Soundcheck Review

Julian Cowley, The Wire, no. 239, January 1, 2004

In the notes he supplies to shed light on these two versions of Aparanthesi, Canadian sound alchemist John Oswald enthuses over A, the single pitch used to make the piece, and he talks excitedly of the relevant frequencies measured in Hertz. Yet there’s nothing abstract about this remarkable music. On the contrary it engages with some of the countless potential incarnations of that pitch, from a thunderstorm rumbling across a prairie to Joan Jeanrenaud’s Intensely focused sounding of a cello.

The opening A is a monolithic chord, an Ayers Rock (aka Uluru) of an A. Like that Australian landmark, it then appears to change colour in response to changing light and atmospheric conditions. Oswald’s material undergoes more extensive and fundamental change however. Mass, texture, shape, dynamics alter too as one embodiment morphs into another. A piano tuner at work melts into the weather, a foghorn bellows, rain falls, a mosquito whirrs, sine tones drone, an aviary of birds emerges from a low hum, and miraculously flocks to A. Oswald recalls how, as he morphed the sound of wind instruments, he imagined “the physicality of the instrument transforming, so a conical clarinet would curl into a French horn for instance, and then straighten out into a didgeridoo.”

Aparanthesi could be approached as a philosophical investigation of identity and correspondence, or as a meticulously crafted guide to the intricacies of listening. But those options might be unnecessarily arid. High levels of technical skill and fine judgment are invariably accompanied in Oswald’s music by a clearcut sense of dramatic possibilities, and an awareness of tensions that give form to sonic events and radiate from them to involve his audience in active relationships with evolving structures of sound. Even in a piece that gravitates continually and predictably to a single pitch, strange things happen that spark unexpected images and open up unfamiliar spaces. His generous commentary elucidates but doesn’t even begin to exhaust the fascinating metamorphic drama Oswald has discovered in A.

… a philosophical investigation of identity and correspondence… a meticulously crafted guide to the intricacies of listening.

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