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Machinist: Of What Once Was

img  Tobias Fischer

Most artists will think of a composition as going from a definite departure point A to a clearly defined destination point B. Not Zeno van den Broek. To him, music doesn't just move along a chronological axis. It also extends into the depth, into mental spaces, multimedial collages bordering the bizarre and sonic expanses equally marked by the „real“ and the „fantastical“. As an architectural engineer by trade, van den Broek's perspective is less influenced by obvious musical blueprints than it is by visual cues: The harmonious juxtaposition of formal reductionism and minute attention to detail in Swiss and Japanese design. The monochrome surfaces and fascination with the void in the oeuvre of late French painter Yves Klein. The way people will live together and create new, organic structures in an object as artificial as the city. This interest in acoustic threedimensionality may also be why his Machinist alter ego started out in the realms of harsh industrial noise, a genre as much about „probing the limits of the acoustically permissable“ as he once put it in an interview for radio program 3voor12, as it is about laying bare the fundamental nature of sound as physical waves and creating intense bodily (rather than psychological) reactions. On Of What Once Was, meanwhile, van den Broek is taking these considerations a level higher, to a state, where they can no longer be broken down into easily classifiable chunks anymore.

It is a development apparently owing to the connection with Klein to a considerable degree. On an immediately tangible level, the opening piece of the album, „Mono tone in d“ is a direct reference to Klein's Monotone-Silence Symphony, published in 1949, in which a small-size orchestra intones and then holds a D-major chord for twenty minutes. It was also the very same year that Klein would start painting the monochromes which were to define his fame, first in various colours, then, at a later stage and to both clarify his intentions and purify his means, only in blue. And while the D-major part of the symphony must already have seemed a provoking compositional statement at the time, the second movement was even more demonstrative, consisting of twenty minutes of silence from the performers. It was a silence notably different from the one John Cage would enter into three years later with „4'33“. This was a quietude leading inward, to the „far side of the infinite“ Klein had pledged to make his goal as an ambitious nineteen year old. Although „Mono tone in d“, with its perpetual shifts and its rhythmic, timbral and thematic variations around a single tonal center, clearly refers to its famous predecessor, it is not so much the conceptual anchoring on a single note which is of interest here, but the notion of these movements disrupting the traditional narrative trajectory and questioning conventional concepts of a demiurge-composer leading a passive audience.

It is here that the notion of „the void“ enters the picture, which, to van den Broek, doesn't so much signify an absence, but the private corners born at the friction surfaces between human creativity and absolute space. Klein, who, in 1958 first made use of the term in a Parisian „exhibit“, sparked the imagination of his audience by inviting into an empty room, with a blue-coloured window (and a couple of blue cocktails sure enough) working as only stimulant. On „Mono tone in d“, which opens with an extended passage of processed piano attacks and then gradually adds more nuances to the palette, including finely chiseled crackle, high-frequential piercings, dreamy acoustic guitar pluckings and industrial field recordings with different spatial depths, it is the contrast between all-but complete harmonic stasis and a constant ebb and flow of events which creates a plane for the listener to freely roam and explore. Van den Broek is happy to take a step back here, let the music do its work and allow the audience to find their own path through it. It is also why, at twenty two and thirty minutes respectively, these two pieces are all but borderless constructs and the eco-acoustic equivalent of Klein's empty room; it is only when there is a real danger of getting lost, that one's senses are at their sharpest.

If all of this should sound as though Of What Once Was were, most of all, an exercise in self-effacement, then that is a misconception, however. While Klein's seemingly obsessive sustaining of a single chord, in its sheer minimalism, still had something of a intellectual ring to it, van den Broek's work always displays a sense of highly refined musicality. The title track, recorded live and in a one-take improvisational session, combines otherworldly field recordings of what sound like stalactite caves and a geyser-filled rockscape, with hypnotic drones, slow-motion melodies and a gradual tightening of texture leading straight into a crunching wall of mesmerising psychedelic feedback. Arrangements like this don't happen if a composer pictures himself out the equation, but if, contrarily, he feels a veritable hunger to hunt for the new, explore uncharted territory and access places he himself hasn't visited before. Most of all, they come into existence if nothing is considered as unacceptable. Just like anyone, van den Broek will begin his quest at a clearly defined point A. But he never grants himself the security of pre-determining his course or destination. Instead, one note leads to another in a game of free association, the music moving forward like a sailboat on an infinite ocean. It is this determination to follow his sounds where they will lead him that sets van den Broek apart – and turns Of What Once Was into such a powerful and gratifying experience.

None of the tracks ends on a spectacular acme, but with a gradual fading-away into a silence that may resonate inside the listener for far more than just twenty minutes. Which is in keeping with van den Broek's idea of music as a mental space: It's hardly ever the goal that counts, but how you get there.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Machinist
Homepage: Moving Furniture Records

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