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Scanner - Sound for Spaces

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Artist: Scanner

Album: Sound for Spaces

Label: Sub Rosa

Review date: Oct. 2, 2003

There’s a nagging tendency to over-intellectualize the music of Scanner. This inclination is less related than you might think to the compelling tendency to over-intellectualize ambient music in general. Ambient music is often bolstered by heady description merely because there is literally so much space within the music, and so little going on, that it effortlessly incorporates the assault of validating rhetoric. One might say that the space in ambient is filled by theories of the music’s value. Scanner, on the other hand, creates art – a subject matter that, nonetheless, is in constant need of elucidating explanation.

It is important, then, to consider that Scanner is at least as much a conceptual artist as he is a musician. For one, he refers to the music that he creates as his “work.” The most significant element of his craft involves a method of scanning – pirating – the conversations of unsuspecting cell phone users, a practice from which his professional name is derived. This material is then spliced and incorporated into his music. What is created – when the sampled conversation is added to Scanner’s spare, ambient soundscapes – is most often a sparsely inhabited space that is occupied in part by the voices of (although certainly real, i.e. human) un-identified individuals.

Sound for Spaces, which was originally released in 1998, has recently been re-released by Sub Rosa, for whom Scanner has released several LPs. Having recorded extensively for the last decade, much of Scanner’s material has fallen into the cracks between his various, multi-format releases. Spanning a period from 1984 – well before he had ever recorded commercially – to 1997 (the majority of the work is from the period between 1995 and 1997), the album collects much of the artist’s previously released work.

As art, the music of Scanner is a commentary – on the one hand, for the person playing scanner – on the intrusive capabilities of technology, and – on the other hand, for the person unwittingly playing the scanned – the individual’s helplessness in the face of this technology. This is contemporarily important, and it creates a dialogue between the value of communication and the dangers of miscommunication, recontextualized expression, intellectual theft, and the expanded limits of illegal sampling.

Sonically, what the listener gets out of Sound for Spaces is the sound of remote, isolated individuals drifting in and out of grim, ominous soundscapes. It’s not very fun, but it is intellectually compelling if you know what you're listening to. “Hearing is Believing”, a piece taken from a 1995 project involving sanctioned experimental broadcasting (from 105.8 FM, the UK’s first “experimental” radio station). This track expresses Scanner’s gift for conveying the loneliness of the hijacked voice drifting in on static, better than anything else on the album.

Sound for Spaces depicts Scanner during this 12-year evolution. In the earliest pieces, in which the artist placed arbitrary sounds in relation to each other within an arty context, one can see the seeds of his later, vastly more focused work. Seemingly ambivalent to the significant social ramifications of scanning unsuspecting telephone conversations (as art), “A Piece of Monologue,” from 1988, utilizes the artist’s customary dark and moody context for the purpose of surrounding a snippet of dialogue written by Samuel Beckett in 1980. This track utilizes mere sampling, or possibly just a vocal track created specifically for this piece (the piece’s liner notes do not discuss from where the spoken word inclusion originated). Without the conceptual framework, this could just be a dramatic performance, which, one might argue, doesn’t particularly belong on a music recording (which is, after all, what one would probably expect to be getting when purchasing this disc at the record store).

A vast jump is then made between these earlier pieces and “Airfoil,” from 1993. Conceptually more defined, the piece meanders a little less, and it sounds more like the arrival of an artist who has something to say. A bare intro, in the form of lightly punctuated, liberally spaced beats, ushers in a feint, indecipherable and lonely vocal that fades away as inconspicuously as it entered – a blueprint for Scanner’s later music.

Appropriately, the majority of the work include on this album was taken from art exhibitions. It stands to reason, since Scanner is an artist who merely expresses himself in a format most often associated with musicianship. Music is a platform for Scanner, from which he is able to express his larger social concerns to an often-unsuspecting audience who just thinks his music sounds pretty cool. Ambient fans themselves, it might be said, are a part of Scanner’s platform. No listener, of course, wants to hear that she (or at least her dollars spent on a Scanner recording) is being used to further that work of an artist who may not even be particularly interested in music, but who has merely chosen music as a space in which to promote his difficult, largely unmarketable art. But having the wool pulled over one’s eyes by a talented artist who makes compelling, entertaining music doesn’t lessen the value of the music at all. It rather adds another dimension to the music, offering, perhaps, a little more than the listener initially bargained for.

By Cory O'Malley

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