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Richard Garet: "Four Malleable"

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With “Four Malleable”, the double CD released by And/OAR in late 2009, Richard Garet offers us if not a definitive statement of his work, at least a focused itinerary through his sound production over the last six years. Garet is a visual artist as well as a sound composer, working with video and photography in addition to the sound- and image-process installations and performances for which he increasingly is becoming known. The process of working a given material for its internally-defined qualities, without regard to associational or representational meanings, is a major focus of Garet’s work, whether he is working with projected light, digital sound, printer ink, or acrylic on canvas. With “Four Malleable” we get to see that process at work in a number of ways, and this release gives us the perfect vantage from which to appreciate the strengths of this approach, as well as to view some of its contradictions.
“Nocturne” is the first and most recent of the CD’s compositions, and the release’s strongest work. Tonal arrangements hover without resolving into actual harmony with an undercurrent of digital grit running throughout. This gives way to a hazy squall of white noise midway through the piece, then to a kind of feedback tone which in turn evolves slowly into an ultra-high frequency buzz and hiss, and a return to static, arriving at an abrupt full stop. The open question in any of Garet’s sound works seems to be, “how does a material in the process of becoming, be it through a “natural” unguided process or through a “compositional” process, come to find its form? And how does one recognize this form as appropriate, or even necessary, to the material?” “Nocturne” takes up this issue and brings it to a tight and logical extension, giving us 30 minutes of what feels like an effortless, casual unfolding that on closer inspection becomes a marker of the work’s formal rigor. Garet puts many things in play in his complex works, often placing contradictory impulses and ideas in dynamic tension. When this balance is struck, as in “Nocturne”, the result is quite powerful.
One immediately apparent touchstone for “Nocturne”, and to a lesser extent for all the pieces on “Four Malleable”, is Illusion of Safety’s late 1990’s work, especially their own double CD “Of and The”. This process of balancing impulses is a driver in both epic-length works: balancing noise and repose, natural and post-processed sound, meditative and sinisterly imposing gestures. Garet takes IOS’s instincts to transformation to another level of abstraction, rarely touching down on recognizable field recordings on the one hand or on traditional musical scale on the other. This parallel with Garet’s work extends to an extent to other artists in Illusion of Safety’s orbit, including Kevin Drumm and Jim O’Rourke, who share an interest in working with the heft and menace of noise in a refined manner.
As suggested by the title, both J.M.W Turner and Claude Debussy also surface as resonant touchstones for “Nocturne”. Both provide telling cues to Garet’s use of abstraction, and the processing of recordings into passages of organized sound. Despite Garet’s stated interest in sound’s purely inherent qualities, the work seems to strive for a kind of imagistic perspective as much as for a pure abstract plane of affect. “Nocturne” is so effective partly because its abstraction does not arrive pure, but rather “infected” by a stong visual sense. But a visual sense that is at the same time always held at bay, as if through the kind of blurring in Turner’s own nocturnes – an abstraction through complexity, of holding too much of the environment (the mist, the smoke, the shadow) in the image. Garet’s sound shares this additive logic, developing sheets of interpenetrating detail rather than reducing to a focal point.
“Sceneries” shares this emphasis on the visual, in both title and sound, starting with high piercing tones and an almost tidal recurrence of different drones, fading finally into what sounds like soft traffic. Returning to Debussy, we can hear how much of Garet’s work is also indebted to classical formal structure: each of the four works on “Four Malleable” are almost exactly 30 minutes long; each is structured in a progression of sections, one might say “movements”, that pass into each other more of less smoothly; and within each section there is a consistent micro-structure of multiple voices coming slowly into and out of focus in relation to one another. It is interesting to balance this apparent structure against what the liner notes suggest is a program of pure sound exploration without reference to any kind of external or generic model. What one finds coming from the sound is a rather more dynamic complex of factors, logics, and effects. It is very much a process which is unresolved, however, and so the pieces vary in their effects, or effectiveness. In the case of “Sceneries”, the work stays somewhat moored in its structure, each sound content to stay within some invisible boundary.
“From Modified Tapes”, perhaps the most interesting piece of the quartet, shows this unresolved tension between compositional logics in yet another way. The work is developed from partially erased and re-recorded cassette tapes, and it is bathed in that medium’s hazy mid-range hiss. It is fascinating to hear what is in many ways the backdrop to what might have been, the empty stage of low-fidelity sound, organized and magnified to the focus of listening. It is the most easily readable as a process-based piece, and yet it also begins to approach “Nocturne”’s Turner-esque sublime in its near-total landscape of what was once background noise. Until a moment at 18 minutes, however, when what sound like voices from the radio burble up in the mix. The effect is quite interesting, if vexing: the piece turns from a landscape back into a portrait, one might say: the voice is impossible to ignore or to assimilate into listening the same way one would any other type of abstract sound, and its gravity here is such that it forces all the surrounding and following sounds into relation with it. Noise becomes noise around the voice again, a frame, backdrop, or container, but no longer the thing-in-itself focus of the work’s being. It is in some ways a breaking of the integral character of the piece in favor of a counter-logic, or counterforce, that complicates the work and refuses to allow it to resolve or cohere totally.
This occurrence of spoken language in “From Modified Tapes” operates in a way similar to the release’s liner notes: it insists on a logic which the work overall is somehow interested in complicating, or subverting. The liner notes seem to disavow any referentiality in the work, for example, instead putting forth a rather self-evident list of sound qualities that Garet focuses on, including “time, pitch, timbre, amplitude… and structure”. But this is simply another way to say one is attending to the work, rather than a statement about what the work is. It functions more as a kind of dodge or feint away from meaning than any kind of engagement with it. One is left with the feeling that a potent subconscious force flows throughout this work that keeps elements in a fascinating tension, but at the same time holding them away from a full resolution of form. Or perhaps it is that the primary formal tension is precisely between conscious control and the free becoming of the material; between a knowing control and a calculated suspension of knowledge, in order to let the world breathe through the work, and perhaps by extension through the composer.

The material has its logic, its needs, and its formal tectonics, while Garet has his own, which like those of the material may perhaps only come to the surface slowly and through an intensive dynamic of friction, the results of which will eventually be called “the composition”. It is partly this uncertainty about the pieces, about how they arrived to us, whether through magic, calculation, or chance, that makes the process of encountering them so intriguing.

By Andy Graydon, Berlin, February 25, 2010

Homepage: Richard Garet
Homepage: And/Oar Records

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