Archives for category: Musique concrete


Blank tape positive
(Contour Editions 2013)

Review by David Vélez


from the liner notes:

‘Blank Tape Positive focuses on the modification of magnetic tape and playback machines as a substantial material for sonic sources. This exploration has been ongoing for many years in Richard Garet’s studio practice by applying extended techniques to magnetic tape and extensively deconstructing the physical playback object, with methods that not only manipulate the natural conditions of the machine, but also its constrained mechanisms. These approaches tackle the playback device as material in itself by turning it inside out, by decontextualizing it, and by mutating the capabilities of its functionality. In due course the magnetic tape is modified, the machine is also modified; subsequently nothing plays properly or does what it was built or designed to do.’


There is something about the physical manipulation of matter that allows for an artist to imprint his emotions into something irreversible, tangible and personal.

There is something poetic about the appropriation and reinterpretation of obsolete objects and devices that helps an artist to materialize his research and instrumental processes into something where he can genuinely project himself.

Today many of the sounds and images that are presented to us establish in some way a material and perceptual bridge to the past, they evoke memories that are loaded with extict experiences and dissapeared things.

Obsolescence gives to things the possibility to be reutilized while exploring unwanted and unnecessarily elements product of the shortcomings of dated technology.

Obsolescence also means imminent disappearance and today there seems to be a great praise of working with rare things of which they aren’t many left and this paradoxically occurs in an actual formal quest for the novelty…

On the late 80’s and early 90’s there was an obsession with the future, an obsession with the XXI century, an obsession with computers and software and the possibilities they offered…

…and now that we are there, that we are in the future, we are interested on things that we can find on junkyards, garage sales, pawnshops or antique shops…

In sound art the contemporary times can present a nostalgic approach, an interest in dated processes and media that when brought back acquire a complete new meaning.

The future is now the archeology of our memories.


The thoughts presented in the previous chapter came to my mind while listening to ‘Blank tape positive’ and reading its liner notes.

‘Blank tape positive’ illustrates in its final result this media and material exploration of the obsolete. The textures, the volumes, the reverberations, the rhythmic patterns…they present a nostalgic character that gives to this work a strong aesthetic value.

Here process and result go hand-in-hand as a way to achieve formal success. Here the exploration of history and archeology of media and the subsequent personal appropriation pays off, offering to the listener an incredible experience full of signification and profound emotional content.

But of course, there is substance behind the surface; on ‘Blank tape positive’ Garet also does a great job when it comes to construct emotional structures and formally work with tension and expectations, keeping the listener attentive and immersed throughout the entire release.

‘Blank tape positive’ joins ‘L’avenir’ and ‘Silver’ as the works of Garet that have left the bigger impression on me in terms of my sensible experience.


[Richard Garet; photo courtesy of Mandragoras Space]

Richard Garet website
Contour Editions website


Strata. TARAB -Eamon Sprod-
(Unfathomless 2013)

Review by Caity Kerr

‘Strata’ is described as having been created from recordings made in a series of vacant lots and their immediate surrounds in the north-west of Melbourne.

The first thing that strikes the listener is the range of well-chosen sounds, all easy on the ear, nothing too harsh or unpleasant, no frequencies that strip the enamel off your teeth, no subs which threaten the cones on your precious speakers. In contrast with the locations used to gather the sounds, the overall impression is of a very ‘clean’ album, highly polished. The balance of dynamics, attention to pace and flow, all the orthodoxies of good composition, make the album almost classical in a compositional sense. Add to this various crossfading techniques with some well-crafted staggered dropouts and you have an effective tension between what I’d call thoroughly contemporary environmental sound gathering and a measured and conventional approach to putting the sounds together.

The sounds are easy enough to describe to the inner ear: a variety of recognisable or almost recognisable continuous sounds, some with lots of human agency, others resembling trains and the like, and occasionally sudden intrusions in the form of metallic timbres for example – one would imagine that these timbres are derived from objects found on site, activated for their rich sonic properties.

As with many other examples of this kind of work, the soundscape is visually evocative. Such work lends itself very well to the entertainment of audiences who like to relax, listen deeply and let the mind wander to the music. So the real question for me is how else can we hear this kind of music other than on cd? It’s fine to be able to relax in one’s domestic environment and to listen on one’s chosen equipment, but I’ve always thought that the potential strength of this kind of work, apart from pleasing the ears if it’s good work, is to be found in the possibilities for uplifting and even edifying in a social listening context, situations where people can discuss and share impressions after the listening event. Certainly not the concert hall or the grungy club (so I’m already going against the grain by asking for something which isn’t so fashionable but is eminently human and probably timeless), something approaching an appropriate and rewarding listening environment. I think we need to be asking where and under which conditions we should be looking to improve the opportunities for composers of this kind of work, composers who offer well-crafted good new non-instrumental, non-genre or trend-driven music of this era.


Eamon Sprod website
Unfathomless website


(self release 2012)

Review by Caity Kerr

Bill Thompson’s work is wide-ranging and largely experimental. He should be described as a statement artist, which means that he’s capable of appropriating an idiom or genre, or elements from within one, and making a very unique statement of his own within those resources. As a committed Cageian he works with all sorts of material, instrumental, electronic, environmental, found, lost, unwanted, often investigating intermedia-based process-driven projects in the live environment, improvising or composing as required rather than on principle. His work manifests versatility and flexibility. After so much project and deadline-based work which he does regularly and which makes it difficult to get along and see or hear, it’s good to have a studio album to catch up with.

Solace is sectional and as such is formally transparent. The opening is ambient in flavour, an electronically generated pad (according to the artist the equipment did most of the work) layered with field recordings of environmental sound. This crossfades slowly into an 11 minute passage, typical, to my ears, of his solo live work – a powerful mesmerising electronic timbre, modulating slowly, made of clearly defined partials, though again shifting around the spectrum, well equalised, polyrhythmic.

Without quoting directly from our correspondence on the work, it was pointed out that the opening section was overtly ‘musical’ in a characteristically ambient way, and that there’s a very personal but private narrative embedded in the work. The structural use of long sections of silence was commented upon as being unusual in his work.

The middle section is a straightforward field recording of someone walking through something crunchy, most likely the artist unless some poor bystander was collared and coerced into carring a recording device through a scrapyard. You never know.

There follows a period of relative stasis – a simple low amplitude electronic timbre, like a good fm synthesised waveform. Two minutes or so of silence leads next to a more hostile transitional passage, then further on a crescendo, another massive pulsating section but with substantial dollops of grit and noise in the signal and a nod to the pulse of early techno synth pads.

What I think works in this piece is the contrast and the clear division between the field recordings and the electronic music. You don’t get bored as you can look forward to the next contrasting section – there’s not too much of one thing or the other – it’s very well balanced. I think this is a fruitful area of investigation for artists who want to make field recordings more interesting. Finally the concept of a personal narrative acts as the perfect container for such a remarkable project.

SOLACE was first performed in 2012 for the AMODA Performance
Series in Austin, Texas. It was subsequently reworked and mastered
at the Firehouse Studios in London and Studio 4 in Norwich, UK.


[Bill Thompson]

Bill Thompson website

Blowhole2 copy$

2013: The year in retrospective. Part I -TESSA ELIEFF-

Text, images and sound by Tessa Elieff

Download ‘Caris Clocks’ by TESSA EILEFF

Download ‘Craster Blowhole’ by TESSA EILEFF

Recording excursion snapshot: Sound gathering on England’s North East coastline.

In early November of 2013 I found myself in the town of Alnwick, north Northumberland, England. After finishing a week intensive with Chris Watson – rather than moving on to the next opportunity – I had decided to stay in the area and give myself more time to understand its community and discover its unique sounds. Time is a luxury – particularly when travelling and it’s only too easy to miss the experience that lies around you in order to jump ahead into the future potential. I didn’t want this to be such an instance and so, at the time where the tourist attractions close down for the year, their subsequent crowds filter out of the townships and the wintering wildlife filters in, I settled in the market town of Alnwick.



Weatherproof clothing was a must. I do in fact own a few beanies and big jackets but nothing that would actually keep you warm – living in Australia – there are very few occasions when you would need it. While it was not quite Winter in England, the morning frost had arrived along with typical coastline weather of wind, rain and hail. Keeping your fingers warm as you monitor a recording device and fitting your headphones over a beanie can be the deciding factors as to weather or not you are able to persevere the elements and collect that one recording….

Clothing for this trip included

1) Thermal tops and bottoms (@ the heaviest weight)

2) Thick socks

3) Water resistant bushwalking boots. These were not waterproof but still did the job and were much needed when clambering over the slippery stones and volcanic rocks to be found on the coastline. Sneakers (no matter how sturdy) would not have sufficed!

4) Fingerless gloves (for warmer days)

5) Whole gloves – touch screen sensitive

6) Beanie: Thick enough to keep you warm and sleek enough to accommodate headphones

7) Pants: Wind/waterproof and lined for the cold. It’s worth mentioning that ‘ladies’ pants are not as practical as the ‘men’s’. Their waistlines are lower (don’t keep you as warm) and the cut more fitted (restricts your movements and pocket potential!)

8) Coat: Down to the knee and up to the chin. Downer lined with weatherproof shell and hood.

Specific townships along the North East coastline where I recorded include Craster, Boulmer and Newton-by-the-Sea.  The nature of these places required equipment such as their tide tables and explorer maps as GPS and phone signal often disappears and their tides remain master of shore access. RE: the maps – I’d recommend a scale of 1:25 000 (4cm to 1km), which typically is used for walking and the level of detail is ideal for exploring the areas by foot and car. The tide tables are essential for ensuring your safety – particularly as the coastline is dotted with volcanic stone formations that appear and disappear along with the changing tides. It’s very easy to lose yourself in recording only to look up half an hour later and find yourself marooned. I also found that knowing when the tides would be shifting helped inform me of the best times to explore specifically, blowholes and rock pools.

Caris Clocks2 copy

The final recording collection includes sounds of the township and of it’s surrounding natural environment. The most dominant contributor would be the ocean itself. There was not a single day that I visited the shoreline to hear the same sounds – even if the weather was much identical – the ocean’s voice was completely different. It was a pleasure and a torment – so much to capture but never able to capture it all! I was torn between using spaced omni microphones to gather the complete soundscape, or paired cardioid’s to illustrate the beautiful movements between left and right extremities – between a hyper cardioid to focus on a single point species and on contact microphones – to unearth the rumble running through a surface. If I could have recorded each select moment with all of the above I would have undoubtedly done so – but these are the creative decisions we make as a Field Recordist are they not?

Caris Clocks copy

On return to Australia I am haunted by my usual thoughts of sounds I did not think to capture at the time – or could have perhaps – made that extra effort to gather. None-the-less, as I work through what I did collect, I am transported back to Alnwick and enjoy the sounds of such a place, from far-away Australia. Here’s a snippet. Enjoy.


[Tessa Elieff]

Tessa Elieff website


(Doubtful Sounds 2013)

Review by David Vélez

From the liner notes

This work is the result of a research about the mechanical sounds of printing machines. I was invited in two different printing workshops in Grenoble and Paris, where I’ve been listening and recording their rotary presses very closely. ‘Offset’ gathers a series of compositions created with this sound matter, electroacoustic variations exploring the rhythms, cycles, textures and musicality of the machines. A work that stands on the ambivalence between the alienating and the musical machine, and careful to lose any assumption…


‘Offset’ is composed by eight individual pieces.

On ‘Cycle 1′ the rhythmic patterns are random and complex drawing to a somber emotion. They sound like desynchronized machines that sometimes match and interact with harsh colorless grace.

On ‘Cycle 2′ the textures vary from more wood-like to metallic-like.  Also the relations created by the different magnitudes of the occurring events maintain a tension between the more soothing moments and the more overwhelming moments.

‘Cycle 3′ is a piece of ‘epic’ narratives and emotional tensions that stretches and breaks up the moments. To me this piece is one of the highlights of the whole release, conscious and successfully built.

Sometimes ‘Cycle 4′ sounds like jungle or break-core music; a short fun to listen and an easy to get by piece.

‘Cycle 5′ is a recording-based evolution of something similar to what avant-garde electronic acts like Autechre and Phonem were trying to do in terms of rhythm thirteen years ago. Syncopated rhythmic mechanical repetitions that go on strongly with no pause. Through the end the pulse become harsher, louder and chaotic.

‘Flux 1′ is another piece of this release that I find special; here the rhythmic patterns become more ‘harmonic’ and the background and foreground forcefully merge in a very fortunate way; this is the more atmospheric and environmental piece of the release.

‘#’ is a strange piece very quiet and sine wave-like that sort of breaks the release structure.

‘Offset’ goes out on a high note with ‘Flux 2′. Here the exploration of rhythm is open to the point we wonder how much manipulation of the recordings was done in terms of pitch and speed. The piece’s narrative structure goes from joyful to somber creating a beautiful lasting tension.

To close this review I would like to say that ‘Offset’ presents a fortunate, risky and refreshing approach to the compositional work with field recordings. The relation that Meursault established with the subject and the formal approach he gave to it produced a very successful and rewarding work.


[Pali Meursault]

Pali Meursault website
Doubtful sounds webwsite





Reviews by Patrick Farmer

The two newest releases on the Organised Music from Thessolaniki label, that aren’t actually that new anymore, but new enough.

My apologies, to Kostis and the artists involved, for the delay in my writing. So much has happened, so much that doesn’t feel at home in a ‘review’, but how many people really think I review things anyway? Do I even think I do? A review, really, shouldn’t be a place to speak about oneself, I’m sure, but then I’m probably not one to review, though I’ll try in a bit. These two tapes have been released on a label that I can’t extract from the proceedings, the proceedings being the review, but as I said, the label, Organised music from Thessaloniki, has published some of my work, and I indeed, not wishing to sound too much like Richard Pinnell, know the label owner very well. He’s a lovely old boy if ever there was one. And so what do I write about?

The tapes! Please, the tapes! I shouldn’t write about how my window has been open all night, how I haven’t eaten anything this morning, how I’ve only drank strong black coffee and thus am typing things, like this, that I possibly wouldn’t usually merit as worth anybody’s while. And yes, I’m going to mention birds, as I can hear them, and I’m always thinking about them. Great tits and goldfinches, the latter giving me much pleasure, being as they were so close to extinction, and now, well, aren’t. I’m going to build a bird table soon, and fill it with nigella seeds. But then, I can also hear, I had to look to confirm, a few private planes in the sky, which give me equal amounts of pleasure. Though it used to be that they made me so angry, but who can live like that and still experience the world in ways where thoughts can be drawn up that can then commingle with others in ways that don’t leave your eyes red and your mouth sore? Thoughts and patience are a good sound.

Why am I writing about this? Is it because I’m unable to vacate my hyperbolically apparent and dank solipsism? If that were true why would I think there were anything to vacate? Unless I were somewhat of a realist in my spare time… Is there any compassion here? I think so, oodles, but who knows really. Or perhaps I’m writing like this because both tapes in some way or another utilise field recordings, or is it material? Either or there’s lots of it! Both. Thematically at least two decades worth condensed into two tapes. They deal with sounds in ways which seek to document what happens not when they’re recorded, but when they’re played back. And so why would I then want to saddle that laboured horse and document those self same sounds again to you in words that don’t speak of anything but a tired imprint that’s so fed up of having to speak? Why not speak of them, or the process, in ways in which hearing the processes unfurl from the magnetised tape that has just finished with a click mirror the ways in which I receive and am now emitting, just like they were a minute ago. Though different.

As you see, what I feel I have actually been doing, is talking about the tapes this whole time. But now to talk about the tapes. One of them makes me wonder what a sine would look like if it had a face… One is almost like looking inside a sine tone. Or is it that they’re building a structure out of sine tones and then not ever wishing to go inside for reasons unknown but probably something to do with the unnerving density of clustering reality? Both build sideways. Both build displacement. Constantly building whatever they’re building. Which is actually somewhat of a dismantling. Like walking on a beach in non-descript weather, looking for something to look for. Placement mops up dynamic and the recordings, the whole shebang, are as much an instrument or a microphone as an instrument or a microphone is an instrument or a microphone.

Both of these tapes are fantastic; both are entirely different in similar ways. And both are not of the same location but to me they are of the same perspective. I don’t know how much of a chance it was that they were released in succession, but chance or not, the way they move through each other in literality mirrors the way they move through each other in theme and content. We’re listening to something fold in the one just as the other is listening to something unfold. Both are one and the same. They’re as different to each other as my words are in reference to them. Plus, one of them made some of my books fall off the shelf, Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy no less.  That beast! 


[Jack Harris, Samuel Rodgers]


[Yparxei Provlima Amalia]

Organised Music from Thessolaniki 


(Sedimental 2013)

Review by Patrick Farmer

Block writes in her liner notes that Erving Goffman’s dramaturgical metaphor described in The Presentation of Self in Every Day Life is a lens through which the entire composition, presented on vinyl, might be viewed as a metaphor for the self. After reading this I began to play with the thought that I can’t help but love finding myself at a loss for certain meanings of words. I’m sure I could think of many things to say about this release that would conform to a neat and tidy review. I have indeed said out loud many things to friends. But now I find myself at a place in which the written word is drawn up as a facilitator in order to postulate a sense of what it is to listen, or be listened to, rather than what it is to listen to something (influenced, as it were, by listening to something.) Over and over I feel that Karren presents a change of heart and that I am consciously presenting a reaction more so than an opinion. It’s as if I am a crowd of people hearing sentences a split second before they are written. Karren and the mutating language begin to influence the subsequent language about listening and being listened to. Altering the consideration of the language then being written. This language about listening has thus already been listened to. Block here shows what I am unable to say.

I tend to question what listening is more than I actually listen at the moment, ironic I know. And so often whilst I listen I can’t help but think that what I’m listening to is barely what I have been hearing. Wittgenstein once said that if someone is merely ahead of his time, it will catch up to him one day. Right now I take this and think about how I am always catching up to my listening; that once I am convinced I am listening I am not anymore, that I am hearing again before I once again begin to catch up. Listening always retains the possibility of no fixed location, thus it can be fixed, as well it can’t. Karren provides a possibility of listening as something that can facilitate this most fundamental of polarised reactions as it spreads out over a crowd. It can be simple enjoyment and quiet muster, it can be cause for a deliberate scene of placement and appointment, though I haven’t quite got to that yet, I’m still reveling in the former as if I’d never experienced it before. And it’s true, partly true, I haven’t, for quite some time experienced this before, in fact very few albums recently have even come close to lending this state of attentive carelessness on my behalf.

I’m unashamedly employing a layered idea rather than entertaining any sort of attitude. I feel a special sort of fool’s license in which I am trying to avoid describing this LP in terms of images. In which language is itself the image rather than the allusion of a possible image. Like a dream in which the individual is listening to the same memory through a hundred ears. I can’t help but consider that when I listen to this I am listening to it from the perspective of sound itself rather than with my own ears and my own crowded mind. Or anyway, it’s as if my ears are vibrating to the point that I can feel them shimmer. Is it possible to hear your own ears? Or for ears to hear themselves? Turning round again, it might be that right now I’m thinking, that Block has led me to thinking, that I am what is being listened to and that what I am listening to is the one doing the listening. Both are trying to catch up to the other and so it is inevitable that they will eventually collide. Karren has in many ways surpassed any expectation I may have not known I had.


Olivia Block website
Sedimental website


An Extended Meaning For Something Meaningless
(Auditory Field Theory 2013)

Review by Caity Kerr

On Auditory Field Theory we read:

From the decaying fringe of the auditory spectrum we find ornate beauty in the subtle demise of electronic systems and explore the arcane apprehension of existential degeneration.

The recording looks at how to create something out of almost nothing—basic field recordings, static electronics and failed tape experiments. A 16-channel multi-track piece where reel-to-reel tapes juxtaposition with modular synths, laced in a world of field recordings from late night Osaka to hydrophonic sewers.

The work consists of three untitled tracks with a total runtime of just over forty-four minutes and comes packaged in a letter-pressed sleeve printed by Ben Owen of middle press.

 At the risk of sounding harsh and irrelevant I’ll begin by asking what the first paragraph actually means. Answers on a postcard please. If an artist is going to preface or interpret their work by means of text, then surely the text is to be taken seriously. So the subtle demise of electronic systems and the arcane apprehension of existential degeneration either means something very profound which lies beyond my understanding, or the intention is poetic, or the words have been thrown together because they look good.

The second and third paragraphs make sense, though Meirino could have done himself a favour by placing himself firmly within a strong tradition and pointing out that making something out of meagre resources has been a staple of experimental music production for several decades now.

Track 1 [11:40]

For the first few minutes, apparently, there is a  lot going on, a busy and complex sound world seems to be emerging, but on closer listen we discover a mix of the same sounds throughout with some modulation in the looped-sounding passages and contrasting gristle in the concrète sounds. So for the most part we have the illusion or semblance of complexity arising from two or three fairly simple and distinct layers. Then things break down and recommence with more layers. There is an intriguing feeling of agency about the music, in the sense that someone is playing instruments. This contrasts well with what I assume are the field recordings, which have a different semiotic content and which therefore send out a different message. I couldn’t hear any evident relationship between most of the layers so I assume the composer is using the material in contrasting ways, which is reasonably successful on the whole. The piece is enhanced by the contrasting use of various sudden cuts and passages of relative calm which create pace and flow. Overall the use of similar sounds which don’t develop or evolve run the risk of becoming monotonous.

Track 2 [15:35].

Here we have a consistent sound world made up of some reasonably interesting sounds but also of some rather hackneyed sounds, very few of which show any depth of sonic investigation. The primary layers consist of various multi-part polyphonies with added modulating material, which gather interest by means of some very good passages of contrapuntal craftsmanship. I sensed a lack of concrete sounds earlier on which would have created a more ‘material’ base from which to develop the music. When these do appear they are confused by the appearance of other less effective sounds which clutter the frame. Some passages of hiss and flutter and interference with the more indeterminate low midrange timbres could maybe have offered a platform for deeper investigation. Nonetheless these are, to my ears, the strongest passages of the album.

Track 3 [16:44]

With this track you get lots of music for your money. Industrial processes are carried out industriously, there are some intriguing instrumental timbres near the beginning but never fully developed as the piece goes the way of the previous two pieces, favouring timbrally simpler crackly and hissy sounds. However this track does offer at times an excellent full- spectrum field without overloading the ears. The piece is punctuated by quite sudden though finely crafted dropouts, perhaps a deft use of dj skills. As it goes along the music becomes more evidently linear despite the impression of complex polyphony. Again Meirino manages to convey a wonderful sense of agency at times, the sense that someone, not a machine, is playing this music. That would be the strength of the album as a whole.

[Francisco Meirino photo courtesy of Antifrost]

Francisco Meirino website
Auditory Field Theory website


Big Wad Excisions. COPPICE
(Quakebasket Records 2013)

Review by Caity Kerr

Here are some lines from the promotional literature:-

…have now blasted open the gates for them to rip through the status quo of musical law, and help redefine the future of music.

Aiming for an ‘impression of transparency’

All throughout Big Wad Excisions, you can hear music coming into being.

I’d give that one out of three only because I’d like to hear more about the impression of transparency’ which could be an interesting musical project. The rest is unfathomable nonsense, at least that’s my opinion for what it’s worth – if you want people to take your music seriously, then write something serious and meaningful about your music. The caveat is that the musicians possibly didn’t write this themselves. Make of that what you will, but statements like these really belong of the back cover of popular novels. On a brighter note, the music compensates for this unfortunate rhetorical display.

Coppice are a duo – their previous album Holes/Tract, music for pumps, bellows, customized boomboxes and electromagnetics, has been described as hard to pigeonhole and contemporary without playing to fashionable idioms. It would be interesting to consider whether Big Wad Excisions sustains the very high musical standards of the earlier album. The strengths, or strength of this duo has been the art of walking a very fine line between making the very best of severely restricted resources, as in the finest of contemporary instrumental free improvisation, and collapsing into monotony. They spend most of their time walking on the right side of this line, throwing in something of added value in their underlying conceptual approach to music.

So moving from an album like Holes/Tract to a new album, if Coppice don’t choose to stick to what they know best, it would seem as if they have two alternative paths. One would be into some of the aimless and timbrally impoverished music that we find in some (only some) free improvisational circles or sects. The other would be into the more ambient fuzzy world of F*****z and the like where the music sounds like the aural equivalent of masturbating in a bath of lubricating jelly. Big Wad Excisions avoids the first pitfall but at the risk of being harsh I sense that one piece seems to tinker with the machinery of the second. If you listen to the music you’ll see what I mean. They stray uncharacteristically into what I’d call the ‘ambient fuzz’ zone, though the earlier album had one piece which came over as less resourceful or successful than the others for more or less the same reason. Fortunately though for the most part we can listen to the same fine mix of austerity, attention to instrumental detail and (apparent) contrast and blending of concrète, instrumental and electronic sound, to name but some of the attributes that made Holes/Tract such an original offering.

Snuck Keel [5:00] is a tight timbral investigation, dominated by a fast iterative sound with some interesting polyrhythmic investigations in the simple layering of sounds. At times it could be a field recording of a generator, though the detail reveals the underlying human agency. With repeated listening this piece rewards and almost mesmerises the listener at times, though the exercise is simple – you enjoy listening out for changes within a seemingly regular periodic pattern.

Impulses for Elaborated Turbulence (Excised) [2:27] is a wonderful piece – interesting in its brief conceptual plan and execution. We hear static, hisses and electronic glitches. With pauses. Then the baton seems (though I might be wrong) to be handed over to the acoustic instrumentalist, the bellows and reed department, for some delightful puffing and springy sounds. A brilliant and original miniature in many ways.

Sop [16:12] is the one risky track in the album, which wanders into dubious territory. The dominance of the tonal material seems to jar with the austerity and tightness of the rest of their work. This kind of music gets dangerously close to the material which gets appropriated by those untouchable insurance corporations for an animated feel-good tv advertisement.

Hoist Spell [7:14]  has elements of the excellence of the duo’s core strengths mixed in with hints of the dubious peregrinations of the previous track, though to be fair the tonal layers are a little more functional and integrated within the overall piece.

Overall I’d recommend Coppice’s work to anyone interested in new and original music. Their work is often very exciting, occasionally unique and original. I’d say that for two people to realise the strengths and weaknesses of their resources and yet to play most often to their strengths is evidence of excellent musicality and listening skills – what more could you ask for?

[Joseph Kramer: left,  Noé Cuéllar: right.
Photograph: Nathan Keay, 2011 from Coppice's website]

Coppice website
Quakebasket website


Interview with Slavek Kwi

by Tobias Fischer

Complementary disconnections

As he puts it himself, Ireland-based sound artist Slavek Kwi is “obsessed by freedom”: The freedom to accept or refuse traditions, the freedom to use or disregard cultural references, the freedom to establish his own ideologies only to question and discard them again. For his possibly most ambitious project to date, “Boto [Encantado]”, Kwi made full use of this freedom, travelling to the Amazon to record the sounds of the Boto river dolphins. Floating along the river in a canoe, he spent weeks in almost perfect isolation, living with an inside the sonic world of the Boto and the “ever-changing mysterious subaquatic soundscape” surrounding him. The recordings were later condensed into a headphone installation and a radio-play-like, otherworldly LP on the Belgian ini.itu imprint. And yet, the human input is without doubt the least fascinating aspect about these works. With their wide range of timbres, chatter, click noises and rhythms, the vocabulary palette and expressive capacities of the dolphins question our conventional notions of language, turning our perception of music upside down. Aptly for someone as obsessed by freedom as Kwi, the solution to the confusion is simply not to choose a black-and-white interpretation: Perhaps if we can accept the paradox of our experience, the meaning will reveal itself most clearly.

 Q (TF). How did the idea for the project come about and what interested you about the sonic vocabulary of dolphins in particular?

 A (SK). The idea to create a piece based on sounds of the boto came after my first trip to the Amazon: a remote reserve Xixuau Xiparina on Rio Jauaperi off Rio Negro. From my scant research about the location, I knew the dolphins would be there.  Though I was hoping to record them, I was not solely focused on dolphins – I wished to experience the place in all its possibilities, and simply record sounds within the habitat – both underwater and above.

The concept: I was interested about the influences of information on the reception of the sounds, exploring perception from the perspective of both art and science: a combination of sound-art as purely an aesthetic experience together with scientific (in this case pseudo-scientific as I am simply creating a model of thinking-geometry) cognitive information. The audio-material with river dolphins seemed to me especially suitable for this project: the variety of sounds generated by the boto, the acoustic richness of habitat, and the mythical context, all influenced my choice. BOTO is the local name for Amazonian Pink Dolphins (Inia Geoffrensis). It is believed that from time to time boto come out of water as handsome men to seduce women. When a woman has difficulty identifying the father of her child, she blames the boto ….

“BOTO“ listening piece was part of an installation within a collective exhibition “2 Places“ which was showing simultaneously in two locations – Ormeau Baths Gallery, Belfast, Northern Ireland and University of Limerick, Ireland (2008). The set-up for “Boto“ comprised of 2 pairs of high quality headphones attached to a CD-player (you can access individual fragments of the composition via skip buttons), 2 comfortable chairs, and on the wall a detailed list describing sounds used in the composition; the list starts like this: WARNING: Do not read! The information is influencing the way you are experiencing the sounds. No comprehension whatsoever is required to access this work (a similar list, printed backwards, accompanies the LP – possible to read in the mirror.)

My conclusion, after finalizing “BOTO”, was that the way the mind of an artist and that of a scientist operates is diametrically opposed.  Art and science seem to stand beside each other in a disconnected though complementary way, creating a paradox. It seems to me impossible to combine art and science in a satisfactory way, without accepting this paradox. The question is if we can actually experience the sound-piece as experiential abstraction while absorbing the information; the way in which we take in information seems to reduce the potential for “mystery“.

I am perpetually oscillating between wanting and not wanting to know – I feel like knowledge somehow limits the purity of an aural experience and simultaneously it can complement in a strange contradictory way – “to know” and “not to know” is the paradox.

Q. The album was recorded over the course of various trips into the Amazon. Can you tell me a bit about them, please? What are the Rio Negro and Lago Mamori like, especially in sonic terms?

A. I am fascinated by rainforests, the biodiversity and density of sound is incredible. I visited the brazilian Amazon several times between 2007 and 2011, twice Rio Negro and multiple times Mamori. I certainly experienced differences between the two locations. I will talk here only about subaquatic recordings though.

Rio Negro has so called “black water”, which is actually a tea-like colour and is acidic. In general there appeared to be less subaquatic insects (though some sounds are astonishing, almost electronic-like) and frogs, different species of soniferous fish – it seemed a little bit quieter than the white water. One interesting fishsong from Xixuau Xiparina sounds like knocking on a wooden board at various speeds – this rather large fish, according to locals, has inside the skull a small cavity with two marble-like bones. The fish knocks together these balls, generating loud clicking sounds which you can hear even above water. Mamori has “white water”, which is a yellowish milky colour and alkaloid, rich in sediments. In general there is an abundance of insects and frogs, various soniferous and electric fish, crustaceans; sonic life seemed very proliferous. Aside from the “boto” there is another amazon dolphin, “tucuxi”. “Tucuxi” is a local name for a smaller estuarine dolphin (Sotalia fluviatilis). Unlike boto, who are purely river dolphins, tucuxi sometimes venture into the open ocean. Mamori is more populated than Xixuau Xiparina; you can often hear small boat-engines. In Xixuau Xiparina it is rare to hear such interference.

To get to Xixuau Xiparina takes about 36 hours on a rather noisy double-decker boat from Manaus, up the stream of Rio Negro.  We slept in suspended hammocks, myself and my wife Helen. During the night there were increasing myriads of flying insects – mainly moths, sometimes very big, and startling colours – attracted by the light. The reserve is in the region of Rio Jauaperi off Rio Negro.  There is a village with a small indigenous population, which is where the  Amazonia Association is run from. The rainforest around is annually flooded – water rises and descents about 11m – however the surrounding forests seem to be still partly underwater all the time. The Amazonia Association organized a guide for us.  The majority of time we travelled in between the trees in a canoe . Flooded rainforest is incredibly beautiful; it has a spacious and resonant quality. Hiking through dense rainforest was rather limited; from those hikes I have long duration sequences when I left a recorder for several hours without my presence.

Concerning river dolphins, our guide was particularly knowledgeable about their habits and whereabouts; unfortunately my basically non-existent portuguese limited our communication.  We were taken to several dolphin frequented places to record. Unless the dolphins emerged from the water to exhale, it was impossible to spot them. On the last night of our trip, I was recording  frogs, insects and bats from the canoe. We could hear a few dolphins emerging with loud snorting sounds around us. I was listening  through headphones; each exhalation sounded almost alike a human’s sigh.  It was for me a particularly emotional experience. A five minute extract from this recording is included on the LP.

Several nights I recorded from a small floating wooden platform attached to the shore.  My hydrophone was about 10-12m deep. I was listening to the active chatter underwater: crackling, clicking, croaking, grunting, snapping and occasionally some more vocal sounds.

It was very strange and alien, like listening to some emissions from deep space or radio interferences – I loved it. I spent many hours in complete awe sitting in the darkness, only sometimes opening my torch and looking around for possible creepy-crawlies. One evening I saw a hairy spider the size of my palm gliding on the surface of the water – probably some specie of tarantula. I didn’t know such a big creature could walk on the water! Another night, when I was in a dreamlike state, almost falling to sleep while listening to subaquatic symphony, I hear a voice saying very loudly in my ears: “Bubak!” and then just a few splashes of water suggesting the culprit swimming away. I was startled. “Bubak” is the equivalent in czech to “bugaboo” – indeed a rather ghostly surprise … I still have no idea what creature it was.  It might have been the boto, regarding his mischievous reputation.

The trip from Manaus to Mamori Lago is about 3-4 hours via a combination of minivan and smaller boats. I travelled together with Francisco Lopez and the groups of participants of the Mamori Sound Project.  Underwater, we recorded in groups, either from 2-3 canoes or anywhere suitable from the shore. Often you could hear active insects in shallows close to the shore; unfortunately there was also a lot of rotting leaves and debris which created unwanted banging sounds. Once I was recording in between the branches of a large fallen tree in the shallows. I was listening to beautiful sharp clicking insects, and suddenly I hear a sort of munching and rasping sound, greatly amplified by the hollow tree. I then noticed a large catfish eating algae and probably the wood itself. The Amazon hosts many species of prehistoric-looking catfish who are able to generate a variety of loud sounds: grunting, croaking, wrrrrrrrrrrrrr-like and sssssssssss-sounds. Sometimes we recorded inside floating grass-carpets, which covered the surface water, called by locals “capi”. One night, under a capi, I heard electronic-like sounds as something swam slowly by, a sort of doppler effect; it sounded exactly like pure sine-wave, sometimes saw or square-wave. It was so strange that first I thought my equipment was malfunctioning, though I could also hear clearly an abundance of insects, air or gas bubbles released by mud, and on top of that, another interweaved layers of electronic-like vibrations, almost like fish playing an organ. After doing some research, I discovered that these mysterious tonal signals seemed to be triggered by an active electroreception field (eod) of Gymnotiform electric fish.

Boto and Tucuxi we encountered mainly during the trip on the double-decker boat on the river Yuma. We recorded from canoes day and night. You could hear an abundance of soniferous fish (croaking, grunting, woodpecker-like sounds), high pitched insects and an audible spectrum of dolphin’s echolocation trrrrrrrrrrr-like clicks with occasional loud chuckling songs coming unexpectedly in, chasing schools of little fish jumping out of the water with loud circular splashes … I remember not wanting to press the “stop” button on my recorder and wishing to carry on for ever, to listen without a move, in complete darkness, to this ever-changing mysterious subaquatic soundscape. I was very happy there.

 Q. What kind of specific challenges did the recording pose?

A. It’s not that easy to obtain good underwater-recordings. There is more to it than just throwing in the hydrophone and pressing record.  Apart from the different acoustic properties of the aquatic environment, temperature, salinity etc, there are plenty of additional sound sources to consider, all adding and changing recording conditions; for example: the water and the canoe are constantly moving, various debris are floating around, and in the case of flooded rainforest, there are branches, an uneven land base, and water also transports different sounds from a distance and from the surface etc. It is rather challenging. As the echolocation of dolphins is ultrasonic, you cannot hear most of it – it happened to me that i recorded and didn’t hear anything at all. I assumed there were no dolphins, only to discover later in the computer that I had picked up clicks of sonar.

 Q. Part of the LP contains of what you’ve referred to as ‘vocabulary samples’. After spending a lot of time with the dolphins, what, would you say, is communicated through their sounds?

A. Vocabulary (it can be understood as “index” as well) refers to a series of short vocal sounds, which I assumed to be produced by dolphins, though this might not be completely true. Some fish, especially catfish, may generate similar sounds; the range of vocal sounds of the boto is not really known. Some calls  – a sort of chuckling – sound completely the same from Mamori and from Xixuau Xiparina. The use of sonar – echolocation – is for orientation and to locate prey in murky water. What dolphins communicate to each other – aside from territorial and mating calls – I don’t know. I think it’s impossible to comprehend non-human psychology; all speculation seems to me somehow inappropriate and too anthropomorphic. However, there has been some interesting research concerning “sono-pictorial” communication with sea dolphins.

Q. After you returned home from your excursion, how was the album put together?

A. The work is “about” – though not as a narrative – the presence of the boto from various perspectives within its natural habitat, including elements from the environment and context. As compositional tools I used: transpositions, equalisation – both sometimes extreme – noise reduction and of course editing techniques (cut-up and layering), a few sequences are virtually intact and inserted within composition as it was recorded. Which is what I normally use as a technique anyway.

Q. Field recordings and processed field recordings are habitually published under the recorder’s name. Is this in any way problematic from your perspective? How do you see the question of authorship when it comes to recording animal song?

A. Well, if you put it that way – it seems suddenly unethical not to mention the animals. However, all this is clearly very antropomorphic perspective – even the scientific name is awarded by humans …

Animal calls are part of the acoustic environment – the same as human; in principle how do you see the question of authorship when it comes to recording human activities within the environment – such as distant hum of conversations, sounds of steps, driving cars etc.?

Recording is always subjective: the way it is recorded, the selection of time in and out (press record and stop), technical specifications of the microphones and recorder and, of course, decisions about editing and reproduction – all that is a very personal and creative matter. It feels fine to sign it. Acknowledgement of the recording situation, location etc. seems respectful.

A. The musicality of animal recordings has frequently been questioned. This is something I’ve always been particularly intrigued by. To you, is there something truly musical and individual about the dolphin-songs you’ve recorded?

A. The idea of “music“ is a human concept, therefore the parameters and the aesthetics of “music“ seem to me inevitably changeable – fluid, rather than static – and subject to individual perceptions. In this sense, I am not concerned about the “musicality“ of the sounds. However, I am observing my natural tendencies of my irrational attractions (or repulsion) towards some specific sounds. Likes and dislikes are polarities of the paradox, I am including the whole paradox as part of my perception.

We might consider sounds as “musical” when these sounds make sense to us, when it sounds meaningful to our ears. This depends solely on the development of our perception and cultural conditioning.


 [Boto artwork cover]

* [Upper image: Slavek Kwi courtesy of Echomusic]

Tobias Fischer: Guest editor for The Field Reporter. Editor-in-chief of experimental music magazine Tokafi and publisher of the 15 Questions website.**

** The Field Reporter only claims authorship and responsibility for the material written by its editorial team.

Slavek Kwi website
Iniitu website


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