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Ketem: Colour; Shinkei & mise_en_scene: Leftover_1

img  Tobias Fischer

Pythagoras was a pioneer. Guys like Mersenne and Johannes Kepler suspected it all along. Buddhist monks intoning the „om“ knew it without wasting too many words on it. And creative conservatives used it as an argument against the rise of serialism and dodecaphony  without actually having any evidence to prove it. Today, it is generally accepted that there is a biophysical rationale behind tonality: Moving upwards in octaves means doubling frequencies, for example, and the pentatonic scale has developed in the most diverse cultures all around the world. Unfortunately, this has  provided those afraid of „unpleasant sounds“ with plenty of ammunition to ward off anyone wishing to take music outside of its supposed god-given borders – which, only recently once again became apparent when new-music-sceptics greedily picked up on claims by neuroscientists that many contemporary compositions supposedly overstretched the brain's capacities. Sound Art, as a type of sonic epression outside of pitch and harmonic relations, has even been showered with insults and there are only so many Cage'ean bonmots to recite in its defense. Quite clearly, there is an aesthetic pleasure to be derived from listening to the world around us. But is there also an inherent logic behind it?

The work of Tel Aviv-based microsound eclectic Shay Nassi (aka mise_en_scene) can be considered a highly concentrated mission to answer that question. Nassi's oeuvre encompasses daring tightrope walks from the lands of deafening noise into the realms of whispering silence and involves abstract atmospheres, philosophical soundscapes and pointillist minimalism on purified canvases. Including dramatic distortion, patchworks of ones and zeros, mechanical grooves, psychedelic meditations and surrealist spaces, his techniques are part of a mindbogglingly eclectic vocabulary and one could justifiably claim that it is exactly this element of stylistic non-discrimination which has made his voice so recognisable in a pool of niche-oriented specialists. Reveling in the sheer associative richness of his source-materials to reveal a wordless truth about them in the process has consistently been an imperative: Even the tiniest of glitches are always carefully arranged into emotive structures mysteriously held together by surprisingly intuitive narratives.

Still, with his hands in so many scenes, tangents with adjacent artists and communities are unavoidable for Nassi. There can, for example, be no doubt that ketem, a recent duo-effort with Tom Kemeny, shares striking similarities with the work of Carsten Nicolai and the Raster Noton collective: Surgically cut sinewaves are transformed into algebraically stuttering bass drums, high-frequency bleeps align into hihat-like constructs and clinical clicks are sequenced into primitive bonedry patterns. Where Nicolai would however amplify these building blocks from the borders of perception into pounding techno-tracks underpinned by monstrous bass lines and fueled by crushing sheets of white noise, Nassi and Kemeny are giving birth to a far more intimate sound.

References to club culture are still undeniable, especially so on quirky opener „#A85400“ and slow-moving closer „#FF1C00“ (catchy titles are clearly not the project's forte). But they are lovingly integrated into a personal headspace occupied with finding unexpected emotional qualities in a music built from the most cool and decontextualised of samples. Even at high volume, these may not necessarily be the most physically gripping or  revelatory tunes. But there is something endearing about these tracks, an uncharacteristic naivete and tenderness that seems to uncover something deeply personal about their creators and makes the barely ten minute short EP stand out from comparable releases in a field dominated by men trying to sound like machines.

While his work with Kemeny emphasises the playful, Nassi's dauntless encounters with shinkei's David Sani lean towards the meticulous and transcendental. Quite clearly, this is not just a meeting on equal terms, but a joint quest driven by mutual respect and trust. The couple's collaborative debut, „Scytale“, released late last year on the Japanese mAtter-imprint, was nothing less than impressive, an awe-inspiringly monolithic mass of microscopic events painstakingly sprinkled on top of a cosmologically-scaled continuum, a galaxy in search of a mind capable of  decoding its secrets. Most of all, it constituted an effort of replacing out-of-date, rigid album concepts. Not only did „Scytale“ evolve out of an extensive process of exchanging and refining the material, it was also inherently complimented by three additional remixes, which functioned in a trifold way: As an external point of view of the material already presented, as an integral work in their own right as well as a natural extension of the album.

With the arrival of „“Leftover_1“, this idea has now been taken to a new extreme. Selecting originally discarded sound blocks from the „Scytale“-sessions as their point of departure, the duo have crafted a new, 21-minute piece. The approach poses some intriguing questions about the nature of what is usually considered waste and points at the fundamentally infinite nature of the creative process. As any composer will readily testify, the trick of being successful as an artist lies less in a talent of coming up with genial material, but in following a train of thought down to its logical conclusion. It not only means taking the right decisions, but also ignoring side-themes and distractions and keeping your eyes on the prize at all times. Every piece, as short and sketchy as it may seem, has the potential for delivering myriads of new ones, each beautiful and exciting, every single one built from branches and ramifications once considered redundant. Sani and Nassi have seemingly agreed on bequeathing a genetic code from one piece to the next, establishing a sonic brethren connected just as much by the will of their creators as by the musical personality ingrained into their tracks.

Sounds esoteric? Perhaps. But „Leftover_1“ has plenty of creative content to justify the attention. Spread out over its duration are sequences of starkly diverging length, some of them comprising no more than a single sound event, others of a longer, track-in-track-nature. Playing the record to a group of my friends yielded the most astounding associations: Crumpling sheets of paper, doing the dishes, walking down a cobblestone path, scratching one's fork on a plate or rubbing your hand on a piece of cloth. Elsewhere, sounds appear more refined and processed and as glassy harmonics, crisp granular crackles, bubbly chirps and tweets, ultradeep beams of bass-resonance or even spacey rhythmic patterns. Headphone-listening reveals the seminal importance of stereo-panning as a compositional device, with individual noises or timbral groups either spread out on left and right channels or occupying an almost confrontational position in the center. As a consequence of these spatial arrangements, the plasticity of the material is greatly enhanced and attentive perception is just as much a process of hearing as it is of seeing.

Sani and Nassi, and this can not be stressed highly enough, have attained a craftsmanship that allows them to transcend the two typical techniques the genre has spawned: Developing sets of colours in the way Stockhausen did or reducing music to its pure sound-characteristics as was the case in many late Cage'ean pieces. Even though one could argue that their music comprises of nothing but discrete „episodes“, these passages are somehow held together by a mysterious creative glue.

Even repeat listens will not lead to a fully convincing disclosure of why „Leftover_1“ works as a stringent composition, but the most simple conclusion must certainly be that, when treated with the necessary imagination, non-tonal events can yield the same emotive tension arches as works built on harmonic progressions. After taking in this release, rationales suddenly appear reversed: It may not always be that evident, why one should derive such a striking aesthetic pleasure from these highly analytical excursions. But there can be no doubt whatsoever that there is a natural and entirely convincing inherent logic behind them.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: mise_en_scene
Homepage: Shinkei
Homepage: Electroton Records
Homepage: Dragon's Eye Records

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