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Nicholas Szczepanik & Juan José Calarco: Lack Affix

img  Tobias Fischer

All Sound Art deals with memory in one way or another. Grasping a piece of music is deeply connected to one's capacity of remembering it, after all, and nowhere is this more apparent than in a genre which takes the faculties of the human mind to its limits: What is real and what merely a product of our imagination is becoming increasingly hard to distinguish as reality, under pressure in a sonic world determined by a far higher complexity and degree of abstraction than the one surrounding us in daily life, is broken apart into its submolecular components. On their first collaborative effort, Nicholas Szczepanik and Juan Jose Calarco have chosen to explore this theme far more explicitly than the majority of their peers. „Altered perceptions of past experiences“ is the the title of one of the three tracks between seven and twenty minutes' length making up Lack Affix and serves as a sum and summary of its conceptual goals: To portrait the relationship between the mental representation of a particular place or period and the actual fact. To simulate the sudden tidal wave of associations triggered by a scent, a taste, a sound or an image. And to research how this inner space remains miraculously preserved and stable through time, while everything around us relentlessly changes. Remarkably, while most artists tend to regard this process with a sense of melancholia, nostalgia or even sorrow, the album celebrates it as an „homage“ - and an effort of recreating, at least within oneself, the „peaceful sensations“ once experienced in a blissful past.

One could argue, of course, that already their solo oeuvres have always revolved around these themes, albeit from slightly different perspectives. Szczepanik's Dear Dad, as just one example among many, seemed to work as an emotional valve and his generally enthusiastically received first major full-length The Chiasmus was marked by the ability of conjuring up long-forgotten impressions from the depths of the psyche. On albums like Dársena Interna, Calarco, meanwhile, recreated entire harbours from memory, vast spaces filled not just with a cornucopia of minutely captured acoustic events, but of the emotional resonance they were capable of preserving as well. For Lack Affix, Szczepanik collected field recordings of „both rural and urban areas in Maryland and Washington DC“, while Calarco picked up the distant noises of nocturnal Buenos Aires – one part of which were a plethora of clearly defined singular noises and the other the more general distant din of the city itself, a colossus of roughly three million people twisting  and turning in its sleep. By combining their materials, the result constituted a mental map of their collected memories, a stretched-out territory of metaphors and desires, an interpreted past manifesting itself through aural processings and months of sharing and reworking their „raw stuff“ into epic chains of associations.

As popular as it may be, the theme of memory has its pitfalls and these are becoming openly apparent in the programmatic aspects of Lack Affix, which Szczepanik has described as being about „our mind’s recreations of memories past“ and Calarco as dealing with the „recovery of some peaceful sensation I’ve never felt again so far“. As deeply fascinating as they may be, these are ambitions the album simply can not fulfill, even if one takes into consideration the meticulous planning and effort which went into the preparatory stages: Not just did both artists set out to revisit places of personal relevance to them, they also gave their all to record them at the exact same spot and under identical circumstances as when they originally heard them in a bid of attaining some kind of objectivity. And yet, the work is only about their own minds' recreations of memories past, not those of the audience - and there's a huge difference between the two. Simply put, these recordings may be of great importance to their creators, but they are of none beyond purely aesthetic sensations to the average listener, who can neither share in the mental image conjured up by these spaces, nor establish a comparison between the internalised memory and the actual location. As a listener, what you're hearing is the only reality these recordings will ever have and the sole recreation is the one taking place between the music on the album and – possibly - similar sounds you may have heard at some point or the other. And so, they retreat into the realms of pure sound, where they are once again free to be interpreted, re-imagined and forgotten.

Fortunately, Lack Affix can easily do without the liner notes, as Szczepanik and Calarco have arranged their sources into a spaced-out psychedelic roller coaster ride, in which the membranes between micronoise, soundscapes, radio play and field recordings are becoming permeable. „Evacuating somewhere to nowhere“, especially, is a delirious trip at the borders of dreaming, a succession of intense scenes silently segueing in and out of each other at the speed of a mind on hallucinogens, as fine, grating sounds turn into touching melodies, while gentle, consoling harmonies rise from the depths of the ether. Twenty-minute „Altered perceptions of past experiences“, on the other hand, leans on a two-part structure, the first half building from an extensive pastoral panorama, with merely the distant hum of airplanes providing clues about its proximity to civilisation, and the second on a sustained, powerful drone, not unlike those created with didgeridoos, gradually growing in richness and density, until it slowly fizzles out and gives way to a short coda ending on thirty seconds of utterly heavenly harmonics.

It is in this epic and mesmerising composition, too, that the album attains a new meaning. One of the striking similarities between the artists, which has rarely, if ever, been touched upon, is their shared sense for arranging – reinforced here by through a process of sending these pieces hence and forth in a bid of truly perfecting their every detail. Calarco's transitions on aforementioned Dársena Interna were always closer to the morphing techniques used for special effects videos than your average piece of experimental electronics. Szczepanik, meanwhile, has always held an interest in film and with a little imagination, the changeover from the first section of „Altered perceptions of past experiences“ and the second sounds almost like a film reel unwinding and the screen going blank in an otherwise perfectly dark cinema. It is here, too, that one notices how outright contradictory at times all of these sonic events are and how seemingly casually they are juxtaposed as though they were trousers, t-shirts and shorts hung side by side to dry on a clothesline. Contrary to a lot of similar works, Lack Affix seems to consciously eschew immersion in the Ambient sense of the word as a compositional goal, choosing to sweep the listener along on the strength of its creative flow instead. In doing so, it emulates the methods of the surrealists to bring the spectator in direct contact with his subconscious: Collage, exaggeration and the abolition of rational logic. And just as with the visual masters of the trade, it is the decided strength of the music that, even as one is confronted with the bizarre and bewildering, one accepts them with absolute calm and without once questioning their validity.

Which offers an intriguing interpretation of the programmatic side of the work: Lack Affix is about the way our mind constructs reality and how the process of remembering is never purely passive, but always a creative act, as part of which we arrive at new conclusions about the past as well as about ourselves. Which may actually be an even more exciting proposition than the one they originally set out to pursue: If this is indeed a conceptual failure, then it has turned into an extremely rewarding one.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Nicholas Szczepanik
Homepage: Juan José Calarco
Homepage: Unfathomless Recordings

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