Iris Garrelfs: Breathing Through Wires

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The cover photo of this collection offers a pretty good summation of its contents: Garrelfs, seated in front of her MacBook, microphone prominent. Her mouth is open, she is singing, perhaps, or shouting, but her hair seems to stream behind her, as if she were in a gale.

The message seems clear. Garrelfs’ human vocals – wordless howls, as well as clusters of vowels and bunches of consonants – are amplified and reflected back by her technology, like Marty McFly blown backwards by his super-amp at the start of Back To The Future.

Breathing Through Wires presents several live performances from between 2012 and 2014, each lasting around 20 minutes. Garrelfs’ cover image remains apposite through. She presents the human voice, in all its terror and glory, doubled, amplified, processed and transformed in real-time, yet always retaining some ineffable, twisting humanity, like a work of art retaining its peculiar aura even through its mechanical transformation.

These pieces float with the dexterous lightness of a cloud of butterflies. In Sonic Imperfections, a single, wordless phrase, a ha-HOW, is sampled and layered into a kind of sci-fi Gregorian chant, before morphing into a panting, breathless screech. It then turns into a kind of duet between a doo-wop group and a gaggle of hysterical teenagers, followed by some curious dolphin-style squeaks. It is a restless, bravura performance, but is typical of Garrelfs’ approach. Just when you think you have worked out what’s going on, the scenery shifts and you’re somewhere else.

Despite their complexity, these pieces are air to the liquid thickness of Bedroom Symphonies, Garrelfs’ collection of shorter tracks recorded direct to her laptop during various residencies and between performances. Those pieces, although anything but laboured, bore a kind of compositional density that gave them a viscous, swirling character. In contrast, here Garrelfs is live and direct and her performances seem to burst out into the world with raw energy. Her vocal technique alone is something to behold. She is seemingly able to unleash an unlimited series of screeches, roars, murmurs, growls, whispers and coos, sounds which, when manipulated via her software, can take on radically different characteristics.

In Loop Fest, Garrelfs creates a bed of rhythmic undulations, over which she croons elastic, almost Björk-like snaking melodies, which are gradually stacked and shaped into a baying crowd of voices. This is the grooviest track on the album, with a middle section resembling a series of chuffing steam engines. A high-pitched vocal dances over this complex interlocking sequence for a few minutes before picking it apart.

The performance at the Hundred Years Gallery, in contrast, is comparatively austere, Garrelfs conjuring various beast-like exhalations from relatively scant source material. I was present at that performance and what strikes me, listening back, is how unsettling it is. At one point, Garrelfs takes a single gasp and first squishes it into a deep, frog-like croak, before looping it into a desolate, echoing cry.

As well as floating like butterflies, these pieces sting like a swarm of killer bees. Almost every track here has its darker sections, where Garrelfs’ animistic cries seem able to summon up some primal horror or alien threat, and Horse Hospital brings these elements to the fore. Terrifyingly unnatural, Garrelfs seems to be channelling voices from a Victorian séance, babbling and crowing in a daemonic multitude, ghosts snatched from the aether and imprisoned in a hard disk, ready to be unleashed on an unsuspecting world.


Breathing Through Wires is available free from Panyrosas.


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