Bay Ridge. DAVID VELEZ
(Mystery Sea 2011)
CD1 – 01.Bay ridge vol.I 58’04
CD2 – 01. Bay ridge vol.II 35’18
David Velez is a Colombian sound artist who, as far as I can tell, works uniquely with field recordings. He also runs the very fine netlabel Impulsive Habitat whose releases are as good as any that I’ve listened to in the idiom, and which is building a strong reputation for releasing work of high quality.
This tight focus on one area of sonic art has resulted in a very strong work marked by elegant handling of a restricted palette of materials, evidence of invention in the polyphonic layering, an awareness of the need to maintain contrapuntal interest. In this kind of work however, with material that lies along the representational borderline, there is so much more at stake than mere technique.
Listening to representational material such as field recordings, recordings which we recognise or think we can recognise, often strikes me as a playful activity, a sort of game with elements of fun and mystery. What are we listening to? What’s making this object move around? Are there living things or machines at work here? In what space or spaces? Am I putting together an overall picture from fragments or is the work unfolding according to an underlying plan? Is there a story in there somewhere?
Here we are told the sound sources. I have an ambivalent attitude to this revelation – sometimes I think it’s worth knowing the sources, sometimes I don’t. I know someone who once got told off by a listener for introducing an electroacoustic concert piece with an account of the sound sources. In Bay Ridge the question seems to be of little relevance as the composed whole seems to transcend the sum of its parts. I’m not hearing the sound sources as much as the composer’s reworking of the material. Now, this might sound a trifle bland, academic and uninteresting, but I think it’s of critical importance, because not many artists can make the listener do this, certainly not as well as Velez does in this work. There are artists who insist, like King Canute before the incoming tide, that the listener must not recognise or focus in any way on the sound sources, when all the time that would seem to be the main interest in their work. And who can tell what a given listener will take from a work in this idiom. So, to emphasise the point, this ability to make the listener forget the sound sources and listen ‘elsewhere’ is a great strength of this work, carried out in this case, it would appear, effortlessly. Not that I want to hide the sources from you in any way – you can read the programme notes online.
Moving on, I consider the release of a double cd to be a bold move. How many listeners ‘these days’ will take time to change cds and absorb over 90 minutes of challenging material? A double cd begs important questions around what might be called , the ‘lexis’ of such work, the socialised unit of reading or reception; for example the music industry would currently have us all snack on the 3 – 4 minute mp3. With long form field recordings is it the double cd, the single cd, the track (in appropriate cases), the episode? This invites an intriguing odyssey through the emerging repertoire.
I raise this point because I often lean towards a semiological analysis, a ‘reading’ of work in this idiom, an approach which has produced many excellent analyses of photographic and video work.
The work is episodic – sections often begin and end with, or fade to, passages with very clear gestures – a subtle formalised compositional touch. There is therefore clarity at the diminuendi, in both meaning and sound, as if a mist lifts. I particularly enjoyed a spot of film sound technique in which the sound of dishes at the end of one section led to a complete shift of spaces, as if the sound was on the radio or telly in someone’s kitchen.
The ‘scenes’ are generally busy with good activated sounds, things in motion. The layers are well separated through filtering, the material drawn, apparently, from a variety of indoor and outdoor locations. The outdoor layers might be marked by birds for example which help to define the territory. At several points I enjoyed a slackening of the connection with the sound source, for example what comes over as watery sounds might in fact be something else altogether. This doubting process is wave like – the material draws you in, you question a little, then you let go for a spell.
The composed space establishes itself without fuss yet despite this apparent authorial presence it is the listener who gives unity to the work. Is there an informed reading of such work? If not, your reading is as good as mine. In this sense then do we have, yet again, the death of the author?
I’ve come across several attempts at investigating the notion of ‘meaning’ in this kind of work. Where do we begin with this project? We have polarities at work – narrative versus ambient. We have non-modernist traits: expression by means of the represented subject and not the work itself. Of course with field recordings, abstracted, we’re not recording the real but signifying and interpreting. This raises a few interesting questions. We are decoding some very complex objects which are able to create, articulate and sustain meaning. We might also benefit from asking about the spatial meaning of Bay Ridge.
Finally the conceptual strength of the work lies in its aggregate approach to the material, similar to the approach adopted by photographic documentarists in which lots of shots are taken of the same subject in many circumstances at different times. Analytic therefore, rather than unitary or synthetic.
Bay Ridge is released on Mystery Sea as a limited edition of 100 numbered copies.