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Machinefabriek + Stephen Vitiello - Box Music

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Artist: Machinefabriek + Stephen Vitiello

Album: Box Music

Label: 12k

Review date: Sep. 25, 2008

For their postal collaboration, Rutger Zuydervelt and Stephen Vitiello return to a challenge as old as electronic music itself. When using natural sounds – ones not produced electronically or by instruments – how to escape the associations those sounds inevitably suggest? Musique concrete pioneer Pierre Schaeffer explained the challenge as being how to make music that is not compromised by literature. In other words, the music should be non-symbolic – objects are to be turned into ‘sound objects.’

Zuydervelt and Vitiello set themselves this challenge in an even more literal way. The two mailed each other boxes of objects, and each was to create a piece of music with what the other provided. Processing was, of course, allowed. Each has two pieces here, and one was a collaborative effort. But just as they show no interest in symbolism, Zuydervelt and Vitiello don’t seem to be interested in completely masking their sounds, either. Finding out how they made what sound with what object is part of – but not the whole – idea here.

When they name a piece “Bells, Book, Tin Foil, Buttons,” they want you to play cat-and-mouse with the sounds, to think about how much these sounds, in and of themselves, can express. Zuyderfelt turns the crinkle of tin foil into rain and an abruptly-shut book into the rumble of thunder, yet the association is there only for a moment, long enough to engage with a little light humor and a bit of wonder.

For the most part, the duo stay away from these sorts of gestures. Most of the album is a study in intimacy. On “Chocolate Sprinkles, Tape, Egg Cutter, Rice, Plastic Bag,” they zoom in on an egg cutter, the kitchen implement becoming a booming metallic low end. Elsewhere, rocks and buttons become gentle beds of percussive texture, bells are transformed into overtone-rich drones and field recordings move in and out, transmission-like.

Where Zuydervelt displays a penchant for dramatic arcs, Vitiello takes a more diffuse approach. In a sign of his extensive background in installation work, he creates pieces that are more environments than compositions, very cellular in organization. His first piece (“Crackle Box, Thumb Piano”) shifts directions and morphs constantly. “Broken Record, Cassettes” shows flashes of more structured and more rhythmical development, but that is probably due to Vitiello foregrounding the looping nature of the objects rather than by design. He stays away from the usual notions of decay that tapes and record loops usually suggest, and even lets the strains of a tune take center stage, giving the piece a natural conclusion.

Throughout Box Music, the sounds are abstracted, but not given any extra meaning. This return to one of electronic music’s founding principles is refreshingly old-fashioned, if we can apply that term to electronic music without too much irony. No high-concept digital futurism or forced social commentary here. Instead, they come close to Tod Dockstader’s craftsman-like ideal of “organized sound,” in which sounds are created and juxtaposed for the simple reason that they fascinate and charm the ear.

By Matthew Wuethrich

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