Click here to [close]

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Infrequency Editions

By Nick Ostrum

Founded in 2001, Infrequency Editions is dedicated to cinematic electro-acoustic soundworlds. It documents the work of its founders – Jamie Drouin and Lance Austin Olsen – and collaborations with like-minded innovators ranging from Johnny Chang to Matthieu Ruhlmann (of Caduc) to Tim Clément. This relatively narrow focus means the label releases just a handful of meticulously constructed digital releases each year. Here is a review of just three from the end of 2019.

Lance Austin Olsen - Look At The Mouth That Is Looking At You (Infrequency Editions, 2019) ****

This is somewhat of a departure for Olsen. Rather than primarily compiling found sounds and electronics, on this release Olsen is joined by Debora Alanna on piano and organ and Erin Cunes and John Luna on vocals, while Olsen plays voice, guitar, and amplified objects. An expansion of the 2017 release Craig’s Stroke and based off of many of the same images and writings that comprised his 2012 book of the same name, Look At The Mouth That Is Looking At You is Olsen’s attempt to enter the stroke inflicted mind of a friend through revisiting his (Olsen’s) old notebooks of sketches, lists, and partially formed ideas and editing them as into score. The intentionality, in other words, came at the end of the compositional process, rather than the beginning. This compiling of unrelated (both to each other and to the event being recounted) scraps of memory and jots of creativity already sets Look At The Mouth on a unique course.

Twenty-five of these notebook pages were set in an order determined by Olsen and used as the score. The first piece, “The Event,” begins with a creaky field recording and soon fades into a nostalgic, almost sweet piano melody laid atop menacing undertones. Then the organ kicks in, and the wisps of electronic wind, the buzz saw-whispered vocals almost inscrutable, and the layers of captured and recontextualized sounds.

The phrase “mind, deck, sim, raw” repeats at different cadences and configurations throughout the first track. Buzzing and muffled funereal chanting interweaves with the sibilant, sparingly dark ambience. Staticky vocals offer muted narration, presumably a window into the mind of Craig. The second track, “The Descent,” flows seamlessly from the first and deploys similar motifs. Its crux, however, comes halfway through, when a lone voice shouts “Hello” and explores the contours of the cavernous environment through the solitary call and response of echoes. The stroke has set and a monologue, seemingly from an outsider (a doctor, a friend) takes over, ending with a striking phrase, “Just watch the mouth.” The track then retreats to the injured mind. The third piece, “Lost,” departs from the struggle conveyed in “The Descent.” After a brief jaunt into muffled circus music, this piece shifts into moods of resignation and peacefulness until it ends in literal huffs of exhaustion.

What one gets over the course of this three-part work is a non-linear narrative, if not showing multiple perspectives, then at least articulated through multiple mouths. When approaching this recording, however, it is important to keep in mind that all of the scores, music, words, and sounds are necessarily external to the victim. This is Olsen’s interpretation of his own experience with Craig and his imagination of Craig’s state of mind. This is not Craig’s own reporting. This portrayal is therefore all the more accessible to the listener, who likewise sits on this side of consciousness. And this immediacy and universality of access is what makes this suite so moving. They are immediate because they play into our own tendencies to project and empathize, even as we necessarily stand abstracted from the first-hand experience of the event. The keys (especially the organ) and chants convey lamentation and at times a hallowed elevation, whereas the crackling, staticky voices feign to bring us into the head of the victim (or maybe the stroke itself), but really take us more deeply into Olsen’s quest to make sense of this tragedy. And what is more human than that: taking something terrible and trying to make sense of it, in the process converting it into a work of disquieting and perplexing beauty?

Look At The Mouth That Is Looking At You is available in digital format and comes with a 14 page booklet including an interview and photos of the recording process as well as several sheets from the score.

Tim Clément and Lance Austin Olsen – Dark Night on the Black Dog Highway (Infrequency Editions, 2019) ****

The warrior rode upon the steed of light
into the ruins of his mind,
seeking solace from the world.
There the broken timbres of his life lay bare,
as ghostly mortals danced their shadow song.
– Jō Mon Kō Jun (Olsen)

It begins with field recordings of a busy road and a dog barking. Incrementally a steady clang introduces a metronymic rhythm and a twinkling triplet of eighth notes open the soundscape to the sound of a windshield being smashed, fluttering ambient keyboard, flashes of brightness, and other light and dark dreamy textures. Inscrutable voices break through the field recording and transport the listener (or warrior) in a brief section that calls to mind the library scene in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, wherein the viewer is privy to the cacophony of human concerns and petitions that the angel Damiel (Bruno Ganz) hears. This seems the boundary between the literal, tangible street and the fantasy that Tim Clément and Olsen construct in this, their first collaboration. This theme of voices, synthesized or recorded, repeats periodically, as does the windshield crash.

Collaborations via file-sharing is becoming more and more common. Although I am sometimes skeptical of such depersonalized interaction, its potential is worth investigating especially for experimental electronic sound-sculpting. And, Dark Night is testament to that. These two tracks, “Dark Night on the Black Dog Highway” and “Memory Lost, Memory Found” are densely layered and meticulously composed pieces that create their own distinct sonic landscapes. The first third of “Dark Night” is ethereal, even if crashes periodically break the vision. The second third of the piece is filled with static and other rough textures and hollow extended tones, lending to its nervousness. The third includes discernible voices for the first time excerpted from an old radio play, introducing the motif of a lost person and adding a brief glimpse of language to this otherwise non-verbal narrative. Thereafter voices bob in and out of perception, further adding to the mystery of the piece rather than clarifying anything other than its cryptically umbrous mood. The piece ends with electronic trickles, crackling radio voices and synthesized chants.

“Memory Lost” features a similar instrumental array, but is driven by a stream of ambient, augmented hums (Cait McWhir), while the snippets of voice (Olsen) and other acoustic ambience assume a supportive role. The tones waft and pulse throughout the piece but, as much as there are subtle variations and glacial transformations, I found this piece less engrossing than the first. That is, until I reached the chanting of Francesca Genco. I would be curious to hear how this composition would have turned out had the vocals played a more central role throughout. Even with their limited use, they lend the piece much needed depth and purpose. As Olsen has stated and the poem above attests, these pieces are a “journey of the mind,” pieces that chart the boundary between dream and consciousness, shadow and light, the body and the spirit. And, they do so quite grippingly.

Jamie Drouin – Ridge (Infrequency Editions, 2019) ***½

A ridge made by folding,
incising, and from the passing of shadow.
A ridge made by the absence of something else.
- Jamie Drouin

I am surprised that this poem is not the score. Instead, according to Jamie Drouin, it is a “response to what I saw as the latent forms in the resulting album…the intimate, and physically tactile way in which events and patterns proposed themselves, much like a surface of paper that has traces of folded/crumpled lines.” Fair enough. It certainly frames the music precisely. And, it helped me consider the piece beyond the usual directional narrative I tend to impose and to focus on its textural subtleties and intimacy. Excuse the axiom, but, when mapping a journey, you start at the beginning and conclude at the end. When mapping a folded piece of paper as in the poem and cover art, however, all start- and endpoints are arbitrary.

Strewn with ligneous creaks and crackles, manipulated field recordings of rain and light breezes, ominous overlain and quivering tones, and unidentifiable ambient sounds, Ridge tells the story of reconnoitering a folded, craggy terrain. The effect is disorienting, but, in the tradition of Infrequency releases, directive. Using a toolbox of electronic devices, (amplified objects, sine wave generator, and a Buchla modular synthesizer) Drouin traces the contours of a winding, (synthetically?) wooded, and treacherous range. The journey follows the scarps and vales, alternately densely and loosely packed. The end is lighter than the heavy, though placid beginning. But there is also an inherent danger to reaching the lightness and elevated openness at the end of the road. Beauty can be disorienting and dark. Its pursuit is also necessarily laden with all the experiences, struggles, and failures accrued throughout the journey. Ridge is a sonic meditation of that ambivalence, and, as the final line of the poem implies, an examination of what is not there but could be, as much as any tangible actuality. That is, beyond the compounded sounds themselves.