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Shinkei & mise_en_scene: "Scytale"

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Scytale, the new release from the Tokyo-based imprint mAtter, is a fascinating collaborative project by Italian sound artist shinkei (aka David Sani), and Tel Aviv’s Shay Nassi, who works under the name mise_en_scene. I was initially drawn to the piece by the dynamic suggested by the two artist’s pseudonyms: shinkei can be translated as “god’s grace” and is the name of a medieval Japanese poet-priest, and indeed Sani’s previous works show a remarkable ability to suspend sound in a transcendental dimension: common sounds develop a preternatural sensitivity, a fragility on the verge of disappearance, where a climax can be achieved by the cessation of sound. In contrast to this ascetic approach, the name mise_en_scene suggests a cinematic engagement, an interest in the dramatic possibilities of sounds and situations, and the cinema’s emphasis on framing as a means to draw out significances from the flow of existence. And it is in striking a balance between the poles of cessation and engagement that Scytale arrives at its own unique significance.

Like many works of abstract sound composition, Scytale presents the listener with something of a puzzle, as suggested by the work’s own title, referring to an ancient encryption technology in which a long strip of leather is wrapped around a wooden rod on which a message is then printed. Once the leather helix was uncoiled, its message was effectively encoded, broken apart, until the message’s recipient recoiled the strip using another rod of exactly the same diameter. While this reference could be dismissed as simply puzzling, curious but unessential, Scytale’s track titles, “cryptology”, “cuts”, and “remodelled”, give further cues to the robust logic at work in these pieces. As with the scytale’s leather strip, however, recoiling the cipher takes a bit of time.

“cryptology”, the record’s opening piece, contains a sudden interruption: what sounds like a modem attempting to connect to a dead line, failing, then giving up and folding to an envelope of absolute digital silence. It is a decisive moment in the work, presenting a stark and recognizable form that in our listening we must either trace back to its source (the object of the modem, the process of data telemetry) or try to hold off in a vacuum. Because on the surface, this is a collection of tracks of digital musique concrete in a rather classical vein, where sounds are supposed to exist only for themselves, cleaned of external reference. Here however, further listening brings to mind the difference between Schaeffer’s musiqe concrete, with its orthodoxy of “reduced listening”, and the playfully provocative alternative put forward by Luc Ferrari who, while in residence at Pierre Schaeffer’s GRM, refered to his own work as musique anecdotique. This “anecdotal music” was concrete in process, but was not meant to be stripped of its associations with the outside world, but rather was supposed to be expanded by these associations, to show a world bathed in sound-images and narratives, and to revel in the new territories opened up by their juxtaposition.

I would argue that what Scytale develops is a variant form of this musique anecdotique, one that, instead of pointing outward to the physical world of sound-making events, points inward to reference sound’s existance as formations of data, its digital corporality, and the electronic landscape it occupies. Here is a musique genetique, a music focused on code, both within the cryptology of the compositional form (i.e. a score) and that emanating from the very technological code-form of all electronically or phonographically produced sound. As the work progresses it becomes more and more clear that what we are hearing is a process of sonifying the data substrate that gives form to all reproduced sounds and which constitutes its language, whether heard explicitly or not. This musique genetique does not simply fetishize sound’s full immersion in the technological, as in the rigorous modulated grid of “glitch” or of raster-noton, but rather seeks to explore in the aural domain digital audio’s deep structure as a complex encoded system.

With this in mind, Scytale’s four main tracks reveal themselves as a series of careful compositions which are at the same time involved in a rather more unruly and exploratory process of growth: sounds hold themselves fixed just long enough to establish a fragile coherence, then bend or break into further mutational strains. In “cryptology”, the data disconnect is followed by silences which are themselves punctuated by a kind of probe-head of white noise, searching through the emptiness briefly before exhausting itself in a sudden squelch. The whole begins to resemble a river, but one of constant transformation according to the dictates of mutation and evolution, rather than a continuous uninterrupted flowing. In a mode of “reduced listening”, hearing sound only as sound and forbidding external reference, this course would be pleasant enough, if perhaps generic. However with the cue to listen to the sounds as they are linked to their substructural environment of data, the pieces take on an added vibrance; what might have appeared brittle, the kind of flaking dryness that often characterizes digitally manipulated sound, registers here as a kind of infra-natural exfoliation, the skin of the digital sound world as it sheds its layers in the process of endless permutation and slow transformation.

So in “cuts” we witness the alternating development of a field and the suspension of it, often the atomization of its stable logic, in favor of a subtle paradigm shift producing formations along divergent lines, all the while sounding like field recordings from within a grove of mainframes. Quiet and composed in the short gesture, seething and shiftless in the long form, “cuts” presents a transcendent dimension to the whole that is effortlessly graceful. It achieves this by appearing to remain continuously beyond the realm of singular control, beyond reason or rationalization; a growth that its makers beheld as it took shape spontaneously, as much as composed.

“remodelled I” conjures perhaps the most concise image of this focus on code and its simultaneous expression within “natural” geneological processes and within digital processes of translation and replication: A stream of compressed sound, almost like of a burbling brook which, like many figures in the work, appears and is suspended only to reappear in altered forms and arrangements later in the piece . Shot through with compression artifacts, gently corrupted, it both represents and enacts a constant migration of form, referencing the complexity of the natural order while pushing into audibility the streaming data that is the carrier of this sound. “remodelled II” gives a fitting reply, with a standing tone and constant pulse, the first notion of a grid to appear in the record, and here the marker of a potential dead end – a loop or short circuit, the dead line after the dial tone has ceased. But of course the development does not cease, but outrides this stasis to produce what could be an unending continuation. A continuation of life and, somehow, a balance.

shinkei and mise_en_scene’s notion of distributed authorship further underscores this idea of a musique genetique. The record is of course a duo collaboration, with all the productive tensions and resultant mutations of form (both audible and tacit), that such a situation can bring. But in addition three of the CD’s seven tracks are given over to “remixes” of the original compositions. At first these remixes seem like a misstep, an intrusion on the whole. But on reflection they, like the strange technological images conjured in the work’s main pieces, prove to be a further expansion of the whole and an opportunity to exercise its logic of genetic mutation. Subjecting the material to an additional layer of authorship, a further en/de/recoding, we see that the work of Scytale is in fact intended to be infinite, or perpetually unfinished, an open-end leaning ever toward expansion rather than refinement or perfection. So even though the three well-chosen remixers (Luigi Turra, Michael Hartman, and mAtter’s own Yukitomo Hamasaki) all seem focused on outward refinement to a degree almost greater than the original, the tracing of traits and variations continually lets air into the work, recomplicating and revitalizing it. The focus remains on translation and the movement and flow of form, not on its stable formation. Every disruption is revealed to be a moment of evolution. It is this logic of mutation which provides the substructure for all natural and creative processes, and it can be beautiful, approaching the sublime, when brought to the surface to behold in the right light.

By Andy Graydon
Berlin, January 2010

Homepage: Shinkei
Homepage: mise_en_scene

Homepage: Matter Records

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