Chik White – Jaw Works & Behind a Dead Tree on the Shore; Ben Owen – Birds and Water, 4; Jack Harris & Samuel Rodgers – Primary / Unit 11; Haptic – Excess of Vision: Unreleased Recordings, 2005-2014
Four diverting and varied tapes from the late-autumn release schedule of Notice Recordings, the previously-Chicago-but-now-Portland- Oregon-and-New-Orleans-based label overseen by Evan Lindorff-Ellery and Travis Bird. I’m not sure whether the label focuses exclusively on cassette releases but tapes seem to make up the majority of their releases, with a nicely consistent lo-fi elegance to their design which occasionally seems to nod to Sun Ra’s hand-drawn LP covers as well as the elegant minimalism of the UK’s own Consumer Waste label.
I’m going to start with my favourite from the current bunch, Chik White’s Jaw Works – Behind A Dead Tree On The Shore. I love this tape. I really love it. You wouldn’t think unadorned jaw harp improvisations stretching across both sides of this cassette would be so enthralling, but it they are. The jaw harp – apparently one of the world’s oldest instruments – is a strange-sounding instrument at the best of times. Its melodic limitations result in a wonderfully contradictory sound, both alien and strangely intimate. White – also known as Darcy Spidle, arch underground head and proprietor of Divorce Records – goes even further, jettisoning any kitsch resonances and wringing all sorts of variations of tempo and texture out of his instrument, often achieving trippy sonic effects similar to electronic phasing or modulation. At times, it sounds like Aphex Twin’s Didgeridoo, shorn of its electronic chassis, its rubbery twangs twisting, stretching, and flickering like some kind of constantly moving microscopic organism. Listening to it is disorientating, but in a good way, like falling down the barrel of a kaleidoscope.
Rather than isolating individual tracks, it’s better to listen to the each side as a long strange trip, immersing yourself in the ever-mutating pulse. The tape’s first side, with White’s improvisations unaccompanied works better for me than its companion, recorded on a beach with waves crashing in the background. That said, both are thrilling and inventive recordings.
Ben Owen’s release is the latest in ongoing set of releases of work created during a residency at the Experimental Television Centre in New York State in 2010. The title of the piece suggests field recordings or pastoral-tinged ambience, but what you get is a lot more austere. Two long drone pieces, with the natural world seemingly expunged entirely in favour of electronic tones. The first piece, 20100509-04, is extremely pared down, its shifts and changes so subtle that it makes Eliane Radigue’s subtle metamorphoses seem like gaudy theatrics. As with any drone piece, the elongated duration and delicate lack of embellishment establish a suitably meditative mood. Yet the spectral presences of the birds hovering over the Susquehanna River near to where these pieces were recorded, which give them their title, keep reappearing in my psyche, forcing me towards a kind of anti-sublime state similar to the kind of Zen egolessness you can achieve when contemplating the peaks or oceans of the natural world.
The second piece, 20100509-08, has a different feel, glistening rather than muted, with an almost shrill pitch skating across a lower band of sound. Not meditative at all, then. Instead, it is more like some kind of sonic weapon to burrow deep into your cerebral cortex, confounding anyone in search of a postmodern raga for their flotation tank sojourns. There’s more elegant minimalism from Jack Harris and Samuel Rodgers, although here the duo explore a subtle intersection between field recordings and the kind of ultra-restrained performances Rodgers releases on his own Consumer Waste label. It’s lovely, at times unsettling, stuff, like eavesdropping on a neighbour as they go about their everyday business as builders start demolishing a house in the distance.
There are two long tracks, both clocking in at around 45 minutes. The key to unlocking them, I think, is either to lock all the doors and stop all the clocks and bed down for a sustained, intense period of listening, picking up every creak and rustle in the engrossing sonic tapestry in the process, or to treat them as a kind of open window, a way for their complexities to drift into your brain and take up residence there, becoming an ingrained part of your personal world without you really noticing. Whichever way you choose, there’s some real good stuff to discover. In Primary, airy almost-silences erupt into isolated bursts of half-noise, tones, hums, squeals, disappearing almost immediately, its studied nonchalance hiding a deft seriousness of intent.
At about 17 minutes, a series of electrical crackles and scrapes sound like a crackpot genius brooding over a sinister, unnamed invention, the tension heightened by the whoop of sirens in the distance. Unit11 seems somewhat more integrated, although that may be just my own perception of what’s going in, scrapes and clunks merging into sine wave tones and more electrical sparks. At one point, it sounds like someone is welding.
For me these works seem characterised by a growing tension, hinting at some kind of terror lying just under the mundane surfaces of our everyday lives, unnamed and just out of the reach of our comprehension. Or perhaps these are instead extremely focused works of art, Harris and Rodgers investigating the peculiar sonic properties of the non-instruments they’re deploying – and the spaces in which they’re deploying – with the tension coming from the friction between the restraint of their near-silent playing and the potential for cathartic release from letting rip with some serious high-voltage noise. Interesting stuff, anyway.
Finally, Haptic. A class act, this lot. Usually configured as the trio of Adam Sonderberg, Joseph Clayton Mills, and Steven Hess, my handy release notes tell me that for this release Salvatore Dellaria and The Necks’ Tony Buck join the throng. The title refers to the fact that these pieces use material sourced from previously unreleased recordings, resulting in a brace of unearthly, dense and sometimes crunchy tracks.
Things start in a cosmic mood, with the airless drone of So for the Reminder evoking the chilly dark of deep space. Gradually a series of high tones are layered onto this backdrop, not exactly merging with them, more stratified or like objects in different orbits around the same celestial body. And so it goes, for about 12 minutes when the sound field slowly fills up, first with twinkling oscillations then with a bustling white noise, as if a door into the engine room has suddenly opened. It brings propulsive, almost industrial motion but no humanity, before the din subsides into a growling buzz. And otherwise is noisier from the off, with a hissing rustle that sounds like we’re in a field full of cicadas while someone stomps around in the background. The whole feel is artificial rather than natural, a broken simulacrum of a bucolic idyll. It’s rather ominous and gets louder, gradually circled by slow metallic waves of sound and mysterious grunts and clicks.
Again, as the piece progresses a kind of industrial feel takes over, with blankets of white noise and clonkings slowly fading in and out in gritty washes of sound. It’s an almost narcotic feeling, bliss edged with fear, as if we’re teetering on the edge of oblivion. Fortunately, the band refuses to bring things to a calm and tidy conclusion. Rather than tailing off softly, the penultimate whirring monotone section cuts abruptly to a final few seconds of airy scuffles, as if the needle has jumped the groove. A fitting end to an uncompromising work.