experimental

HCMF 2019 (Part 1)

Posted on by 5:4 in Festivals, Premières | 2 Comments

Last week i was able to catch a couple of days of the shenanigans going on at this year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. It was strange not to be doing my usual thing of setting up camp for the whole shebang, but quite apart from it being better than nothing, experiencing a festival in microcosm like this is somewhat revealing. More than perhaps most music festivals, going to HCMF involves becoming a prospector, panning for gold in its welter of content. Personally, i’ve tended to find the nuggets of gold to be relatively few and far between, but when you find them it’s usually a pretty overwhelming experience, easily among the most memorable i’ve ever had. This proved to be the case again this year: some was worthless, some looked like gold but on closer inspection was just superficially shiny – and every now and then the festival really hit the jackpot.

Apropos: Termite Territory, by composer-in-residence Hanna Hartman, receiving its first UK performance on Thursday afternoon by Swiss ensemble We Spoke. It looked at first glance to be a not particularly promising mucking around with close-miced bits of corrugated cardboard. However, its highly episodic structure – each episode involving a different approach to the way the cardboard was wielded by the five players – turned out to be deeply engrossing. Read more

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Nordic Music Days 2019 (Part 1)

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Founded in 1888, the annual Nordic Music Days is one of the oldest contemporary music festivals in the world. It’s a peripatetic festival, moving from place to place each year, and for 2019 – surprisingly, for the first time – it moved north of the Arctic Circle, to the small town of Bodø (‘boo-duh’) in the north of Norway. As its name suggests, the festival is an opportunity for composers and performers from throughout the Nordic region to meet, collaborate and showcase to the wider world the range and diversity of their music-making.

The country that unfortunately came off worst this year – with disappointing consistency – was Denmark. Niels Lyhne Løkkegaard took no fewer than 50 triangles for his Triangular Mass – and then gave them little more than a continual, barely-changing tremolando for ten minutes. That was boring enough, but the fact that the work was conceived to be performable by any group of people, irrespective of musical training, only made such basic material seem not merely deficient but patronising; non-musicians are capable of a great deal more than just that. Loïc Destremau‘s string quartet Spoken Music had more going for it, but it was one of a number of pieces at NMD 2019 that became so interested in either technical or extra-musical elements that their actual musical interest was greatly reduced. In this case, while Destremau’s exploration of how speech can modulate conventionally-performed materials by the quartet was an interesting idea, the actual resulting music was extremely dull. Read more

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Summartónar 2019 (Part 1)

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When did you last listen to music from the Faroe Islands? Who’s your favourite Faroese composer or group? For many, i suspect, those questions would likely be impossible to answer, and until recently – with the big exception of Eivør, one of my very favourite singers – i would have been in the same position. That is, until a few weeks ago, when i took up an invitation to spend some time at Summartónar, the Faroe Islands’ annual music festival.

To say that Summartónar is different from most music festivals is not simply an understatement but a reflection of the broader fact that pretty much everything in the Faroe Islands is, to some degree, different from everywhere else. Its location, a remote spot in the North Atlantic between Iceland and Norway; its composition, a cluster of 18 principal islands (all but one inhabited) none of which is longer than around 30 miles, rising vertiginously from sea level to form austere, alien hill ranges; its language, rooted in Old Norse and today resembling a curious mash-up of Icelandic and Danish. Though clearly related and connected to a wider community, it’s nonetheless a place that feels uncannily dislocated.

Nothing in the Faroes is ordinary, and unsurprisingly this extends to its cultural life too. Even before i’d experienced anything first hand i’d heard how, due to its relatively small population (around 51,000), musicians there tend not to fit into neat generic or stylistic categories but instead take part in a wide variety of musical forms, encompassing and combining folk, jazz, classical, pop and the avant-garde. Such a pluralistic outlook as this can be seen in the make-up of Summartónar itself. Its events, most of which gravitate around the capital city of Tórshavn, generally fall into one of three broad descriptors: folk / singer-songwriter, jazz / world, and classical / experimental; beyond these are cultural evenings (about which more in a moment) and concerts taking place out of doors and in caves. Despite its remoteness and relatively small size, there’s clearly a wealth of music-making going on in the Faroes, which perhaps explains why the Summartónar festival lasts for no less than three full months (June to August). Read more

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all that dust: music by Morton Feldman, Matthew Shlomowitz, Séverine Ballon, Milton Babbitt and Luigi Nono

Posted on by 5:4 in 20th Century, CD/Digital releases | 5 Comments

The launching of a new label devoted to contemporary music is something to celebrate, and the newest kid on the block is all that dust, the brainchild of composer Newton Armstrong, soprano Juliet Fraser and pianist Mark Knoop. The label’s first five releases have recently appeared, and there are a couple of things to say more generally before getting stuck into them individually. First, all that dust is a label not only concerned with the newest of the new; two of these releases are works composed in 1964, and another dates from the early ’80s. Second, all that dust is interested in digital as a valuable medium in its own right: two of the releases are only available digitally, and have been specifically engineered for binaural listening. Third, the label’s approach to presentation is slick but nicely generic, opting for abstract artwork rather than tailoring each one with something personalised. This somewhat extends to the liner notes, which while they do at least provide some context for the music are generally rather meagre and perfunctory. Overall, though, in terms of presentation what all that dust are clearly seeking to emphasise above all else is the music, indicating that we shouldn’t fuss about admiring fancy covers or reading lengthy tracts but just launch as quickly as possible into these five very different soundworlds. Hard to argue with that. Read more

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North of North, Rohan Drape & Anthony Pateras – Ellesmere

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My first encounter with the music of Anthony Pateras – in the form of last year’s The Slow Creep of Convenience, his duo with violinist Erkki Veltheim – was a mind-blowing experience, one of the best things i had heard all year. So i was excited when two new discs arrived recently, both featuring Pateras, in guises that are both similar to and very different from that previous release. They’ve been giving me much to think about, particularly with regard to improvisation.

North of North is a trio project in which Pateras and Veltheim are joined by trumpeter Scott Tinkler, and their latest self-titled album, released a couple of months back on the trio’s own label _offcompass_, is a three-part improvised journey called Church Of All Nations. Where improvisation is concerned, there’s an important distinction to be made between short-term and long-term perspectives. The most interesting improvisations i’ve heard don’t simply pay equal attention to both these perspectives, but unfold in such a way as to keep throwing emphasis on one such that our understanding of the other is enriched. The effect on the listener is akin to cinematic zooms and panning, pushing in to scrutinise filigree surface details, pulling out to reveal their broader context. As far as Church Of All Nations is concerned there’s an immediate hint, even before listening, that long-term considerations have been borne in mind, since the three parts are presented in the non-sequential order 1-3-2, an interesting decision that perhaps says something about the overall tone and content of the piece. Read more

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Free internet music: Ektoise

Posted on by 5:4 in CD/Digital releases, Free internet music, Thematic series | 3 Comments

It’s Australia Day, so the next artist i’m featuring in my series looking at free internet music is the Brisbane-based group Ektoise. It’s difficult to know where to begin, partly because, stylistically speaking, it’s not easy to summarise succinctly what their music is like, and partly because Ektoise is just one manifestation of the creativity of Greg Reason and Jim Grundy, who in addition to being the driving force of Ektoise have released music under numerous other names, each with their own distinct outlook. In order to write something cogent and concise, on this occasion i’m going to focus solely on Ektoise, and i’ll be examining some of their other work at a later date.

Developing from an earlier project called Purity Device, Ektoise were active from roughly 2010 to 2013, comprising Greg Reason, Jim Grundy, Scott Claremont, Hik Sugimoto, Greta Kelly and Tim Fairless. Utilising guitars, synths, violin and percussion, they’re in essence a band, but while their music is clearly rooted in elements of rock and jazz, it transcends both due to a constant air of experimentation, heavy implementation of electronics as well as a distinct tendency towards the avant-garde. Read more

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Mixtape #28 : Speech

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For the last mixtape of 2013, i’ve decided to explore music in which speech is paramount. Within a musical context, spoken words can jar in much the same way as an actor breaking the fourth wall, unsettling us by (ostensibly at least) withholding abstraction in favour of direct reference. The range of pieces included in the mix is more eclectic than usual, drawing on offcuts, afterthoughts and outtakes (Hecq, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Kreng, Aphex Twin), filtered renderings, recreations and re-imaginings of speech (Cabaret Voltaire, Charles Dodge, John Hudak, Gregory Whitehead, Marc Behrens, Jean-Michel Jarre) as well as forms of non-singing (AGF and the peerless William Shatner). But most of the tracks exploit the spoken word through fascinating essays in obscure narrative, by turns sinister (Eugene S. Robinson), prosaic (Jóhann Jóhannsson, Anne-James Chaton), sexual (Andrew Liles), wistful (Steve Peters), intimate (Edward Ka-Spel), surreal (Olga Neuwirth, irr. app. (ext.)), poetic (John Wall/Alex Rodgers), combative (Frank Zappa) and philosophical (Adrian Moore).

A little over two hours of speech-inspired music and sound art; here’s the tracklisting in full: Read more

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Marc Yeats – sturzstrom (World Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in Premières | 1 Comment

Two weeks ago, i was fortunate to be in the cool gloom of Beer Quarry Caves, a man-made cave network on the east coast of Devon. The caves themselves—resulting from two millennia of mining, beginning with the Romans—are fascinating enough, but i was there for something almost as remarkable, the world première of sturzstrom, the latest composition by Marc Yeats. Marc’s output is almost mind-bogglingly relentless, and he brings a highly infectious enthusiasm to every project he undertakes. This particular venture was no exception, the first in a series of four commissions under the umbrella title ‘Coastal Voices’, a choral project that “aims to give a new voice to the coastline”; Marc’s response was to create what he calls “a landslide event for voices”:

the work attempts to depict landmass movement and geological process as found along the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site. Naturally, this depiction is not a scientific reconstruction of these processes in sound; rather, an imaginative response to these forces as perceived by the composer and amplified by the individual contributions of the performers. […] The successions of strata are documented through sound in the piece and these culminate in an imaginary journey along the coast, travelling west to east, before the landslide event occurs, setting the scene as it were for the catastrophic landslide (blockslide) that occurred at Blindon on Christmas Eve, 1839.

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Mika Vainio – Life (… It Eats You Up)

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For around seven minutes, you wonder where you are. Extended, sharp, contorted droning outbursts emanate from somewhere, wrestling either to cling to or break free from their origin. It’s like witnessing an alien voice learn how to speak. And then, seemingly from nowhere, IRRUPTION! the music transformed into a massive doom expansion moving with the grace and momentum of tectonic plates. It’s a breathtakingly glorious but agonising moment, one that says everything about what Mika Vainio is setting out to explore on his new album, Life (…It Eats You Up).

This album hurts. Which is not to say that it hurts the ears (although, at times, they take no little pounding), but rather that every one of its 58 minutes comes from a place of sheer, horrified and enraged pain. One hasn’t heard an essay as stark and aggressively wounded as this since Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral. Indeed, the first example of regularity on the album, third track ‘Mining’, is built on a rhythmic loop reminiscent of NIN’s ‘Closer’. Those familiar with Vainio’s work in Pan Sonic may expect otherwise, but beats are emphatically not what this album is about; if anything, their presence can appear disorienting, begging the question of what they bring to the otherwise untethered violence. For it is violence with which one is confronted most—although the nature of the confrontation is one of half-spent energy, angular and wretched. Read more

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Noveller – Glacial Glow

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Since departing from rock outfit Parts & Labor in 2009, Sarah Lipstate has taken to exploring deeply experimental territory. Under the nom de guerre of Noveller, armed with only a guitar and the determination to subject it to all manner of treatments, she has spent the last couple of years establishing a unique sonic language. In some ways, the title of last year’s album Desert Fires seems an apt description of the kind of soundworld Lipstate creates in her music. From the outset, on 2009’s Paint on the Shadows, her music has often evoked wide, open spaces, although suggestive less of grandeur than the perspective of being alone in the midst of a vast environment. In every sense, Sarah Lipstate creates ‘wilderness music’ (think Gus Van Sant’s film Gerry and you’ll be in the right aesthetic area), combining a sensitive use of restrained dynamics with an impressive sense of patience, allowing her material time to move, rather than hurrying it from place to place. Sometimes this leads in the direction of drones; elsewhere, pulsating, angular shapes are made, like bizarre rock formations.

Her new album, Glacial Glow, finds her in a different kind of wilderness, but one no less austere. Read more

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Björk – The Breezeblock & Mixing It Specials

Posted on by 5:4 in Anniversaries | 5 Comments

It’s more than a little staggering to realise that today is the 45th birthday of one Björk Guðmundsdóttir, an artist i’ve followed for the entirety of her solo career and continue to admire very much (one day, i hope to explore her complete output here—when i have a couple of spare months to devote to it, that is…); to mark the occasion, two special items from the 5:4 archive.

First is my complete recording of Mary Anne Hobbs’ Breezeblock Special, devoted to Björk, broadcast on 26 October 2004. Björk’s one-hour mix—in which every song is introduced at length by Björk herself—is wonderfully diverse, and a fascinating insight into the kind of music she finds inspirational, unsurprisingly including a number of artists with whom she’s been associated: Matmos are represented by ‘Regicide’, by no means their greatest track, while 808 State‘s ‘Cübik’ may well be their finest hour (although it’s not aging well).

Kukl, the ’80s band in which Björk was vocalist, is described by Wikipedia as an ‘anarcho-punk’ group, but if ‘Dismembered’ is typical of their music, it’s much too tame for an epithet like that; regardless, it’s pretty enjoyable stuff, the seed of what would become The Sugarcubes (conspicuously absent from the programme). and there’s plenty of Björk’s solo music too; the glorious ‘Hyperballad’ (her most remixed song) opens the programme, and there are two tracks from her superlative album Medúlla, released a couple of months earlier that year, performed live at Maida Vale; they’re remarkable versions of the songs—an Inuit choir, a bell orchestra and a throat singer are all involved—and while ‘Who Is It?’ was included on one of the CD singles of that song, as far as i know ‘The Pleasure Is All Mine’ has not yet found its way onto an official release.

For the rest, despite the presence of one or two distinctly damp squibs (Kid 606‘s ‘Sugarcoated’ is a definite “must try harder” effort, and DAF‘s ‘Sato Sato’ quickly palls), the programme is an enthralling listen, and goes a long way to elaborate the more unconventional sounds and textures that have become ubiquitous in Björk’s output from Vespertine onwards. Read more

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Quixotic risks: Deerhoof – Offend Maggie

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The week before last saw the release of Deerhoof’s new album, Offend Maggie. After the undiluted artistry and infectiousness of 2007’s Friend Opportunity, this was a definite highlight in the calendar, made all the more tantalising by the performance of half of the songs at their concert in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park back in July. i have to confess that the first listening was a real disappointment, and i feel sure this is because i was quietly hoping for “Friend Opportunity II”. From the outset, there’s a much more stripped away approach, which gives the songs a delicate, less rich texture than those of its predecessor. The opener, ‘The Tears and Music of Love’, for example, sounds for a while at least as though it could have been recorded in a garage, its drums sounding tinny, lacking weight. Although it develops into something more solid, this initially came as something of a shock, even more so when it leads into the light and playful—but very straightforward, even conventional—rhythms and structure of ‘Chandelier Searchlight’. All very catchy, but not the all-enthralling encounter i was anticipating.

It’s not until ‘Buck and Judy’ that they present something approximating familiar Deerhoof territory, piquant whiffs of distortion permeating its laidback rock trappings. The balance of elements is superb, as is the control over the song’s unfolding, which is given a certain leeway to meander, especially two-thirds of the way through; this kind of elastic structure is one of Deerhoof’s most interesting traits. Delicacy is laid aside in ‘Snoopy Waves’, which is dense to the point of being heady; a snippet of lyrics floating in an intoxicating blend of buzzing bass and cutting guitar motifs. It’s not surprising they don’t pursue instrumental tracks more often, as Satomi Matsuzaki’s vocals have become so indispensable a part of Deerhoof’s signature sound, but tracks like this one hint at how interesting these would be, far more so than the majority of today’s dull instrumental post-rock offerings. Read more

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Live in Prospect Park: Metropolis Ensemble and Deerhoof

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i’m surprised there’s not more comment on the web about the recent concert given jointly by the Metropolis Ensemble and Deerhoof, which took place in July in Brooklyn as part of the Wordless Music series. This had been hyped up a fair bit beforehand, partly because it was bringing together two groups who have a very modern outlook, but mostly because it featured a new take on The Rite of Spring. WNYC broadcast the entire concert online; surprisingly, no-one seems to have recorded it, so links to my own recording are below. Also, some excellent photos from the concert can be seen at WNYC’s Flickr page. Now, to the music…

Metropolis Ensemble’s hour-long half of the concert began with Two-Part Belief by composer Ricardo Romaneiro, for soprano and electronics. From a gently flamboyant opening, there’s an interesting initial interplay between the electronics and the powerful melodic line, delivered superbly by soprano Hila Plitmann, who is at times required to soar extremely high. The relationship quickly becomes unclear, however, and at times the electronics seem hell-bent on undermining the soprano line, which surely isn’t the intention. At best, the electronics create an evocative, shifting backdrop for the soloist, although this is often disrupted by its gestural quality. Overall, there’s something rather primitive about the electronics’ contribution in this piece; the composer’s enthusiasm is perfectly evident (and this does, actually, go some way to covering some—not a multitude—of his sins), as is his enjoyment of the sounds he’s creating; what’s lacking is real imagination. The brass make strangely occasional contributions, and it’s a huge shame they weren’t involved throughout, as the texture at these moments is truly exciting and gives a hint of what might have been. Read more

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Deerhoof: confounding & clever

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i detest the obsession to subdivide music into genres, and what excites me so much about Deerhoof’s music is that it’s absolutely impossible to pigeon-hole. i’ve seen them called “indie rock”, “post rock”, “avant rock” and “math rock”; but i don’t worry about such things, and choose rather to revel in some of the most confoundingly brilliant, unashamedly artistic and downright clever music i’ve heard in my life. There’s an omnipresent sense of anarchy lurking in their songs, the band often sounding as though they’re barely held in check by Satomi Matsuzaki’s simplistic vocals.

Their most recent album, Friend Opportunity, starts with “The Perfect Me”, the perfect album opener: fast, irregular, harmonically ambiguous, percussion everywhere; it’s also a perfect demonstration of Deerhoof’s approach to structure, veering between utterly different episodes with absolutely no attempt at smoothing over the joins. Play it loud, very loud! “+81″‘s opening trumpet fanfare shows a willingness to bring in unexpected instruments, which sound entirely at home; the middle portion of the song is them at their most obtuse harmonically, perhaps the most peculiar series of chords i’ve ever heard away from classical art music. Though i hate the term, Deerhoof exhibit a palpable ‘retro’ quality at times, and the opening of “Believe E.S.P.” is, dare i say it, the kind of thing one might expect to hear in a ’70s porn movie. But there’s nothing remotely embarrassing about it; it’s made to fit perfectly, melding among the laid-back percussion and dark guitar/electronic stings. Read more

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Leave your high hopes at the door: Portishead – Third

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Engaging with music (or any of the arts) is one of the greatest, most edifying experiences life has to offer. Arguably the most insuperable barrier to this engagement is expectation. It’s a mistake that arises all too easily; our past experiences (pleasurable or otherwise) construct the likelihood of a similar future, resulting in a travesty of closed-minded thinking, masquerading as openness. But any encounter, afflicted with the weight of expectation, is distorted before it has even begun. Portishead‘s new album, Third (released on 28 April), causes this temptation to rear its head in a particularly powerful way. Their eponymous last release, in 1997, ranks as one of the most brilliant and original albums by any artist of the 20th century; that, followed by a 10-year wait for new material, makes the likelihood of expectations very high. But we must leave any and all such high hopes at the door; back in the 90s Portishead got our attention by surprising us, made their mark through a focused, confident and innovative single-mindedness of expression. The most we can allow is to anticipate something of quality; anything more is an affront to their artistry – indeed it is the ultimate insult, demanding from them what we want to hear. Third – like any other release by any other artist (indeed, any encounter of any kind) – must be approached on its own terms, and be allowed to express itself in whatever way it needs to; our expectations can only stifle and obfuscate (or, worse, judge) what we are hearing. Read more

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Irrational Appendage (Extending)

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Back in the late autumn of 2005, when – in every sense – things were very much darker than they are now, i did perhaps the strangest music search i’ve ever done. Into Soulseek i idly typed the words “disjecta membra”, only half curious to see what it might find, expecting to see nothing; but a couple of moments later, one of the most remarkable track titles i’ve ever seen appeared: “A full desirous body, rendered disjecta membra through the application of dust pincher appliances”. Unable to resist a title as allusive as that, i downloaded it, and thus began my love of the music of irr. app. (ext.). Product of the feverish mind of american artist Matt Waldron, irr. app. (ext.) explores music in a surrealist, at times absurdist manner, juxtaposing the immediately identifiable and anecdotal with the obscure and almost arcane, combining field recordings with electronics. In a way not dissimilar from that of The Hafler Trio, image and text are an integral part of the sonic experience; Waldron is a talented visual artist, producing the dream-like visuals that drape his output. The texts are equally obtuse, bearing a sidewise relationship to the music and the images; indeed, it’s often unclear whether the accompanying words are designed to clarify and elaborate, or confuse and obfuscate. i like this lack of certainty, and find it makes the overall experience that bit more stimulating. Waldron’s experiences with record labels have not been terribly successful, with many planned releases delayed or cancelled; of the works that actually made it so far as to be released, most were released in relatively small quantities, and so are now out of print. It seems i discovered his work just in time to acquire everything before the copies ran out. As of 2008, things seem to be looking up, and a number of irr. app. (ext.) releases are scheduled for release this year. Read more

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Scandanavian sounds, part 2: Deathprod

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Deathprod – it’s a name both striking and strange, which is appropriate, as his music is both of these things too. There are obvious similarities to Biosphere – both are Norwegian; both explore large soundscapes; both create music that is immediately arresting – and yet there’s something very much more going on in Deathprod’s work. It’s even more dark, more remote, to the point of being mysterious, even ominous or desolate. But i think it’s the remoteness that is the most palpable characteristic of Deathprod’s output, neatly encapsulated in a 4-CD box set, released a few years ago. The set brings together three previously released but now hard-to-find albums – Morals and Dogma, Imaginary Songs from Tristan Da Cunha (remoteness even in the title!) and Treetop Drive – with a disc of new material, titled Reference Frequencies. There’s a fascinating low-fi approach taken in many of the tracks (some were transferred to phonograph cylinders), which somehow sit remarkably well beside more obviously electronic pieces – although, almost nothing on these CDs betrays exactly how it was created, which is quite a feat.

i first discovered his work about 4 years ago, and it still ranks as one of the most exciting, transforming encounters i’ve ever had. The most breathtaking of all is “Treetop Drive 1”, where a wide, orchestral string chord sounds again and again, pregnant and ominous, while slowly-evolving electronics splash and wail, like plangent seabirds over the foghorn of a melancholy ocean. Atop this imagined water, “Towboat” explores the same misty territory with a wider and yet more claustrophobic vision. “Burntwood” sounds like a decrepit audio tape discovered on a beach, filled with sounds that simultaneously beguile and disturb. and then, perhaps the supreme achievement of Deathprod’s sound-world, “Dead People’s Things”, an unbearingly poignant lament for something unutterably lost. All of these pieces reinvent music, expand what it can be, how it can speak. They are among the most rapturously beautiful and sad pieces one will ever hear.

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