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V/A - Traces Two

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Artist: V/A

Album: Traces Two

Label: Recollection GRM

Review date: Apr. 4, 2013

The proliferation of convictions overturned by contradictory DNA evidence shows what a chancy thing recall is. It can easily be influenced by suggestion; for example, if you ask a witness what shade of green the getaway car was, they’re bound to remember a green car even if there wasn’t one around. So when an archival record label names itself after memory, it’s fair to ask — what are they suggesting? Have they been subjected to suggestive influences?

Recollection GRM is an Editions Mego sub-label devoted to excavations from the Ina-GRM (Institut National Audiovisuel, Groupe de Recherches Musicales) vaults. This is the motherlode of French electro-acoustic music, encompassing musique concrète, modular synthesis, and acousmatic works dating back half a century. Alongside deluxe vinyl reissues of classics by Iannis Xenakis, Pierre Schaeffer and Luc Ferrari, the imprint has issued two volumes of Traces. These are not strictly reissues, but contemporary compilations intended to “unearth from the GRM Archives short, forgotten, or ignored pieces of music.” So what does the label once associated with digital sound expansion (ex: Pita, Fennesz, Hecker) mean to say to the present via this selection of analog electronic music?

First of all, if you’re going to make something solid in the 21st century, do it right. It’s easy to get stoked about Recollection GRM releases purely because of their physical presentation. The image of immense, picnic table-sized electronic instruments on the back of the Traces Two sleeve is easily worth the proverbial thousand words; to look at one is to wonder how anyone could know what all those knobs and cables do, let alone remember them well enough to be in control of the sounds. The pressing does what vinyl in the 21st century is supposed to do; make the sounds jump out, and make you feel them as physical entities.

Second, that electronic music — even electronic music devised under the sponsorship of a single institution — is not a monolithic thing. Dominique Guiot’s “L’oiseau de Paradis” (1974) conceives of music as both an evocative force and a malleable thing. Guiot wanted the piece to behave like film, and the use of editing as a compositional tool gives the piece a rhythm that is more filmic than conventionally musical. Events recur, presences dissolve, and subliminal pitches draw to the front of the field like images sucked up to a camera via the judicious twisting of a lens. “Nuisances” (1971), by Pierre Boeswillwald starts out where Guiot’s piece leaves off, with brightly polished high pitches lancing at your ears, but soon morphs into an aggregation of co-existing squelches, klinks, and whistles that is no less visual, but quite differently so. Instead of film, the way independent events occur in near proximity makes me think of ballet.

Flip the record over and you might start out wondering if you haven’t been slipped a Chris Watson record by mistake. Brazilian-born Rodolfo Caesar’s Les Deux Saisons (1975-6) starts out sounding like a field recording of insects. But soon the high whines distort, fluttering like vigorously shaken, partially deflated balloons. Sounds move rapidly across the stereo field, then suddenly transform from a distant flock surging overhead to a metallic bird perched on a nearby bookshelf, eager to converse. On “Pentes” (1974), New Zealand-born Denis Smalley favors sounds so transformed that you’ll have no idea where they came from; the liner notes say they’re sourced from instruments, but it’s anyone’s guess which ones. Instead, what registers is the way they shrink so quickly, so that an immense jet engine scream seems to shrink down to a distant, quivering presence on the horizon. When some Northumbrian Pipes surface toward the end, their blend of breath-dimensioned phrasing and circuit-enabled processing brings to mind the recent work of Golden Retriever, if they were to start playing incidental music for entomologist’s funerals.

The actual sounds on these four tracks aren’t that alien, but they behave in ways that music still does only on rare occasions. They’re a gauntlet thrown down for everyone who is just finding their way around the patch cords on their new modular synths, and a taunt for everyone who thinks that a big sound is enough.

By Bill Meyer

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