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Kenneth Atchley - Fountains

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Artist: Kenneth Atchley

Album: Fountains

Label: Auscultare Research

Review date: May. 14, 2002

Contemporary composition often falls prey to its own unapologetic ambition. When considering the sources for sound, and the drastically improved manner in which to record them, its limitless possibilities can consume even the most meticulous of minds. Now, not only can one record raw data; using electronics, one can turn that data back in on itself, releasing sounds never heard before and possibly never to be heard again. With a microphone and a computer, anyone can be unprecedented.

Realizing the infinite and indefinite nature of the craft, composers can sometimes lose themselves in their creations, sailing aimlessly in an ocean of echoes, equalizers and eccentricities. Experimental music is an admirable exercise, and one that sometimes results in greatness, but its declarative label speaks for itself – discovery presides over design. Unleashing the unknown takes precedence over crafting the hear and now. Whether the result in question will be worthy of the effort put forth is an afterthought.

Premeditation has its perks, though. Harnessing this storm of creativity and maintaining certain themes not only intensifies focus, it also provides the audience with a clearer understanding of the composer’s aim. Kenneth Atchley’s Fountains, released last month on Auscultare Research, succeeds on just such grounds. Clear and to the point, Fountains includes three distinct and unique compositions built on the premise of running water. The three recordings, each spanning over 20 minutes, root from Atchley’s sound installations, where he constructed fountains from trashcans. Atchley writes: “These fountains are composed from acoustic spaces between compressed crystals and metal, diaphragms and water, vessels and pumps, airless circuits and field recordings: trashcans, metal tubs, tap water, pvc tubing, over sealant and mats, beneath black polyethylene and waterproof tape.” In a sense, and a reductive one at that, Atchley is a plumber. A very talented plumber.

The first piece, “fountain_1999.20,” is the album’s highlight. Atchley gets straight to the premise of the album: running water. The opening minutes mimic a stuttering backyard stream on a sunny day, exuding serenity. This quickly changes. Like a sudden downpour, Atchley starts processing signals and turns the gentle stream into a torrent, using the trashcan's tinny acoustics to create a haunting wave of metallic noise.

Atchley also evokes some beautiful drones from the installation, sporadically and drastically switching from the initial trickle to dense acoustic amalgams. The sudden contrast between soft fluid sounds and compacted piles of noise often adds power to whatever mood Atchley is trying to create, whether it be tranquility or calamity.

The final piece, “fountain_2001.5,” is similar, contrasting the pacific with the Pacific. Water slowly drips as signs of the impending racket gradually build up. To think these sounds lie hidden, somewhere in a trash can full of rain water, is boggling. One of the album’s best moments comes towards the end of the piece, when Atchley switches almost rhythmically between traditional noise and a leaky faucet.

The production on this record is as pure as Vermont Spring Water. Atchley’s microphones capture the soul of the leaky faucet, revealing the usually irritating source of insomnia as song. The crispness of each recording shows both immense talent and extreme care.

Atchley’s Fountains is new music that succeeds where other such excursions fail. He attacks his source from all angles, covering a wide range of hydro-electric sound previously unchartered by his contemporaries. The 20 minutes per composition allow for a thorough study, with Atchley squeezing every last drop from his instruments.

It should be mentioned that Athchley’s Fountains were created for urban spaces and the use of headphones (in this writer’s opinion) actually subtract from the pieces’ power. Instead, shoot these sounds through a hi-fi sound system, with the volume around 5, and allow Atchley’s garbage-pail shower to slowly fill the room. Water on the brain never sounded so nice.

By Otis Hart

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