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Pe Lang: nacht & interweave; Yu Miyashita: Navy See Res in Brighton

img  Tobias Fischer

So what happened to the album? And, perhaps more to the point, what does it matter? For labels that champion very specific approaches to, and niches of, music, it’s a question to be negotiated carefully and individually. Various pop forms of music can retreat to the aesthetic and financial model of the single. But the form that a record might take, and the ways in which its potential public can interact with it, are concerns that can cut right down to the nature of a work, to questions of the necessity of its form, and how that form might be available for migration and metamorphosis.

Gruenrekorder (Hanau, Germany) and mAtter (Tokyo, Japan), two small but very respected labels, both recently opened digital distribution wings with the simultaneous release of three digital download albums apiece. This occasion provides a convenient lens through which to evaluate some of the approaches and potentials of the digital download album within the fields of electronic minimalism, microsound, and field recordings-based music generally. Equally interesting, in both general distribution form and the specific content of the works, are the three most recent releases by the netlabel Impulsive Habitat, which provide a rewarding opportunity for comparative listening. What follows is a kind of wandering rumination inspired by the works and my encounter with them as digital downloads.

There is value in the sound object. By which I mean ritual value, or one could say a value of slowness, in placing a plate on a deck or a disc in a tray; in unfolding the sleeve and pouring over the graphics and information; in creating a self-conscious moment in which a work is to unwind in the awareness of a listener. However that value is not absolute, it is one quality amongst many, albeit a familiar one. Considerations of this kind appear to be very much on the mind of Yukitomo Hamasaki lately as he adds to the catalog of his mAtter imprint. The label’s output appears to be bifurcating along material lines, with one series that is more and more focused on publishing, in which the sound object is only one component part (see the mAtter’s NMS ‘zine, and recent CD-R releases by Pleq and Go Koyashiki), while on the other hand the label’s three most recent releases are purely digital downloads. At the same time, the rest of mAtter’s back catalog of CD and DVD releases was made available for download as well (all available through Bandcamp for a fee).

Yu Miyashita is a new name to this writer, and his “Navy See Res in Brighton” (MATTER009), is promising in both arc and detail. The palette is arid and stark, occasionally underwritten by rich low end drones. We are told in the notes that these pieces were composed from an archive of hundreds of one-second samples Miyashita recorded during seven years afield in Brighton, and it is easy to feel the tightness of that time constraint drawn around the sounds that might otherwise breathe with a more natural rhythm. These pieces are like tiny, intricate machines that move in hurried, detailed epicycles, often ending abruptly. “Remove Faith” provides a more romantic or “epic” interlude whose more open expanses of tone refresh the palette, but in the end feel somewhat out of place here. The final “Out” is perhaps most interesting, sounding like a data-corrupted version of itself, the intricate machine pared down to just a structured crackle.

“Brighton” feels like a record in the classical sense, one which entered the world as a download rather than a CD for reasons of economics or convenience. By contrast, Pe Lang’s two digital releases for mAtter, “nacht” (MATTER007) and “interweave” (MATTER008) have a distinctly sketch-like provisional character that suggests they were made more as dispatches from an ongoing process than as discrete albums. And in this way they feel more native to the instant accessibility of the download form. For listeners familiar with Pe Lang or with output from labels like Leerraum more generally, “interweave” provides nothing particularly engaging beyond a variation on the theme of micro-variation. Here, small micro-sounds are looped and interleaved in a complex mulch that develops a macro-structure through large slow waves of behavior that pass through the tiny twitchy sounds. At a constant low boil, this is a record of solids becoming liquid, but never really coming alive. The effect is rather hermetic in the end, inward-facing and somehow uniform despite all the complexities bubbling on the surface.

“interweave” has much in common in sonic detail and style with “Brighton”, and the pairing of their releases on mAtter makes sense. But if “Brighton” suggests a CD album released by other means, “nacht” opens the door to other realms of potential. Lang’s “nacht” is something quite special: it shares the provisional short story-like nature of “interweave”, but makes of it a distinct strength and defining character. “nacht” begins, tellingly, with a fade out, gently bringing us from quiet sound into something near disappearance. It is an extended moment of settling into attention, awareness and readiness that creates a real gravity around the extremely delicate sounds at play in the work. The sounds themselves in fact seem largely beside the point, being a very monotone chattering of small diaphragms and gentle surface noise. It is their finely attuned balance on the fulcrum between advancing into the foreground as music and receding in order to raise an awareness of listening itself that makes the work so consistently compelling. The music is quite naturally transparent, and I would argue this transparency is echoed in the way one approaches the record materially: with little or no object to hang it upon, the sound infiltrates the world almost secretly, but decisively.

This idea of a sound work infiltrating your environment, or interpenetrating contexts for which it may not have been intended, seems to me an especially interesting potential of the digitally downloaded work. Because its form, its object, is so naturally distributed – between multiple devices, multiple sites and occasions – which suggests that the work is less an object than an ongoing collection of effects and tendencies which unpack themselves in multiple ways over an undefined duration and intensity. This tension between a record conceived of as an integral whole, a contained unit, versus as a kind of agent of transformation of the aural or phenomenal environment, is always at play in recorded works, but it is from the direction of field recordings-based music that this dynamic comes closest to the surface in productive ways.

By Andy Graydon
Berlin, July 2011

Homepage: Pe Lang
Homepage: Yu Miyashita
Homepage: mAtter Recordings