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Angus Carlyle: "Some Memories of Bamboo"

img  Tobias

What is it that defines a field recorder? What turns a man walking around with a microphone into a phonographer? When does the acoustic world around us become a piece of art? It is questions like these that have occupied Angus Carlyle for the better part of the past decade. His work has accompanied, analysed, interpreted and inspired the development of field recordings from a vague term to a fully-fledged genre fanning out into anything from sound art to philosophy. Throughout, he has sought to reconcile the documentary nature of the trade with the freedom to just listen: His approach has been scientific, yet passionate. It has been minutely detailed yet offered far-reaching implications. It is grounded in academic insight but never looses sight of the senses.

Vice versa, his pieces have occasionally come to complex conclusions but they have always strived for clarity first. „Autumn Leaves“, a compendium he edited in 2007, constituted a pinnacle of sorts in this respect. A combination of articles essays and interviews, of textual, graphic and photographic work, of a painstakingly edited book and a massive three-hour online-compilation, it invited in everyone who had something meaningful to say about the subject, bridging substyles and niches, scenes. communities and international borders. If he'd decided to forever revert to silence afterwards, these words would have made for some famous last ones indeed.

Even though he didn't, „Some Memories of Bamboo“ is tellingly as close as one can possibly sneak up to pure silence while still carefully covering it with sound. „Filling the canvas“ can, of course, be done with the most minimal of means. Here, however, the canvas itself appears translucent and silky, a sonic figment rather than the typical foundation for colour, code and concepts. Perhaps this is down to the personal motivations for the project: Carlyle has traveled back and forth between his hometown of London, where he occupies the position of Reader in Sound Arts Practice at the University of the Arts and Kami-Katsura, a tiny suburban district in Japan. His discovery of this quiet oasis was, as he admits, accidental. Still, the deep bond he established with the area and its people marks it as a fateful accident. His introductory description of Kami-Katsura alone feels like poetry: „Bounded to the East by residential and light industrial areas that run up to the Hozu river, to the West it is held in check by wooded slopes and valleys where the population falls away as the altitude gently climbs.“

So what can you actually hear on this album? Mostly, very subtle sounds embedded into a sonic scenery of peace, tranquility and daily life unfolding at an unhurried pace. Scenes at a cafe: The clatter of cups on ceramic, the faint echo of background music, the muffled chatter of guests. A walk along a bamboo grove: The rustling of footsteps in the grass, the chirping and chanting of birds, the dreamy drone of a helicopter in the distance. Morning ritual at the Jyoujyuji temple: Coarse and throaty mantras, the rhythmical sounding of deep bells, the cool air of the enveloping darkness. A short break at the riverbank: Water babbling joyously, dripping absent-mindedly, gushing playfully. As Carlyle points out, this world contains „all the amenities you would expect from a living high street“, including „supermarkets, florists, bakers, hairdressers, restaurants and a post office“. And yet, he finds wonder in the most inconspicuous places: The electrical hum and pointillist signalling of a railway crossing turn into a seven and a half minute long miracle. And the voice of an old Japanese lady hauntingly ebbs away, as she murmurs ancient songs about the memory of spirits.

From Carlyle's perspective, movements of men and notions of nature have been reduced to the metaphorical motions of a pantomime: You can hear voices, but their timbre is more important than what they are saying. You can identify animals and plants, but their outlines remain ephemeral and hazy. Likewise, Carlyle hasn't edited himself out of the recordings, but even though he appears on various tracks as an interviewer, a speaker or merely as an invisible narrator, his presence remains elusive and has been entirely embedded into a gentle cloud of sound. You can almost imagine him floating  through town like a ghost, listening in to people's conversations without them noticing. As casual and carefree as some of these works sound, though, they are always the result of a carefully-planned probing-process. To capture a very particular quality of the bamboo harvest, for example, Carlyle returned to Kami-Katsura several times, never quite able to get hold of that powerfully snapping sensation he experienced on his first visit. In the end, what remained was a field of allusions, quiet clusters of wood rubbing against each other on a „dense carpet of dry leaves“.

There is an extensive introduction to the album and Carlyle has included highly personal liner notes to each of the thirteen scenes in the booklet. There can be no doubt that these notes serve to deepen the impact of the record, adding even more concrete images to the already vivid pictures the ear has managed to create on its own. And yet, „Some Memories of Bamboo“ is an effective counterpoint to the prejudice that field recordings are worthless without knowledge of their context. As one gradually delves into this jade-coloured fantasm, each element is revealing its purpose and the sequencing, as chronologically distorted as it may be, appears to follow an undeniable logical.

The duties of a field recorder and a writer, then, are not all that different: Where others can detect nothing but noise, they uncover structures. Where most will see routines, they will discover stories. And where some will hear silence, they will see beauty. Carlyle's voice may sometimes die down to a whisper, but there is plenty of the latter to be found here.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Angus Carlyle
Homepage: Gruenrekorder Records

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