Like a ton of feathers: Morten Riis – Digital Sound Drawings

by 5:4

Many moons ago, i wrote a retrospective of the work of Ryoji Ikeda, composer of some the finest raw digital music yet created. It’s an unfortunate corollary that Ikeda, like all great innovators, has a sizeable cluster of imitators (‘flattery’ be damned), many of whom form part of the now woefully tautological output from the once interesting Raster-Noton label. But something quite new appeared today, from the Crónica netlabel that i’ve praised so highly in the past. Out today is the fifth of their ‘Unlimited Releases’ series: Digital Sound Drawings by the Danish composer Morten Riis. The short programme note speaks of these six compositions being “composed through the drawing of images and their direct conversion into sound”, which brings to mind the well-known spectral imagery occasionally used by, among others, Aphex Twin, Venetian Snares and Plaid (about which more can be read here). Riis’ compositions are quite different, however, more akin to ‘sculptures’ than anything else, something that becomes strikingly apparent when the music is listened to using audio editing software, as recommended by the composer. i found this a fascinating way to listen, proving revelatory about the sound structures Riss has created.

The opening track, “[d.raw]”, is uncompromising from the outset, hard-edged and frenetic, its material skittering and glacial, sounding precisely how one might have imagined it would. Not surprisingly, it suggests Ikeda (or Alva Noto, in one of his more inspired moments), and yet there’s an undeniable warmth and richness demonstrated that is quite disarming. Nonetheless, it’s the kind of opening track that might put off a timid listener; but that would be a mistake, as what follows is markedly different.

“new.s” presents an immediate shift, opening with a delicate fluttering of blips that quickly yields to a surprisingly gentle noise journey. This journey, as the waveform shows, exploits the creative potential of the DC offset, something most sound engineers would seek to avoid. It’s highly effective, bestowing on the sounds a paradoxical powerful softness, punctuated by sharp jumps in voltage that are also usually avoided. Already, this is material most unlike the majority of digital sound artists.

This expressive use of DC offset is taken to further extremes in the surreal but very beautiful “[wav.form]”, the waveform of which betrays clearly its image-based origins. The result is rather like bombarding the ears with a ton of feathers, a myriad of light poundings that are forever changing in shape and timbre. It’s tough at first, but ultimately very rewarding.

As its name suggests, “[nor.m]” returns to more ‘normal’ sonic territory, this time founded upon stable fundamental voltages. It’s the most timbrally varied track on the EP, juxtaposing many kinds of noise beside jittery drones and fragmentary high sonics. The whole is somewhat reminiscent of Cage’s music involving radios, but without ever alighting on something concrete.

Extremes of DC offset return in “[raw.d]”, by far the most ethereal track, exploring a microsound landscape worthy of Roden or Hudak. It suggests the transcendental possibilities of such voltage extremes, simultaneously hovering on the brink of audibility and overload, its unrelenting pressures again taking its toll on the ears (especially through headphones), while never departing far from pianissimo.

Similar extremes in the final track, “[pic.ture]”, that serves as a suitable (if a little less engaging) denouement and summary of what has gone before. Once again, dynamic restraint is considerable, submerged in the high pressures DC offset affords. i say it’s less engaging, but the way in which the material hovers in a place that defies tangibility is interesting, and perhaps the standout quality of the EP as a whole.

Available for free download from Crónica here, in high-resolution (44.1kHz, 24-bit) AIFF files. i recommend listening through headphones (as long as they have excellent frequency response), and with the aid of audio editing software (Audacity is a reasonably good, free program), in order to follow the trajectories of the sound waves as they progress.

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