Friday 23 January 2009

Sunn O))): The Grimmrobe Demos

First track, ‘Black Wedding’ opens with a fade into just noise – just noise in that it is impossible to tell what (if any) instrument is being used, perhaps leading one to bring in the useful umbrella term ‘electronics’ – but this almost immediately turns out to be just the afterglow of feedback, and thus it can be classified as ‘instrumental’, to some extent, though one might perhaps say that guitar feedback is an ‘electronic device’ as addendum to, or extension of, an instrument. At any rate, this blurring is, I think, typical of Sunn’s desire to go beyond the guitar through the (electric) guitar’s guitarness – that volume, that amped feedback which we so associate with the guitar now, is taken to its (logical?) extreme, where it just becomes noise beyond any instrument (so that, at some shows, they use just Moogs).

‘Grimmrobe’ is an album which seems as though it never ends, as if it’s music that actually continues playing beyond the arbitrary division of how much sonic material one can fit on one compact disc. Not only this problem of turning Sunn’s work into ‘album’/commodities, which always risk losing something of the totality of their experience, but, moving down a level, the division into separate tracks seems somewhat arbitrary. (The second track, ‘Defying Earth’s Gravity’ begins in almost exactly the same way as ‘Black Wedding’, with five seconds of noise/sound before a guitar chord comes in to tell you this is indeed a guitar). Such tactics would change in later releases like ‘Black One’, where the bell-punctuated quietude that opens ‘Báthory Erzsébet’ is very much a ‘prelude’ to the rest of the track, just as the tracks of ‘Domkirke’ very much have the feel of moving towards a climax. Such a move to climax obviously differs from ‘Grimmrobe’, where there is a feel of constantly sustained climax, or climax beyond climax, so that this sustaining becomes ridiculous and then feeds back to make the whole notion of the sustained rock-music climax (itself derived from, say, the closing cadenza-flurries of a Coltrane piece from the 60s) seem simply inadequate – as if Sunn have released the hidden noisy energies of Deep Purple, who really want to be Sunn. This is some sort of structural underpinning, but of such a stretched kind that it seems inadequate to talk of ‘song structure’ (of ‘song’ at all, even when vocalists are present, as they are not on ‘Grimmbrobe’). By contrast Boris, Sunn’s closest sonic kin, work very much in building up to and away from peaks and troughs – take the Merzbow collaboration ‘Sun Baked Snow Cave’, where acoustic guitar (!) melodicism morphs into noise-clouds.

Despite all this, the second track on ‘Grimmrobe’, ‘Defying Earth’s Gravity’ has that crushing inevitability about it which most of Sunn’s music (at least, in its ‘signature sound’ guise), also has. Because the power-metal chords are sustained for so long, you know what will be happening in the next few minutes at least (and can count on a similar chord coming up as the riff drags itself along, a wounded giant’s sub-bass groans) – but, again, this is taken so far so far that the inevitably becomes strain rather than comfort (or, maybe, at the same time, a kind of comfort as well?). You can’t say, as you can when listening to, say, a Baroque violin or lute sonata, ‘I know the sort of formulation that is coming up now’, although Sunn’s sounds are actually even more obvious than Baroque formulations.

Maybe the reason for this is that the music numbs you so that you hear what is not actually there – that is the music in it. Mathis Svalina, reporting on a gig at the Knitting Factory: “But the up-to-11-ness of the noise is only part of the experience. Each monolithic riff chased itself into fleetingly exuberant harmonics. The sounds were inside the noise.” The drone becomes like your heartbeat, or your blood as a drone or pulse – which connects to John Cage, entering the soundproof room and discovering that true silence doesn’t really exist – that there is still sound even in this locked environment, the sound of your blood, normally drowned out in the everyday world conditions where you can hear everything else going on around you, environmentally. Devoid of such sonic context, in this soundless environment, your body provides its own environmental sounds.

A similar effect can be perceived with Sunn, though they go about it by very different methods – extreme noise rather than extreme quiet. Their drone becomes bodily, becomes part of your body, or you go bodiless and become part of it (getting swallowed up into something outside/inside of yourself – it’s all hinged on contradiction; or, it transcends the false dichotomies of music/noise/sound/ person/other, raises a possibility of that transcending. And what is important is the noise/sound that would seem ‘peripheral’ to that drone, to the particular chord that is being played – specifically, on some tracks, there are phaser effects (‘Black Wedding’ here, or ‘bassAliens’ on ‘White 2’) – but if you have music at that volume and in that ritual atmosphere of their concert performance, with the dry ice and lighting, you start to hear things not there. Would it, then, be going too far to say that you yourself become the producer of the music, not just the passive consumer of it? In itself, this could be construed as an anti-capitalist notion – or maybe as simply beyond capitalism, ignoring it all together.

From the liner notes and album art, there are hints that this alternative worldview goes back to an older, pagan, pre-Christian mode of perception, which in many ways is a more brutal and nihilistic one. Sunn’s attitude to these aspects is unclear – and these sort of images, this sort of text, was always something that worried people so much about Black Metal. Dangers (as well as liberating possibilities) always arise from such ambivalence. And the refusal of any one emotional realm, like the refusal of any one particular ideology, simultaneously avoids and perpetuates such dangers. Greg Anderson: “There’s not one idea we’re trying to focus on, but we are more about the aesthetic and the atmosphere than say any particular religion or idea. If anything, we just want a ritual around sound and tone, rather than any particular ideology.” For myself, I’d say that the loudness of the drone pulverizes the listener, but not to conformity – this is not the same as the US army’s use of noise as torture, though it intriguingly crosses over with it; rather, it is the opposite. ‘Black Wedding’ even feels joyful, despite the track title and the album title. But that’s no simple joy – rather, it’s a joy of despair, nihilism turned up so high that it becomes the only thing to be joyed in. Revelling in the darkness – “the blissful loathing of you is now all that remains” (from the text accompanying ‘Black One’). A kind of comfort in utmost bleakness.

Thursday 22 January 2009

Improvisation, Bristol (17/1/09) *

Gaza was 'happening', in the lies of the world's media. Israel did use phosphorous, tanks and universities or mosques were in no way immune. It was for the people's own good, it was action against Hamas rather than the Palestinian people, hence the desire to blow up their dwellings, cut off their supplies, leave children with the dead corpses of their relatives. How could an art react, and what would be the use of an art that reacted to this outrage. By not seeing it as an abberation but a part of the whole, the continuing fabric and texture of our woven existence, tapestry of death and suffering, injustice. By making music that is intimately connected with this, by making sound that is nothing less than the sound of living, and thus the sound of dying. And death I think is no paranthesis. Death is the sentence, the shadow falls on white-washed walls from which the blood has lately been cleaned.

Two musicians in a cabin, musty and pouring dirt from its cracks. Outside the streets, the cars, the shops close their doors with the clinking sound of a cash register. A rumble exists in the city, under everything, under one's feet. The sounds emerge in the space of the cabin, fifteen minutes for this piece, synthesizer, 'objects' and saxophone. The music taps into something very deep. Dive down to the bottom of the pool, then find you can't swim and swim anyway. I don't want to sound like this is coming out of some 'pseudness', 'pretending' to discover 'truths' just as a means of sounding clever, it is not that and it is precisely because it is so hard to express in words that it has to be done in music, or that it has been done in music.

It arises of course from the surface level of that absolute electronic melancholia, drones and quasi-drones, held notes and lightly-spaced pops and clicks over heavy machine-heart. Fragments of texts, those names 'Israel' and 'Gaza', even when not spoken, as the hovering talismans that strike dread in the heart maybe more so in this context than in the whitewashed 'sanity'/sanitisation of BBC news-speak. "22 days 1203 Palestinians killed by Israel including 368 children .... Add Your Comment BBC NEWS | Israel Declares Ceasefire in Gaza. Recent News and Articles on the Keywords: cease -fire + palestinian + gaza Related to ... BBC News, UK."

I think it arises from the randomness as much as anything - the way a certain word on the radio catches in context a whole new meaning/set of meanings, the chill of recognition creating a new level of conviction, of listener/performer being convinced that what is being done is right. Of course there is still guilt, and that is maybe what this music wrestles with most, the guilt that permeates its pores, that it too is an infected discourse, but perhaps it could be infected with love and real sorrow, genuine sorrow - not "oh isn't it awful why can't they just get along" but the lament that contains within itself the conditions of the possibility of a world without the need for that lament. The 'ground-work', if you will. The music realising itself not as the solution, if a solution was posed it would dissolve in that other sense of the word, the solution that permeates everything, as watery spread.

Industrial low-edged harshsounds on synthesizer. It's not to say that this is 'mimetic' of Israeli tanks or electric drills or the piping system nightmare of Terry Gilliam's 'Brazil', or the industrial nightmare visions of 'Eraserhead' or 'Tetsuo the Iron Man.' It contains the sounds before, the sounds present, the sounds after, the sounds surrounding. Is its own text and context at once.

There is something very sombre and chilling about the voice. I listened to a poem reading today** which almost disappeared into itself by the end, and this has that same absolute fall-back to almost nothing. The resourt to song even, the singing of the utterly deserted when there is no more to do but give voice though one knows it will do no good, and in that it does good. The space beyond tears, shell-shocked but conscious. Numbed but fighting through it to sound emotion.


* Improvisation at 'The Cabin', Bristol, by 'Bristol Improvisers Zariba' - on this occasion, Mark Anthony Whiteford and Richard Soup. Listen to the piece at:
** J.H. Prynne reading John Wieners' 'Cocaine' at 'Archive of the Now' (

Saturday 17 January 2009

Minded to Landscape, To Sound: George Bejamin's 'A Mind of Winter'

George Benjamin, Ringed by the Flat Horizon/A Mind of Winter/At First Light/Panorama/Antara BBC Symphony Orchestra, London Sinfonietta, Mark Elder, George Benjamin, etc. Nimbus Records, 2006.

Benjamins' ear for colour was clearly a legacy of his mentor Messiaen, and it is this which distinguishes the 20-minute 'Ringed by the Flat Horizon'. Thundering percussion and low brass (in itself something of a modernist staple) alternates with almost concerto-like passages for a more cello, writing that is more concerned with linear melodicism than with the sound groupings of the orchestral clamour (however delicately and painstakingly the details of these are sketched out - for Bejamin's work is anything but messy, unsurprising given the extreme care he takes in composing, spending years on fairly short pieces). The ten-minute setting of Wallace Stevens' 'A Mind of Winter' works with a more stripped-down sound palette, the melismatic and stretched/held notes of the soprano soloist bending Wallace Stevens' words into even extra resonance. By the time of that superb final line - "nothing that is not there and the nothing that is" - it seems not so much that the work is concluding or stopping, but that it is emptying itself out into silence - an emotional, as well formal necessity. The emotional scope and intensity packed into such a short space of time is nothing short of remarkable. 'At First Light', in three movements, juxtaposes the sort of orchestral drama and dynamic one might expect from 'Ringed by the Flat Horizon' - often dark and almost neurotically powerful - with some unexpected melodic strains that could have come straight out of Messiaen (or from somewhere between Messiaen and Debussy). A case in point is the utterly surprising end of the final movement, the final thirty seconds occupied with a woodwind melody that almost dances, a conclusion of surprising and wonderfully affirmative (yet understated) optimism which remains true to the spirit of the rest of the piece even if it seems a radical departure from it. Following is the more playful miniature 'Panorama', an offshoot of the piece it proceeds on the disc, 'Antara', showcasing the synthesized pan pipe sounds which remain Benjamin's only use of electronics. Using much more silence than is normal for Benjamin, the slightly jarring overlaps between notes could be said to be a drawback, resulting from the limitations of the technology of the time (nowadays, computers could create a much smoother effect), but arguably this limitation becomes a vital part of the piece's aesthetic, creating a tension between the desire for extremely long, held notes, or the smoothness seemingly demanded by the opening melody (which sounds almsot folky), and this near-glitchy, discontinuous electronic insistence. It's like a particularly violent enjambment in a poem, cutting across what seems to be the obvious sense and/or sonic pattern, though the piece sounds far less of emotional extrimities than some of the others might. 'Antara' itself manages the breathy pan-synths within the orchestral setting (often by means of merging them with the similarly-toned flute). High held notes over dark rumblings, sonic lava erupting inexorably through tympani roar, crescendos and subsidences maintaining a constant tension. The piece, these works taken together, are a human body engaged and strained to the fullest, a landscape whose smears are clarity, the brutal jewel of snow.