Listening to Surface Scripts made me think more deeply about the notion of the sound object, originally Pierre Schaeffer’s objet sonore and now a hotly debated term which means several things to different people. Getting away from the debates around the term, and staying within the realms of non-technical language, I consider the sound object to be best represented in works which use recorded sound, transformed in certain ways, which offer us a sonic ‘thing’ (or several such things) that, despite movements and morphological shape-shifting, still remains in some way identifiable as the ‘thing’ you began with. It’s an sounding object, but you get to listen to it from various perspectives, like a Cubist painting on a timeline. It’s also an evolutionary process. Successful sound objects seem to take their time (this is critical in my view) to manifest their existence as living organic entities, in several dimensions, across, behind and between the entire energy field of the loudspeakers.
The most successful music based on recorded sound, in my opinion, creates convincing sound objects and makes you want to return to them to examine and to find out more. Surface Scripts goes a good way along this path.
Surface Scripts, we are told, ‘was composed from field recordings, site-specific actions, environmental installations and wire instrument sounds recorded from 2008-2010. The title refers to my interest in the time-worn processes of nature and the effects this has on various materials such as stone, metal or wood. Much of the sounds we hear around us are the acoustic effects of these processes taking place while the visual patterns are written as ancient scripts. A set of small lines carved into a stone by water may have taken thousands of years, yet the sounds we hear are momentary.
The album consists of two long pieces. Both pieces have their own individuality, both succeed in investigating the use of the microphone as an instrument and in the fabrication of legitimate listening environments.
Planar Migration is characterised by a dominant but engaging low frequency slowly modulating timbre. Smaller but significant traces of surface detail, with implications of activity and agency, balance the spectral field.
This is a highly abstracted work that goes beyond sound source guessing, even if I might be fairly accurate in guessing that this is a wire sound and that is some sort of physical intervention. The sense of human presence, or indeed the presence of any living creature, the decision to allow forms to unfold – these require our attention. We are offered an impression of a legitimate or feasible natural listening environment, even if it is highly contrived and composed. In working with evolution and morphogenesis as opposed to the relatively straightforward introduction of new sounds, the music investigates complexity and addresses temporal concerns in far greater depth than simple linear music, fashionable ‘minimalist’ idioms and monochromatic drone music. This isn’t the sort of music you can easily put into this or that marketing box.
There is one quick transition to a clearly recognisable public space, with voices and obvious activities. This broke the spell temporarily by introducing a possible sense of narrative but didn’t undermine the work’s overall patience and restraint, these being features that I’d expect from an artist whose aesthetic is based on deep or close listening.
Skew Symmetry mirrored the first piece by grabbing the spectral space by means of a powerful modulating dominant texture, hinting at harmonic resonance, this time in the midrange. This was then juxtaposed with more agency, activity and what I like to call (without trivialising) ‘foutering around’ in the abstract. A strong feature of this work as it unfolded was the uncertainty in the relationship between figure and ground.
Returning to my claim that this work deals successfully in creating sound objects, John Grzinich manages here to produce something resembling a large self generating musical machine which later turns into an oil tanker being bowed. Various bumpings and metallic bell sounds with side dishes of scrapings come to dominate the field, a relational field enhanced by a series of crescendi and accelerandi, or, perhaps better, waves with ever larger leading edges.
All of which took me out of myself and far beyond mere technical listening, which is a welcome change from what I find myself having to do with less successful work. Sometimes, very simply at one level, two things ‘happen’, a background and foreground. But on closer listening both these things are one thing, the totality and complexity of the entire sonic field which strengthens my initial claim that this music is first and foremost an investigation of complexity.