Philip Jeck - "All That's Allowed" (An Ark for the Listener)
The basic process and materials haven’t changed for An Ark for the Listener, the new album by British turntablist Philip Jeck, his sixth solo album for Touch. Using old portable turntables, salvaged records, guitar pedals and a mixer, Jeck makes soundscapes out of surface noise and twists disembodied sounds into ephemeral melodic phrases. Sonically, Jeck’s music compares to the processing-heavy approach of Fennesz and Tim Hecker; all three bounce analog source material between circuits until only spectral sounds remain. Songs and whole albums crystallize around these blurry moans and digital fragments as the artists find structure in distressed signals. On their most recent releases, Fennesz and Hecker deploy sounds that are very similar to the ones that characterized their most popular albums (2001’s Endless Summer and 2006’s Harmony in Ultraviolet) with a greater sense of restraint and dynamics. Like his peers, Jeck has fully established his language by this point and chooses to move forward by dialing back the density. With An Ark, Mr. Jeck is also broadening his narrative scope (the album is allegedly a meditation on verse 33 of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “The Wreck of the Deutschland”), and the result is a lyrical, superbly paced piece of music.
All this means that Ark has a fair amount of downtime where not much is happening apart from atmosphere. Although this is not unusual for the artist, it makes for a different listening experience than his previous full-length, Sand, which emphasized individual tracks and rough sounds more than the overall album experience. Maybe this brainy calm is a product of the Hopkins theme? Jeck meditates on the stanza, from a poem addressing a shipwreck that took down some nuns, in the same way the late German novelist W.G. Sebald meditates on a dingy English seascape or a murky photo. The thread connecting Hopkins, Sebald and Jeck is memory. And An Ark for the Listener reminds us that remembering always leads to digression. With technology doing so much of the remembering for us (Sebald and Jeck both “play” records; the first uses paper and celluloid ones while the second uses vinyl), the emotional connections between these objects are what matter. By using old, faceless records as his source material, Jeck isn’t quoting, appropriating or alluding. These artifacts are used to set the machinery of memory in motion, and the tone is necessarily melancholic and mournful. It’s intensely subjective and opaque, too, but I’d only call it ambient in a pinch.
Of the artists mentioned above, Jeck is probably the least accessible, and An Ark for the Listener can be a difficult album to absorb. But, in the company of Fennesz’s Black Sea and Hecker’s An Imaginary Country, the album under review seems like it has the greatest chance of outliving the creative crisis that spawned it. Its emotional cues are more subtle. Even at its most inert, it creates a thoughtful environment rather than making the listener uneasy or restless. And every trip through it takes on a different shape. These are pretty basic criteria for the kind of art music Jeck and Co. make, and this style is gaining traction in other venues thanks to people like Oneohtrix Point Never. Sometimes I think this is what all classical music should sound like or aspire to in some secret way.
Jeck’s music remains textural rather than tonal, but he enters into a more musical relationship with his noises on An Ark for the Listener. This may seem like a backhanded compliment, but with this album, Jeck continues an artistic development that’s slower, more deliberate and thoughtful than many contemporary musicians allow themselves. It promises to age well.