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‘Strata’
Exchange between Richard Pinnell and Patrick Farmer

The second part of an ongoing exchange between Patrick Farmer and Richard Pinnell, the first can be found here

Part II

Richard:

There is still a huge amount of potential in field recording.  The way the technology has moved on, and liberated the art of making music away from “musicians” can only be a good thing for me. There is, on some level, little difference in many ways between what Tarab does on this album and what Luc Ferrari and the GRM required a room full of equipment and the privilege required to access it to achieve. The problem is though, as everyone and anyone can buy a portable digital recorder and download powerful processing and sequencing software so that liberation also naturally waters down the overall output. There are of course many dozens of musicians making incredible music that uses field recordings today, and the ones you name would be near the top of my pile too, but it seems increasingly that there is an awful lot of everyday, ill conceived work out there to wade through as well. I am reminded of my art student studies of the New York subway graffiti movement of the eighties. There were pioneers, who created great work, but then as soon as everyone saw what the others were doing, and realised that they too could climb over those fences and cross those tracks, the trains passing through New York were just a jumbled mess of wildly strewn paint. The great artists were still there, still working, and new interesting names appeared all the time, but it was harder to spot them amongst the mass of scribbling for scribbling’s sake, and pretty soon the audience for it all turned against the movement.

To escape the elongated metaphor, I want to clarify my thoughts on material and structure, as I may not have been clear enough. While I agree that the material can become the structure itself, it takes interesting material to do this. For me, Strata does not necessarily contain interesting material per se. If I was pressed to describe the sounds used in the record without mentioning how they interact with other elements around them I don’t think I would say very much different to how I would describe the sounds of many similar records. It is certainly possible that particular sounds, or field recordings used in a piece of music can stand up on their own and create the structure of interesting music by themselves, simply because they are unusual, striking or narratively intriguing enough to do so (I think here of your own pigs at the start of Pictures of men or the auction house scenes in Vanessa Rossetto’s Exotic Exit as good examples).  This however is where the lack of originality to the material used in much of field recording today (too much running water, traffic, birdsong, air conditioning units etc, etc…) forces the impetus back onto the composer to use those overheard sounds in ways that waken the senses of the listener, so putting the onus back onto composition and away from the process of gathering material. I think this is where Tarab really succeeds with Strata. I find myself not caring about what I am actually hearing a field recording of, and not caring if or how the particular set of sounds have been processed post recording or not, and all that matters is how the work as a whole hits me. Again, I am not saying that this is the only way that field recording can work. I released Lee Patterson’ frying egg recordings on my own label for instance simply because that music was so wonderfully revealing of what could be found in the world without the need for additional structure, but increasingly in this area of work, to my ears at least, compositional integrity is becoming more important than ever.

This leads to your thoughts on how it’s time for people to change their listening habits. Certainly my own perspective, as a listener to this area of work for a few decades now, will be a jaded one, and perhaps over time the tendency is to ask more of the music and less of ourselves in the pursuit of a moving listening experience, but I do think I tend to listen in similar ways to you, particularly with this kind of field recording / construction area of work. I have shared similar moments with Strata as yourself, feeling left hanging over sheer drops in places, left curious as to how sounds may have progressed if they had been allowed to stick around, even applying colours to different sets of sounds in my head and then wondering how a little more ‘orange’ or ‘purple’ may be added at various points to suit my own personal preferences. Surely you must agree though that this kind of ‘interactive’ listening becomes easier when the composer has created something powerful to begin with. A CD arrived here a couple of weeks back that opened with a track that just consisted of three layers: a slowed-down hydrophone recording,  a sine tone and some kind of domestic or industrial appliance buzzing away.  The different elements just faded in, sat on top of each other a while and left in as uninteresting a manner as they arrived. No matter how imaginative a listener you may be, that particular track (other parts of the album were better) bored the ears off of me.  This is only in part down to the fact that the three elements used are heard often in this area of work. The materials were familiar, but they were also used in familiar ways, with very little there to hook onto. Strata also contains the sound of running water, and vaguely industrial sounds, but the CD pulls me in as a listener because it has a life beyond the simple combination of sounds, and that life is formed through the compositional ear of Eamonn Sprod. While I agree that it is easy to sit on the critical sidelines and throw stones, the onus has to be on the composer to make music that encourages the kind of listener engagement we both enjoy.  I often describe music I enjoy as engaging, and that is what Strata is for me. It distracts you, keeps you from doing other things, forces you to interact.

I also realise that my tired use of birdsong could also be your exciting use of seagulls, and that so much of this is subjective, but that is no different to all music. I too wouldn’t put a CD onto a pedestal merely because there are seagulls included. I may of course be attracted to the music initially if I was a particular fan of seagulls but unless those particular larid recordings were of real consequence then it is what might be done with them that counts. A fine example of this might be Cathy Lane’s recent album of field recordings made in and around the Hebrides. As you know, I have fallen in love with that part of the world over recent years, so was extremely interested to hear that album. I found it a disappointment though, simply because the various pieces that made up the album didn’t offer me much more than your average audio photo album.

Patrick:

I know you were being hyperbolic, but I wouldn’t say there’s little difference between what, in this case, Tarab is doing, or what we are listening to what we think Tarab is doing, to be long winded but I think a little more accurate, and what the GRM composers did, if only because the latter has happened, and it happened more because it had to happen, in our understanding of the present, whereas Strata certainly did not have to happen, if you follow. I think they’re now as different as digital and analogue photography, to use a crass example. Or Cage and Pisaro, etc. I don’t think that the overabundance of recordists and over availability of equipment should be laid at Tarab’s feet when he makes an album; it’s more of a concern for the discerning listener. I’m not saying that the individual making an album in this day an age need be blissfully unaware of what is going around on them, but an overt awareness of their craft can be very detrimental. Though I also think that commenting on a ‘movement’ as it is occurring is nigh on impossible to do in so much a poignant way as you would be able to with regards to the Subway graffiti movement. The tendency to look back into the past to look forward and only see harbingers can be very tiring – and I’m speaking from my perspective, as someone who tries not to do such a thing when I’m working, only because I often can’t call my thought back and so I’ll spend 6 months thinking about what recording I want to make for an album rather than just going out with a microphone and seeing what happens. I’m not positioning myself between certainties however, I just think, as I’ve already said, the overpopulation of people field recording manifests more as a burden to the listener. And as I’ve said many times, your point is not entirely one I can imagine, as I have certainly not listened, or received, or even know about, as many field recording albums as you, and these days I am very content to leave the ones I know I wont enjoy well alone, and instead spend time with the ones that intrigue me.

I’m listening to Exotic Exit again and you’re right, the auction room recording does particularly reinvigorate that sense of a listening event that is somewhat of a singularity, its incredibly filmic, like much of Vanessa’s placement, and is able to stand up by itself as a part of the structure whose work existed primarily in the mind (or gestated perhaps). Where the lions share of the work goes into actually thinking of that recording, and its uniqueness in this field, rather than creating a process of interaction with it, the interaction is there from the moment the recording is placed within the structure. The ties bind themselves, so to speak. Though of course the making of the recording could have also been a chance event, it doesn’t matter, it’s not as if a sense of technicality is paramount in being able to enjoy such a thing. Vanessa’s work has always struck me as a perfect example of objective expressionism. And you are right, in spite of what I’ve been saying, about the task of rekindling such overworked recordings (air conditioning units, etc) falling into the lap of the one recording them, it’s a balance. And people like Lee Patterson and Jeph Jerman are fine examples of not only the possibility of this premise, but the very real and continuing utilisation of commonplace field recordings made fantastical in wake of the recordists immense sensitivity and patience.

You said:

“While I agree that the material can become the structure itself, it takes interesting material to do this “

With this in mind, what do you think of Haptic’s new release, Abeyance? Now, I know you weren’t implying a homogenous rule to the relationships between material and structure, but I feel that this album is somewhat of an enigma, and it’s really had a positive effect on me over these last few weeks. Abeyance for me is very much a poetic reality, and I can’t help but bring the Felisberto Hernandez quote they use in the context of the album up here:

“I grew accustomed from a very young age to hearing the piano only at night. That was when my mother played it. She would light four candles of the candelabra and played notes so slowly and so separated by the silence that it was as though she were also lighting, one by one, the sounds.”

I’d say that much of my fascination with the structure of this album, in relation to its stasis bred materiality, is that it makes me think that so much else is going on beyond the threshold, and that what I’m hearing, distinctly different from what I’m listening to in this case, is the residual waste of process. The vagueness of this conception only serves to heap more and more fascination on how unusual the album is for me.

Richard:

Well I think we have reached a point with the discussion of structure and material that now highlights our individual roles in the development of music and how they produce different and to some degree opposing ways of approaching a recording. You are a musician and composer, with a defined, or at least proposed way of working, and I sit as the (perhaps creatively frustrated) bystander viewing the different ways everybody works, and (perhaps lazily) forming collective assumptions from such an overview. I agree with everything you say when you point out that “(the) overabundance of recordists and over availability of equipment should (not) be laid at Tarab’s feet when he makes an album”. I did not mean to suggest that any musician should ever adjust what she or he does to merely keep away from the crowd, or even worse in response to what a critic may think. Nevertheless no album exists in a vacuum, obviously, and when viewed from where I sit; awash with other people’s music (and devoid of the experience of creating music myself) it is inevitable, and I think important, if certainly not exclusively so, to consider work against the backdrop of everything around it.  I have also had my opening question here in mind throughout this discussion as well, and it has been useful to me to think through the different ways that a piece of music could perhaps be considered as unusual.

Abeyance is an interesting piece of music indeed. It is perhaps a fine example of the opposite of Tarab’s CD, in that, on the surface at least, the structure of the piece seems very minimal. It lacks the energetic cinematic drama of Strata and has a far less immediately visceral feel. I think in so many ways the disc cleverly places itself in opposition to our expectations of a Haptic CD, and in doing so produces something really quite unusual. Haptic have released a string of excellent records that have in many ways thrived on a similar approach to Tarab’s in that they have woven together beautifully detailed textures and abstract, almost entirely unidentifiable sounds into multi-layered works. Like the Tarab disc, previous Haptic releases have felt almost symphonic in their construction- carefully considered, intricately balanced and acutely executed combinations of material into grand overall gestures. Abeyance is really quite different though. It seems in many ways to be a direct refusal of that process of working. Clearly this is not the case, but It feels like offcuts of previous works that happened to fall together. I am reminded of a tale told by one of my creative heroes, the graphic designer Vaughan Oliver, who once, having felt underwhelmed by an extravagantly constructed piece of work he had just finished, returned to his drawing board to see the offcuts of his previous work scattered around the table and having realised that their chance beauty felt more honest than what he had forced together, decided to use this unplanned arrangement instead of the deliberately composed work. I very much doubt that such a circumstance brought about Abeyance, but the album brings that kind of feeling to me. Perhaps this is similar to what you refer to as the residual waste of process. It feel like it works in spite of the lack of overtly ornate construction (close listening in fact reveals a wealth of structure in the way the grey clouds that foreground the work rise and subside) or perhaps it feels like the remnants left behind after activity has passed.

Another interesting thing about Abeyance is how it manages to impart something directly emotional/affecting through the appearance of the wayward piano. I think (I may be wrong) that this is the only appearance of an unadorned, obvious traditional instrument on a Haptic album. Its placement against such a (on the surface at least) soulless grey blanket only serves to heighten the impact of the human touch placed up against the seemingly inhuman. Here we have another wonderful example of how a particularly strong field (or found) recording can have a deeply affecting impact when carefully placed, so while maybe the structure to Abeyance is far more subtle it is nevertheless superbly composed.

The really interesting thing to me about Abeyance (and to some degree all of the Haptic albums) is that it has been created by a trio. Such a work, with such a refined, subtle anatomy sounds like the work of one person. I am extremely intrigued as to how the trio progressed their work to the point that Abeyance remained, and again it feels as if maybe they started with something more, and reached their goal by taking things away, or by resisting the usual urge to compose, so holding that creative need in abeyance and seeing what developed, rather than somehow all agreeing to create something of such simplicity in advance.

(To be continued)

Richard Pinell’s The Watchful Ear
Patrick Farmer website