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Machinefabriek: Halfslaap

img  Tobias Fischer

From ancient Greek philosophy to the literary likes of Shakespeare and Edgar Allan Poe and from the middle ages well into the 21st century, artists have dealt with the theme of sleep. Traditionally, their perceptions have fitted either one of three categories: Those considering it a relative of death. Those regarding it as a space outside the ego's control, where the subconscious is painfully struggling to come to terms with unworked-through phenomena. And finally, those who have instead come to see it as an inviting territory promising silence and tenderness. Creative aesthetics have accordingly drastically differed depending on one's allegiances: Somewhat in accordance with Hamlet's „To die, to sleep, perchance to dream“ soliloquy about being locked in a neverending nightmare, Dark Ambient wizard Henrik Nordvargr Björkk in 2003 released Sleep Therapy on Italian Industrial imprint Old Europa Cafe, an 8CD set aimed at „affecting the listener's brain state to achieve a change of his sleeping behaviour, dreams and will“. Each record was dedicated to a day of the week, with the last disc covering the inevitable end of human existence, a state of dreamless slumber. Contrary to this rather bleak outlook, meanwhile, the Zaventem, Belgium based Slaapwell-imprint provided for a more inviting perspective, offering an entire catalogue of releases gently accompanying the listener into the arms of Morpheus. And Machinefabriek's Rutger Zuydervelt was among the first to contribute to its roster.

At the time, Thole, Zuydervelt's one-track, eighteen-minute collaboration with Soccer Committee, constituted the sonic equivalent to the Polaroid on the cover of the highly limited edition CD-R: A crystal clear gaze out onto a quiet sea, without obvious direction and yet fully focused, forever tranquil, extending softly into infinity. As much as Thole received its fair share of applause, it wasn't, in fact, Zuydervelt's first foray into the realms of the night. On Slaapzucht, a two-EP-cycle released between 2006 and 2007, he placed sleep alongside the sigh, a comparably in-between gesture caught somewhere in the middle of fully-fledged desire and acceptance. The corresponding music approached the subject from various angles, in one moment placing itself in the position of a sleepwalker („slaapwandelen“) or someone overcome with sleep („slaapdronken“) in another, while taking a shot at imitating the effects of sleeping powder – just at the point of highest intensity, „slaapmiddel“ was abruptly cut off, plunging the listener into a state of almost absolute quietude, as the music trudged on, all but imperceptibly, for another two and a half minutes.

On works like these, the topic of sleep was simply a muse to Zuydervelt, an inspirational trigger to nudge the creative process into a particular direction. Halfslaap, contrarily, is obviously marked by a different take, one with a far more descriptive and perceptional quality. Its title, very much in the vein of the Slaapwell-philosophy, again takes the state between waking and reposing as its point of departure. But this time, the music doesn't simply work as a lullaby. Neither does it seem to be, somewhat against claims made in the press release, a „score for the strange sensation of heavy limbs“. Rather, the composition has the air of a precise and remarkably realistic protocol, as though the artist were, absentmindedly and already beyond the threshold of consciousness, mumbling his impressions into a Dictaphone held in a hand resting on his chest, his grip gradually loosening, his voice a mere whisper, his breath slowed down to a couple of barely audible intakes per minute. Zuydervelt is documenting the process of falling asleep rather than trying to make it seem pleasant – and the piece accordingly conveys the same sensation of reality slowly but unavoidably slipping away.

This almost scientific exactness is an immediate result of the way the track came into being. Written as an accompaniment for Disko, a short clip by Finish video poet J.P. Sipilä, it was initially nothing but a hazy miniature. One can still hear echoes of the original, which incisively transformed Sipiläs seemingly quotidian images of city life running both forwards and backwards in the opening sequence: The Halfslaap-theme consists of eight notes played on a glockenspiel or music box, its downward-bent curve already representing the gradual closing of eyelids overcome with fatigue. In its first incarnation, the notes are intermittently sent to the left and right channel, but as single notes are enriched into chords and supported by a deep, solemn ground bass, this gentle panning effect is traded in for a slowmotion-pulsation covering the entire canvas with a delicate film of shimmering bell-timbres. Shortly after the one and a half minute mark, however, a subtle change sets in. Rather than simply being sustained for a few seconds, one of the triads starts emitting distant echoes, as though it were suddenly turning into a ghost image. The piece continues undisturbed, but similar effects are now starting to affect the entire harmonic progression, sending delicate ripples through them and blurring the pristine clarity of the opening section.

This oscillation between stoic repetition of the same eight tones and their increasing infection will continue throughout the entire piece. It is a process comparable to the arguably most haunting scene in Semih Kaplanoglu's cinematic dream Bal: In the middle of the night, little Yusuf sees the moon reflected in a bucket of water. By tilting the bucket just ever so slightly, he causes the liquid to undulate, until its previously smooth surface has been entirely beset with myriads of concentric circles and waves constantly overlapping and breaking the neon light reflected on it into cascades of silvery-white sparks. Only at snail's pace does the calm of the original state return, as the moon rises again from this state of chaos, but in the meantime, something fundamental has changed inside the protagonist. On Halfslaap, the seeping advent of sleep is similarly symbolised by the flattening-out and disintegration of the main theme and the growing relative importance of warm drones empathetically washing over them.

And so it goes, for the entire seventeen minutes. And yet, there is an all-important detail that sets Zuydervelt's vision apart both from those of his colleagues and his earlier work: Having long accepted its decent into the comfort of darkness, the music reaches its destination only after it has ended. Sleep is not a state between life and death here, neither a realm of Freud'ean obscurities nor a woozy wonderland. Paradoxically, it is always all of these things at once. It is deliberation rather than coincidence, therefore, if this EP should replace a hands-on resolution of the thematic material with silence: Halfslaap may be able to accompany the listener to the very border of this mysterious territory. But he will have to take those last steps alone.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Machinefabriek
Homepage: Standard Form Records

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