Stephan Mathieu - "Schwarzschild Radius" (A Static Place)
Phonograph records ceased decades ago to be purely a means of musical reproduction. Christian Marclay’s Frankenstein platters, broken and reassembled, Jam-Master Jay’s twin Technics 1200s, and John Cage’s Imaginary Landscape No. 1 do so in very different ways, but each makes the spinning platter a creative, rather than merely reproductive, voice. German artist Stephan Mathieu, long a dedicated collector of 78rpm records and alchemist of found sound, adds yet another branch to this already expansive tree via his work in the transformation of old into new, sculpting the music of the past into the new forms of the present.
A Static Place, Mathieu’s most recent release, puts the turntables at the beginning of the creative process; the genesis of the music is simply the playing of the records in real time, albeit via unconventional means. Mathieu culls the sound the old-fashioned way, with cactus needles on a pair of 1930’s-era portable wind-up Gramophones. But as soon as the sound waves hit the air, they’re brought rudely into the 21st century, as the source material is captured by a pair of microphones and digitally manipulated by Mathieu’s computer. The Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque strains, played largely on obsolete instruments, are reconstituted as ambient streams of tones and textures via the use of spectral analysis and convolution. Mathieu isn’t as interested in the physicality of the platters as artists like Marclay and Philip Jeck, and A Static Place expunges almost wholly the snaps, cracks and pops that are often on display (typically to a fetishizing degree) when using records this old. The tonal qualities of the original performances are most of what survives, carried over through the conversion process and reincarnated as the beautiful, ghostly quintet of tracks that make up A Static Place.
There’s no shame in finding A Static Place to be, primarily, a pretty album. Its gentle pacing and the interweaving of soft-edged tones results in a milky mix of overlaid sound, like lighting gels or colored sheets of tissue combined in a dynamic display of additive color creation. But as with almost any worthwhile music of this ilk, the real rewards are in the details. Mathieu’s best compositions are those that rely not just on the interplay of swelling and receding sounds, but a more suggestive synthesis, something more complex than a Calgon-inspired transport or blissful new age glow. “Minuet” is a multi-layered sonic ecosystem: like a rain forest, its seemingly uninterrupted canopy belies the activity below. On this and other tracks, instruments can be heard speaking through from the other side, though it’s unclear whether one is hearing remnants of the source material that have survived Mathieu’s mutations, or if it’s instead the synthetically suggested sounds of strings and horns produced by the processing of Mathieu’s trusty computer. “Dawn,” the album’s richest composition, evokes a mysterious mournfulness, like a jumbled and abstracted rendition of Angelo Badalamenti’s soundtrack for Twin Peaks, complete with a mixed-up doppelganger for the soundtrack’s crisply cool brushed percussion.
Whether it’s conscious or not, musicians almost inevitably rely on favorite songs and sounds for inspiration or imitation in the creation of their own music. Some do so more transparently than others, but there are few musicians who’d aver that they make their music in vacuum, apart from the influence of those who preceded and surround them. Stephan Mathieu has delved deep into his record collection to make A Static Place, but done so in a much more literal fashion than most, and whether or not the listener can identify a single instrument in the final product, much less a particular tune, Mathieu has made an unusual entry into the unending cycle of influence, reaction and borrowing in which records have played such a vital role.