How does 40 minutes of almost complete silence grab you? That’s what you get on this CD from Spain’s Nueni Recs, a realisation of Manfred Werder’s 20153 by the experimental group Regler, a duo comprised of Mattin and Anders Bryngelsson. Werder’s score is a single quotation from arch flaneur and mid-20th century thinker Walter Benjamin and, translated into English, is as follows: “Through excessive fatigue I had thrown myself on my bed in my clothes in the brightly-lit room, and had at once, for a few seconds, fallen asleep.” This idea of intense fatigue is emphasised by the shots of Mattin and Bryngelsson asleep in a recording studio that adorn the inside covers of the CD – overwhelmed, perhaps by the information overload of modern life, suffering from the kind of breakdown that characterises the work of that other arch-Benjaminite, W.G. Sebald.
Viewed from a conventional perspective that sees tangible content as cash, this CD is not exactly value for money. Rather than more for less, as austerity Britain’s corporate slogan goes, this is, instead, more of less. A whole lot of nothing, in fact. Full disclosure: I received this CD as a promo (something for which I’m always grateful, especially given that labels such as Nueni rarely have major label marketing budgets to chuck around on tons of freebies), so I’m not qualified to opine about whether it is worth spending your hard-earned on. I mean, I’m pretty open to grappling with some of the ideas that seem to bubble up out of the space as I listen – these ideas of fatigue and exhaustion, the Benjamin-esque ideas of the aura of the art object (specifically this CD), the ways in which Werder’s scores often provide a way for the mundanity of everyday life to be included in the fabric of experimental music without being reduced to tokenistic field recordings, and so on. But I wonder if I’m been so keen to engage if I’d just spent 15 quid (or the equivalent in Euros) on the thing. This, of course, opens up more lines of speculation. Having purchased a CD do I this have a right to expect certain forms of content – specifically tangible sounds, stuff you can hear, etc – from the artist? Or is intellectual, not-necessarily tangible, content enough? After all, this is a tried-and-tested approach from conceptual art, so why not here?
And what of this intellectual content? Well, let me say that I don’t exactly have great form on this particular stream of experimental music myself. Head over to the Sound Projector website and take a look at me trying to get my head round Stefan Thut and Johnny Chang’s Two Strings and Boxes to see what I mean. I’ve moved on since then, I’d like to think, and I’m slightly more plugged into what’s (not) going on in pieces like these – and indeed, why it’s (not) going on. |And there is something rather intriguing about this Regler (non) performance. That Thut and Chang release I was so baffled by was characterised by its intense concentration, an utter attention to close listening that approached meditation or prayer. This, in contrast, is almost determinedly casual, but not necessarily in a positive way. Rather than a modish punk snottiness – we don’t care if you listen or not – the duo seem afflicted by the psychic torpor that’s hinted at in the score. The few sounds that do appear are mainly the scuffs and clicks of a drum kit being assembled. It’s as if they couldn’t quite summon up the energy to get any further with their recording, lapsing into a kind of anti-lotus eaters-style stupor. Framed in this way, listening becomes an affecting, almost disturbing experience. We seem to be observing, and thus are becoming complicit in, a slow nervous breakdown.
We’re not really, obviously. The duo is fully aware of what they’re doing and it’s to their credit that they inhabit this performance so totally. (It’s as full-on, in its own way, as one of Mattin’s other role-paying extravaganzas, the Lagos noise band Billy Bao.) And the whole Regler project could be viewed as role-play, the duo inhabiting different sub-genres of the avant-garde to produce near-perfect simulacra of their typical outputs. This release is labelled Regel #5 (classical music), but you can also check out Regel #4 (Harsh Noise Wall) on Nick Hoffman’s Pilgrim Talk label, which comes adorned with quotes from Wall overload Vomir, Regel #3 (Noiscore/Free Jazz), a double CD with two hours of full-on assault. And so on. You get the idea.
I quite like it anyway – both this particular realisation and the duo’s whole approach – even though some other reviewers have found the whole thing frustrating and unrewarding. I’m not quite inclined to agree, but I could understand what some would find the duo’s approach seems somewhat peremptory. And, as a realisation of a Werder score, well, I can’t help comparing it to other recent Werder settings, by Ryoko Akama, Rishin Singh and Will Montgomery, all different yet all of them achieving a greater degree of engagement and richness than that of this performance. That Montgomery performance, in which he combines two Werder scores and creates a subtle collage of field recordings and electronics, is particularly affecting. Nevertheless, this achieves what it sets out do to. Whether or not that objective is one that’s worth investigating is less clear.