and a number of minor deviations from those major ways. John Young discovered the peculiarities of this word while residing in Sweden for a while some years ago, and hid deliberations turned into a little masterwork!
Though born in Christchurch, Young has a mixed background, inherited from an English father and an Italian mother.
His musical career took off more seriously with a doctorate on the manipulation of environmental sound sources in electroacoustic music. He then continued in the U.K. at the studios of the University of East Anglia, studying electroacoustic composition with another New Zealand émigré (Denis Smalley) renowned wizard of the audios, who has meant more than most for the furthering of methods and ideas in electroacoustic music.
John Young has lectured at the Victoria University of Wellington and at De Montfort University in Leicester in the U.K. He has also been a visiting composer at a number of institutions, such as the Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada and EMS in Stockholm, Sweden.
His focus has been mainly on the acousmatic aspect of electroacoustics, predominately on forms based on the distinction between recognizable natural sounds and computer-based studio transformations.
Track 1 is Pythagoras’s Curtain; a new work from 2001 with a dedication to Denis Smalley attached.
The first image is extremely palpable. Someone is writing with a piece of chalk on a blackboard, and the placement of the sound puts you right at the interface between chalk and board; you become that interface, and you almost choke on chalk! It’s a fluttering, scribbling dance of Einsteinean formulas, and you sway with the motions, dizzy headed and white with chalk-dust! Magnificent! The blackboard is in your head, right in between your ears, and the piece of chalk is poking around inside your poor mind — especially if you’re listening through earphones.
Young gradually twists the chalk out of the calculator’s hand, the sound moving sideways into a timbral vibrancy which eventually leads to… a watery sensation… via an incident with crumpling paper… and the winding up of some kind of clockwork — or mechanical toy, maybe — and the watery sounds show up in a sublime counterpoint with the chalk scribbling along, as an added sequence of someone erasing the scribbled messages is introduced, and aah, a balloon; a very popular electroacoustic sound source (Jonty Harrison, for example!).
This has got to be one of the most successful utilizations of small, close, up-in-your-face sounds ever recorded. The closeness is almost intrusive, and you feel like you have to whisk away some of the too close soundlets like mosquitoes in Lapland!
However, more distant jingle jangle sounds of hinges - actually, I think, from wet glass being rubbed - provide some perspective, opening the sound space from the very much closed-in to a more open view, where purely abstract electroacoustics move in hypothetical space. Many of the sounds that are introduced as the progression progresses are reappearing in different constellations along the duration. Young handles his sonic pallet with the utmost delicacy, making this piece one of the most exciting and enjoyable in a good while in my ears! The concluding golden timbres of Tibetan mountain passes with the taste of salty yak-butter tea in your mouth do not diminish the experience! Om Mani Padme Hum!
The 2nd piece presented is Inner, which won Young a first prize at the Stockholm Electronic Arts Award in 1996.
The sudden inhaling breath is almost shocking. Everyone can identify with physical sounds like these, feeling them right in the body of current residence. Strange elaborations on the breath result in distinctly metallic timbres, joined by cut-up breath, little shrivels of breath, fragments of life-supporting gases in shredded form, having me associate to some of the sound-poets of our day, like Henri Chopin or Bernard Heidsieck.
Sandpaper layers of air shift like wind in a sand pit, or on the west coast of Denmark where the grass in vain tries to stop erosion. Glissandi turning steadily upwards sound like a graph of terrestrial demographics would look, and voices start talking out of trembling glass, like the whispering spirits of horror at the San Andreas fault showdown… and a culture vanishes to an Atlantis state of affairs…
The auditory surroundings turn straight into a maze of unintelligible or very complicated sign language, where breath is only apparent as one human ingredient in a seemingly hypothetical or very theoretical state of mind, like were you hominoid, equipped with computer chips and complicated wiring, through which these insisting, intensive, alien sounds move, transmitting messages beyond your control, inside your own being…
Inner is truly a magnificent display of electroacoustic artisanship! It’s no easy or laid-back place to spend 12 minutes, but rewarding and intriguing. This boy makes trembling glass creak and talk, and just this property of the piece makes it a must for anyone drawn to this obscure art.
Track 3 is entitled Virtual. This piece begins fast and tight with a conversational flair, though nothing is said — and then a swooping desert wind sets in, like in Michel Redolfi’s “Desert Tracks”, for which source sounds were found in the Mojave Desert.
Overtones of sandy roughness sweep in and out in a layered noise display, sounding like a giant organ of air and sand rising above the desert floor, where you can see pillars of brownish whirlwinds dance like attentive cobras across the horizon, and the heat and the sand rubs the situation in, leaves no room for doubt; it’s a rough road ahead — but we like these ragged circumstances; backpacks and dusty trekker’s boots…
Much of Virtual consists of really fast, shifting, fine grains of sound; slices of white noise spread out like construction site blueprints, taken by the wind and rolled up like tacos filled with arithmetic and the whispering of willows and the voices of lost children out of TV static of exorcist movies… or maybe just the distant dying-down of jet engines of passenger planes passing under the horizon on a clear day, the sound spilling down through a crack in the heavens like a spill-over from another universe, from another dimension… setting your tympanic membranes in vibrating motion…
Big flakes of opposing forces fill the field of hearing, and the whole scenery is crowded with sounds that look like an endless high plateau filled with those South American ants that carry bits of leaves with them, in an ever-moving maze of ant-sails tilted this way and that way.
Time, Motion and Memory, composed in 1997 but revised in 2001, is track 4. It holds a dedication to Paul Rudy. Ellen Band’s “Swinging Sings” (1992) on Experimental Intermedia XI 124 also deals with the childhood swing. “Swinging Sings” opens with the grinding, whining sound of a garden swing, on which you easily portray a little boy, swinging to and fro in his own thoughts, absent-minded in a summer’s evening under the tree. I think most of us have pleasant memories of our childhood swings, and I still use the swing, sometimes, as a vehicle to hypnotic trance-states of the mind.
A high shrill sound opens this section, and soon a hint at hinges and chains emerge, but it is in a dreamy, far away atmosphere (memories of childhood; the hypnosis of swinging on a swing at the age of seven, shorts and a summer wind around your knees…) that these faded pictures appear, tinted by age and temporal amnesia; amnesia for all practical reasons, but called up out of the storage by this John Young music… and here we are; suddenly the swing right here in the present moment, loud and clear, chains creaking and squeaking! You sit on the old wooden seat, your fingers clutched to the chains. It’s amazing how close Young can get to a sound, making the listener feel like he is really partaking; that he is the one who is at the scene; the swing slowly moving through a leafy summer’s afternoon in childhood; life a bit sad, a bit on the melancholy side, but a long life possibly ahead, and Mom fixing blueberry pancakes back in the house…
The other aspect is the purely musical; how John Young takes all these swing artifacts and shoves them around, achieving a chamber piece for swings, right in the long-lost summer of our life, leaving us in the desolation of a longing for a lost golden age, when our senses were clear and unspoiled by schooling and common sense; when life really was the adventure that it really is!
I admire greatly the utmost compositional care that Young has bestowed on this artful work. Electroacoustic music is really all about composition, of delicate choices and a fingertip sensuality, if anything worthwhile is to be achieved. This work is an electroacoustic masterpiece, musically and mentally; emotionally, considering all the feelings this music awakens. I could live a long time in this music, without intentions, without will; just letting life and time flow through my timeless being in the Universe.
This CD is concluded with track 5; Liquid Sky, dedicated to Vendela and Isabella, makes me think of a piece called “Precipitation”, realized by David Arzouman in the USA in 1991, harvesting an award at Bourges the same year, in which a heavily manipulated rainfall gradually recedes back to its normal naturalistic sound. The gradual transformation back holds your attention completely alert all the way back to the wet pavement! Young’s work here also had me look up another rainy work of electroacoustics; “Droptrap” by the German composer Werner Cee, which won him a Bourges prize in 1993. His piece is made up solely of the sounds of six water drops, or rather many times six water drops, since the machine that Cee constructed and used handled six water drops at a time. He recorded the sound of the drops hitting different object with contact microphones, and the sound was not manipulated in any other way, just recorded like that onto DAT in real time. He could, however, decide how often the drops out of the six plastic pipes should fall, and so forth, but no filtering or anything took place. The effect is magnificent, and I must remember to listen to this work more often.
Apparently, then, the electroacoustic lust for water drops has not diminished, and for sure these falling entities, held together by their surface tension, are very practical to work with.
The beginning of Young’s Liquid Sky is less obvious as to source, the sounds appearing almost in the manner of wind and breath in preceding works on the CD. There is a lot of rustling, as of mice running through piles of newspaper paper, or of flakes of clay or ice shifting position under the force of the weather — but soon a recognizable rainfall moves in, albeit right away giving way to a kind of abstract weather, in which thunderclaps sound more like falling cardboard boxes or tumbling pillbox hat cases from old Bob Dylan songs…
Tiny grains of sound are interspersed with strong, wavy motions of audio, much like you would apply color haphazardly to a canvas in the more experimental decade of the 1960s. Howling electro-wolves spread moonlight eroticism at reflecting ponds deep down in the spruce forests of this music, and an occasional small fish jumps, its silver belly sending a ray of moonlight your way as you listen to this music which gets progressively more austere, more… enchanted… leaving you at the forest pond with a drifting mist and a fish that doesn’t show up any more, and it’s very still and a bit chilly as the CD spins down to its last revolution. Magnificent!