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Martin Clarke: Caucasus Tapes; Mirko Uhlig: Tupelo; Craig Vear: Antarctica

img  Tobias Fischer

The venerable Gruenrekorder launched its Gruen Digital imprint this year with three releases that point to different positions along this spectrum. Closest in character to the mAtter releases, Mirko Uhlig’s “Tupelo” (GrDl 084/1) presents a somewhat familiar combination: opening passages contrast a stereofonically-buzzing fly with lofty, cathedralesque backing chords, occasional bird song, ocean waves, and digital filigree.  The work is perhaps reminiscent of C-Schulz & Hajsch in its combinations, but without the gestural variety or suppleness of form that made them so vital. The record is fine in its movements but it stops short of being truly magnetic or engaging. The record feels like it has itself too much on its mind, and despite the freeform feeling of the accompanying texts and titles, comes off more rote than coherent.

Craig Vear’s “Antarctica” (GrDl 089/11) is, by contrast, a marvel of recording and yet for all its coherence it lacks a level of impact. His perspectives on this most remote of soundscapes are clarion in detail and balance, with technical and aesthetic confidence that places him firmly in the Chris Watson tradition. And the choice of location, the unavoidable sense that you are encountering (and archiving) a disappearing environment, puts a sometimes powerful emphasis on the sonic tableaux. The overarching sense, however, is that these recordings may be more satisfying in their preservational or documentary value than anything else. The recordings are always fully foreground, with phonographic details always crisply defined, even when confined to the hold of a storm-wracked ship. And there is virtually no narrative change within a piece, no unfolding to suggest that a continued level of acute listening will be rewarded with surprise. All this actually suggests that the digital download form is rather fitting for the work, which could function somewhere between a music download and an archival or research document, or even as source material in audio-visual production; the access provided by its availability on the network makes the object more full and useful, and somehow more interesting in that way, than if I were to encounter it in my CD player or turntable.

Positioned between, and yet somehow beyond, the two positions sketched by the above records we find “Caucasus Tapes” by Martin Clarke (GrDl 090/11). Like Pe Lang’s work above, these pieces are almost radically incomplete in both narrative and vision. They are fragmentary at virtually all levels of encounter, from the strange non-matching (or mismatching) of title to track sound, to the often empty foreground of many of the tracks, to the partial glimpses of language and music that weave throughout the work. There is a truly refreshing unauthored feeling here, or rather an authorship of the lightest touch, of choosing only which moment to listen to something otherwise quite ordinary. As with “Antarctica”, the titles remind us that we are hearing something that is remote and for most listeners somewhat Other (speaking as a North American living in Western Europe). In “Caucasus Tapes”, however, the sound textures often deliver these exoticisms wrapped in familiarity (The Beatles’ “Yesterday” strummed absentmindedly on guitar amid café chatter), simplicity (the dripping of a faucet into a basin), and an unassuming presence that sometimes borders on nonexistence. The mix of musics and proto-musics is particularly interesting here, giving a sense for how music shapes an environment as sound, as culture and ritual, in ways that in the context of this record transcend their documentary reproduction to become a kind of voice of its own.

Somewhat by accident, but in a way that reflects the strengths of the record, “Caucasus Tapes” offered up the only moment of true transformative discovery in listening to all the works reviewed here. I was curious as to how these works might operate once they had been distributed across the rather open (and sometimes desolate) plain of my iPod in shuffle mode. Results were mixed, and I decided that this was (yet another) situation in which these kinds of musics benefit from a prepared context and awareness, and are too easily lost when pitted against the maelstrom of the random setting and a divided attention. At one point in this experiment, however, I started looking out the window of my apartment, down to the street, for the source of the disturbance I was hearing outside. It was deeply satisfying when it occurred to me that it had been coming from the stereo, and I discovered one of Clarke’s recordings sliding around and through my environment in ways that suddenly gave new dimension to the world around. It was a beautiful moment of listening, and one that extended into a re-listening to the album as a whole, into perceiving its wholeness as being completed in this openness, as it is mixed and filtered through the environment of its reception. It was the record itself that gave this leeway, this space, and this permission, and the results are quite satisfying. Again it makes an argument for the work’s native existence as digital files, a statement of its readiness to infiltrate, advocating environmental subterfuge as a positive position and unique capability of certain works.

By Andy Graydon
Berlin, July 2011

Homepage: Mirko Uhlig
Homepage: Craig Vear
Homepage: Martin Clarke
Homepage: Gruenrekorder Records