Review of Basal [12k1014]

Haunted Ink (US)

I knew nothing about Sogar when I first started listening to this disk, so I checked out 12k’s excellent web site. This is what I found: “Born in Nürenberg, living in Paris, Sogar’s Jürgen Heckel manipulates accidental sound into gentle and brittle melodic textures with arrangements using guitars as well as mixing desks, amplifiers and cables as instruments.” It’s important to note that guitars, amps, and cables are all referred to here as “instruments.” This is absolutely the correct term, for what is an instrument but a device that generates sound? Notice that I don’t use the word “music,” but sound. Sound is a natural phenomenon, and can take any shape; music is a human construct, and it can take only certain set, prearranged shapes. As the blurb goes on to say, Basal was created out of “nonmusical” sounds (static, glitches, rustling electrical surges) culled from these instruments; the sounds were then sequenced and manipulated digitally by computer software. It is, consequently, impossible to tell the origin of any particular sound – to tell which sound comes from a guitar, which from a mixing desk, which from an amplifier, or which from cables. When the sounds are all processed together on the computer, they blend, fuse with one another, and become something quite different – something, in fact, that is far more “musical” than anything created out of aberrant sparks has the right to be.

I focus here on the process of creating this disk not because I have any particular “secret knowledge” into the creation of Basal but because music like this foregrounds process – pushes the act of creating music out into the open by focusing attention on the noises that most music tries to hide, thereby exposing music itself as a created thing. However, what’s interesting about this work (as opposed to some other works in the “glitch” micro-genre) is the unusual way this music actually transcends its base origins. What I hear on this disk is the work of an artist who is trying, like a Zen gardener, to prune and order a chaotic sea of sound into something beautiful and interesting. The third track, “Ker75,” for example, starts out with a series of undulating, prodding hisses that swivel around and mutate but never lose their hiss; above and around these hisses, snatches of static and digital noise pierce through the haze. Then one of the hisses turns into a simple, elegant melody, rising up and around the noise. Then some of the digital noises glisten down into a steady, soft pattern. It’s as if the song begins as chaos. Then slowly, one piece at a time, the chaotic elements are culled, cropped, or otherwise “tamed.” Of course, “tamed” here is a relative term, for the sounds never escape the category of “glitch” or even “noise.” It’s just that, amidst the chaos of these sounds, a musical idea somehow takes shape and is given definition, at least for a little while.

Errol Morris, the director of such documentaries as The Thin Blue Line and Mr. Death, made an interesting film a few years back called Fast, Cheap, and Out-of-Control. The film told the stories of four people: a lion tamer, a topiary gardener, a biologist who studied the naked mole rat, and a robot designer. These individuals seemed to have nothing in common, but Morris’ documentary reveals that each of these people were trying to control, to order, or to otherwise understand the vast chaos that is life. I hear the same thing going on in the tentative, unusual compositions on Sogar’s Basal. I see in this work the musical landscape carved out by others in the “glitch” or micromusical genre, but I also see the deep well of noise that exists beyond human defined musical categories. As I said earlier, “glitch” music foregrounds process; this work, however, foregrounds not simply the process of creating music but the process humans go through in determining what is and what isn’t music. It’s an interesting work, to say the least. Not everyone will enjoy the droning, static aberrations (the raw data) that flow throughout these nine tracks, but the melodies (when they materialize) are worth hearing, and the work as a whole is worth investigating if you are, like me, interested not only in listening to music, but in considering the concepts which shape and define how we perceive and understand all sounds, not just music.

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