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CD Feature/ Jed Speare: "Sound Works 1982-1987"

img  Tobias
Commenting on one of his movies, director Steven Soderbergh once remarked that transitions between scenes were more important than the actual scenes themselves. It is a most apt analogy to explain why Jed Speare’s collected “Sound Works 1982-1987”, while anything but trendy or mass-compatible in terms of concept, have made such an impact on the sound art scene over the last couple of months. Soderbergh’s bonmot also provides those who have been demanding more attention for the composer and his oeuvre with ample amunition.

Of course, Speare is anything but a no-name. His 1982 classic “Cable Car Soundscapes” was one of the early field preservational recording projects and presented constructive additions to the genre by using these recorded sounds as a basis for tape compositions. While his discography remains short, his activities in the world of installations have kept him busy for decades, fortifying his position as a thinker between various genres and art forms. His work asks questions about our acoustic environment - how important is sound to society, should we resign and accept the death of certain sonic phenomena as a given or actively try to fight it – but can be listened to without knowing about its underlying themes.

In line with these explanations, the material on this double-disc release was also exclusively taken from different intermedial projects. “At the Falls” and “Sleep Tight” were combined with theatrical performance for their premieres and “Taboo Death” was the soundtrack to a performance by New York artist Pons Maar, dealing with AIDS and including “a set installation that included a bamboo pole forrest with origami birds at each tip, and a life-size mural carricature of a Bay Areay Rapid Transit (BART) station stop”, as Speare remembers in the booklet. “Love Object”, meanwhile, comprised of a constellation of speakers in the middle of a long table, with “Rob List on one end, myself on the other, with Karstine in the back-center facing the audience and Maarten Lok in front with his back to them”.

Maybe the background in performance art and installations is even responsible for the visual qualities of the music and their associative character. All pieces here, except for the concise, seven minute “Taboo Death”, comprise of various loosely connected, but essentially idiosyncratic scenes. Sometimes, these episodes are connected by vocals – the voices of patients at a mental institution in France, improvisations by singer Barbara Duifjes – but on many occasions, they abruptly halt and make way for the subsequent one without further ado.

A lot of the tracks consist mainly of droning pulsations, machinal rumblings, scratches, squeaks and metallic rings and strongly resemble industrial sound sculpting. The difference between the two is marginal, both in philosophical and practical terms: Speare, too, believes that our natural and artificial environment organically produces music by itself, begging to be edited and processed by the artist. He also enjoys reverb-heavy samples with a high degree of spatiality. What differentiates him from artists like Merzbow, however, is the complete absence of shock tactics or the notion that white noise and massive distortion represent factors of beauty per se.

Instead, he is fascinated by the richness of these freely available soundscapes, their harmonics, inner complexity and energy. Quite often, he also indulges in transferring closely related sounds into each other: The sound of a vaccum cleaner suddenly turns into a plane lifting off and an epic work like “At the Falls” deals with creating the sensation of water without using a single water sound. “It says you can be inside a waterworld with no actual water”, George Quasha says in his introduction, “it demonstrates that while water is an element, water is also a state of being. (...) This allows us to imagine real water, something truly new.”

The sound works of Jed Speare are filled with this kind of seeming paradox. In fact, they are essentially composed of one of the most obvious outward contradiction: The simultaneous use of music and pure sound. Again and again, stretches of noise flow into intricately assembled passages of piano or strings of drastically varying lengths. At their border, the two worlds flow in- and out of each other, such as when the breath of a flute could be mistaken for the whistle of a giant steam machine or when bizarre huffs and puffs start delineating melodic lines of great fragility. It is this sense of an all-embracing overcoupling architecture which binds these extended, rarely under twenty minute long tracks together.

There’s an abundance of talented artists out there, capable of presenting their material in an engaging and stimulating way. There are, however, few who can weave imaginatively-conceived, coherent grand-scale compositions like Speare. He has understood that the feeling of loosing yourself completely in a piece, of almost being able to “touch” the sounds and travel through a work’s plasticity is not just a question of choosing the right sources, but of aligning them with an inner logic. In that sense, transitions between the scenes really are more important than the scenes themselves – and Speare could well be described as a sonic director rather than a sound sculptor.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Jed Speare
Homepage: Family Vineyard Records

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