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Almost better than the real thing

img  Tobias

It is a common myth that we explore the world almost exclusively with our eyes. The truth is that we experience it with out entire body. Even though it remains an audio-only label, the catalogue of Frankfurt-based "Label for Phonography & Audio Art" Gruenrekorder seems to be built around this wisdom. Their field recordings are tactile bridges into other cultures, their soundscapes work as inner representations of our outside environment. Wrapped in lovingly designed Digipacks and accompanied by related photography on their website, Gruenrekorder CDs try catering to all senses – and conjure up a much more vivid impression than any illustrated travel book could ever convey.

Over the past few months, the label has sent me a colourful bouquet of releases, from some of their earliest outings to their most recent albums. Over all, this package can be seen as a pretty good summary of what the project by Roland Etzin and Lasse-Marc Riek stands for and clarifies the logic behind their activities in three different lines of work: Pure field recordings, processed material and sound art with spatial or environmental themes.

Playful Discovery
“Recorded in Yemen” by Maksims Shentelevs, Tobias Bolt’s “Field Recordings of Baja and Mexico City” and Gabi Schaffner’s “One Story Told” (under ther guise of Raw Audio) deal with the acoustics of countries and cities. Shentelevs’ vision is probably the most  accessible and cinematic. Born in Riga, he has gone on to release with labels all over the planet, diverting his attention almost exclusively to phonography since 2002. Designed as a “non intervention policy for observation of structural models in nature”, his work can both be seen as having a documentary character and representing an invitation to playful discovery.

“Recorded in Yemen” falls into the latter category. On fourteen tracks, Shentelevs leads his audience to a wedding in San’a, Souqs (markets) with their noises of street musicians, merchant hollers and bargaining and an evening party. Structured by the many  prayers which divide the day, the album is a sound-oriented pendant to the Moody Blues’ “Days of Future passed”, providing listeners with the experience of having shared a complete day with the field recorder. For the closing track, Shentelev has taped a binaural close-up of stalagmite playing in a cave on the island of Suqutra – a tender goodbye after an arousing journey.

Music is everywhere
While “Recorded in Yemen” has a fluent and linear character to it, “Field Recordings of Baja and Mexico City” appears to depict a particular moment of the day from various angles. Tobias Bolt, who is at the heart of Austrian contemporary music journalism through his writings for Skug and his own online reviewzine Quiet Noise, has refused to tamper with his recordings and focussed on the inclusion of live music instead. “Linea 1” features Polka-like accordeon, which gradually fades into the sounds of the street and busses arriving and leaving, which in turn make way for the joyous marimba sprints of “Mercado”.

Music is everywhere, Bolt seems to suggest, and the strength of his release lies in how he has managed to leave the field recording character of the performances intact and avoided awarding them a musical quality in their own right. The constant ebb and flow of captured conversations, the city’s machinery and various instruments, such as a solitary “street trumpet” turn this short work of a mere seventeen minutes into an intense and threedimensional trip.

Objective vs Subjective

“One Story Told” is more of an oddball at first sight. The promised “songs, sounds of birds and various other noises” are tucked away in the two miniature soundscapes framing the fifteen-minute spoken word recording “Begräbnis eines Schafes” (Sheep-Burrial), a hillarious story at the border of fiction and truth. Drunken fantasy, black icelandic humour and raw poetry come together in a short story that would have Charles Bukoski calling for an encore.

The subtitle “Feldaufnahmen” (field recordings) is no trick, though. Just like she single-handedly invented the Finnish tradition of “Snow Walking” on a previous Gruenrekorder Vinyl release, Gabi Schaffner makes a point of including local legends and the “soul of the people” into her portray here. A country is not just a couple of collected sounds to her. On “One Story Told”, it is a spirit, passed on through generations.

“Tlayacapan” by Maikko takes a similar direction in its Kant’ean postulate that there is no physical world around us, but just inner images filtered by our sensory system. The album, his third overall and the first new solo material for three full years, does not even try to be objective. Instead, it presents listeners with Maikko’s feelings and the psychological turbulences resulting from a visit to the “Cerro del Sombrerito” in Mexico – a smallish and mysterious town with “twenty-five chapels, each with its saint, each with its deputed day for celebrations”, where “doors are always open” and “dogs howl continously”.

Refined collage-techniques
Maikko has translated the general mood of bizarreness, sinister spirituality and freaked-out fairytales into pitched-down string melodies, electric pulsations, soft bell-soundings, slow impulse-drones and rhythmic microsound patterns. In just over half an hour, “Tlayacapan” creates a halucinatory and psychoacoustic effect second to none – a “Dark Ambient” work for fans of field recordings.

While the sound sources are still clearly distinguishable in the work of Maikko, “Defekt”, the first and only release by Rasselland, takes things one step further away from the realms of phonography. A project by the two label founders, this is in fact one of the earliest Gruenrekorder publications and a highly ecclectic and densely atmospheric piece of art. While both Etzin and Riek have since concentrated firmly on pure field recordings, this long and claustrophobic work sees them engage in almost every adjacent style imagineable:

Drifting textures, crackles and digital cuts, samples of coughing, dreamy and surreal organ recitals plucked from an empty church in the midst of night, vast eacho chambers and metallic rumblings, love songs by highvoltage lines as well as grating, gritting and quiet wind noises. Listened to as a whole, it is an almost suffocating experience, while individual chapters are always worked out enough to serve for shorter meditations.

At the level of processing, “Defekt” is, as the liner notes imply, more direct than “Tlayacapan”, developping its impact from a refined collage-technique. But while the latter at least still had a concrete physical object it described, Rasselland dives deep into the depths of the human mind.

Perception as such is the object of the album, juxtaposing recordings which are recognisable but unheard-of in their mutual company. “Defekt “ proves that context is equally important to our feeling of safety as the actual sound sources themselves. A drastic, but enlightningproject.

Peaceful to the point of no longer existing

Talking about “drastic”: Frank Rowenta is Gruenrekorder’s current muse in the “Sound Art” department. Head of Jeans Records and a decade-long player in the German experimental underground, Rowenta released the both incredible and improbable “Raumstudien #1” a couple of moths ago, which was “Album of the Month” at tokafi for the sheer absoluteness of its immersive approach: A room, two rhythmic divices, an old tape recorder with equally old tapes and nothing more. In the absence of noise suppression, hiss itself turned into an instrument, the room unfolded within your own space. A comforting and disturbing experience at the same time.

On “Raumstudien #2”, Rowenta returns to his livingroom for a work which changes the parameters in a way which will have the uniniated claiming there’s no difference at all and open up an entirely new world for those willing to listen beyond the mere surface. The clicking micro-micro-tones of the machines are coming in more rapid successions, occasionaly overlapping into crackles. The hiss-factor has been reduced to a soft coating, which lends the two pieces, again stretched to two discs of a full hour each, a soothing and warm character. This music is peaceful to the point of no longer existing, but its faint presence is again as remarkable as the gradual sensitisation process of “Raumstudien #1”.

In their exploratory nature, these releases are capable of describing the world more animatedly than any visual medium could ever do. While TV or photography remain essentially two-dimensional and flat, the Gruenrekorder cosmos speaks to the inner eye, which knows no boundaries. Their open nature is not satisfied with establishing superficial truths, but instead entices its public to go out and explore the world by itself. Of course, they are still open to imprecisions in the perceptive process. Gruenrekorder may have come pretty close, but there is no substitutes to the real thing.

By Tobias Fischer

Picture by Charles Fox

Homepage: Gruenrekorder
Homepage: Maksims Shentelevs
Homepage: Tobias Bolt
Homepage: Gabi Schaffner
Homepage: Maikko
Homepage: Lasse-Marc Riek
Homepage: Roland Etzin
Homepage: Frank Rowenta

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