Audio Obscura – Nineteen Eighty-Four

bib03 1984 front final

The third cassette release in the Bibliotapes label’s pairing of iconic books to music finds Norwich’s adaptable electronic sound artist Audio Obscura (Neil Stringfellow) providing a soundtrack to George Orwell’s chillingly accurate Nineteen Eighty-Four, released to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the its publication.

To be clear, this is not an opportunity for Stringfellow to cover, or even offer an alternative to, the (controversial) soundtrack put together by Eurythmics for the movie released in the year that the book was set in; this is about interpreting the actual text through the medium of completely newly-imagined music, and, a bit like a media-controlled slogan in Nineteen Eighty-Four itself, for the purposes of this we should profusely deny the existence of said film.

What that means is that his accompaniment to the daily, mandatory ritual of venting and screaming in collective anger on ‘Two Minutes Hate’ is presented as a bleak, primal, dissonant noisefest set to a insistent post-industrial beat; the pieces soundtracking the scenes depicting Winston, the book’s protagonist, and his attempts to wilfully evade surveillance and the controlling hand of the Party are freighted with both a pastoral, naturalistic serenity and a sort of nagging tension, filled with mournful strings and birdsong; the scenes set inside Room 101 are laced with a nagging, slow-motion sense of foreboding (and the displaced voice of Frank Skinner).

In Stringfellow’s hands, the haunting familiarity of ‘Oranges And Lemons’ is presented twice, first as a shimmering, gauzy memory resplendent in childhood innocence, and later laced with harshly-processed impending operatically-voiced doom, a vestigial scrap of something that didn’t get fully processed in a memory hole.

Something about the way that Stringfellow has crafted these pieces seems to simultaneously remind us of the unflinching horror of daily life that Orwell predicted in his dystopian musings, while also presenting a sense of resignation and dismay that this is the world we currently occupy – and one that we have willingly submitted to.

Nineteen Eighty-Four by Audio Obscura is released on June 8 2019 by Bibliotapes.

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2019 Further.

Ellen Arkbro – CHORDS

Swedish composer Ellen Arkbro’s time studying with La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela at their New York Dream House is self-evident on her follow-up to 2017’s For Organ And Brass. CHORDS consists of two pieces, one for organ and one for guitar, both utilising the just intonation microtonal methodology which Young has espoused for the majority of his sixty-odd year career.

‘CHORDS for organ’ was recorded at Malmö’s Art Deco St. John’s Church on its early twentieth century organ, following its original realisation in Stockholm. The 15-minute piece consists of a series of long, held tones and a number of carefully-deployed harmonic additions that subtly alter the dynamic propensities of the organ tones, the intersections gently pulsing phasing like a soft breeze through the wood-clad nave of the church. Initially harsh and grating, as the piece concludes you find yourself experiencing a sort of meditative transcendence, the brusque edges of the organ turning into something altogether more enlightened.

Its companion piece, ‘CHORDS for guitar’ blends Arkbro’s playing with the addition of digital synthesis. The piece is resented as a sequence of constantly-evolving patterns, where the resonances between the metallic-sounding strings are not unlike whole, vast universes of intricate sound.

CHORDS by Ellen Arkbro is released by Subtext Recordings on June 7 2019. Arkbro will perform CHORDS at the church of St. Giles-without-Cripplegate within London’s Barbican Centre on June 22 2019. Tickets are available from barbican.org.uk

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2019 Further.

David Toop / Jan Hendrickse / CUEE – Boundaries

Japanese composer and future Fluxus acolyte Mieko (Chieko) Shiomi was the founder of Group Ongaku, a spirited collection of likeminded experimental artists that she brought together in 1960 specifically to explore improvisation. After completing her studies in Tokyo, Shiomi returned to her native Okayama and began solo performances by the likes of John Cage, who Group Ongaku had previously invited to Japan to perform.

Cage’s influence is evident in Shiomi’s series of action poems penned in 1963 and 1964, wherein musical notation was entirely eliminated in place of specific, but necessarily vague, performance instructions. In the case of Boundary Music (1963), the instruction to the performer is “Make your sound faintest possible to a boundary condition whether the sound is given birth to as a sound or not. At the performance, instruments, human bodies, electronic apparatuses and all the other things may be used.

A new LP from the multi.modal imprint finds seasoned improvisers David Toop and Jan Hendrickse separately tackling Shiomi’s piece. In Toop’s case, his version is anything but quiet, but as he himself has pointed out, to assume that Boundary Music is about silence is entirely incorrect. Taking Shiomi’s instruction that any sound source may be utilised, his version employs field recordings of what are possibly prayer calls, inchoate percussion, electronic pulses, whistles, squeaks and a foundation sound in the form a high-pitched sound that runs with prominence through the entire piece. The result is a series of restlessly evocative events alternating between density and levity.

Hendrickse’s interpretation is much quieter, but not a bit less intense. In his hands, Boundary Music is offered as a series of low-level rumbles, thuds, scrapes and fuzzy tones that each lurk in the background until suddenly being thrust forward. For Hendrickse , the piece becomes fraught with unresolved tension, having all the notional silence of an empty space with all the atmospheric drama of a horror soundtrack, particularly when an ominously distorted drone emerges and rapidly cuts away again into squelchy, alien sounds.

Side two of the LP is given over to a performance by London’s City University Experimental Ensemble (CUEE) recorded at the IKLECTIK venue. Here, the 25-piece big-band improvising orchestra perform two works by saxophonist Cath Roberts (Off-World and March Of The Egos). Their placement alongside Shiomi’s Boundary Music almost acts as a form of confrontation, given how these pieces wilfully avoid faintness: clangorous synth splinters collide with plucked sounds, clusters of overlapping piano parts and expressive saxophone parts. This ensemble works best when they dive headlong into the maximalist sounds you would expect from this many musicians, with the thrilling denouement of Off-World taking the form of a vibrant, colourful, euphorically noisy collision between noir jazz and electronics.

March Of The Egos, meanwhile, is a discordant, joyously sprawling piece wherein each instrument and player seems to be vying for airtime. The initial winners are a 1920s ragtime trumpet solo and a sustained synth tone that seems to cut across (and through) just about everyone else until the horn section and wandering piano join forces with the drums for a massed, and ultimately successful, assault on the electronics.

Boundaries by David Toop, Jan Hendrickse and CUEE is out now on multi.modal. See Mieko Shiomi’s instructions for Boundary Music at the MoMA website.

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2019 Further.

Personal Reflections: The National – I Am Easy To Find

New York is a fickle mistress: all are welcome (subject to having the right immigration papers), its charms are universal, but few are invited to stay forever. Each and every time I visit, I hope that at some point the city will just absorb me, cling onto me, plead with me to hang around for as long as I want, rather than sending me back to JFK feeling as rejected and unwanted as a cast-off, spurned lover; like I have no place there; like I just don’t have what it takes to make it there.

It was in that state of mind that I arrived back into London from New York on early Friday morning, and it was in that state of mind that I listened to I Am Easy To Find by The National. This was possibly a mistake. Notwithstanding the mood of this album which, like much of The National’s music, has a brooding, maudlin quality – if that’s what you’re drawn to, which I generally am, it seems – there’s one lyric on the fragile, electronics-laden title track that seemed to be intended just for me: “You were never much of a New Yorker / It wasn’t in your eyes.” To me, it reaffirmed how I felt right then: you just didn’t fit in; you’ll never completely fit in; feel free to come back, but don’t expect us to let you stay.

Even though that track arrives almost a third of the way into the album, it was that quality of emotional turbulence and displacement that I heard throughout I Am Easy To Find. I’m sure that tracks like ‘Hey Rosey’ (with guest vocals from Bowie collaborator Gail Ann Dorsey) or the stuttering, complicated trademark Bryan Devendorf rhythms of opening track ‘You Had Your Soul With You’ and ‘Where Is Her Head’, or even Kate Stables’ plaintive ruminations of the title track do have some sort of transcendent, euphoric quality to them – if that’s what you’re seeking – but for me I just wanted the darkness, and that’s what I found in this album. I wanted to feel shit about my lot and the non-linear rock gestures – processed and infused with copious synths and electronic rhythms with the assistance of Mouse On Mars’ Jan St. Werner – all sitting restlessly beneath Matt Berninger’s quietly expressive vocals, enabled that. Maybe one day I’ll acknowledge the sparse and tender balladry of ‘Kansas’ or the shimmering synth textures of the duet with Lisa Hannigan on ‘So Far So Fast’, or maybe I’ll forever associate this record with feeling jetlagged and empty.

If the album spoke to me in a way that suited my mood at that particular point, the accompanying twenty-five minute black and white film, directed by Mike Mills, left me with profuse tears running down my cheeks; tears that were years and years in the making.

The film charts a life, from birth to death; through joy and sadness; from innocence gained to innocence lost; the discovery and development of oneself; the anguish of relationships; the first meetings and last goodbyes; the endless, endless, endless arguments; the wanting of different things; the inexorable passage of time; the purposefulness and futility of existence. The central character, played vividly and sensitively by Alicia Vikander, never ages throughout the film, even though all those around her do, while the captions – acting as the film’s dialogue – are largely culled from tracks on the album, with the words of ‘Dust Swirls In Strange Light’ and ‘Hairpin Turns’ suddenly making infinitely more sense once coupled to the visuals.

It takes a few short scenes to figure out what Mills’ story is showing us, but the gravity of what is unfolding becomes apparent when Vikander races abruptly into teenagehood, with the attendant and all-too-common hatred of her mother, despite everything she provided her daughter. There’s something about the duration of the film, and the way songs from the album – with all their evocative traits of unresolvedness – soundtrack Vikander’s passage through her life that takes its toll on you; if Mills had compressed her life into the length of a single three-minute song, you’d have no opportunity to adjust to what is inevitably going to happen to everyone she has ever loved or cared about, and then her own passing. Instead, by stretching this out over an intermediate length of time – too long for a promo video, too short for a feature film – the progress feels unswervingly, unbearably, savagely languid.

The film of I Am Easy To Find is thus harrowing viewing in the way extreme horror films are, and yet everything the camera shows you is utterly quotidian, unexceptional, unremarkable – reflections of your own life, maybe. As with the tone I was drawn to on the album, perhaps it was the mood I was in and my own vantage point from probably halfway along my life’s own twenty-five minute high- and lowlights reel – that point where you start to acknowledge your parents’ mortality, where your kids don’t idolise you anymore, where nothing that was previously carefree and innocent seems to be straightforward any longer – this beautiful film made difficult viewing for me. There is plenty of unbridled joy here, I’m sure, but I was mostly oblivious to any of that.

That’s all I have to say. Maybe the entire I Am Easy To Find package will affect you this way and leave an indelible mark on you like it already has for me; maybe it won’t. Maybe you’ll see the happiness in all of this that I can’t see. Maybe your eyes will suggest you belong in New York after all. Maybe you’ll brush off your teenage daughter’s disdain for you or the feeling that you’re exactly where you were yesterday, last year, a decade ago – just older. Take a listen (or a watch) and decide for yourself. I’ll still be right here. I am easy to find. I’m not going anywhere.

I Am Easy To Find by The National is out now on 4AD.

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2019 Further.

Josephine Wiggs – We Fall

If you’ve followed the path of Breeders bassist Josephine Wiggs, you’ll have become accustomed to expecting surprises, and nothing about her latest album – recorded with longtime collaborator and Spacemen3 / Spiritualized mainstay Jon Mattock – has very much at all to do with anything else in her peripatetic back catalogue. If you don’t especially have the patience to read on, then these words will suffice: it is a collection of ten beautiful pieces, each one loaded with sparseness and understated drama.

Each piece here is led by either meditative piano or cello, augmented by a panoply of ever-so-subtle but incredibly expressive additions – scratchy little electronic impulses for which the lazy electronic music journalists’s favourite descriptor ‘glitchy’ is absurdly excessive; quiet bass motifs; guitar passages and non-rhythms that seem to have been cut and spliced in from something far larger.

Pieces like ‘The Weeping Of The Rain’, ’37 Words’ or ‘In A Yellow Wood’ could have been presented as fragile, almost folk-leaning acoustic ballads; instead, an acute capacity for adding fragmentary detail and gentle sound design makes these tracks far more engaging and open, washing them in ambient texture and providing a perfect soundtrack for nature’s omnipotence – and our individual, ephemeral legacies.

We Fall by Josephine Wiggs is out now on Sounds Of Sinners.

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2019 Further.