Tag Archives: the fine art of sampling

REVIEW – Jimmy The Hideous Penguin: ‘Colours’ EP, 2013 (“a harbourful of soused and bobbing vinyl”)

29 Aug
Jimmy The Hideous Penguin: 'Colours'

Jimmy The Hideous Penguin: ‘Colours’

With a name like that, you expect an MC with a slew of stories. A brilliant, squat little microphone hassler compensating for his own lack of sleek, straightforward charm with a quacking, manic inventiveness and left-field imagination. You expect one story, at least.

Instead, Jimmy The Hideous Penguin is a turntablist; using that ludicrous name as a billboard to cover the heads-down, ’phones-on business of scratching, filtering and triggering. A member of DJ quartet Vince Mack Mahon (and one of the masterminds behind the Community Skratch turntable initiative) he’s from Galway. Appropriately, ‘Colours’ sounds like a sketch of Galway on a moderately bad day – soggy and drizzled-misted, but still bright and creative – but you can only stretch his hometown associations so far.

Ducking any of Galway’s high-culture Eire-isms (and, to be fair, many of Vince Mack Mahon’s hip-hop inspirations) Jimmy’s music instead listens eastwards towards Rhine-Ruhr electronica, while picking up occasional bits of English scruff on the needle. It also listens downwards (into well-travelled vinyl grooves) and inwards (through a radio dial set to a perpetually-displaced rural 1970s). Its electrophonic wanderings owe a fair bit to Kraftwerk, a little bit to BBC Radiophonics and quite a large bit to those early Jimmy Cauty-era Orb recordings. Adding a raw backbone of analogue synth-steps and thick, flittering drones to his eddies of turntable work, beat loops and found noises, Jimmy works up some interesting slop behind that cartoon billboard. Instead of those MC stories, you get scenery to make stories – an occasionally playful plunderphonic montage; a harbourful of soused and bobbing vinyl; a frown of uneasy concentration.

While there are some visitations from the drum-burrs and rhythmic grapples of drum and bass, dubstep and techno, Jimmy’s music prefers to wander off on its own. Moving along messier roads, it kicks up a little historic debris as it goes. Red, in particular, sounds like flotsam; washing up out of swells and reversals of wadded-up torch songs, old shellac albums part-drowned in the tide. Jimmy moves the music drunkenly around a European receiver, shuffling aural zones. First he’s playing frail electronic trumpets against twanging, nasal staccatos; then he’s manhandling a sneaking strand of funk drum, a hungry worm of double-time rattle accelerating it from within. Then he’s meandering through abandoned dockscapes at the back of a dark wind, and finally ends in a bend of misdirected psychedelic organ.

On much of the EP (in which one piece strays into another in jostling transitions), ’70s fantasy seems to be rubbing up against ’70s slump. When a stray Dalek shows up at the end of Green – grating out “they are approaching” – it sounds both menacing and surly. It even sounds impotent; like a grumpy gate-guard on the inside of a power-station picket line, slouched in its own little pocket of hate and with a tepid thermos of well-stewed tea clamped onto its sucker, watching strikers slouch into position for the start of a day of mutual glaring. The rest of the piece feels similarly boxed-in – a pained, brontosaurine lumber of panel-beating snare drum and warping sub-bass, weighed down by an oppressive dark-ambient echo and drifting off into a carbon-monoxide grind.

On the subject of ‘Doctor Who’, I could have sworn that I heard a far more obscure ’60s Whovian critter show up, too – ECCO, the incomprehensible computer from ‘The Ice Warriors‘ with the infuriating papery stutter which (even in 1967) made it sound like a remix victim. Presumably, Jimmy’s too young to remember this first-hand: if he’s not been crate-digging deeper into the Beeb’s sound library, maybe he’s been digging up and scratching someone else’s memories.

It’s equally likely that Jimmy’s stumbled across a bit of the Galway countryside that is forever 1978, or at least has a damp box of that year’s proggier vinyl dumped there. Quite early on during Blue’s multi-part sprawl, some of the more oceanic swirls from Jean Michel Jarre’s ‘Equinoxe’ waft through the mix. Later on, Jimmy will varispeed a eerie floating snatch of psychedelic folk (reed-boned flutes and acoustic guitar, like a conjunction of Mike Oldfield’s ‘Ommadawn’, Popol Vuh and ‘The Wicker Man’) before trickling a clip of muffled Rakim-esque rap-and-chatter over twinkles of fairytale guitar lifted straight from Yes’ ‘Circus Of Heaven’.

At the start, however, Blue is lo-fi, dodgem-car techno with a bassline like someone clubbing moles with a car door It’ll make a shift into chugging steamtrain funk, some rare old-school DJ scratching (“wicky-wicky” and all) and the sort of downbeat synth stagger that groans “hangover” at you. Wobbling out from the layering, voices sing with so much gauziness that you can’t tell whether they’re Irish or Lebanese. Others mutter wanly and stagger around the kitchen, failing to fry some eggs. From the latter, one glum mumble of “bugger…” turns into a single-word mantra. It travels mournfully round and round the turntable like a dropped glob of peanut butter: part of the soused, engaging sloppiness that gives the EP its own distinctive flavour.

Jimmy The Hideous Penguin: ‘Colours’
CS² Recordings, CS²-009
CD/download EP
Released: 2nd July, 2013

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CS² Recordings.

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REVIEW – John Ellis: ‘Sly Guitar’ album, 2013 (“a playful magpie interest”)

27 Aug

John Ellis: 'Sly Guitar'

John Ellis: ‘Sly Guitar’

A skilled and flexible working guitarist since the early 1970s (travelling through punk, post-punk, pub rock, rhythm-and-blues and progressive rock in no particular order), John Ellis has never curdled as a musician. What he’s avoided doing up to now is making a player’s album. Generally he’s been content to tweak a song’s architecture as a team member (in The Vibrators and the mark two Stranglers) or as a flexible, innovative sideman (delivering fanged electric churn for Peters Hammill and Gabriel, or airship noises and roaring-Twenties fanfares for Judge Smith). Even when left to his own devices, he’s stayed away from guitar heroics – often, away from the guitar itself. He’s fermented semi-ambient hubbub for art galleries, filtered Victorian Japonisms through electronica, and taken strides into multimedia, but left the protracted strutting and soloing alone.

On ‘Sly Guitar’, however he returns to (and lays into) his main instrument with a sharp-clawed and swaggering stylishness. It’s the kind of performance that suggests he’s ripped the tail-fin off a 1950s Cadillac and carved a new guitar from it. Things are different this time. In some respects, the key to appreciating ‘Sly Guitar’ is knowing about John’s participation in a 2007 art prank, when he helped to fake a lost Hendrix rendition of the Welsh national anthem. While this particular stunt got his playing onto ‘Newsnight‘ – and was originally a joke about co-opting celebrities into random causes – viewed from here, it’s as much about the puckish and gleeful enjoyment which John gets out of playing guitar. Aspects of Ellis wit might show up on the records he’s worked on (qv. the intuitive bite of those Hammill albums, his thoughtful tricks with Smith, or the raw horse-laughs in his own rare solo songs), but a sense of liberated fun doesn’t always make it across. On ‘Sly Guitar’ it does.

I said “player’s album” – I’m also suggesting that this is the record on which John Ellis finally lets it all hang out. That’s a little misleading. Discreetly virtuosic yet always understated, John’s technique is marked out by the lean, sharp economy he’s learned from years of punk and art-rock. There are also plenty of examples of his taste for bouncing around inside delay units, and for the blocky synthwork and drum loops explored on 2008’s ‘Map of Limbo’. The music’s also liberally slathered with John’s beloved EBow sustainer, transforming notes into assorted hoots and stuttering violin chugs, or pulling them out into taffee-lengths.

These in turn blend in with ideas from all over the place. Fun notwithstanding, John’s art-school training consistently underlies his current approach (one track, with all irony intact, is called I Remember Futurism). He picks up odds-and-ends from the fashions and fads he’s seen pass by and reinterprets them with a playful magpie interest. The results blend an edgy and brittle flair with fastidious design, offset with a mischievous, practical form of musical adapt-and-reclaim.

Many of the tunes on ‘Sly Guitar’ have much in common with old pop-instrumental albums. There are tinges of Joe Meek and of perky surf-guitar capsules from the ’60s; and of those meticulous prog-tinged jingles from the ’70s. But this is just part of an overall collage effect which plucks inspiration from Hendrix, Hank Marvin and John Williams, from Robert Fripp and John Martyn; even from the likes of Fred Frith and Henry Kaiser. It also suggests that over the years John has copped a listen to everything from ‘No Pussyfooting’ and ‘Temple Head’ to On-U Sound and Moby. At the least, he’s caught their echoes as they’ve seeped through airwaves or were circulated alongside technology.

Certainly John’s thinking hard about latterday pop and accessibility; insistent club beats and nods to old crowd-pleasers drive much of the album. Pieces like Levitation and the eleven-minute title track sit on funk grooves with sleek flicks of rhythm guitar and curved, humming chromium lead lines. Snappily and space-ily rendered, the latter are recorded close enough to hear the speaker cones jumping and flattening while wellings of EBow sustain stack up behind like a pile of moonlit clouds. In the chop’n’chat of Farud Gets Electricity, John mixes a Latin loop and a dash of Stray Cats rockabilly into the recipe. Futuro’s leisurely boom-bat, wood-clack beat and clipped industrial framing recall a slimline version of Tackhead’s industrial hip-hop. Making the most of the album’s pop-up digital production sheen, it’s fleshed out by jawharp synth boings and fake horn stabs; its smoulder-point guitar lines hanging in the middle distance like burning ropes.

The beats may be familiar, but the tweaked and ruffled electrophonic timbres which John uses to build up the tunes are less so. Pedalo is as rhythmic as anything else on the record (gliding atop a cavernous trip-hop loop and cracking dub snare) but its body is made up of a mongrel set of slotted-in guitar voices – fanfare tones of firefly and conch; power-growls of distorted fuzz; a pitch-shifted shrill of parade melody teetering on top. All of these come together in spite of themselves, an ill-matched platoon who’ve learned to march in step. Under a skywriting blast of EBow sustain, I Remember Futurism interweaves a rippling set of arpeggios, passing them between a calm sky-blue organ and a guitar which sounds like a harp made of iron girders.

Embedded deep in the mix of the latter are the tinkling, caught-up accents of Brazilian cymbals and bells, and other pieces probe even deeper into worldbeat. Walking in the footsteps of Jon Hassell’s Fourth World Music, and of Transglobal Underground, John brews up vividly staged polycultural blends in which the frowning lines between ethnology and fraudulence, sympathy and exploitation might perhaps blur into irrelevance. His cyborg guitar tones counterpoint the eerie ornamented leaps of the Middle Eastern music he sources, undercutting its spiritual passion with impressionist sound-builds recalling insect swarms, oppressive heat, or the spine-crawling sense of secret surveillance. Hollowing out a Nile processional (on Don’t Be Misled By Your Eyes), he repacks it with drilling mosquito sounds, duetting Arabian slide lines and choral synths. The leisurely Levantine trip-hop of Flies elevates a souk-call vocal sample like a dreamy kite, but then subtly pollutes it with hovering swarms of static guitar buzz.

These last are much like the withering drones employed by Robert Fripp on ‘Exposure’ back in 1979, painting threatening sonic portraits of decaying industrial landscapes. You could only speculate as to whether John’s applying these same ominous atmospherics to the torn cities of the Arab spring; the idea hangs heavy. Initially The Bowl Maker of Lhasa (framed by temple bells and further baleful Frippish insect buzzes and pitch-collapses) sounds as if it’s going to do something similarly politicized for Tibet. However, it rapidly returns to clear hip-hop and funk sources – the sleek dancing duel between stinging clean guitar and EBow whistle, the playful way it lifts and reshapes a sly quote from ‘Freddie’s Dead’ in the middle of its drum-machine swing. While there are a few left-field touches (such as a timbral shift which refracts the familiar street beats into something with a twist of copper and stained glass), perhaps it’s better just to enjoy the imaginative, enthusiastic sound-painting; and not to over-freight the pieces with too much extra meaning.

The remaining tracks, though, bypass the club beats for a deeper exploration of John’s textural art-rock side. The brief roundabout of Echoplexing presents a bone-and-wood clatter of choppily-strummed flamenco guitar: echoing off to the sides of the soundfield, it joins stinging treble guitar lines and zipping insect sounds, stitched together by a child-chant organ part. The loop-and-splay Infanta shows John at his purest both as player and as music processor. Dialling up a sparkling silvery electric guitar tone, he begins the tune with Spanish classical inflections nestled in a sharp snappy reverb before abruptly leaving them to pulse and circle inside a loop-hang while he gets on with other business. He goes on to juggle a section of Hendrix jinks and transfigured rock’n’roll quotes; a countrified oud tone; elegant touches of shading, slurring and EBow elisions; a razor buzz bouncing in the background.

Elsewhere, March Of The Kitchen Taps floats a cluster of hovering, uneasy guitar parts (floats, wails and squeals) against swishing electronics like ventilation fan-blades, and against massed samples of metallic taps and bangs which flutter, slice and nail the pulse down. Cue jokes about everything-and-the-kitchen-sink: Crow On A Dying Dog eggs these on further, blending even more twiddling kitchen metals with a bagful of plastic electronics – bass twangs, burbling random-pitched vocalise, synthesized big-band swing and blaring horn-guitar parts. As a flight of sampled rooks flap past, it sounds like a weird and wilful collision between suitcase synth-pop and bleak mediaeval soundtracks.

It’s these particular pieces, in fact, that seal both the fate and triumph of ‘Sly Guitar’. Forks and taps aside, it is a kitchen-sink album: one which flea-jumps enthusiastically between slick beats and toy noises, easy funk and experimental chop-suey, clippable music and idiosyncratic personal sketches. John may have finally turned in his “player’s” album, but even this far along in the game he refuses to play it straight. Dipping in and out of formalism and fooling around, coursing around plug-ins and unravellings, he’s turned in an album which celebrates and fans out his plurality as a musician. Having mastered a humble, low-key chameleonic wilfulness – in which the appropriate art and the immediate idea directly shapes the method – he’s let it become part of him, even when he’s flexing free.

John Ellis: ‘Sly Guitar’
Chanoyu Records, CHA002
CD/download album
Released: 6th May 2013

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Chanoyu Records.

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REVIEW – Bob Burnett: ‘Loops & Lines’ mini-album, 1998 (“sample, hold’n’swing”)

13 Apr
Bob Burnett: 'Loops & Lines'

Bob Burnett: ‘Loops & Lines’

Santa Cruz jazzer Bob Burnett is an oddity, someone who’s ostensibly extremely straight but gets there in a puzzling way. He loves his semi-acoustic guitar – keeps it clean, plays it with an economical and modest Wes Montgomery twinkle – but he’ll dab in a few colours on guitar synth and is also very much into what digital sampling offers the modern composer.

This you’d expect in somewhere like New York City – hip-hop saturated, with digital cut-up/jazz crosstalk from the likes of M-Base or Q-Tip. Coming from Bob, it’s a little less of an obvious path – a transplanted New Jersey-ite now residing in roots-band heaven, he’s played with world-beat bands Kosono and Pele Juju for much of the past decade. With ‘Loops And Lines’ Bob’s giving his sample, hold’n’swing ideas their first recorded outing.

At root, these are pretty cosy ideas. Don’t come in expecting a cross between John Scofield and Disco Inferno, nor yet The Young Gods playing Gil Evans. That living-in-California easiness initially makes ‘Loops & Lines’ sound like an Acid Jazz comedown pleaser. But although the six pieces on the mini-album are sweet enough to be lounge-fare, they’re also lush enough for a lock-in. Bob’s music is refreshingly innocent of guile, but that doesn’t mean that it’s without a dash of wit: a quality which is a precious balance within sampler culture.

Together builds on a moment from John McLaughlin’s Peace One, as the guitarist skips spider-fashion across his low strings: joining in, Bob swings tastefully over the top while Rhan Wilson’s bells and assorted metals mist the edges. Igor plays a similar trick with a few phrases and deep string chops from Stravinsky’s ‘Soldier’s Tale’, Bob adding some Hawaiian lines over the top of the thudding march of deep strings and drums. For Out West he affectionately samples some local-band friends (Pipa & The Shapeshifters) to craft a little bit of Portishead spy music – Adrian Utley’s breed of Duane Eddy twang, with the big stoned swats at the drumkit and the sound of rain sifting down in the background.

Most successfully, there’s Home James in which Bob stitches together a dream jam between himself, Jimi Hendrix, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. Bright and cheerfully funky, it’s close to an Us3 moment. You expect a laid-back rapper to come strolling in at any moment, with rhymes about strolling by Electric Ladyland with a spliff and a sax case. Instead, what you get sounds more like Bob finding all three legends together at the same Harlem party; each in a separate conversation but still meshing, by happy chance, into a common thread and rhythm. The music – and the falls together with a simple eloquence. Trane throws out a sinous four-note tenor wave from Countdown; Bird counters with a acquiescent call from Night In Tunisia. Somewhere in the background Jimi chips in with a reverberant Band Of Gypsies clang. Bob’s sweet and skinny guitar bubbles throughout the whole thing, chatting merrily away on the breaks.

The only things missing are the “yeah!”s and the punctuation of hand-talk. In fact if it weren’t for the tall (and dead) shadows which that all-star trio cast, Home James would almost convince as a genuine studio jam. Surprisingly, it’s a humble piece: Bob never feels like he’s stealing from his three luminaries, nor as if he’s harbouring vain hopes of cutting them in competition. It’s all about making the links, making a might-have-been occasion; being the helpful guy in the middle.

In fact, on ‘Loops & Lines’ it’s not so easy to work out when, exactly, Bob has got his sampler switched on. He has a remarkably subtle touch as a samplist. In contrast to the way, say, Young Gods or Jesus Jones would proudly ride on the back of a blatant parade of loops, he’s more interested in the seamless interweaving of sample and solo, using temporary digital capture to get more musicians and voices flickering in and out of his virtual band. If, via the magic of samping, he can bring the amicable ghosts of the Johns and the Jimis round to his local bar for a few beers and a blow through one of his tunes, he’s happy.

For instance, Decoy might make use of another Coltrane sample, as well as drawing on snippets of American pop TV themes – ‘King Of The Hill’, ‘Teen Angel’ – but there’s no separation between those inserted elements, the light-footed touches of the live rhythm section, and Bob’s mellow-mischievous guitar skips taking centre stage throughout. The reggae-fied ripple of Lower Nile (the disc’s only cover version) brings back a live band, winds soprano sax through North African melodies… and uses no samples whatsover apart from a few jungle chirps and rustles.

In the end, “Loops & Lines’ is an announcement of relaxed intent; short, sweet and discreet. It’s interesting to indulge the thought of Bob Burnett taking it to slightly wilder climes – maybe coming on like Ronnie Jordan playing over found-sound backdrops. But I get the feeling that he’s happier just stretching loops round the barbeque, shooting the breeze with heroes and friends, providing small glows of warmth rather than burning it up with his music.

Bob Burnett: ‘Loops & Lines’
Bob Burnett, 9801 (no barcode)
CD-only mini album
Released: 1998

Get it from:
Bob Burnett.

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REVIEW – Felipe Otondo: ‘Tutuguri’ album, 2013 (“sound moulded by careful hands”)

9 Apr
Felipe Otondo: 'Tutuguri'

Felipe Otondo: ‘Tutuguri’

Having pursued his studies from his native Chile to Denmark and then to the UK (he currently teaches at the University of Lancaster), electro-acoustic musician Felipe Otondo has already made himself a world traveler. The cosmopolitan sourcing of his music ensures that he travels even further afield, even while sitting at his computer. The four pieces on his debut album ‘Tutuguri’ draw on concepts, patterns, sounds and language from India, Java and Mexico as well as from European and American sound-labs.

This reminds me that, like bats, human beings use sound to find where we are. We often remain unaware of this, or even dismiss it. In cities, for example, we tend to think in terms of filtering out the extraneous noise – the rumbling press of traffic, the too-close babble of our neighbours on public transport or through the thin walls of apartment blocks; the persistent layering of unwanted music as ambient features for shopping or working. In spite of this, we’ll still use sounds to judge our way and to establish our place in a shifting world. Recurring sounds in the subway tell us that the service is regular, or when we need to change direction. Changing accents in voices and even birdsong rachet our subliminal paranoia up or down. Subtle switches in the quality of sound moving through the air tell us about weather, and about the places we move through. Some newly-blind people even report developing an echo-location sense, measuring the presence of oncoming pedestrians, lamp-posts and corners by the minute changes in echo and sound positioning.

Most importantly, we associate the places we know with an arrangement of sound. Wind will be shaped around a building in a particular way, the patterns of dialogue and intonation spoken in and around particular shops and café. Traffic lights and contraflows generate their own rhythms and exchanges. Blindfolded, I’d still be able to recognise the back-street where I currently live from its specific sound patterns: cars nudging the speed-bumps with a particular speed and duration, the toss and bend of the trees in the wind paths, the pitches of children’s voices in the school half-way along, the frequency of slow buses creeping to the nearby bus garage. These recognitions surprise us, often in ways which we don’t even consider until the connections occur to us.

To me (being less of a traveler than many) Felipe’s sound sources are more exotic, initially implying spatial journeys or international visits. The complex and beautifully-packaged CD sleeve for ‘Tutuguri’ enhances this, opening up like an origami flower (or like the jaws of a concealed alligator). The four intent and deceptively challenging pieces within the album are designed to shuffle the consciousness rather than soothe it. They divert the listener along other paths: associative, temporal, historical; hallucinatory or sacramental. When Felipe cites them as being “meditative”, he doesn’t mean relaxing, or lazy. Listening care is required. At a distance – at a point of detachment or reduction to background – Felipe’s pieces will sound like a fluttery wallpaper of treated sound effects. Up close, turned up, or simply heard on headphones, the craft is evident: Felipe’s years studying spatial sound and timbral perception have been well spent. He’ll set you down in the middle of a set of beautifully recorded instruments or noises – or as an offset, slightly distanced observer – and then gradually alter that sound-world in increments, or in sudden dartings.

The oldest piece on offer here, Ciguri, takes Native Mexican bell and gong sounds and cuts them loose from root time. This isn’t as straightforwardly surgical, or as uninvolved, as it might read. Felipe is open about the inspiration he’s drawn from the Mexican peyote ceremony (and from Antonin Artaud’s writings on it). In particular, he’s interested in the time-distortion effect experienced when ingesting mescaline (which he recreates here via digital editing). On the way, he also explores inharmonicity – the additional non-harmonic tones created within a sound, via variations in the source material’s state of rigidity and elasticity. Strictly speaking, this is a physical exploration, but if you’re talking ritual – if you’re talking metaphysics – the same idea might be extended to the participants in the ceremony. As in any sacrament, each of their experiences will be shaped by their willingness, and by how their own histories and attitudes impact on how their brain works and how their world is conceived.

On Ciguri, Felipe doesn’t make matters quite that explicit, but he does his very best to remind us of how subjective an experience this can be. Sound-wise, he places us in the heart of a slow heat of hanging metals, and we listen (over nine minutes) as they alter. During this time, different parts of the surrounding structure take turns to transmute while others remain still. Gently struck tones blur from a simple ping to a fluttering hummingbird drill: the substance of the metals themselves seem to move restlessly between solid resonant bronze, a whispering foil, or a mere shining hiss of elements. The reasons behind this may be all in the math, but it doesn’t feel that way. As the numbers race through their patterns, the world around us changes and we’re hypnotized by what feels like the universe breathing.

Another piece, Irama, draws directly on Javanese gamelan orchestra music (using manipulated recordings of the Sekar Petak ensemble at the University of York). Irama’s title comes from a flexible gamelan term – one that can be used to define the time between two notes, or the time between two actions; or the rhythmic relationships between parts of the composition; or tempo in general. Drawing all of these meanings together under one conceptual net suggests a substantial and integral connection between all of them, much as each of the Indonesian gongs, flutes, pots and zithers in a specific gamelan orchestra is honed and tuned to fit only with instruments from the same orchestra. Of course, digital electro-acoustic processing means that any relationship between notes, pitches or rhythms which didn’t already exist can be first conceived and then molded into shape: and Felipe flexes and reshapes the gamelan sounds according to his own design.

Irama’s gong sounds range from the familiar bronze boom to the kind of light dry patterings and tight-hide raps which you’d expect to hear bounding from frame drums. Over a particularly deep gong sound, a metallophone texture is stretched into a soft drone: when the broader percussion section returns, it’s joined by soft struck pings and an oceanic flutter. At crucial points, particular gong chimes cut through to suggest changes of intent and mood. Apart from these, all of the sounds which lope through Irama reinforce themselves, subtly adding to an arrangement which becomes denser and denser, shifting to a jazzier pulses before (nearly four minutes in) rising to flood-rate and then dispelling into nothing. A second section begins – sterilized pings and rings, more German laboratory than Javanese ritual. Drilling echoes are buried inside it, ringing edge-tones place themselves above it. At six minutes, the frame-drums return; at seven, the pulse has multiplied again to the point of flooding; at eight, softened rings are the dominant sound as the piece diminishes into calmness. As with Ciguri, there seems to be more than the mathematics at work here; but beyond the calculations, all of Irama could itself be an illustration of time as human experience – its repetitions, its bewildering multiplicity of voices; its moments of collective intensity and its sudden rapid lulls.

As a listener, attempting to put narratives (however clumsy) onto more elusive or abstract pieces of music is a common strategy. Thankfully, the mixed instrumental/vocal piece Teocalli already comes with a narrative. It’s based on ‘The Night Face Up’, a short story by the Argentine writer Julio Cortázar, whose surreal-modernist approach (creatively disrupting his plots and chances of resolution via a shifting, subjective consciousness and by the restless straw-shuffling of jazz) is well suited to the cut/paste/reshuffle of Felipe’s compositional tools.

The original tale is about an injured, hospitalized motorcyclist: delirious, and dreaming that he’s a man hunted by the ancient Aztecs and targeted for sacrifice. Location and context come adrift in the dreamer’s mind, but are carefully deployed by the writer – here, Felipe steps carefully into the latter role, guiding his strips and layers of sound into place. Hunters’ drums roll in the background, sometimes scooping up in an enormous glottal curl of extreme echo, swooped by fierce panning and sound-fielding. At times, they run backwards, creating great ominous bowls of sound-space. In a recurring cut-up, a little choir of men sing what sounds like a Mexican popular tune. This moves in and out of Teocalli like a radio which can’t stay fixed on the station, just as the injured man in the story can’t stay fixed within his own time or his own experience. Watchful silences bead within the piece, within the drum-slides; filled with tiny arrested hangs of reverberation.

Through these silences (but also often in the midst of great surging wrenches of drums, as they wrestle for our attention) women’s voices speak. Zapotec women, from a pre-Spanish civilization that lives alongside and intertwined with modern Mexico. They converse and chat, presumably about ordinary human matters – these are interview snippets, not field recordings. But as these women are separated from listeners like us by their language (and by our own crude knowledge, and cruder guesses, about their culture), they innocently become part of the sinister hallucinatory sound environment which Felipe creates. As drums sweep and skirl around our heads, so too does a whole jungle of suggestions – brief clusters of crickets, digitally squeezed and timeslid; bird calls, as of hunters hidden in the undergrowth. When one of the women speaks again, her unconcerned and easy voice is shaded into callousness. When, at one point, she suddenly laughs, easy and confident, the dense paranoia and wilderness swirling around her conspires to render her cruel.

There’s no final outcome to Teocalli – no cathartic slaughter, no rescue. Eventually Felipe’s piece just blows away into the shadows, like the memory of ugly wings pressed around you. The fever dream is over. With the passing sweat those eerie vicious terrors go with them. The deep-rooted fear (part-humble, part-racist) of an ancient, incipient otherness. The fear of comfort and security crumpling and allowing the past to pluck you away; a raw, helpless morsel.

In its way, the final ‘Tutuguri’ piece – Sarnath – is as ritualistic as the others, yet it doesn’t rely so much on recreating states of mind. Instead, it attempts to sculpt suggestions of place, history and connections. It’s based on Francis Booth’s Indian location recordings of places associated with the story of the Buddah (and is named after the deer park in which Buddhist Dharma was first taught). In a sense, Sarnath is both site-specific and displaced, bringing the noises of Buddah-touched locations to wherever its soundfiles are played. Concert venue. Boom box. Perhaps even a trekker’s smartphone, being carried on a pilgrimage of its own.

As Felipe switches between recordings (clicking up one-by-one the sonic capturess of different geographical stops on the Buddah journey), Sarnath itself seems to be moving from place to place in search of something. Literally, a footprint? Literally, an echo? Felipe toys with the field recordings: folding them on themselves, stretching them over time. A bell might sound, swell hugely, then drop away. Chants may be heard. On a half-distant road, a procession of ecstatically banging drums may wind its way to a shrine. Behind these, birds and animals twitter. Away from the devotions, there are the soft chips and scrapes of human work being carried on regardless. Here, Felipe’s notes most obviously cite the intense, subtle states of mind connected with meditation: here, with whispers of Buddha making their presence felt, it’s a traditional part of the tale. Here, too, are the tiny sounds to focus meditation; the small sonic flakes of the natural world around which attention can be wound.

‘Tutuguri’ is four pieces; four stories. None of them conclusive; and despite the sleevenotes and the substantial clues, at least part of the stories I’ve recounted here have been dreamed up by me. The solo listener – the sound moulded by careful hands around my ears, yes; some of the intimations perhaps patted into place. But in other cases this music is just process doing what process does: forming channels for their own sake, numbers making shapes and illusions as part of the pattern comes into view, and only part of that’s actually recognized. Much of the purely technical side of Felipe Otondo’s music escapes me: instead, I experience much of it as the psychological backwash, like the vapour trails after the plane has passed. Still, if I’m creating my own ideas for what Felipe’s music might entail or might intimate, there’s clearly enough extra substance there for me to build on. That’s what humans do: we use sound to find out where we are. Finding places we know: judging our way through what’s being presented to us; sometimes, the recognitions surprise us.

Working blind, but guided by sound, I travel too.

Felipe Otondo: ‘Tutuguri’
Sargasso Records, SCD28070 (5065001338700)
CD/download album
Released: 25th March 2013

Get it from:
Sargasso Records (CD) or Amazon (download).

Felipe Otondo online:
Homepage Soundcloud LastFM

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