Outcuts. DAVID HELBICH
Review by Chris Whitehead
In his comments on the best (and worst) of 2012, Edu Comelles set off a strand of thought in this very journal that questioned the holy conventions of what field recording had become. He asked why we were still awash with birdsong, running water and ocean waves? He was tired of listening to thirty, forty minute, even hour long compositions that drifted linearly from one atmosphere to the next, then the next, and so on. Why did no one explore the supermarkets, the indoor domesticities of urban living or the crowded public areas of modern cities? Also was there no place for brevity? Couldn’t the hallowed, unwritten rule that a good listener needs a Tarkovskyesque attention span be broken? Was it possible to produce worthwhile field recording based works that lasted similar lengths to pop songs, or were even (gasp!) shorter?
Possibly an attempt to recreate a desert or a vast jungle in the mind of the listener requires a certain length of time: Time for the perceived space to open out and a sense of borderless dimension to magically emerge from the stereo quasi-world. Many artists utilise time and its subjective elasticity in their pieces. Dwelling for a while in a long field recording is like moving to a new town: First there is a very general impression of the place, the streets, the buildings, the geography, but after spending some time there the slightly less obvious features become apparent. Soon even they become commonplace and the mind searches for more in textures and distances, the positions of things in relation to others and how time can become plastic once it has lost its anchors.
David Helbich presents us with Outcuts, in which no track is longer than two and a half minutes, most are less than a minute and a half in length, and one lasts only fourteen seconds. Each track is a binaural recording of an event, seemingly unprocessed and pretty focused. These aren’t ambiences, they are either situation based (supermarket checkouts), action based (a game of table tennis) or performed (a stick dragged across metal railings). They are short, clear and to the point.
Helbich studied composition and philosophy in Amsterdam and Freiburg and the two disciplines are applied to these field recordings in a surprising way. Rather than compose using effects or layers, rather than using juxtaposed sounds or corrosive jarring to disrupt, Helbich primarily uses time.
At first sounding like a CD playback problem, a disc fault or something you’ve simply misheard, little creases in the smooth surface of time become apparent. Ripples and folds in its skin occur as the sounds slip a little back on themselves or repeat a bit and catch you unawares. Then for a very short time the whole thing drops into digital silence and starts up again. It is like dropping off to sleep and suddenly jerking awake as your head falls forward. A lapse in continuity, a corruption of linear momentum, or as Helbich describes it in the liner notes, “Everyday sounds twisted and turned inside out, bumping into each other, brutally interrupted by digital silence”. I found none of the changes brutal though, instead they seemed subtle, sudden and unheralded. They just happened without warning or fuss, as if they had always been part of the structure of the real world but we just hadn’t noticed them.
Playing through all 18 tracks consecutively causes certain rhythms and inherent underlying structures to emerge. These appear to be there across everything independently of whichever sound source is being listened to. All this may sound a little dry and academic for the listener wanting to be taken someplace else when they embark on listening to a field recording or two, but the whole thing is brief (18.32) and addresses an important issue about reality and recorded reality.
Outcuts is presented by Surfacenoise Recordings in a 7″ single sized sleeve with several bits of information, both written and illustrated. There’s a picture of a high rise balcony where three of the tracks were recorded and some depictions of stereo waveforms complete with the points at which the disruptions occur. Those experienced in decoding these graphic interpretations of sound might like to follow the peaks and dips as the disc plays: A kind of geek lyric sheet with waves for words.
Also included is the raw material to recreate track 15, papierstücke. It is a piece of paper with instructions for two performers about how to tear along the printed dotted lines. Much of Helbich’s work has been concerned with actively including audiences in his interventions.
I would recommend Outcuts to anyone wanting to bury deeper into the layers that cover the core of this thing we do. To anyone asking the questions ‘why do we record the world, and what do we end up with?’ this may or may not provide some food for thought. If it does, all well and good, if it doesn’t you will at least have had some parameters reset and possibly a stimulating eighteen and a half minutes of very punk ear-fun. If nothing else, it should make Edu Comelles a very happy man.