29 October 2008

The sound artist as shaman…
building bridges and opening inner doors
No one travels

along this way but I,
this autumn evening.

– haiku by Matsuo Basho
(Japan, 17th century)

There seem to be more artists dipping into the well of ambient / electro-acoustic music with each passing day. The more cynical listener might suppose than anyone and everyone with access to a laptop and audio shaping programs is getting into the act – and while it might be true that the wider availability of such hardware and software is causing a proliferation of sound artists, as is the case with all forms of expression, there’s a lot more to it than that. Slapping together bits of processed recorded sound – from whatever sources – still needs to have imagination, creativity and skill at its core in order to be artistically effective. If the genre doesn’t appeal to the listener, of course, it’s all going to sound like noise anyway…but for one who can appreciate the intent, structure and craftsmanship that go into such endeavors, the results can be more than simply rewarding or entertaining – when everything comes together in the right way, such projects can induce a psychological / physical shift in the listener that is absolutely shamanistic in its power to transport.

Shamanism can of course have religious / spiritual overtones, depending on the existing beliefs of the person on the ‘receiving end’ of such activity. For some time now, I’ve become aware of some parallels between this sort of shamanism and the practice of some forms of psychology / psychotherapy. Both the traditional practices and the more modern ones seem, at least to my view, to open the mind of the person under ‘treatment’ to knowledge or thought processes which are inaccessible or at least subsurface in normal thought activity. In tribal applications, this ‘mind-opening’ can offer up what seem to be communications with or visions of people or events that are physically out of reach. In psychological settings, the therapist can utilize various methods to make the subconscious of the client more available to conscious thought, thus giving the opportunity to see issues or problems in a different light or from a different aspect. The concept of employing psychological triggers to open the subconscious mind, revealing the sources of traumas that have adversely affected the psyche, allows the individual to better understand those traumas and to deal with them and the effects they have had on their life. It’s a tool for healing, for furthering understanding.

Music and other forms of art can have just such an effect on the listener or viewer – subtle aspects of the work can open psychological doors, allowing the recipient to experience altered / augmented understanding of seemingly unrelated subjects. The trigger could be a snippet of melody, a combination of sounds or colours, a fragment of lyrics or poetry, or any of a number of elements or combinations. Sound artists who utilize recordings of environmental ambience in their work, altering them to varying degrees (or sometimes not at all) can combine sonic ingredients that have the power to affect listeners even more than more conventional components, such as literary content, that act in a more direct way on the consciousness.

Each individual who experiences such works will, naturally, be affected in different ways and with varied intensity – and some will not be affected at all beyond finding the creation interesting or entertaining on a purely aesthetic level. One might feel touched by a piece of sound art (or music), or by a work of visual art, or by a film, and not immediately understand why it has affected them so deeply – if time is devoted to further reflection, especially with repeated exposure to the work, it might become more clear.

Some of the works below are made up almost entirely of sounds from nature, or from other environments – some of them contain elements that are more ‘musical’ mixed into the material. These are not recordings for cruising around in the car – the subtleties they employ are too delicate to be thoroughly appreciated or felt in such an atmosphere filled with distractions. All of this is not to imply that having these playing in the background – even as you sleep, for example – is inappropriate, only that they merit deeper listening as well.

John Kannenberg
Autumn ensō
Autumn enso
Why Not, 2005

The ensō, basically a circle, is a symbol from Zen philosophy and calligraphy, used to invoke thoughts and images of enlightenment, strength, elegance, the universe, and the void (description from Wikipedia). After viewing an art exhibition of works featuring the image, Kannenberg was inspired to create an ensō made up of autumn leaves arranged in a circle on the head of a snare drum. It wasn’t much of a leap for this sound artist to take his idea from a visual concept to an audio piece – and the results are pretty stunning in their combination of simplicity and depth. He has since released a DVD – he terms it a videopainting – to further the ideas presented in the sound version, including a live performance of the piece.

Asher / Jason Kahn
and/OAR, 2008

A collaborative work, the environmental recordings that form the basis of Vista were made by Asher in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood – sounds heard on a pre-dawn walk through the streets and alleys, including generators and other mechanical sounds, idling motors, &c were then digitally processed and sent along to Jason Kahn in Switzerland. Kahn made his own recordings, also in the pre-dawn hours, walking around Lake Zürich, which were then sent to Asher, who processed these using the same methods he had employed with his own recordings. Kahn forwarded further recordings of the wind in the Swiss Alps, unprocessed, and the two artists then worked together on the final mix. The finished recording has an almost physical sense of space to it – one can practically hear the distance between the source of the sounds and the receptive organ (ear / microphone), giving the project a heightened feeling of reality despite the obvious alteration and manipulation of source sounds.

Loren Chasse
The footpath
The footpath
Naturestrip, 2008

Loren Chasse / MNortham
The otolith
The odolith
Helen Scarsdale, 2008

Both of these releases are based on field recordings – but instead of the more ‘passing’ sounds used by some of the artists above, Chasse literally gets ‘down in the dirt’ (or whatever element he finds) for a more ‘in your ears’ effect on The footpath. He has been described as using a microphone for an ear placed directly onto the ground – the sounds of footsteps (appropriate especially given the title) on gravel, clods of earth being crushed, rocks grating together, vibrations from unknown sources transmitted through the ground, all things available are brought into the mix and treated. Some sounds are recognizable, others remain a mystery – but it all fits together beautifully, creating a vivid sonic image. The otolith (named after part of the inner ear that transmits information on the angular attitude of the head to the brain, allowing it to perceive and implement balance, a very a propos reference) adds musical instruments – albeit unconventional ones, such as magnetic table harp and bowed wires – to the mix, while The footpath seems to have its source in ‘grittier’ sounds. Both recordings are stunning and very effective.

Loren Chasse official website

MNortham official website

And finally, the pièce de résistance – one of my ‘great discoveries’ this year…

Tetuzi Akiyama / Masahiko Okura / Toshiya Tsunoda
Manfred Werder : 2006[1]
skiti, 2006

This recording is simply amazing – and more than anything I’ve heard in recent memory, it has the ability to transport me to another place / time every time I experience it. I was blown away by the effect it had on me the first time I listened to it, and I continue to be stunned to find that it happens again and again. It’s a short piece, composed by Werder and performed by a trio of respected Japanese improvisers (Tetuzi Akiyama [guitar, stones], Masahiko Okuro [alto sax] and Toshiya Tsunoda [tambura]), recorded outdoors by a riverside outside Tokyo. I was expecting something completely different when I read the credits – what I got instead is an album of incredible beauty, on which the musicians never touch their instruments, much like John Cage's famous 1952 piece 4'33. Being recorded in an outdoor setting, in a garden or park, one can lose oneself in the sounds of the world around, and as a result become more deeply aware of how sounds surround and envelope us – passers-by talking, crows in the sky, footsteps on the path, children playing (perhaps 50 yards away – another recording with a very real sense of distance and space), trains passing nearby, the wind, &c. Manfred Werder, who composed the piece, states in the notes to the CD release: ‘The world is sounding infinitely. There isn’t any silence without sounds. There isn’t any sound without silence. It’s not about exploring new sounds, but exploring a new relation to what the world sounds – as we actually are part of the world as the very phenomenon itself. What could a new relation to what the world sounds bring forth? In my work I try to describe a general situation where we are a part of it might already be the whole of the world…the fact that it sounds.’ He further describes the piece itself through a seeming subtitle, much as any ‘traditional’ composer might add information to a score in order to help the performing musicians better understand his intentions, ‘A place, natural light, where the performer, the performers like to be. A time. Sounds.’

I’ve wondered a great deal since acquiring this disc why it affects me so much. Is it the sounds of the children playing at a distance that remind me of some unspecific time in my childhood? Could it be the natural environmental sounds, so unadulterated and clearly reproduced, that bring to mind a completely stress-free place and time? The answers to these questions and others might come with repeated plays, with the passage of time – and then again, they might not. In the meantime, I find myself returning to this disc again and again, sometimes playing it repeatedly for a couple of hours at a time (it’s only a bit over 28 minutes in length). I’ve found from experience that, despite its overall low volume level, it’s not something I can play while I sleep – it’s far too personally involving for that sort of listening. It’s too rewarding on too many levels to relegate to the realm of slumber.

Paolo Fresu Devil Quartet
Stanley music!
Stanley music!
Blue Note (Italy), 2007
This album is a great example of a ‘perfect storm’ – four contemporary masters from the Italian / European jazz scene, who have played together before in various contexts, come together in a quartet to create music that is a living example of the old adage ‘The whole is greater than the sum of the parts’. It’s nothing short of stunning. (I have absolutely no idea about the meaning of the title, in case you might wonder...)

Paolo Fresu (trumpet, flugelhorn), under whose name the quartet operates, has long been a favorite of mine. As with most fine jazz players, he’s incredibly prolific, lending his talents to innumerable projects and configurations as a leader, co-leader or sideman – in every case he adds more than a little shine to the finished product. I can’t even remember where I first heard his work – but seeing his name on a recording is a sure sign of quality playing and compositional innovation. I’ve read that when he appeared at a jazz festival in Europe in the early 1980s as a relatively unknown player, the great Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava heard him and recognized that the future of jazz was in good hands. Fresu’s tone and control are absolutely amazing – coupled with the taste and sense of commitment that he displays in every outing, he’s definitely a force with which the music public will find itself reckoning again and again, producing a body of work that will reveal new gems with every dig.

Bebo Ferra is one of the finest guitarists I’ve heard – most of the recordings on which I’ve experienced his talent have showcased his work on acoustic or classical guitar. While there are moments of that beauty here as well, on this album he steps up on electric guitar and guitar synthesizer, issuing forth veritable lightning bolts of melodic energy that the listener might swear leave behind traces of brimstone in the air (perhaps one aspect of the quartet name…?). Never sacrificing melody or harmony for power, his guitar lines both lead the group and offer thoughtful support for the work of the others, shifting from fore to aft effortlessly with a grace that comes from a deep dedication to the music rather than any attempt to take control or show off.
Stanley music! group 02
In addition to their main instruments, Fresu and Ferra are credited with ‘multi-effects’ – the notes in the CD booklet don’t elaborate further, but beyond the numerous abilities of the guitar synthesizer, I suspect Fresu is utilizing a harmonizer of some sort with his horn. There are audible lines generated that on a casual listen might seem to be overdubs – on closer listening, they seem incredibly in-sync to my ears, leading me to suspect that they’re being produced ‘live’ as he plays. Rather than coming across as ‘gimmicky’ in any way, Fresu’s sense of restraint remains in control throughout the album – he never over-does the effect, using it to achieve fine results that add immeasurably to the mood and quality of the set. Similarly, at times I seem to detect lines played simultaneously by Fresu and Ferra that are pretty amazing – it’s the sort of near-telepathic communication between great musicians that comes from deep empathy and a unity of spirit.

Paolino Dalla Porta’s talents on the double-bass extend far beyond the limits too often imposed on the instrument – and thankfully, there are more and more players stepping outside the ‘rhythm section’ box in this regard. A fine composer in his own right, contributing two tunes to this set, Dallo Porta explores the entire tonal and dynamic ranges of the instrument, providing a firm foundation constantly, while providing contrapuntal / harmonic lines to Fresu and Ferra in such a smooth manner that one might be forgiven for realizing that so much of the music is coming from the double-bass.

The drums, handled here by the great Stefano Bognoli, are every bit as dynamically and sensitively nuanced as the other instruments – the beat is steady, to be sure, but Bognoli’s accents, fills and what could only be described as comments or conversation are breathtakingly precise and ear-opening.
Stanley music! group 01
The set opens with ‘Another road to Timbuctu’, jumping right in with a horn riff to which the melody returns after forays into melodic exploration from Fresu and Ferra – this is a driving tune, never letting up until the final notes, a great way to get things started. ‘Il tempo del sogno’, composed by Paolino Dalla Porta’, follows – it’s a beautiful, leisurely paced excursion that affords the listeners a chance to catch their breath, featuring restrained, lovely lines from Fresu, Dalla Porta and Ferra (some of his most jewel-like classical guitar work). Bognoli’s light drum / cymbal work on this tune is a great example of his abilities – it’s a talented drummer who can provide such delicate support without succumbing to the temptation to be heavy-handed. ‘Caledonian flowers’ features a bluesy melody line that both Fresu and Ferra explore to the fullest – the melody takes some surprising twists and turns, but never drifts into atonality. Fresu’s work with a mute is particularly effective on this track.

‘Moto perpetuo’ has an Iberian colour to it – now and then I can hear what I’m sure must be a conscious nod to Chick Corea’s classic composition ‘Spain’ (from Return to Forever’s 1972 Light as a feather), but it’s certainly an example of hommage rather than being derivative. The pace slows down again with the first of Bebo Ferra’s compositions to appear in the programme, ‘Giovedi’ – his acoustic guitar and Fresu’s trumpet play off each other beautifully, framing a melody that is melancholic and uplifting at the same time. Next up is ‘Dou Dou’, from the pen of drummer Bognoli – and if any listener believes that a composition by a drummer is automatically going to be built around percussion, let them immerse themselves in this piece. The other three instrumentalists figure so prominently in the delivery that it would be easy to guess that any one of them might have written it – it’s simply lovely, a great addition to the set. Bognoli’s drums are showcased in a nice, varied, brief solo to open the next track, a medley of ‘Devil’s game’ (by Dalla Porta) and ‘Labbra bianche’ (by Fresu) – two tunes joined at the hip that pick up the pace again very nicely. The first, after Bognoli’s introduction, features some near-free blowing that congeals into melody and takes off without looking back.

Fresu’s ‘L’afflato prodromo del misantropo’ has an almost anthem-like quality to it – the pace is slow, but without any sense of inactivity from any of the members, offering up a nice balance to the previous track. Some nice chording from Dalla Porta opens ‘Il diavolo e l’acquasanta’, another Bognoli composition – Fresu and Ferra trade lines over Dalla Porta, who gives the piece a palpable ‘noir’ feel until he opens up with a more walking pattern with a slight melody change. ‘Qualche anno dopo (Some year after)’, from Ferra, ends the tracklist – the tune has an almost hymn-like quality to it, perhaps more of a sense of reflection (hence the title). Fresu and Ferra weave in and out of each other, trading lines seemingly without much free improvisation, sticking to the beautiful melody without ever growing repetitive – another sign of great players. There’s a ‘ghost track’ included as well, following a bit of silence – a little online research led me to be confident that the title is ‘Cartoons’ – and the mood of the piece fits that very well, ending the set with both invention and humor.

Here’s a bit of video from YouTube featuring the quartet at the 2006 Umbria Jazz festival in Orvieto – it was apparently shot from the audience, so the quality isn’t exactly first-rate, but it’s not bad…
Stanley music! is one of those recordings that I initially heard via some samples online – I was so impressed with those brief excerpts that I immediately found a source for it and ordered a copy. When it arrived, it stayed in my player – and in my head – for several days. I’ve returned to it several times since then, always finding nuances revealed that I missed on previous hearings – a sure sign of a work of lasting quality. I think it’s safe to say that anyone who loves jazz – hell, anyone who loves good music in general, even those who might think they don’t enjoy jazz – would appreciate the quality of this recording. Why Paolo Fresu isn’t more widely known and appreciated in the US is a mystery – the labels who have issued his works are missing the boat here. These musicians are all players whose talents ensure the continued viability and vitality of not just jazz, but music of all genres.

Paolo Fresu official website