RSS feed RSS Twitter Twitter Facebook Facebook 15 Questions 15 Questions

Ákos Garai: Barges & Flows

img  Tobias Fischer

If, as Helmut Neidhardt of [multer] once suggested, the ocean is „the world's biggest drone musician“, then perhaps rivers are the planet's most inventive sound artists, moulding and bending water into a cornucopia of timbral variations and rhythmical patterns. To an artist like Ákos Garai, whose oeuvre inherently deals with the relationships and feedback processes between pure field recordings and carefully sculpted composition - his previous full-length Pilis, taped in a sacred mountainside in his native Hungary, documented a mysterious inner journey through their spiritual intersection - the Danube must therefore by default constitute not just one of the world's historical, ecological, economical and cultural jugulars, but a creative lifeline as well. Along its almost three thousand kilometers, it both connects and, as a natural border, separates ten countries, growing from the confluence of two tiny streams into a panoramic waterway and offering a plethora of sonic impressions ranging from the pastoral and intimate to the industrial. Garai wasn't the only one to be impressed: In 2008, Australian composer Annea Lockwood released A Soundmap of the Danube and to this day, this triple-CD-set of acoustic impressions has remained the most extensive and in-depth portrait ever presented on the subject. And yet, Garai's Barges & Flows is never indebted to Lockwood's cross-breed between radio play and organic soundscape. Rather, it complements, comments on and occasionally counterpoints her perspective, further enriching an already colourful panopticum.

The main difference between the two approaches consists in their conceptual departure points. Lockwood, after all, regarded the Danube foremost as a cultural symbiosis between a natural resource and the people living along its shores. To her, this symbiosis expressed itself in the fine gradations of dialect and vocabulary of the manifold languages spoken on its trajectory from Germany to the Ukraine as well as the endless stories amassed through the centuries, from its days as an outer fortification of the Roman empire up until the 21st century. To Garai, on the other hand, the Danube is less a conjurer of stories, but a muse of song. His focal point is less on socio-political aspects, but pointed at the cohabitation between the river, as a biological habitat and natural reserve, and the ships and boats ploughing its waves. If there is a narrative to be sought here, it is to be found in the specialised constructions of these barges, gradually adapted to the Danube's particular qualities, as well as at its harbour sites, where the conflict between man and machine, between ecology and economics is brought to an acme. And if there's music in these conflicts, then its melodies are developed by heavy hulks of rusty steel, wind-torn riggings and the splashing of water along the ships' bodies,  fascinatingly transformative metrums determined by the slight irregularities and subtle variations in wind strength and ship speed. And so Garai took to „areas filled with people and ships on a daily basis“ and „others only visited occasionally or never at all“ to record this symphony of nautical folk as an homage and analysis – and perhaps as a personal document of the sonic landscape influencing his personality as well.

The field recordings gathered from these trips are anything but the kind of sweetly bubbling and gently gurgling water sounds one has come to expect of similar endeavours. Quite on the contrary, Barges & Flows lends a particular ear to the noisy and the scraping, to the wildly fluttering and flapping, to the sudden outbursts, the momentous momentary releases of energy as well as the seminal silences following in their wake. At the same time, there is a degree of clarity and a love for the microscopic character traits of each location, as though these were acoustic portraits of the barges captured on them. The sheer musicality of the result is astounding. On one occasion, Garai documents an eight-minute long monody of rusty harmonics, a shifting trail of intervals coalescing into an endless theme. On another, he listens breathlessly, as the waterplay against a backdrop of crackling micro-noise textures creates a quiet oasis. In the background, one can clearly hear the surrounding environmental noises, including the din of distant cars, conversations of passers-by, bird song as well as the ceaseless hum of civilisation – clearly, the songs of the barges don't just submissively blend into the scenery, but urgently demand attention, both charming their audience with delicate arrangements and tearing at their nerves. But as one listens one's way through the album, it is becoming increasingly clear that these sonic signals are actually not intrusive, but constitute an integral and grown part of the Danube's organism - for better and worse, they belong together.

To drive his point home, Garai has gone for the moments when the confluence of chance and patience yields spinetinglingly stunning results. Already the first few seconds of the album, unfolding in front of the listener like the opening sequence of a movie, express its intent of communicating not just raw data but sonic events of poetic import: Water sounds slowly fade in, gradually enriched by dripping noises and the hiss of a close by motorway. Then human voices reach the ear and, finally, the heaving and sighing of the first barge – one has arrived at the heart of the narrative. The fifth episode, meanwhile, takes on the traits of a minutely constructed work of sound art, with rhythmical, chromatic and melodic impulses lovingly strewn across the canvas and a continuous ebb and flow of events creating a sense of what someone like Schoenberg might have called „developing variation“: The building of complex compositions from a tiny set of motives. On closing „U-10241-30 (2)“ (not much poetry in the highly functional track titles, admittedly), Garai hits his pinnacle: For eight and a half minutes, he catches what are presumably car wheels driving over a bridge made of metal rods, creating a grid of forever changing rhythmical patter. No drum machine in the world could have been programed with such a sequence and Garai carefully builds it into a spellbinding and hypnotic track. Towards the end, suddenly, tidal activity picks up, the carwheel-groove segueing with liquid splashings until, almost like a percussionist striking the timpani in a symphonic finale, three expressive thumps seem to suggest a natural conclusion.

Of course, Garai is never just a passive spectator here and it is his selection process which turns Barges & Flows into an immersive and cohesive experience. Still, his approach is neither academic nor particularly complicated: „I find a place and set up my recording equipment“, as he dryly explains in the liner notes. There is no hidden magic here: When you're dealing with the world's most inventive sound artist, all you have to do is record and listen.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Ákos Garai
Homepage: 3Leaves Recordings

Related articles

Rod Cooper: Noise found in Nature & a Backpack of Gadgets
The thought of eliminating the ...
Eisuke Yanagisawa: "Water in borrowed landscapes"
We take so much for ...
Ákos Garai: "Pilis"
Games of the mountain: One ...
Angus Carlyle: "Some Memories of Bamboo"
Silent stories from Japan: Subtle ...
CD Feature/ Annea Lockwood: "A Sound Map of the Danube"
Stories from the river: An ...
CD Feature/ Francisco Lopez: "Wind [Patagonia]"
A dramaturgical and utterly personal ...

Partner sites