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CD Feature/ Jos Smolders: "Gaussian Transient (Megaphone)"; Roel Meelkop: "An Ear for Numbers"

img  Tobias

In a country the size of the United States, it would be illusive to assume there could ever be a coherent, nationwide minimalist- and microtonal movement. The sheer diversity of its protagonists, incorporating the lower case community centred around Austin's Bremsstrahlung Record, the pool of artists occupied with aural architecture, field recordings and ambient-related sounds represented by New York's Winds Measure Recordings as well as the group of composers interested in installational work and establishing links with the visual arts grouped together under the elegant banner of the LINE imprint, effectively rules out the possibility of there ever being a singular, instantly recognisable voice. The Netherlands, with a population of a mere 15 Million inhabitants and a humble territorial expanse, is a different case, however.

Speaking of a Dutch school seems all the more permissive as its Sound Art scene virtually exploded into being through a musical big bang sometime in the late 80s. It's not as though there had been a complete blank – the sadly missed Michel Waisvisz of STEIM had by then already developed the first version of his famous „Hands“ – but the sudden influx of creative talent had implications beyond national borders. Frans de Waard, who released Jos Smolders' debut LP „Freebasing A For is Me“, would be instrumental in founding Kapotte Muziek, Beequeen, Freiband and Goem, while Smolders ended up in THU20 with Guido Doesborg, Jac Van Bussel, Peter Duimelinks and Roel Meelkop. De Waard's Vital Weekly newsletter gradually turned into one of the experimental scene's leading information resources, while Smolder's Earlabs can, with hindsight, probably be considered the world's first Online mag primarily dedicated to the nascent Netlabel boom

What nonetheless makes the concrete notion of a „school“ difficult is that impurity was never considered a problem but a key element instead. Freek Kinkelaar sidestepped genre limitations with excursions into Pop, while others would turn into DJs and dabble their feet into the waters of Techno, Ambient or Noise. After his aforementioned introductory work, Smolders, too, began experimenting, both in terms of distribution models (he was one of the very first artists to offer his music as free downloads next to his regular physical releases) and exploratory concepts, thereby implying that each of his albums constituted a world of its own. Remixing was considered a compositional concept, spatial factors and recording techniques were sublimated to the status of fully-fledged musical themes and the CD-player (and its shuffle function) turned into an essential part of a piece.

It is an interesting observation in this regard that Smolders prefers the use of the verb „compose“ over „realise“ or „assemble“ , both of which are usually more prominently tied to the Sound Art- or Contemporary Electroacoustics-vocabulary. His list of works has grown steadily over the years, but rather in terms of singular tracks, which have appeared on compilations, samplers and CD-add-ons to books than a sizeable album discography. His return with a full-length after a not unusual, but still quite lengthy period of absence, is  marked by an emphasis on individual tracks as well. It openly defies the creation of a deliberate, album-spanning tension arch – perhaps one can understand „Gaussian Transient“ as a showcase highlighting very recent material created in a short five-month period of concentrated and diligent work. Or maybe, to Smolders, summing up the mindboggling implications of this 67-minute grand opus would simply have unnecessarily distracted from its fertile sonic soil.

Without a single doubt, the album is as impressive as it is gargantuan – those wishing to unravel all of its mysteries will have to forfeit on their vacation and should make sure to have enough emergency supplies stacked in their cellar. Where there is no plan, there is infinite potential, after all: Tracks incorporate focussed timbral manipulations on a granular level, surgic voice dissections, noisy rhythmical palpatations, filtrated field recordings, metallic drones and a lot of piercing silence sandwiched in between. The latter turn into more than a mere structural element here, because Smolders displays a striking penchant for allowing his sounds to gradually and steeplessly fade out into the void in the decay-phase of a particular passage, while hitting his audience in the face with the unannounced entry of fresh motives on their attack. Change is the main driving force on „Gaussian Transient“ and its consistency lends a smooth flow to an album, which could just as well have drowned in its own epic dimensions.

In the liner notes, Smolders amicably extends thanks to Roel Meelkop, whose  independently realised album interestingly enough contains an almost identical coda - a long, simmering piece based around the sounds of rain (on the other hand, considering the Netherlands unfriendly weather, they might just be quoting from daily experience). Other than that, however, one initially notices the striking differences between their albums: „An Ear for Numbers“ is much more an upfront affair, with the dynamics of his textures building steadily over time on a concrete level. The typical absence of sound is noteably absent from this record and when it does go all quiet, it humourously shocks its audience with frantic chunks of white noise interspersed into moments of finely woven buzzes and hums – my girlfriend was decidedly not amused when such a chacophonic thunderstorm almost made her drop her laptop to the floor.

Stylistic eclecticism is essential for the record as a whole. While Smolders' pieces seem to flow together into a vast, borderless prism, Meelkop emphasises individual tracks. By mantrically manipulating a garish Dubstep bassline in one moment and zooming in on the minute details of a metalically ringing sequence the other, continually honing the cogwheel mechanism of what sounds like an autonomous clock and repeating a dusty digital cough for minutes on end, he creates a cornucopian trip whose pieces all have their distinct idiosyncracies. Rightly because it eschews easy classification, „An Ear for Numbers“ has ended up not only a highly entertaining, but a completely coherent work as well.

As much as Smolders and Meelkop develop their own scripts, there is also a seminal aspect unifying their approaches. Compared to many in the microtonal scene, they are not looking for the highest possible degree of abstraction. To untrained ears, their music will sound anything but accessible, but rhythm, colour, pitch, harmony and even melody are still the objects of their processes. One could say that even though they are not presenting themselves as trained instrumentalists, their angle is completely „musical“ and anything but exclusively sound-oriented. It is this fundamental musicality which beats underneath the surface of a music often deemed clinically cool and unapproachable which links their otherwhise outwardly clearly differentiated oeuvres – and which one might definitely consider a common denominator of a „dutch school of sound art“.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Jos Smolders
Homepage: Roel Meelkop
Homepage: Non Visual Objects Records
Homepage: Zang Records

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