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CD Feature/ John Waterman: "Calcutta Gas Chamber"

img  Tobias

Many have doubted whether it was still possible to compose music after WWII, which is a strange consideration regarding its often therapeutic effects (has anyone ever asked the same about the abilty of literature to deal with the horrors of the holocaust?). The real question, in my opinion, is whether music can ever serve to truly recreate the terror it deals with. This issue is also at the core of “Calcutta Gas Chamber”, now re-released on a luxurious picture-disc and realised in close co-operation with the artist until his untimely death in 2002.

The personal history of John Waterman is perhaps just as obscure as that of this mysterious record and has somehow managed to keep bringing up new mysteries. While there is still not that much to be found on him, biographical sources are all of high quality and his work has been appreciated by what now can be considered figureheads of the experimental scene. Which is all the more interesting as he in fact did not start out as a musician, but considered film to be his main medium for the longest time, only to pop up out of nowhere with a string of releases which turned him into one of the most respected representatives of the “microtonal” movement (to which he certainly did not belong to in any organisational form). To Waterman, the world itself was music, in its smallest components laid the seed of the eternal, which he sought to transpose to the audible spectrum of the human ear. Tapes with concrete sounds are also the foundation of “Calcutta Gas Chamber”, a concept work created in the aftermath of a journey to India and the shocking pictures he took with him from that visit. The album uses field recordings, but it is very much a post-representation of the composer’s restless memories and not a historic document: All sounds were created in an electric Power Station in Brisbane two years after the trip and this already suggests that it is more of a personal quest than a universally moral one (leaving the possibility of these two being the same according to Kant aside for a second). Certainly, the claustrophobia and nausia shines through in the tracks, as does the concurrence of relentless monotony and ever-changing uncertainty: Fragments of full-bodied sounds, torn-apart tonal limbs, fingers scratching on metal surfaces, rustlings and rumblings, the associations are plentiful and painstaking, but just as much as there is recognition, there is foreigness, as deconstructed particles and waves of white noise hit the shores of the Gas Chamber and the dusty sands of its courtyard. Waterman wants his listeners to experience the relentless heat, the thirst, the disorientation, the numbing repetition and the hopelessness of the situation and he has created a lucid nightmare of epic proportions, a world without borders and yet tightly entrenched.

On the other hand, listening to him treat his sounds and turn the seemingly unrelated source materials into a hypnotic soundscape is equally fascinating as it is terrifying and no matter how you look at it, you can not expeirence all of the sensations mentioned above in the same intensity as a real prisoner: Without prior knowledge of its topic, this would “just” be a meticulously crafted microtonal miracle. This is no failure of Waterman, however, who came as close to acchieving his goal as the inherent limitations of art may have allowed him to.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: John Waterman
Homepage: Die Stadt Records

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