Vacation Playlist: Edinburgh, August 2021

On Sunday August 22 2021 I flew for the first time since before the pandemic. A short flight to Edinburgh was something that I’d have done, before, fairly often, usually accompanied by things to review. It occurred to me a few days before that I’d need to plan what to listen to in the air, an active decision over what to listen offline after spending most of the pandemic period constantly online, with access to anything. It felt a lot like travelling as a teenager, where I’d pack my Walkman and choose a bunch of tapes to haul around with me.

I decided to trawl through recent Bandcamp additions – purchases I’d made or promos I’d been sent – and that formed the basis of my in-flight entertainment. While in Edinburgh I visited Nigerian sound artist Emeka Ogboh’s Song Of The Union at the Robert Burns Memorial near Calton Hill. 


Carl Stone’s contribution to Touch’s brilliant Displacing subscription series translates roughly as Bridge Of Tears and was recorded for Radio Free Nakano in his Tokyo base. The 15-minute piece is one of fragile momentum, seeming to rush forth and build into a sort of suppressed motorik groove while retaining an effortless, dreamy levity. Released May 28 2021 by Touch.


Two 2021 releases from Dan Davies, both recorded using the sounds of the river Derwent in Derbyshire. Both illustrate Davies’ approach to taking field recordings and responding to them with additional composition for a diverse array of instruments, or leaving them poignantly unadorned. As such, these releases straddle the tranquility of listening to water and wind sounds (River Derwent Soundscapes) with delicately composed accompaniments (on LL#1) that are both mournful, vibrant and often noisy. Released March 28 2021 / May 6 2021.

In-flight / landing: CARNEDD AUR – BEETLES 

Simon Proffitt’s work under the Carnedd Aur alias differs from his usual solo output as Cahn Ingold Prelog and The Master Musicians Of Dyffryn Moor by opting for more of an intentionally accessible output. Originally intended to be a body of work that his parents might recognise as something vaguely adjacent to electronic pop, the project instead became an engaging leftfield project whose titles were all inspired by different sub-species of beetles, with a sound that’s pure insectoid minimal acid-inflected techno. Released August 6 2021 by superpolar Taïps.


Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh’s contribution to Edinburgh’s Art Festival is a thought-provoking seven-channel sound art work installed in the Robert Burns Monument near Calton Hill. For the piece, Ogboh recorded versions of Burns’ poignant ‘Auld Lang Syne’ sung by twenty-seven Europeans living in Scotland, one from each of the member states of the European Union that the UK left in January 2021. His work has a subtle power as you sit in the Burns Monument and listen to the interwoven voices singing atop one another; being of Scottish descent, ‘Auld Lang Syne’ has always had subtle, stirring poignancy for me; heard in the context of a political work swirling and echoing around the circular space, its maudlin outlook is deeply unsettling. The day after I visited, I found myself walking past the building again. I could hear the plaintive voices wafting sadly into the aether, like ephemeral vapours of what once was. Song Of The Union runs to August 29 2021.

Take-off / in-flight: JAMES MAINWARING – MYCORRHIZA 

Saxophonist James Mainwaring occupies a sort of indeterminate zone between improvisation and composition. His latest album for Discus is titled after the symbiotic relationship between plants and fungi and its 13 pieces carry a similar sense of integration between the instrumentation. The signature piece is ‘Komorebi’, which features Mainwaring’s sax alongside mournful strings and field recordings of birds made near the house where he grew up, an extra level of significance when you learn that the house is scheduled to be demolished as part of the HS2 construction project. On ‘Statues’, which begins as an understated ballad and ends as a free and urgent piece, Mainwaring’s playing nods reverentially in the direction of Paul Desmond; ‘Globe’, on the other hand, makes an unexpected left-turn into synthesiser minimalism and insistent post-rock, angular musings. Released Juy 13 2021 by Discus Music.


Bumps Per Minute was Somerset House resident composer Anna Meredith’s contribution to the London venue’s entertaining DODGE experience, which closed on August 22 2021. Though most people just went for the nostalgia of riding an old fairground ride after a few cocktails, every hour, Meredith and sound artist Nick Ryan would subvert the traditional dodgem ride so that every bump or collision would trigger a different one of her specially-written compositions. The companion album includes those 18 compositions played all the way through; it might lack the chaotic randomness of the ride experience, but it nevertheless carries a decent approximation of what it was like to laugh uproariously, half-cut on over-priced cocktails, as you careered around the track accompanied by a skipping soundtrack that felt like a malfunctioning player piano tackling Don Dorsey’s Main Street Electrical Parade music through an 8-bit computer. Released July 15 2021.

Words: Mat Smith 

(c) 2021 Further. 

Yifeat Ziv – Amazonian Traces Of Self

Yifeat Ziv is a Jersulem-born, London-based sound artist who won one of the six coveted prizes at this year’s Oram Awards. With a practice focussed primarily on the use of voice, Ziv’s works include 2019’s Rish Rush, based on the prevalence of onomatopoeic gestures in all languages, performances at Café Oto, a collaboration with David Toop on his recent Apparition Paintings album, and sound installations at numerous galleries in Israel and the UK. 

Amazonian Traces Of Self, Ziv’s latest work, arose from a ten-day AER Labverde residency in the Brazilian rainforest last year. For the piece, Ziv undertook a series of excursions into the rainforest, making field recordings of the natural ambience and capturing her own vocal improvisations, both of which are combined together into this thoughtful composition, here presented as a seventeen-minute live piece recored at Iklectik in January of this year, but which also has a parallel existence as a sound installation (The Echo Of Our Breath). The CD release is accompanied by an essay, designed to be read after listening to the piece.

If you are remotely environmentally-minded, any mention of the rainforest should, by rights, bring to mind the progressive deforestation and devastation that the natural landscape has endured as a consequence of humankind’s progress; whether for repurposing as land for rearing cattle or for growing the so-called ‘sustainable’ soya beans that propel the world’s biofuel hopes, the rainforest has decreased in size at a phenomenal rate – over 50% over the last 60 years. 

By focussing its initial attentions on the natural sounds of the environment, the piece prompts complex emotions. There is a sense of tranquillity and serenity, but it also feels strangely unsettling, like a creeping sense of impermanence that coincides with Ziv’s reverberating vocal interjections – breath, a sort of staccato passage, tremulous, quivering passages and almost bird-like calls. These sounds feel alien, like they have no place in this location, something that Ziv describes as “vocal pollution”, an allegory for the way we have encroached upon, and starved, the Earth’s lungs. A middle section of wailing voices sounds like a desperate, mournful elegy to what is lost, what cannot be replaced and that which we have caused. 

Yet as the piece progresses, Ziv’s layered vocal sounds take on a different hue. They feel curiously natural and optimistic, sitting in balanced evenness with the natural sounds that she is vocalising over. We start to feel a symbiosis between her sounds and those around her, almost as if she is gently reminding us of our dependency on this place, of how we can live in harmony with these spaces. A sense of optimism begins to emerge, a feeling that all is not lost, that our devastation of a place upon which we all depend for our live-giving oxygen is not yet entirely irreversible. 

Amazonian Traces Of Self by Yifeat Ziv is released November 17 2020 by Flaming

Words: Mat Smith 

Grate Expectations: Max Neuhaus – Times Square (1977)

Max Neuhaus (foreground) - Times Square (1977)
Max Neuhaus – Times Square (1977). © The Estate of Max Neuhaus. Used with the kind permission of the Estate of Max Nehaus.

It’s 6am on a balmy New York morning in October 2017; Reed Hays, one half of Reed & Caroline, is leading me to a specific section of Times Square. On the way, he tells me what the area was like when he lived nearby in the late 1980s, a time when this part of the city was shorthand for a gaudy seediness, bordered by low-rent porn cinemas and XXX-rated video stores, with pickpockets and scammers taking advantage of the tourists that have congregated at the intersection between Broadway and Seventh Avenue for over 100 years.

Our destination is an unmarked, nondescript triangular grate between 45th and 46th streets, covering a ventilation shaft from the subway tracks running just below the street. Unimpressive it may be, but it is the location of what may well rank among the most frequently-visited works of art on the planet, even though the vast majority of those visiting Times Square have no idea that it’s even there. This is Max Neuhaus’s Times Square, originally – and appropriately – titled Underground Music(s). Neuhaus installed his most famous piece of sound art here in 1977 after four years of back and forth with New York’s transit authority, and it ran continuously, 24/7, until 1992; it was restored and activated again in 2002, and has again run uninterrupted ever since*.

Neuhaus was no stranger to New York’s art world in 1977, and neither was he an unknown in the field of sound. He had started out as an avant garde percussionist, realising definitive versions of pieces by Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Zyklus and moving on to embrace electronics for a recording of John Cage’s Fontana Mix. By the mid-60s he had moved squarely into the domain of sound art, creating pieces like Fan Music (1967) on rooftops in the Bowery, where the volume and nature of the sonic output depended entirely upon the prevailing weather, a read across to Cage’s obsession with chance and the I Ching. Fan Music was the first of what Neuhaus would call his Place pieces for their physical and geographical characteristics, and it is within this series that Times Square would become his most prominent work.

“The work is an invisible block of sound,” wrote Neuhaus about Times Square in 1992, just as the installation concluded its first run. “Its sonority, a rich harmonic sound resembling the after ring of large bells, is an impossibility within its context. Many who pass through it, however, can dismiss it as an unusual machinery sound from below ground.” The sound is elusive, varying according to where you stand on the grate, appearing to swell and move toward the periphery of your hearing imperceptibly. With timetabled regularity a subway train interrupts the sound, distorting and confusing the otherwise smooth resonances of the piece.

Max Neuhaus (R) - Times Square (underground construction 1977)
Max Neuhaus – Times Square (1977). © The Estate of Max Neuhaus. Used with the kind permission of the Estate of Max Nehaus.

The sound – a calming, ringing drone, in the manner of La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s Dream House works – is a major seventh chord made up of many tiny pulses arranged rapidly in sequence, similar to the work of fellow duration music aficionado Phill Niblock. Hays and I ponder how the sound was made, assuming that for it to have been activated in the 1970s it must have been of analogue construction, though period synths of that time needed a stable electric current to prevent them from going out of tune; precise schematics of Neuhaus’s design aren’t readily available, but we conclude that the subway system must have provided the constant current, which might explain the protracted delay in realising the work, alongside securing permission to use of one of transit authority’s ventilation shafts.

What to make of this work? On the one hand, many critics have celebrated Neuhaus’s desire to democratise art by making something like this available freely to so many; on the other hand, its lack of signage or discernible identifying markings means it remains the exclusive preserve of those in the know, thus making it both anti-elitist and elitist simultaneously; Neuhaus himself wrote about moving from the rarefied environs of Carnegie Hall to Times Square as a way of engaging with the ‘culturally uninitiated’, which doesn’t come across as hugely democratic. He observed the piece almost daily on CCTV and volunteered ways of stopping the area’s many street performers – particularly the guitar-strumming Naked Cowboy (Google at your peril) who was something of an offensive nemesis to the artist – from using the piece as a makeshift stage. Some have drawn a thematic link between Times Square and Cage’s 4’33”, the former being bounded by geographical detail and the latter by temporal limits; one whose sounds can never be allowed to operate among complete silence with the other unable to be anything other than hypothetically silent.

Even at 6am, perhaps the ideal time to experience Times Square, the area crackles with a grim energy and if it wasn’t for the precise navigation skills of Hays, I doubt I would have even found the right grate. The billboards are illuminated, a few dispossessed people drag suitcases to or from red-eye flights, an early morning TV programme is being filmed in full view of a small gathering of people keen to catch a glimpse of whichever celebrity figure is being interviewed – but it’s certainly about as quiet as this place ever gets.

Only a couple of hours later, the area will be flooded with selfie-snapping tourists and modern day scammers dressed in abysmal Sesame Street costume rip-offs, making Neuhaus’s work more or less undetectable unless you happen to tune into it while fleetingly passing through.

Some six months later I found myself doing just that on my way to see Reed & Caroline perform down on the Lower East Side. My only clue to the location of Times Square was the fact that the Naked Cowboy ceased his afternoon performance at the precise moment that I was being carried along by the crowd of awestruck tourists, their eyes raised upward toward the famous neon advertisements, blissfully unaware of the meditative sonic events taking place just beneath their feet.

Words: Mat Smith.

With thanks to Reed Hays, Pidu Russek at the Estate of Max Neuhaus, Dia Art Foundation, Neil Mason and Tin Soldiere. This unpblished piece was originally written for Electronic Sound but was not ultimately published. * At the time of writing, owing to the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, Times Square is not currently operational (according to the Dia Art Foundation, who maintain the piece), concluding the second run that began in 2002. I Heart NY.

(c) 2018 – 2020 Mat Smith for Electronic Sound / Further.