A couple of years ago I interviewed Josh Hager from Devo for another of my projects, focussed on the Mute label’s STUMM433 boxset. Conversations for that project typically veer quickly into discussions of meditation practice; or, if they don’t directly end up there, we usually find ourselves talking about efforts the artist makes to find peace or a sort of inner silence.
In Hager’s case, he told me about his early experiences after first moving to LA, where he rented himself a loft with no furniture. He may have had no furniture, but Hager had a turntable and an album, The Magic Of Psychoacoustic Sound, containing two sides of countryside noises – an English meadow and a forest night-scape filled with crickets – made by influential field recordist and early digital sound processor Irv Teibel.
Teibel had spent some of his army years in Stuttgart, where his imagination had been fired up by musique concrète, tape experiments, and spells studying under Karlheinz Stockhausen and Tony Conrad. The Magic Of Psychoacoustic Sound was the tenth disc in his influential series Environments, which he began in 1969 with a Brighton Beach, NY recording of the shoreline that was then processed through an early IBM computer.
I ended up buying a beaten-up copy of The Magic Of Psychoacoustic Sound and put it on one Saturday afternoon while the house was occupied by just me and the cats. A couple of minutes in and I was somewhere else, walking the fields and woods of my youth and trying to suppress the notion that, if I hauled myself off the sofa and walked five minutes from my house, I could listen to actual English countryside sounds rather than Teibel’s processed ones. And then something strange happened – the record got stuck. I moved the needle and it got stuck again. And again. And again. I sighed, realising I’d bought one of the most scratched LPs I’ve ever seen but then, as I went to turn the turntable off and put the record away, I became aware that the skipping sounds of pretty meadows had formed an inchoate little rhythmic loop that you could just about dance along to.
I imagine Teibel would have liked Dave Clarkson’s new album for Linear Obsessional, A Pocket Guide To Wilderness – Deep Forests And Dark Woods Of The British Isles. The latest instalment in a series that has included explorations of caves, the shores around Britain and quicksands (who know we had those in this country? In fact, who knew they existed outside perilous scenes in 1980s shows like The A-Team?), Clarkson’s Pocket Guide… series feels like it was directly descended from the Environments releases. His technique is one of processed field recordings, much like Teibel did forty years before, but whereas his approach was to create textural backdrops, Clarkson prefers more extreme alterations.
Take the opening track, ‘Twig Dance’. Here we find Clarkson in the venerable Sherwood Forest using the sampled sounds of twigs snapping and logs being tapped, which he then reworked into a 7/4 rhythm that’s so knowingly reminiscent of ‘Unsquare Dance’ that you expect Dave Brubeck’s distinctive piano to start up at any moment. It’s less psychoacoustic and more psychedelic, like a weird pagan ritual best appreciated through the lysergic fog of foraged ‘shrooms. In contrast, an eight-hour recording session in Delamere Forest from August 2019 ‘Delamere Night Flight’) is largely untouched, until you consider that Clarkson has taken the highlights from that all-nighter and turned it into a comparatively minuscule two-minute edit. (The owl that features prominently on this piece definitely approves.)
Elsewhere, ‘No Easy Way Out’ augments a loop of crunching, trampled undergrowth with ominous sub-bass and a delicate passing cloud of elegiac synth pads to create an uneasy, unsettling feeling, which Clarkson’s accompanying narrative likens to the perilous way out of our shared 2020 experiences. The pastoral, soothing birdsong with which ‘Lifeblood’ commences could have been taken straight from the ‘English Meadow’ side of The Magic Of Psychoacoustic Sound until it is overtaken by a swelling, fluctuating drone full of wonder and gauzy warmth. The effect is to centre your attention on the natural mystery of the world around us, something that we are all too guilty of ignoring.
‘Mausoleum In The Woods’ uses the pyramid at Norfolk’s Blickling Park as its sonic playground, featuring percussive sounds that Clarkson recorded by striking the railings and stone of the Egyptian revival structure. We also hear the voices of fellow tourists and the omnipresent sound of rushing water, all of which lock together with the percussive samples to form a regimented, clockwork-like rhythm interspersed with intricate, unplaceable detail, befitting an engaging, thought-provoking album (I am chiefly reminded of the devastation of ancient woodland for the sake of HS2) that is as much informed by Clarkson’s fervent imagination as it is his curatorial approach to collecting sounds.
Stuart Chalmers’ Suikinkutsu album for Graham Dunning’s Fractal Meat Cuts label opens with a field recording made as Chalmers arrived at the Dowkabottom Cave in the Yorkshire Dales. We hear a car edging noisily over gravel and a fleeting section of The Beautiful South heard from a car stereo. Thereafter we leave the human world far behind, finding ourselves in the subterranean chamber for eight recordings made in the cave on different days between February and May 2020 – which, lest we forget, coincided with the pervasive spread of a virus and the pausing of our freedoms.
Caves aren’t troubled by viruses, but they are deeply impacted by the weather. The sound of water is a major influence on these recordings, both in its natural state within the cave, but also for how Chalmers placed objects – cans, saucepans, gongs, singing bowls – underneath water drips to create percussive sounds and fragile, tentative metallic melodies. The flow of water in the cave was entirely linked to weather patterns above ground – ranging from the wettest month since records began (February 2020) to the driest (May 2020). The recording from February 2 2020 is intense and frantic to the point of Neubaten-esque violence, while those from May are sparse and contemplative, drawing our attention to the dangerous fluctuations in climate that are the hallmarks of the anthropocene.
The album’s title is a reference to a Japanese garden ornament, translating as ‘water harp cave’, which uses dripping water to producing a soothing sound, much like wind chimes. The natural ambience of the subterranean chamber drenches these recordings with rich, gentle reverb, while the unpredictable percussive timbres have a searching, inquisitive restlessness: outlines of melodies form, seem to edge toward completeness, and then go someplace else entirely. The result is strangely moving, the eight cave recordings reflecting – in an embodiment of zen duality – both stillness but also a constant motion, each drip imperceptibly adding to the perpetual wear and shaping of the cave itself. That this process will continue long after humankind has made itself extinct is a perhaps Suikinkutsu’s most impactful, if unintended, observation.
A Pocket Guide To Wilderness – Deep Forests And Dark Woods Of The British Isles by Dave Clarkson was released April 21 2021 by Linear Obsessional. Suikinkutsu by Stuart Chalmers was released April 20 2021 by Fractal Meat Cuts.
Words: Mat Smith
(c) 2021 Further.