Sunday, 10 February 2013

The Ambiguous Arctic: Thomas Köner

It was a while back now, but in late November last year I went along to an event in Glasgow celebrating thirty years of the Touch record label. The event showcased the work of three Touch artists: Philip Jeck, BJ Nilsen and Thomas Köner, who just released his first record for the label, 'Novaya Zemlya', last year (though he's been releasing his work elsewhere for over twenty years now). Köner was actually the artist I had heard the least of before the gig, and I was curious as to what he would be like.
The set-up on stage had the three artists' workstations arranged in a row, with Köner at the far left. This worked to his advantage, as he seemed to want to focus our visual attention not on him, sitting in front of a laptop and a mixing board, but on the projections on the wall behind him. These included various photographs of vast, desolate, Arctic-looking landscapes, all seemingly altered to appear faded, with their colour, brightness and contrast then adjusted over time so that the darker and lighter inks seemed to seep out of their original confines, shifting ground between one another. Köner has uploaded a short example of this visual method combined with some of the music from 'Novaya Zemlya' (see below). At this Touch.30 event, as in the video, these photos slowly faded into one another as Köner performed, taking us on a journey through this untamed, unfamiliar environment.
To my mind, both the music and the visuals evoked an ambiguity about the nature of landscape. Köner's work matches deep, expansive drones, far-off white noise and echoing rattles of unknown objects. The first two elements give an impression both of space and of depth, as if one were straining to hear the sounds at the bottom of a glacial chasm. The relatively few found sound and field recording parts often appear isolated and alone in the mix save for these more distant drones and noise, adding to the image of a near-empty landscape. Aside from these elements, however, there's nothing in the music to give you any details about the sonic landscape you're meant to be experiencing. Köner's cover art and live visuals place you in an Arctic environment, but any specific content or features of that environment are difficult to discern. There's no obvious attempt to create a fully-fledged figurative landscape á la Eno, nor is a more literal environment portrayed through the use of explicit field recordings (those recordings which are used aren't easy to decipher). The music demonstrates landscape as being something more than the geographical; landscape here is about emotional awareness of an atmosphere. The elements of the music play a metonymic role, standing both for an environment in space-time and for an emotional state experienced when in that environment. In this way, emotion and environment are fused. This purpose is similar to what Eno was aiming for with 'On Land', but here the landscape is not clearly demarcated – we cannot 'see' clearly what's in front of us – and the matching emotions evoked are of uncertainty, isolation and sometimes dread.
This understanding of the music is echoed in an essay by Thierry Charollais that accompanies 'Novaya Zemlya'. Charollais speaks of a “strong metaphysical dimension” to the album, whereby our experience of Köner's landscape leads us to focus on “one's own inner landscape”. This is achieved through the music's ambiguity: “for the listener temporal and spatial orientation seem to be suspended”, and that lack of space-time specificity leads to “a permeation between the sonorous and the metaphysical” – ie. environment and emotional state represent one another.
Both the music and the visuals also create a sense of detachment from this ambiguous landscape. The isolated nature of the found sounds in the mix make them seem more like snapshots of an environment than an unmediated experience of them by us; that they are surrounded by more voluminous non-found-sounds almost makes them feel out-of-place, such that we're not certain what element of a landscape they represent. The processed nature of the photographs added to this feeling of detachment during the gig, since the photos were made to look old, worn and unclear, making us focus on their production rather than the real environments they were meant to present to us. In effect, this juxtaposition of long low drones and undefined found sounds, added to the slowly-altering photography, mediates against the feeling that we're really experiencing a landscape directly when listening to the music. We feel removed from the landscape somehow, as if we're not actually present in the environment in real-time as a listener. Instead, it's as if we're having some feverish dream of the environment, where snapshot elements of the landscape emerge, out of context, out of a fog of emotional states. As in a dream, everything seems to have some relation to 'reality' (ie. a real landscape somewhere) but it's jumbled up, both amongst itself and with our own emotions.

Köner himself has written briefly on the detached nature of his music. In the text accompanying the video posted above, Köner writes that the photographs he uses are “found footage material from photo archives”, and that by using them his own work becomes “a travelogue of other people's memories”. Here, then, is an expression of the idea of detachment; we can't experience the landscape directly because we're viewing somebody else's experience of it. I'm extending Köner's point to argue that this detachment is present in the music itself as well.

Reflecting on the gig now, and having picked up his work since, I think Köner shows an interesting and innovative approach to representing landscape in aural art. The perception of space and depth, combined with the long unchanging nature of the musical passages, is enough to create a sense of physical environment – indeed, the sheer emptiness of some of the passages pinpoint us in an Arctic environment, with cover art and live photos acting as further cues. The harmonic and timbrel nature of the sounds making up that space reveals the metonymic process at work, of landscape and emotional state representing one another. But beyond this process, Köner is doing something unique by playing with ambiguity and detachment. Both in music and in visuals, we are presented with a landscape that we can neither 'see' clearly nor claim to be directly experiencing. Specificities and direct perception are negated, made nonsensical by our dreamlike experience of the landscape, and instead we are left with atmosphere as the marker of an environment. Of course atmosphere, however, relies on someone to experience it as such. In this way, Köner's work equates listener with landscape; in an important sense, one cannot exist without the other, and since then landscape resides as much in our own heads as 'out there', lack of an evoked 'direct experience' is no barrier to portraying landscape in music.
It's with this in mind that I recall one other interesting thing about Köner's performance (also in the video above): after a while I started noticing that in some of the projected photographs you could just make out human figures in the distance. These figures would appear only for a few seconds, before the seeping of inks would wash them out. Human and landscape merge, in visuals and in musical experience.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Dragging itself through the mud: decayed dance music

I just got my hands on the new Kane Ikin record, 'Sublunar', out on 12k. Knowing and loving some of his earlier work, in collaboration with others and as part of Solo Andata, the record held a surprise in the form of slow, sparse drum parts. Added to Ikin's worn-out analogue whirls and unfolding gongs and bells, the overall sound strikes me as heading toward the same musical landscape as some dance music artists but coming from a different, more ambient direction.
To start from the dance musician's perspective: for a while now, I've been noticing a shared aesthetic among some more experimental artists that I like to call 'decayed dance music'. This is electronic music that takes house and R&B musical elements, tampers with their recording fidelity and then filters the results through a heady dub techno atmosphere which itself has been rendered less pristine in some way. For an aesthetic that is, as one reviewer recently noted, relatively limited in its timbrel colour, the results can be quite varied emotionally: from the faintly apocalyptic techno of Andy Stott to the angelic affirmations of more house-inflected Tri Angle artists such as Holy Other. What these different musicians share is a reliance on an idea of approach to composition: the story of their music is one of taking more puritan strains of dance music and degenerating them, deliberately wearing them down until the music is heavy with some sort of playback contamination. Thus Scott speaks of a “detuned grit feel” he gets from manipulating late '80s/early '90s R&B samples to complement bpms that, the interviewer emphasises, are now much slower than his earlier minimal techno. A reviewer of Holy Other's new album similarly notes the “extreme timestretching” involved, the deconstruction of “dance and pop music source material”. This story of degeneration and decay is part of the identity and aesthetic experience of these works.

Kane Ikin seems, however, to be arriving at a similar aesthetic from a perspective not of degeneration from dance but of probing potential undercurrents of rhythm within ambient drone. In the past, Ikin's music has often comprised long mournful notes ululating from among thickets of field recordings and vinyl crackle. On 'Sublunar', bass drums push into this undergrowth while the crackles emit snaps of snare rhythms. From the way these elements are incorporated into the mix, you get the impression that the rhythms had been lying dormant in the drones, only now being allowed to grow and agitate. Interestingly, reviews of Ikin's new album have portrayed the music as threatening to spill over into something even more agitated. Boomkat describes the production style as “measured and detailed” to the extent that it offers only “a tantilising glimpse” of where Ikin could have pushed the music. Fluid Radio puts this in more positive terms, detailing an “impression that each of these short pieces is threatened by chaos, as if pushed right to the edges... teetering on the tipping point of lunacy”.
In both the case of the slowed-down dance crowd and that of Ikin's droneish experiments, we have this notion that the music is being mediated in some way. It's striking how the articles I cited all share this idea of the music being “dragged through a hedge backwards” and “dragg[ing]” us the listener “through the mud”, or of “beats flow[ing] at the pace of tar” (Stott), of “the sluggish oozing open of every rhythmic tic” (Holy Other), and of the music being held down by “an unimaginable weight of water” (Ikin). Whether from the perspective of degradation or of constrained potential, the music is seen as being mediated or held back by some material aspect such that it can't fully express itself. That is, the music's 'true essence' is prevented from being expressed – or more accurately, I think, these different works are relinquishing the idea of a self-contained abstract essence of 'what they really are'. That abstract essence has been ruptured by the forcing of its material nature to our listening attention: “this has been tampered with, this is not quite what it should be!”
Personally, I love this idea of audible mediation of a work as a compositional approach. It produces this enjoyable tension where what we're getting pleasure out of is music that doesn't feel quite whole, that riffs off of an imagined ideal of the genres it's working within, while at the same time challenging us to think of it not as being insufficient in some way but as fully-formed in its own right. (You can see how 'dragging through the mud' can take on a double-meaning here: both as expressing the notion of mediating the sounds and of besmirching previously-untained genres.) That tension between degradation and new form isn't, I suspect, going away anytime soon.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Presence through absence: The Sight Below's 'Stagger'

I'm always interested in how artists portray their performance space, as it were, in their tracks. People often think this becomes irrelevant when you're writing electronic music – it's all inside the laptop, right? – but if anything the opposite is true. Experimental electronic artists often, intentionally or not, create imaginary performance spaces when they write a track, irrespective or whether they think their track doesn't really have a 'performer', as in a human being playing the instruments. Western listeners hear what sound like instruments and attach a certain agency to those sounds. At that point, the track stops being just a bunch of sounds, and becomes a landscape with someone in it.

Once that 'performer' of sound is located, tracks can develop narratives based around the question of the performer's presence in the track. One of the tracks I've noticed this most clearly in is the beautiful 'Stagger' by The Sight Below. The first two minutes allow the pad synths to fade into hissing, clicking surroundings. After this fade-in we start to hear an ever-so-slightly out-of-tune, long low bowed string. It plays a long note on the 2nd of the key, occasionally sliding up a tone. What's significant about this string sound is it sounds so different from the surrounding synths: it's front-and-centre, focused, imperfect in its intonation. It also doesn't sound continuously; while the synths go on unbroken, the 'performer' of the string sound pauses for a few seconds at regular intervals.

What I'm interested in is the pause between 'bowings' (in inverted commas since we don't really know what's making the noise). The pause doesn't herald silence; for one thing, we've got those continuous synths going on. But the string sound itself has slowly been faded into the crackling vinyl hiss that the synths too entered. In fact the synths are the odd ones out since they seem to be 'in the background', heavily fogged in reverb. The vinyl crackle is as up-close as the bowed string is (although the string is quieter); when it pauses there's no resultant reverb or echo.

But if you focus on the string as it's played over and over, you get the feeling that when it stops sounding the string hasn't really left the track. We don't experience the string as a sample that's simply dropped in & out of the mix. Instead, when the string stops, it continues to embody the space of the vinyl crackle. It's as if the performer is sitting there by his/her cello waiting to start playing again. Maybe the vinyl sounds themselves contribute to this experience, since such a vinyl recording would continue recording even when no-one was playing.

The presence of the sound remains, in other words, even when it's not sounding. This presence is substantially different from the presence of a real performer in, say, a chamber music recording. The space that's developed here trades on its 'artificiality' (of course, all space in music recordings is artificial, but electronic music relies on making this apparent). The sounds of a vinyl player directly invoke a level of remove from any actual performance. But the spaces of the main synths & the string sound seem themselves quite removed from eachother. I think this creates tension in the track: when the string stops sounding, we're unsure if it will continue because we're unsure where it is! OK, it's at the front of the mix, but in relation to the synths it doesn't coherently seem to be anywhere; it's much more related to the vinyl sounds, but they don't indicate anything about the narrative of the 'performance'. The string, then, sounds like it could start & stop of its own accord no matter what the synths do. That's an interesting tension that arises from us presuming that sounds have their own agency.