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Juan José Calarco: aguatierra

img  Tobias Fischer

Keeping on top of new work based on field recordings is becoming harder by the month. For two reasons, one good, the other bad. First, we have the wonderful fact that new labels and netlabels are popping up all over the place. I’m discovering a wealth of excellent new work, like the album in question here, to such an extent that I’m suffering from mild angst at the thought of missing out. Secondly, one-liner artzine types and the like seem to be telling us the same things – that there are a limited number of top (hip/cool/leading/eminent) artists (masters/gurus) in this field to whom all must be subordinated, which is, of course, total b*llocks, but, I fear, still encourages those outside the field to stop looking any further than their nose.

Moving on, I do like it when a sound artist has a clear idea of what (s)he wants to achieve in a new work. This can help to give the listener a variety of clues as to how the work might be weighed up, given the difficulty in distinguishing one artist’s work from another in a practice where field recording is the most significant common factor. Put simply, I find it most helpful to have some background and guidance from the artist 

aguatierra, which, by my rough translation, means 'waterland' or, more poetically, 'the place where land and water meet and merge', is a delicious album – I use that word with consideration because I found, for the most part, that it captured, and conveyed, a restrained mood of sensuality which encouraged a particular kind of emotional response in me – that of longing for more.

The work seems to be constructed around long form sections – the very careful framing, the generally low volume levels, the attention to dynamics and the wealth of surface detail are evidence of what I would call a highly musical treatment. The ebb and flow of the stream of sound is beautifully controlled as are the highly effective diminuendi, most of which eventually find their way a niente.

There are two pieces on the album, or two tracks if that's the same thing. Both appear to unfold according to the underlying intention explained in the artist's statement above: in the juxtaposition and merging of two quite different sound worlds the traces of one place reconstruct the other. Whether the two different worlds that I've come up with are the two different geographical worlds is not something I can be sure about.

Track 1 begins with a sound world which reminded me of early musique concrète, all those hissy and rattly trains coming at you and past you. Then indeterminate rushing sounds, abstracted. No sudden gestures thrown into the mix from outside the soundworld, but a genuine feeling of organic growth in the emergence of the sounds from background  to foreground, with layers clearly separated, and consistently so. This world of activity and materials in motion then gives way gradually to a 'natural' outdoors sound world populated by birds, insects and gentle geophonies, which I could have listened to for days. I'm not normally drawn in by these kinds of soundscapes as I can listen to them quite easily by taking a long walk out the back roads where I live. The trick here was that the first sound world had receded but not entirely disappeared. Hints of human activity intruded, the dull passage of trains or planes, perhaps distant traffic, banished to the periphery. Then a return to the materials, the 'semi-urban morphology' spoken of above, moving around in the first space with its signature reverberation.

I don’t want to linger too much on description because you can do this for yourselves - if you like this kind of work then you should really buy the album as it’s one of the finest examples of its kind that I’ve heard to date. But I will say that because the mood of this section of the piece is so engaging I was particularly struck by the inner juxtapositions between ‘natural’ and man-made sounds (or sounds that might have been from those sources). My feeling was that Calarco had undertaken an almost rhetorical exposition of his subject matter.

I think that the skill here lies not in any manifestation of techne, or production standards. It lies instead in noticing and identifying, through skilful listening, that a particular space has a particular sonic identity and richness, or at least holds potential for the purposes of the artist.

At times I was unsure whether the sounds were coming out of my loudspeakers or from outside the half open window, which tends to suggest that this soundworld would make for an excellent installation in the right space and place, perhaps with windows open on to nature.

The pattern of to-ing and fro-ing between contrasting sound worlds, with areas of merging, was bound to become predictable. Not a bad thing in itself as there was enough unpredictability in the dynamic passages to hold the listener's attention. I felt that the mood of the work shifted quite rapidly at times, especially with material sounds gradually coming to the fore in a reverberating space. Intrusions like this, or large gestures in a textural field, create at once a temporal structure (first this/then that). Having settled so comfortably into the natural 'timeless' soundworld I had a notion of losing touch with Eden.

To elaborate, the gestural sounds are beautiful in their own right but at times I found the conflict too jarring; the 'continuous narrative' and 'blurred but tangible, non-territorial geography' might have worked perfectly with even smoother transitions - the interruptions seemed perhaps too literal an interpretation of the intentions mentioned in the online sleeve notes. I also tend to associate this kind of harsh cut with film sound. In finding difficulty making the connection I was left wondering whether two separate pieces with their unique soundworlds might not have succeeded better?  Here I was enjoying a natural soundscape pure and simple (with possible interventions), reading myself into its subtleties, conceptualising the space and the topography when suddenly it morphs into something out of revenant : zeltini.

But some listeners will like this approach as it abstracts the picture and refers to a particular view of sound art or even art in general. (I should shut up now as I'm beginning to sound like somebody's schoolteacher).

Despite that minor niggle the creaky, resonant, clanking goings-on, whether human or wind/water activated, are beautifully treated and presented. I was impressed by the gentleness, the warmth, the care taken with equalisation throughout.

Track two begins with what sounds like thunder, gentle distant thunder, then machines, possibly wind activated, certainly geophonically so, certainly all the signals point to the outdoors. The surface detail again draws in the listener – what delights me here in a childlike way is the fact that some sounds are unrecognisable but I have a fair idea of what they might be.

Then at around 5:30, the same again – a new space with its own soundworld gatecrashes the party. If you’ve seen Inception you’ll have an idea of what I mean. But to be positive, we do have consistency and this time round the experience is different because we’ve heard this juxtaposition before and it the familiarity works quite well the second time around, like in a sonata. Here we have a more restrained treatment of the material, yet the deep reverberation of the space is evident within it. Further listening and the mystery becomes an attractive feature, despite my wondering if he manages to get the whole thing sorted out in the first track.

Overall, all this uncertainty is a good thing as I'm finding more questions than answers; it teaches me to listen, listen again and yet again more attentively, like a good phonographer should... in all honesty it is so easy not to listen to anything these days and to reach out for some useless distraction instead.

The listener’s patience and attention are in the end amply rewarded and it becomes clear that  Calarco’s vision meets with a good measure of success – the spaces seem to merge more meaningfully as this second piece unfolds. Furthermore I could easily be persuaded that there are elements of live improvisation or interventions in the soundscape – hints of what I would call fouter and swick (interference and deception), the stuff of great phonography or sound art which privileges a certain kind of fabricated representation and abstracts distinctively from the raw material.

At 12:30 we are treated to the largest gesture on the album – a rushing water sound, like a gigantic toilet flush. The size of this gesture is important because, to paraphrase Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now), you need to have the big stuff going on to be able to come down to silence, or near silence, in this case as in the movie. As things unfold from this point, revisiting Eden, I am treated to a state of expectancy without tension, till everything reduces itself even further a niente.

On further auditions I will look forward to delving into  how the album deals with the label's concept, described as

a thematic ltd series focusing primarily on phonographies reflecting the spirit of a specific place crowded with memories, its aura & resonances and our intimate interaction with it…

I'll also be able to enjoy comparing and contrasting this work with Unfathomless' previous release, revenant : zeltini (having the privilege of being able to listen to these two albums within a short period has been an education), and also figuring out how the artist's and the label's intentions dovetail or conflict with each other.

All in all, I'll be looking out for Calarco's next album because if it displays some of the distinctive attributes of aguatierra we could be on to a very distinctive voice in new phonographic work.

By James Wyness

James Wyness is a composer and sound artist whose work focuses almost exclusively on the development of two long term projects. Visit his website for further information and audio samples.

Homepage: Juan José Calarco
Homepage: Unfathomless Recordings

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