Ephemera Poetica: PAN’s Mono No Aware Compilation

PAN_Mono_No_AwareVarious Artists – Mono No Aware
(PAN – 2017)

I’m not sure who said it first, but over and again I am reminded that if you can’t explain something in simple terms, then you probably don’t understand it yourself. It is through this lens that I struggle with mono no aware, a Japanese originated term that loosely translates to “a sensitivity, or empathy toward ephemera.” On the one hand, it’s an easy enough concept to explain using metaphor and everyday examples. For example, anyone can recognize the simple and fleeting beauty of a campfire. It can strike home even more so the morning after, when, at dawn one crawls out of their tent only to find the coals of last night’s fire still smouldering beneath a thick layer of ash. It’s a scene that has held my attention on many mornings, and I can’t help but continually marvel at how a short passing of time can so dramatically alter a place, or, at least one’s perception of a place.

There is, however, a deeper level to the concept of mono no aware (that also overlaps with wabi-sabi), and this is where my struggle lies. In the appreciation of impermanence and ephemerality, one can eventually gain a unique perspective on humanity. By way of another example: think of a winter rain that slowly washes away a snowman. In doing so you may eventually tumble upon a metaphor for the gradual and inevitable demise of humanity. If you get that far, you’re starting to tap into what mono no aware is really about.

It may seem depressing, but there is a sadness that is both innate and fundamental to grasping this concept on a meaningful level. Through the practices of meditation and haiku writing, one can better harness what can only be described as the feeling of mono no aware, or the feeling of wabi-sabi. Because of this, there is no simple explanation that I see. What I sense is a concept that requires a willingness on the part of the inquisitive to allow for more humility, less self-indulgence, and less materialism in their lives. Call it what you will, but I think we are talking about a heightened state of consciousness.

Similar to the practice of reading and writing haiku, good ambient music seems to provide a gateway to understanding mono no aware. The latest compilation from the Berlin-based PAN label does just that, showcasing 16 unique tracks from 16 separate artists. A good compilation will draw one’s attention away from the artist and onto the album. With this in mind, Mono No Aware shines, as there are essentially no moments where the listener’s attention is pulled away from the sequential flow of songs. Listening to this, I rarely feel the need to check what song or artist is playing, to the extent that I derived a certain satisfaction in hearing this as a work from a 16-member musical collective called Mono No Aware (that would be a cool name for a giant musical collective). That’s not to say that individual songs didn’t grab me,–it was the cold-as-ice loop in Ayya’s “Second Mistake” that initially drew me in–but that individuality, itself, feels less important.

I’m not all that familiar with PAN’s releases, but perusing the label’s output one sees a wide range of experimental musicians, from the well known to the virtually unknown. The beauty of the label is that they’re all mixed in together and there doesn’t seem to be a mandate on releasing work from more established artists. Mono No Aware is made up of the virtually unknown camp, who’ve collectively harnessed an opportunity to give new meaning to the ambient lexicon. Taking cues from a broad definition of ambient, Mono No Aware feels like new age music for the final age. And it could be the occasional injection of noise–see PAN’s very own Bill Kouligas’s “VXOMEG”–but there’s also a level of fatalism at play that is better to embrace than to ignore.

For a compilation as well sewn as Mono No Aware, the mood often shifts. The early-Oneohtrix-Point-Never feel of Kareem Lotfy’s “Fr3sh” and the third track, “Limerence” by Yves Tumor, provide almost a playful air–especially the Tumor piece that sounds like the beginning of a Mark Mcguire guitar-athon with home movie samples of teenagers being teenagers plugged in. Helm’s track patiently weaves soft surges of noise with an underbelly of atmospherics levelling out the mood.

The previously mentioned “Second Mistake” is the comp’s longest song, and works wonders with its central loop, an elegant use of some source signal reversal effect. The focal drone in Jeff Witscher’s “Ok, American Medium” could be an ode to the maligned and now nearly forgotten vuvuzela, and it’s awesome, while the final songs, “Heretic” and “Zhao Hua” are truer to ambient as Eno saw it. The latter, especially, by HVAD and Pan Daijing, closes the album out on a more solemn note, as elegiac strings push into celestial realms. All the better an ending if one is going to contemplate the title’s deeper meaning, or be left in awe, as I was, at how much time managed to slip away while engrossed in this music.

Sala – Scare Me Not

Scare me not, scare me not. One can almost hear Audrius Simkunas, aka Sala, muttering these words to himself like a reassuring mantra, standing alone in the depths of a great, mysterious forest. Memory plays a predominant role in Unfathomless releases, but few seem to encapsulate childhood fear as well as Scare Me Not. It is not that the recordings here are especially sinister, or creepy, but that there is a looming mysteriousness about them, as if, at any moment the boogey man might rear his ugly head. I’d argue that Simkunas isn’t saying we should all face our fears already, but that maybe fear is an important part of our memory, that it plays some pivotal role in human development. In any regard, Scare Me Not provides ample space to mull it over.

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From the number of albums I’ve heard that come from Lithuania, the place seems brimming with abandoned war era locations. Inspiring for field recordists, these sites beckon their reawakening through sound, and it was one of these locations where Simkunas found his inspiration for Scare Me Not. Using the cavernous space of bygone, rusty objects as his base note, Simkunas reigns in sounds from his surrounding environment. Bird song is the first thing that is heard, appropriately enough, as birds are the true commencers of the day. The remaining environment is introduced very slowly, a short, bellowing drone here, the soft shuffling of human activity there.

Things pick up around the 15 minute mark, where three or four different sound sources coalesce into a soupy alien soundscape. It’s hard to say how Simkunas achieved a lot of these sounds, perhaps with some specialized sensitive sound equipment. He seems to allude to something of the nature on his description of the work, referencing “esoteric surgical instruments of sonar knowledge extracting,” whatever that means. Later on, around 19 minutes in, there is a pleasing, higher register tone that undulates in the background, acting as a nice counter to the more tactile elements. Reminds me a bit of Ora.

Unfortunately, Scare Me Not peaks a little early, and I’m not entirely convinced that it warrants it’s 65 minute run-time. The 20 minute second part meditates a little too heavily on a drone that sounds like someone leaned a guitar against an amp and walked away. However, there is more going on to the piece then that one uninspired drone, and Simkunas is smart enough to have more than a single element at play at any given time, keeping things interesting. I can’t imagine returning to this work too often, but it is an interesting album nonetheless, if not at least for the unique sounds and feelings it conjures up.

Rihards Bražinskis & Raitis Upens – Aldaris

Here is the first of two new submissions from the phonography focused label Unfathomless. Founded and run by the tireless Daniel Crokaert, Unfathomless challenges sound artists to create work based around a physical space. As Crokaert puts it, the work should evoke the spirit of a specific place, “crowded with memories, its auras and resonances and our intimate interaction with it…” As of now, Unfathomless seems to be taking precedence over its sister label, Mystery Sea (also run by Crokaert), likely because it seems to allow for a more diverse output, expanding on the dark ocean drones that populate the Mystery Sea releases.

U40

For the better part of last year I spent my time working as a bartender for a brewery in Vancouver’s “Yeast Van” brewery district. Although most of my time there was dedicated to front of house, I got to know the basics of the beer making process as well. As someone with more than a fleeting interest in field recording and sound, I was frequently enamoured by the strange and enriching sounds that came from the process of brewing beer. Whether it was the bubbling and churning from the boil, the vacuous pings from the inside of empty tanks and kegs, or the hissing drones from Carbon dioxide canisters, there was a lot of intriguing sound to get lost in.

Rihards Bražinskis and Raitis Upens take this idea and run with it. On Aldaris, the two captured recordings from a 150 year old brewery in Riga, Latvia, and wove them into a 36 minute sound piece. According to the Unfathomless site, the duo were given freedom to interact with the 80-year-old beer kettles, which, no doubt allowed for a substantially richer final product. From the opening seconds it sounds like the two making use of these kettles, as slowly, bass-heavy creaks and rumbles fill out a pleasant low-end. From here the sound only intensifies, reaching a small earthquake-like magnitude by the 7 minute mark.

In my experience with field recording work, the most potent albums abide by, more or less, one of two artistic approaches. Either a work is steadfast in its use of explicitly unaltered, unprocessed field recordings, or, moderate liberties are taken in editing and processing as a way to accent a given work. On the other hand, albums of this type that heavily obscure the source of their sounds really don’t do it for me.

Bražinskis and Upens avoid the pitfalls of heavy-handedness. Their editing approach seems to respect that their audience has the patience to hear how Aldaris subtly shifts over its duration. The transitions here are especially choice, namely the punctuated blasts of soft noise that guide the piece into its second movement (starting at 7:59). The album’s mid-section, with its skittering, almost free-jazz like tactility and haunting, fever-pitched drones, evokes all the feeling of being squarely within an ancient ruin. Or, in the case of Aldaris, speaks to a great industry that has risen and fallen, and a land that is forever at the mercy of time’s reclamation.

G A S – Narkopop and the Return of Wolfgang Voigt

Wolfgang Voigt, by now a household name among experimental music lovers, has produced A LOT over the years, dipping into every variation of ambient, acid house and minimal techno under the sun. Of all his musical endeavours–and let’s not forget his co-founding of the influential Kompakt label–his work under the GAS moniker in the late 90’s was nothing short of visionary. As Gas, Voigt washed away any remaining conventions around the four-to-the-floor beat, burying it within remnants of classical music and shifting atmospherics. Voigt has never shied from venturing into pure ambient form neither, like on the opening track of his debut album from 1996, where a beat simply never enters the mix. Now, 17 years after the release of the fourth GAS album, Voigt delivers a fifth, the densely woven and exquisite Narkopop.

GAS-Narkopop

GAS-NarkopopLP

As the opiate-induced, dark sequel to 2000’s PopNarkopop certainly delivers. Pop’s optimism (Poptimism?) is dialled back this time around, snuffed out by a more oppressive sound. This could have been achieved with a more present, driving beat, I suppose, but Voigt accomplishes this mood more so by weaving elegiac textures seamlessly into these pieces. It’s evident from the first four tracks that Voigt is as relaxed at the helm as ever, like on “Narkopop 2,” where the looped string samples rise, fall and change shape more frequently then he has ever allowed with GAS in the past. Alone, “Narkopop 2” seems to lack focus, but in the context of the album it plays an important role in building anticipation for Narkopop’s spirited interior.

“Narkopop 4” is when things really get interesting. The piece builds intensity as the various textures fly into and out of the mix, laid on with thick brush strokes for the brief moment that they exist. The transition into “Narkopop 5” is shiver inducing. Flawlessly, the signature GAS kick-drum beat positions itself as the track’s backbone, like someone thrumming the side of a dumpster, the sound reverberating through dark alleys in an abandoned city. The skittering, brooding framework of “Narkopop 6” wouldn’t sound out of place as soundtrack to some future-noir sci-fi flick; again, it transitions imperceptibly into the next track, “Narkopop 7,” what one might classify as ‘barely techno,’ its austerity providing space for a gently pulsating beat that harkens to the early GAS days.

Although rare, Voigt has been a bit forceful with the beat in the past–I’m thinking select tracks from Zauberberg and Königsforst–but he finds near-perfect proportions on Narkopop, insofar as it never feels as though the drummer is trying to show up the band. “Narkopop 10,” the album’s powerful closing statement, finds an impeccable balance between all of its sonic elements, but Voigt is a master of the closing statement, so it’s no surprise he hit this one out of the park. 17 years on, it’s safe to say that Voigt’s vision of GAS has not distorted, only shifted to accommodate a broader version of the project. And perhaps, Narkopop will serve not only as thirst quenching for longtime fans, but as introduction to a new generation of listeners cursing themselves at only discovering this now. To that I say, better late than never.


Quick note on the incredible package Kompakt put together here for the 3LP release. Beautiful full-colour thick board jacket that gatefolds out to a twelve page booklet of Voigt’s nature photographs. I’ve never found his photography all that moving, but the way this is all put together is worth the heftier than normal price tag. The LPs are tucked neatly behind the front and back covers in slick, all black inners. A CD version of the album is also included, and sits in a holster on the inside front. Very nice all around.

SEEDBANK 1: An Envisioned Arctic in Biosphere’s Substrata

SEEDBANK is a sporadic review series highlighting recent history’s most influential, cultified and all-around masterfully crafted documents of experimental music, ranging from pioneering works to modern day classics. 


Substrata1Substrata (All Saints cover art, 1997)

Geir Jenssen’s long standing Biosphere project has changed directions a few times over the years, most notably from his second to third full-length proper, Substrata (originally released in 1997). Before its existence, Jenssen had already made a name for himself as a go-to artist of ambient-house and techno. While there is a notable move toward subtlety from Microgravity (1991) to Patashnik (1994)–namely, a dampening of the beat–it wasn’t until the release of Substrata that Jenssen fully embraced the minimalist ethos that he would bring to his most accomplished albums.

Jenssen is from Tromsø, a city contained within the Arctic circle that also happens to be the Northernmost point of Norway. Jenssen’s place of origin has played a considerable factor in his music, lending his particular minimalism an added edge, a coldness that would be different–if not entirely absent–had he lived anywhere else. Substrata‘s success is at least partly due to how unabashedly Jenssen channels the arctic through it, whether by use of field recordings or stark loops. Even the various album covers, and the album’s title, Sub-Strata, meaning below ground (likely in reference to permafrost), not only act part and parcel to the album’s central theme, but help guide the listener into the necessary headspace required to enjoy this music.

Calming yet frigid, desolate yet inviting, Substrata is all about balance. Opener, “As the Sun Kissed the Horizon,” sets the tone with a field recording of a distant plane flying somewhere far above. The recording itself is not particularly impressive, but as an introduction it gives us a sense of the music’s space, tells us that what we are about to hear is not confined within human-made walls. As a predominantly electronic album, Substrata is remarkably cognizant of the natural world, and this is perhaps the album’s greatest property.

From here the music eases into a number of unhurried pieces that blend nature recordings with looped instrumental phrases, stark drones, and various television samples. Two tracks even sample the show Twin Peaks, which feels especially relevant now that the series has been rebooted. It’s done to greater affect on “Hyperborea,” where you hear the voice of the Major recounting a ‘vision’ he had to his son, Bobby Briggs. The sample is buried beneath a brooding, murky veil of electronics. The sample then fades away and is replaced by a short loop of synthesized tones, that, despite the loop’s obvious presence, acts more as textural compliment than anything more overt. And if it starts to feel like nothing on Substrata necessarily “stands out,” it’s because nothing is meant to. That is what makes this music so mysterious, so enticing for those who want to figure it out and become lost within its depths.

If there is a transcending moment then it comes on the album’s second to last track, “Sphere Of No-Form,” whose focus is a stream of reverberant, billowing horns. If the end of days have a soundtrack, this could very well be it. Simply put, the sound here is massive, leaving one in a state of awe that only the best music is capable of doing. On the 2011 vinyl reissue of Substrata, “Sphere Of No-Form” falls in the middle of side C, followed by the album’s brilliant closer, “Silene,” an undulating work for raw electronics and celestial drones, reminiscent of the type of balance struck on Aphex’s Ambient II. Side D is made up of the bonus track, “Laika,” a surprisingly potent late addition that seamlessly tacks on to the album’s end.

I am hard-pressed to think of another artist that has been able to pull off an album quite like Substrata (Labradford’s Prazision LP perhaps?), especially with its heavy use of sampling that can so easily be mistreated in lesser hands. In a certain light, Substrata breaks a cardinal rule that good ambient music has taught us: that less is more. Don’t get me wrong, the music here is certainly minimal, but it’s scope is huge, reigning in source material from all possible directions. I don’t think Jenssen was out to break any rules, but he certainly bent perceptions. For this, Substrata will not soon be forgotten.

Substrata3

Substrata² (Touch reissue cover art, includes Man with a Movie Camera, 2001)

Substrata2

Substrata (Biophone 2xLP Reissue cover art, 2011)

Mark So – And Suddenly From All This There Came Some Horrid Music (caduc., 2017)

In the book This is Your Brain on Music, author Daniel Levitin retells something Miles Davis once said of his own music: “[…] he described the most important part of his solos as the empty space between notes, the “air” that he placed between one note and the next.” I was immediately brought back to this tidbit from the book upon listening to the new work by Mark So, And Suddenly From All This Came Some Horrid Music, a score, performed in this instance by Cristian Alvear (guitar) and Gudinni Cortina (turntable).

mark so cover for caduc

In this performance, the players are as important as the composer, because even though they are interpreting a score (which, by the way, is an abstract visual and text score), it is the performers’ job to make that score meaningful. To make it come alive. It’s apparent rather quickly that Alvear and Cortina have a musical chemistry, each one careful to not drown out the other with their respective instrument. Also noteworthy is how one musician will often seem to pick up where the other left off, despite how disparate the two instruments actually are. Leading us back to the Davis quote, this music is heavily reliant on space. Both artists actualize this concept well, but it is Alvear – whose guitar is featured more predominantly throughout – who best puts it into practice, with a minimal playing style that is so precise that it verges on tedious.

Cortina, on the other hand, reigns in a sound that is more lush, but also, more abrasive. The sounds are recognizably that of a turntable, only Cortina is clearly using a range of other, smaller instruments to scratch, scrape, and rub up against the machine’s moving parts. The tactility of Cortina’s turntable juxtaposes well with the very simple plucks of the guitar. There is a stretch in particular, at around the 14 minute mark, where the sound of the turntable dissipates, leaving only the solitary guitar to ring out into open space. Then, the guitar also ceases and we’re left with a duration of silence before both players suddenly come back into the mix. In the face of a limited palette, it goes to show the importance of a musical imagination (think I might be ripping off Steve Reich there, sorry).

Unfortunately, the CD does not include the score, which, would have been interesting to look at and compare to the music. This would likely shine some light on why the piece sounds the way it does, why, for example, the final minutes act like a return to the album’s opening seconds – Cortina’s turntable nowhere to be heard. Or, why it is that one of the two players will occasionally drop out of the mix entirely. Is there something about the score, visually, that prompts them to do so? If so, what is it? What does that full stop look like to the eyes of the musician interpreting it? Ultimately, the music is good enough on its own to not have to lean heavily on context for support. Another fine album from caduc.

Update: May 16, 2017
Mr. Alvear got in touch and kindly informed me that the images and text that are on the CD packaging are in fact the score, which, I initially concluded were absent from the packaging. Always best not to assume. Thanks.

Patrick Farmer & David Lacey – Pell-Mell The Prolix (caduc., 2017)

Pell-Mell the Prolix is the collaborative follow-up to Pictures of Men. (2003), where Patrick Farmer and David Lacey made an impact among that year’s releases by kicking the album off with a recording of pigs. I, myself, have only heard excerpts of the work (that unfortunately don’t include the pigs) so I cannot speak to that release’s integrity – however, reviews are favourable. The Duo are now back with an album on Mathieu Ruhlmann’s ever intriguing – and quickly growing – caduc. label; a perfect fit, I might add.

Farmer Lacey Cover

The flavour of Pell-Mell is equal parts accident and intention, where, even if the recordings used here are in themselves often chaotic, the bigger picture, it seems, is what the listener is meant to seek. Over its 38 minute duration, Pell-Mell patiently unfolds with a series of recordings – some obviously of the field variety and others likely from improvisations – that smash cut from one to the next. This technique is certainly not unheard of, Chop Shop’s Oxide from almost ten years back is an album that immediately comes to mind. Farmer and Lacey are liberal with the technique throughout the album, and although it feels abrupt and a little jarring for the first few minutes, one quickly acclimatizes. In my case, I found that after a certain point I was anticipating the next cut, and was often relieved to find an unpredictability to the whole thing.

Technique aside, the recordings alone are very interesting, more often than not overblown, resulting in less detail heard from the actual source recordings. What we do end up hearing then is largely a byproduct of the recording process, ultimately giving the work a feel closer to that of old-school noise as opposed to electroacoustic improv or your typical “clean” field recording release. However, there is nothing here abrasive enough to pin these two as noisicians. The noise that is presented does more to soothe than it does to agitate, albeit, without lulling one into a stupor.

I’ve listened to this enough times through to get a sense of its overall shape, and it hits an especially nice groove at around the twenty minute mark, the duo settling on elongated drones that counter the rougher hewn parts beautifully. Pell-Mell’s 38 minute span feels a touch short for what is a universe’s worth of sound contained within, but the duo is smart to not push their piece into inevitable stagnancy–better a work is too short than too long I’ve always thought. Despite feeling like the work could have safely been ten minutes longer, the strange world of sound that Farmer and Lacey present here is captivating to say the least. I look forward to more from these two in the future.