A Dusted Review: Sirène by Robert Curgenven (September 9th, 2014)

Robert Curgenven is an Australian composer and sound artist currently based in the UK, whose work on Sirène is deeply affected by his roots in Cornwall. Cornwall is a land steeped in history and mythology, with a landscape dominated by rugged valleys, windswept moorland and battered coastlines. Curgenven’s focus is on the sea, as indicated by the title, and he manages to convey something of the grandiose potency and inherent menace the ocean has represented to so many Cornish people over the centuries. The waters are choppy and treacherous off the Cornish coast, and so represented a clear danger to local people who, paradoxically, relied on the sea for their very existence, as their main source of food.

Curgenven turns to the figure of the siren to reincarnate this dichotomy in musical form, notably on the almost-title track “Ressuscitant de l’étreinte de la Sirène”, which roughly translates as “Revived from the siren’s embrace,” converging the myth of Odysseus onto the Cornish coast and later, on “Turner’s Tempest,” drawing in references to British painter JMW Turner, one of whose proto-impressionist paintings adorns the front cover, and the epic narratives of Shakespeare. His music is similarly evocative: Curgenven uses field recordings of pipe organs captured in churches around Cornwall and, with only a bit of EQ as effect, elegantly layers them one on top of the other to create languid but ever-shifting and evolving soundscapes. The three pieces swirl and shimmer like the water the album’s title suggests, their apparent listlessness slowly revealing itself to contain swells of tension and subsequent release. Much like Ingram Marshall’s Fog Tropes/Gradual Requiem (reissued earlier this year), Sirène is a minimal record, but one that, by connecting to even obscure psychogeography, is rich with emotional resonance and subtle hidden meanings.

Picking out the individual tracks on Sirène would be an exercise in futility, because it feels more like a suite, with the different movements gently folding into one another. Curgenven displays a deft touch at both performance and editing, with individual tones sustained almost to breaking point on “Cornubia” whilst elsewhere the sounds recede into near-silence or linger as impenetrable sustained drones. Again, the imagery of rippling tides and whistling wind is impossible to ignore, and bathes the album in a reflective, melancholic glow. Despite “only” using pipe organs, it’s one of the most absorbing and affecting albums I’ve heard all year. To embark upon listening to Sirène is to take a sensual and liminal journey: into the imagined past, over the mythological oceans, beyond the realm of reality.

A Quietus Review: Fog Tapes/Gradual Requiem by Ingram Marshall (April 17th, 2014)


A lonely moor stretches out in all directions, barren grass mottled by craggy boulders and moss-covered outcrops, buffeted by ice-cold winds that sweeps down from a distant cluster of hills. The only features of this bleak landscape, appearing only as shadows beneath a damp wall of fog, are occasional lofty stone formations, either human made or natural. It’s impossible to tell. Is this a land long untouched by human presence, or one that resisted human presence, turning them away by its very harshness? Either way, the wind seems to carry the echo of ghostly voices, their cries inchoate, all meaning lost.

This is the world that Fog Tropes/Gradual Requiem, originally released in 1984, conjures up in the listener’s mind. Ingram Marshall distills a form of minimalism that eschews the austere formalism of the genre’s early landmarks (by the likes of LaMonte Young, Tony Conrad and Pauline Oliveros), instead focusing on using the barest of means to conjure music that is deep in atmosphere and emotional potency. ‘Fog Tropes’ is based on samples of fog horns recorded in San Francisco bay, but wrenched from any locational context by the injection of a ghostly voice lamenting sadly behind the distant sounds of intermittent brass interjections, birdsong and wind. In such a melancholic context San Francisco could not feel further away and we are pitched straight off the bat onto that shadowy landscape of barren moorland and fog-wreathed dolmens. The piece gradually unfolds with dramatic timing, the voice multiplied, the brass becoming more and more insistent, laden with dolorous portent.

‘Gradual Requiem’ is divided into five parts and, as its title suggests, there’s a funereal quality at play that means it fits neatly alongside ‘Fog Tropes’. Balinese percussion gongs are gently caressed or tapped, sending rippling tones back and forth whilst a haze of tape manipulations and electronic effects dampen the sense as if heard from under a mortuary shroud. Each part of ‘Gradual Requiem’ is distinct from the others, forming an emotional tapestry that follows the composer’s reactions to his father’s death. ‘Part 2’, for example, features almost ebullient, comforting piano, whilst ‘Part 3’ is dominated by jauntily plucked lute or guitar arpeggios, which slowly recede into a drifting, mournful duet between guitar and piano, somewhere between the sadder sections of Keith Jarret’s Köln Concert and the more wistful works of Sandy Bull. On ‘Part 4’, an echoing chorus of wordless vocalisations intone a melancholic lament, the voices multi-layered into they form a haunted eulogy. Gradual Requiem is an emotionally potent, even harrowing sonic voyage, and one of the most affecting pieces of modern minimalism I’ve ever heard.

When so much modern music is described as being “haunting” or “liminal”, it’s easy to become a bit blasé at such terms, but these two compositions resonate with intangible, phantomatic grace and unease, conjuring up emotions and visions that seem to reach beyond time and location into something that swirls beneath the collective consciousness. It will have different meaning for different listeners, but few will come away from Fog Tropes/Gradual Requiem unmoved.

A Quietus Interview – Nature Eclipses Culture: An Interview With Richard Skelton (March 12th, 2014)

Richard Skelton distills music that reflects both landscapes and the human heart. For many years, he has been exploring the countrysides of Britain and Ireland, pausing when inspiration takes him to record aching, heart-rending string drones in a manner that is as intuitive as it is arresting. His Landings album, initially self-released but later delivered to the wider world via a 2009 reissue on Type, revealed an musician whose musical explorations of the wild landscapes of Britain’s north-west somehow resonated with deep-felt emotions inherent in every man or woman listening to them. With his wife Autumn Richardson, Skelton later formed *AR, enmeshing her beguiling, exquisite wordless vocals with melancholic guitar and string drones to elevate the aura of Landings to new heights – most recently on their latest *AR album, Succession. The Quietus caught up with Skelton via e-mail to discuss his unique relationship with landscapes, the emotional impact of his music and how *AR differs from his previous work.

You are perhaps best known as a musician, but are also a writer and – if this is the correct term – printer. How would you define yourself?

Richard Skelton: I make music, but don’t think of myself as a musician; I write, but don’t think of myself as a writer. This is possibly because I haven’t followed the conventional path of ‘formal study’ to either of those professions, and therefore don’t conform to the stereotype. I don’t consider this a deficiency, in fact, for myself, I would consider self-study the only path to personal discovery. Nevertheless, definitions are useful. On my last tax-return, I think I put ‘publisher’, as I run a small press with my wife. Most of our output is our own work; words, music, pictures, but in 2013 we began to publish the work of others for the first time. It feels good to champion the work of others…

How did you come to form *AR?

RS: I met Autumn in 2008. We discovered a shared love of poetry, music and landscape. Given these sympathies, it was perhaps inevitable that we would end up working together. We initially collaborated in 2009 on a collection of place-poetry entitled ‘Typography of the Shore’, and later she lent her voice to ‘The Clearing’ on my Black Swallow & Other Songs album. Autumn then asked me to add strings and piano to her album Stray Birds. During this time ideas for a larger collaborative work began to take shape. We wanted to create a multi- layered response to landscape; a distillation of ‘place’ through texts, music and artefacts. The resulting Wolf Notes comprised a sequence of place-poems and essays, an album of music and a series of found objects.

From this initial, not-for-sale, work we derived a small ‘folio edition’, which we sold through Corbel Stone Press. Each exemplar was named after a toponym in the landscape, and included the music, texts and a small glass phial of incense. On the subject of toponyms, the root ‘*ar’ is an ancient river-name element, thought to mean ‘starting up, springing up, setting in motion’ – we thought this was an appropriate pseudonym for our collaboration, especially as it also spelled out our initials.

Succession is the second album by *AR. Apart from the fact that Autumn is a stunning singer, what made you want to start using vocals in your music?

RS: I don’t consider *AR ‘my’ music, nor Autumn’s voice as simply an added element to an existing formula, although I can understand how it might be perceived as such. Wolf Notes began with her wordless vocal refrain, which itself was a form of call-and-response; hearing the contours of the landscape and transposing them into song. As such, she would never claim the melody as her own. The music then gradually accumulated around it – a long, slow process of deposition. The strings are therefore embellishments of an initial theme, and the work itself is a collaboration, between her and I, but also with the landscape. This may seem rather fanciful, as simply a metaphor, but we spent many months living in that landscape, experiencing it in all weathers, followed its tracks and frequently losing our way – so there cannot help but be something of it distilled in what we made.


Read the rest here.

Richard Skelton plays in collaboration with the Elysian Quartet at Aldeburgh Music’s Faster Than Sound on Friday March 21st (click here for info and tickets), and again at the North East’s AV Festival on 23rd March (information and tickets here).

Much of Richard Skelton and *AR’s back catalogue is available to listen and buy at the Aeolian Editions site, and to keep track of Skelton and Richardson’s activities, click here to visit the Corbel Stone Press site.

A Kit Interview – An Interview with William Basinski (February 22nd, 2014)

William Basinski is an artist who should need no introduction. Since the release of his seminal tape loop masterpiece The Disintegration Loops in 2002, Basinski has shone like a beacon in the fields of ambient and drone music, with his unique blend of sustained resonances and acute emotionality winning fans across the globe. In the wake of last year’s Nocturnes and a sell-out concert at St John’s Church in Hackney, Basinski is set to return to the same venue for a week-long residency in March of this year. Joseph Burnett caught up with the man to discuss his unique career, singular approach to music-making and the background behind his best release in years.

Joseph Burnett: Could you please tell me a bit about the creation of Nocturnes? Am I right in thinking the two pieces on the album were created at very different times?

William Basinski: Yes. The title track was a very early, very formal experiment that I did in, I believe, 1979, in San Francisco. At that time, I was working with tape loops and experimenting with prepared piano. I would hit the note and then hit the record on the loop to cut off the attack, and see how it sounded without the hammer on the string. This helped to create the great sense of suspension in Nocturnes. I had a very formal graphic score laid out for the piece, and had decided on twelve or so loops which I laid out over a time period, almost how the programme Live Score is laid out, with lines and sections and tracks. Unfortunately I got a little indulgent at the end. Understand that I was multi-tracking on a cassette deck, so I had a piece of tape over the erase head to overdub. But these kinds of overdubs are not like recording on separate tracks that you can go back and change. Once the piece was done, that was it; they were all hardwired on top of each other. You could be bouncing in and out of different levels, which was great, but at the end I added these things that I decided almost immediately I wished I hadn’t. Sometime later, digital editing comes along and eventually I was able to go back in and take out these little overindulgences and correct things. So the piece, which I always thought was really good, now has had its little plastic surgery or tooth cap (laughs).

I’ve been so busy travelling the last few years that I haven’t put out a record since Vivian & Ondine in 2009, so I decided to release Nocturnes. I thought it was a good time to release it. It’s a very dark album, kind of a warning, with an unsettling theme. I had recently done The Trail of Tears, with a couple of loops on a couple of tape decks with delay, and the loops just melted into this drone. I then put in this other loop at the end, which creates this wonderful resolution. Finally, I got the album and the artwork done, so it came out in May.

JB: As you’ve said, the album is very dark and melancholic. What made you aim for this particular mood?

WB: It’s a lamentation, so it’s not a happy album, but it is what it is. I think the resolution does something really amazing at the end. Sometimes you have to walk a trail of tears so you can find your epiphany.

JB: Do you have this sort of central idea or theme on each album you release?

WB: It’s not as though I start out going “I want to do this”. It’s like painting: you have to make the first mark and then you have to resolve that mark. Then you make another mark and have to figure out what’s going to happen next. It paints itself, and when it’s done you have to know that it’s done. That’s when it teaches you what it is. From there, you think about that and maybe come up with a title. It’s a learning experience.

JB: How do you go about the tape loops you use? You must have quite a few to root through!

WB: It’s just what strikes me at the time. I dunno… it’s hard to describe. It’s just what resonates at the time. It’s like taste, y’know. If you’re in the mood for something sweet, you don’t eat a pickle.

JB: So it’s very intuitive?

WB: Yes, yes, exactly.

JB: Has your way of recording and selecting loops evolved a lot over the years?

WB: Yeah, of course. I’ve gone through a lot of different changes and lots of different techniques, working with lots of different equipment. In the beginning, I had nothing. Tape decks were cheap, used tape was cheap, so that was what I had available to me, how I began. It’s how I developed my sound: creating all those loops was like building a synthesizer. I had my patches. Over the years, without having anyone beyond a small group of friends being able to understand that it was even music, I began playing in bands, doing all kinds of stuff. I continued doing my work, but before the internet and being able to self-publish, there was just the music industry. If you wanted to be a player, you had to do what was accepted as pop music.

When James [Elaine, William’s partner] and I moved to our second apartment in Brooklyn in 1989, we had fought for years against a local development, which was going to be built by tearing down all the buildings in the neighbourhood. They had to settle with us, and we found this ruin in Williamsburg, which we rented and spent a lot of money restoring. It was an extraordinarily beautiful place, which became Arcadia [Basinski’s performance space and studio until 2008]. I was able to build a proper studio and control room, and we had a sound system, and this wonderful mini-ballroom with this beautiful sound. It turned out like a Venetian palazzo or something overlooking Manhattan. We were holding the Arcadia evenings, and I was producing bands, working with synthesizers and better recording equipment. I tried more pop music then, and worked on a song cycle with my friend Jennifer Jaffe, a poet and member of an art group called TODT. I tried to get this very gothic work released in the nineties, but there were no takers.

Eventually, when CD burners came out, I got one and found all these cases with my old tape loops in them in a storage room we had, which was full of old furniture and Jamie’s paintings and all this junk. I didn’t know what had happened to them! Knowing what tape does, that it would disintegrate, I started archiving the old work. Around this time, Carsten Nicolai came to New York, I think for a residency at PS1, and was staying downstairs with my German neighbours. We met when I was working on shortwave music and listening to that again, and he just flipped over that, and asked to release it on his label. I’d been waiting to hear that for a long time! So that was the beginning of being able to release work, and it turned out that all of a sudden there was an audience of people who were about the age of these tape loops who were ready to hear my work. It’s been incredible, because I never thought I’d live to see the day.

William Basinski kit records

JB: When you performed in London, I noticed you used a laptop. Do you find that computers and synthesizers allow more freedom and a wider range of possibilities than tape loops?

WB: Well there certainly are benefits. There are certain things I do with computers that I can’t with tape loops. But I’m an old dog and I’m not so good at learning new tricks, so I have certain things I can do. For example, in shows the computer is sort of a back-up. Sometimes the tape decks break or don’t function properly. In London, one of them had crashed or something. When I started the tour, it was perfect, but after one of the early shows it came back and it was only playing on one speed, which was a speed faster than it was supposed to. I had enough time to cut and record new loops for this machine on the speed that it wanted to play at. I was using this old tape that Richard Chartier had sent me, so I just started using them and something amazing happened. On the back of one of the loops, there was some recorded material already there, and at the speed I had it going, it was this incredibly beautiful thing that happened to go beautifully with these variation loops that I did at the end of the concert. It might even have been some Beethoven or something, slowed down, that came in towards the end of the concert. These little accidents can happen, and it’s always a blessing. The computer is also good for remastering analogue material, digitising it and preparing it for release, but I don’t create sounds with it like a lot of people do. I’m not proficient at that. Like I said, in the last twenty years in Williamsburg, at Arcadia, I had a control room with synthesizers, MIDI and a big console with multi-track tape decks. Unfortunately now, all that is sitting in my garage, waiting for a place for me to set it up. But I’m hoping that after this year-long tour, I’ll be able to look for a studio space I can install it in and get the old spaceship back up again. That’ll be lots of fun.

JB: You’ve mentioned the tour that you’re currently on. How do you approach performing live as opposed to recording in the studio?

WB: In a way, especially when I’m working with loops, it can be very relaxing for me, because it’s kind of just like when I’m in the studio. Often, there’s a random element. I have a plan, but you never quite know what’s going to happen. Things can go wrong, or sometimes interesting things can happen. Time just disappears. Every room is different. You’re moving air and resonating a space, so there’s always the time in soundcheck when I get to work with all the nice technicians, boys and girls who know their space and know how to fit the resonances in this space. I’m listening the whole time, just trying to surf these waves.

JB: Your music evolves at a very gradual pace. Does that present a challenge when performing live, and do you find some audiences more receptive than others?

WB: I was very nervous this year, because I wasn’t sure how Nocturnes would go over, but it’s been amazing. The audiences know what to do, they know the work. People either get it, and can’t get enough, or they don’t, so this year my experience has been that the audiences are there. They get prepared, smoke pot or do whatever it is they do, and then just sit or lie down and close their eyes and go there. They’ve been so quiet, so great, and the response has been fantastic. I’m just thrilled to death.

JB: When I saw you at St John’s in Hackney church, I was reminded of a performance of Eliane Radigue’s music, also in a church, from a few years ago…

WB: It’s the best way, it’s all you have to do: just open your ears and… I’ve got Jamie’s beautiful video. It’s not necessary, but it’s beautiful and great, and it creates an atmosphere. But if you close your eyes, your own movie will appear. And the time just goes away, changes.

JB: The first adjective that comes to mind when describing your music is “emotional”. Does emotion play a big role in your music?

WB: Yeah. It’s very much a part of me and who I am. In fact, I have to be careful, because I get so hung up about stuff and tend to respond emotionally! I’m a year of the dog, I always get my back up, so that’s definitely all over my chart, let’s say.

JB: It’s impressive the way you’re able to communicate that back to the audience, just in the way you select your sounds.

WB: Thank you. It’s been a good run (laughs).

JB: About a year ago, I saw an orchestral performance of The Disintegration Loops in London at The Royal Festival Hall, and noticed the difference between the tape loops on the record and how it came out when performed, but the end effect was the same.

WB: That was extraordinary. Those young musicians were brilliant, to do that there, and the audience was incredible. I think there were five minutes of silence after the last note. We were blown away! Max [Moston, the arranger] did an incredible job, he’s amazing.

JB: A lot is being written right now, by music journalists, about silence and quietness in music, and I recently saw a film called Silence that approached that very notion outside of music. Zones without people, if you will. Do you find that to be something that resonates in your music?

WB: I heard about that film! Absolutely, and silence is such an ephemeral thing, it’s something we can hardly ever experience these days. We were just on the island of Pantelleria, near Sicily, this volcanic island, and we’ve been there six times, but the difference this year was incredible. After the big economic crash, it was silent. There was no-one there. You could hear the ocean and the wind in the trees. There are hardly any birds on this island. It was incredible to have that. Like in films, there’s always some kind of sound. It’s not a digital silence, because that’s so unreal, in a way.

JB: The Disintegration Loops recently received a lavish reissue as a beautiful box set. Did you anticipate at the time that it would become such an influential and important work?

WB: Not really. Jeremy Devine, who did such a brilliant job art directing and overseeing the whole thing, and releasing it, came and talked to me in LA about it, and I was a little wary at first. When I got my copies, I was like “Oh my God, this is amazing!”. So yeah, the response has been incredible. It’s quite a lovely object to see on my shelf. When it first happened, over two days in my studio, I called all my friends to tell them to come and listen to it. Everyone just flipped, we just lay around the loft and listened to it all the way through.

JB: When I interviewed Antony Hegarty recently, he mentioned that he first met you when you were handing out fliers for a Diamanda Galás concert at your loft. You must have a lot of fond memories from that time in Williamsburg. Do you miss it?

WB: Well, I miss my beautiful castle, that’s for sure! It was such an amazing place and home. It was a home for artists. But we have a lot of recordings from that time, and a lot came out of it. It was a huge petri dish that really grew something. And [in March 2014], we’re planning on doing a series of Arcadia events in London, over a period of a week, with a bunch of creative friends of mine from Europe.

JB: Finally, what are your plans for the future? I know you’re touring a lot, but do you have any releases planned also?

WB: The two don’t go hand in hand. I just released Nocturnes, you greedy bastard! (laughs) I’ve been going all year, and won’t be doing so many next year so I can get my studio set up, and then we’ll see…

William Basinski’s Arcadia residency will be held at St John’s Church in Hackney from March 12th-20th, with performances by Michael Gira, Charlemagne Palestine and Rhys Chatham, amongst others. Excitingly, composers or ensembles can apply to perform a support slot within the series through the Sound and Music and Art Assembly.

Main picture by Peter J. Kierzkowski.

A Quietus Live Report – William Basinski & Fennesz at St John in Hackney Church (July 17th, 2013)

The beautiful, lofty interior of the lovely St. John in Hackney church in Clapton was a fitting location to drink in the subtle, gentle tones of both these heavyweights of ambient music. Their sets were considerably different (and I should imagine that Helm – whose opening performance I sadly missed – also served up something wildly at odds with what came afterwards), but both reverberated around the hall, textures seeming to drift off the walls and out of nooks and crannies organically, meaning even the quietest moments in Basinski’s rendition of ‘Nocturnes’, from his recent album of the same name, were loaded with a palpable physicality.

When I last saw Fennesz, at last year’s OFF Festival in Poland, his set was probably the most intense, brooding and overwhelmingly noisy one of the entire three days, possibly even outdoing headliners Swans. In Clapton, he opted for something more nuanced, building a complex piece around a foundation of throbbing bass drones, its wobbly sound suggesting Fennesz owns one of Throbbing Gristle’s Gristleizers. After an initial phase of drifting textures, he settled into a form of melancholic ambient drone dominated by shimmering synths and a ghostly sampled choir, redolent of his 2008 album Black Sea’s grim, windswept melancholia. If the driving industrial intensity of his set in Poland was, for the most part, absent, it was replaced with a slow-burning blend of quiet and loud, as texturally elegant as it was unpredictable, as Fennesz dropped in robust guitar riffs bolstered with blissful feedback. Despite a rather aimless closing segment, the set, settling in the interstices between noise, drone and ambient, but impossible to clearly pin down, displayed Fennesz’s sonic dexterity to the full.

William Basinski cuts a striking figure as he takes his seat behind his laptop with his towering hair and smart black get-up. The forty minutes of ‘Nocturnes’ seemed to stretch and expand, the sound enveloping the inside of the church like a blanket. Performing in almost total darkness, Basinski made good use of sparse visuals which, projected against the back wall of the church, reflected the moody atmosphere of the music, as gossamer images of the full moon faded in and out of a blurry haze. Unlike the more straightforwardly emotive pieces on his Disintegration Loops series, ‘Nocturnes’ is ambiguously pitched somewhere between mournfulness and pent-up anger, a slow-burning mood piece that’s as spectral and dark as its title suggests. Basinski barely moved a muscle as he built up the loops incrementally before doubling back on them and allowing them to dissolve into the ether, with a sense of tension seeping in when the sounds dropped out altogether, leaving brief, beautiful moments of silence. ‘Nocturnes’ is one of Basinski’s most minimal pieces, and it was hard not to admire his single-minded determination to reproduce it in full, even as the glacial pace clearly caused some attendees to fidget in their seats.

A Liminal Review: November by Dennis Johnson (June 25th, 2013)


This work of art – for that is the word – has pretty much been lost for the best (or worst?) part of fifty years, so before any reviewing gets underway, I need to offer profuse thanks to both Irritable Hedgehog in the US and Penultimate Press here in the UK for going the extra one hundred miles in order to share it with us today in 2013. Reading the accompanying notes by author and composer Kyle Gann on the album’s Bandcamp page, it quickly becomes clear that this release of November was quite the labour of love, with Gann having painstakingly recreated the piece’s score from a damaged cassette he was given in 1992 by LaMonte Young, the man generally regarded as the father of minimalism. From the tape, and a manuscript sent to him by Dennis Johnson himself, Gann has restored November to something approaching its supposed actual length (six hours), with a four-hour work that easily eclipses the 112 minutes he was working from with the tape.

November is performed entirely on piano, thus anticipating LaMonte Young’s Well-Tuned Piano, not to mention the works of Philip Glass and Steve Reich. In fact, the more I listened to it, the harder it was to conclude that it is November, and not Young’s Trio for Strings, that represents the first true work of minimalism, which is certainly Gann’s intimation. The piece, divided here into four hour-long discs, is built around a gradually evolving progression of slow-burning motifs, starting with two notes that are then repeated and added to with a third, and so on, a style that would take hold in minimalism over the next two decades. It evolves at a glacial pace, each note held and sustained for various lengths of time, allowed to reverberate in the air and in the mind. One immediately thinks of Michael Nyman’s Decay Music, also for piano, although there is a deceptive simplicity at play in November that elevates its emotional potency above that of Nyman’s work. Like The Well-Tuned Piano, its emphasis lies in tonality and, most astonishingly, improvisation, meaning it has the potential – now that it has been revived – to evolve and develop independently of Johnson (now in his seventies) and Gann, who performed November when it was recorded. Even as one is aware of hearing the same notes being played, the way Johnson juxtaposes them and then builds them up means each hearing is something of a revelation.

The cover image Irritable Hedgehog and Penultimate Press have chosen perhaps gives a better sense of what November is like than any explanation I can muster out of my feeble brain. A dark forest lies blanketed in fog, the photograph transmogrified by means of a filter that imbues this stark vista in a soft, violet hue. It’s an image that of course resonates with the piece’s title, its promise of winter and stark horizons. It’s a photo that reflects the often austere quality of Johnson’s music, but, equally, the warm texture of the colours hint at a certain gentle melancholia, one that percolates through the spaces between the notes and tones and worms its way into the listener’s heart. Of all the great minimalist works, November is the one that seems to find an echo in the more overtly emotional drone and ambient recordings, from Brian Eno’s Music for Airports to William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops.

Whether or not November actually represents the birth of minimalism as we know it today is a red herring. What matters is that, through Kyle Gann and his team’s hard work, it has been born anew, finally getting the release it most certainly deserves. It’s a beautiful work, with the kind of resonant power that elevates the great works mentioned above, and sits comfortably alongside them and many others. Hopefully this won’t be the last lost masterpiece by Dennis Johnson and the other early minimalists (such as Terry Jennings and Young himself) to see the belated light of day.

A Quietus Review: What?? by Folke Rabe (February 6th, 2013)

Listening to this remarkable album recorded waaaaaaaay back in 1967, I found myself thinking of a recent acting course I had embarked on, and in particular the effect on the body of the various exercises that make up the Alexander Technique, which is designed to help actors (and all public speakers) learn to improve their breathing to improve their range. The results can often be surprising (despite my initial cynicism, I should say). One thing I noted when employing Alexander exercises was the greater sense of my own body, and therefore overall spatial awareness, that resulted. It was as if my proprioception had been increased, and I became more acutely keen to the various parts of my body. I’ve never experienced being in an anechoic chamber, but descriptions I’ve read hint at a similar in-of-body feeling, and I’m starting to see why some people find disciplines such as yoga and pilates so rewarding (I insist on “starting”, mind).

I mention all this because What?? seems to engage in something similar with sound. Equally, like many deep drone albums by artists such as Eliane Radigue or Pauline Oliveros, its effect on the listener is as much physical as it is emotional or intellectual. It requires patience and attention and, played at sufficient volume on headphones, it resonates powerfully throughout the body, with various layers of sounds engaging with the listener’s body beyond the ears. The title hints at a questioning of the nature of music and sound, how they occupy space and how individual elements interact with each other. In the liner notes, Rabe speaks of attempting “to hear ‘into’ the different sounds in order to grasp the components that made them up”. What?? is effectively an exercise in turning sound inside out, exploring its inner workings in a way reminiscent of scientific experimentation. Hardly surprising, then, to learn that it was recorded at the electronic studio of Swedish Radio, linking Rabe’s work in some ways to that of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, although the results are strikingly different.

Also in the liner notes, Rabe writes about hearing how the sound from piano notes will vary as they die away (something that British composer Michael Nyman would come to almost a decade later on his more literal Decay Music), and this fascination with the fragile DNA of music results in two equally-named pieces that deal with decay, repetition and sustain, each piece developing over extreme durations where the elements float in and out of each other, layers building up and then peeling back to reveal more, near-identical, layers. The durations allow the music to develop organically and, for the listener, the rewards are momentous. If Rabe modestly speaks of being “concerned with monotony”, these two tracks are anything but. Subtle oscillations creep forwards, linger and then depart, but with each repetition new textures avail themselves: a whistling high note here, a deep, reverberating drone there. At times, the build-ups reach breaking point, and it’s no great leap of imagination to feel the connection between the first, 25-minute version of ‘What??’ and the noise wave of the late-90s. The second, 50-minute track is more delicate, but equally stunning, its throbbing tones developing into mesmeric miniature rhythm patterns that evolve symbiotically with each other, as if Folke Rabe is more a spectator than a composer. It’s an approach that would have a lasting impression on the German kosmische scene a few years down the line (I’d be surprised if they’d never heard these tracks), especially Klaus Schulze and Cluster.

Folke Rabe’s approach to drone differs from that of Radigue, Oliveros and LaMonte Young for this very reason, even if he clearly shares a similar dismay at the way Western music evolved in comparison to its Eastern counterpart (Terry Riley’s quip that “Western music is fast because it’s not in tune” springs to mind throughout this album). What?? has a sort of primordial energy, a deceptive simplicity removed from mathematical or philosophical concerns, and comparisons with the great, circular rock of Ash Ra Tempel, Les Rallizes Dénudés and the like are justified. Equally, Rabe was a pal of Swedish psychedelic artist Bo Anders Persson, who would take on his friend’s ideas and approach with his legendary Pärson Sound band. Folke Rabe’s approach to sound may be more considered (and therefore more challenging), but it comes from the same place.

Huge credit must go to Important Records for releasing this stunning document of one of the earliest great masterpieces of electronic drone. What?? is a key example of intellectual and emotional rigour being applied to the very foundations of what sound can achieve in relation to itself and its audience. I would love to hear this in a live setting. Anyone fancy giving Folke Rabe a call?