Anla Courtis: Cassetopia
The always interesting ini.itu label returns with three new vinyl releases whose musical terrain extends from the “dystopic lounge ambiance” of David Ross and Clive Bell and the “serenity and alienation” of Anla Courtis to the imaginary landscapes of Anaphoria. Music, we're informed, is the optimal means by which the latter's unusual geographical character can be captured. With that in mind, Australia-based sound artist and so-called ‘Ethnographic Surrealist' Kraig Grady (b. 1952) follows up his earlier Anaphoria release on ini.itu, Footpaths and Trade Routes, with a fine sequel titled Escarpments. With its material supposedly collected by Banaphshu and Grady, the vinyl release backs three pieces of modest duration with a side-long setting.
One of the most appealing things about the recording is the distinctive world each piece inhabits. The opener “Sand, Dust, Relics,” for example, is characterized by soft, organ-like tones, its mood wistful and even mournful, as if one is eavesdropping on a musician translating feelings of sorrow into musical form. “Cliffs, Crags, Gravel,” on the other hand, features the Kalan, whose spidery sound resembles a hammered dulcimer or santur and which appears on the album as a dazzling series of sparkling patterns and thrums. “Grasses, Tundra, Terrains” ends side one with a return to the gentle terrain of the opener, with soft organ tones conjuring an impression of the meditative peacefulness that sometimes sets in at day's end.
Side B's “Headwaters, Cascades, Torrents” obviously parts company with the others in accentuating hydrological phenomena in its title. The Meta-Slendro metallophone serves as an apt choice of instrument, given its reverberant property and shimmering timbre. According to Grady, the composition is “a series of reflections from the water's edge that … follow the flow and nature of water more than adhere to the consuming nature of fire or the rigidity of earth.” True enough, the music unfolds with a graceful fluidity, its shape ever-changing, flexible, and adaptable, and much like the different parts of a river, some sections travel fast while others slow to near-stillness. Ultimately, it's up to the individual to decide whether to concentrate on the music alone or factor into the listening experience the Anaphoria concept Grady has developed for the project. Regardless of one's preference, the music of Escarpments holds up perfectly well shorn of its conceptual content.
Buenos Aires, Argentina-born Anla Courtis (b.1972) brings a wealth of experience to his Cassetopia release, with the founding member of Reynols also having collaborated in the past with figures such as Pauline Oliveros, Otomo Yoshihide, Phill Niblock, Mats Gustafsson, and Toshimaru Nakamura. Based upon four-track cassette recordings produced between 1990-1992, Courtis uses a number of source materials (guitar, violin, bells, plastic trumpet, tapes, turntable, electronics, field recordings, etc.) to shape his electroacoustic pieces into evocative explorations of contrasting design. Some qualify as noise exercises or tape experiments, while others are comparatively more musical, with an actual melody or two emerging from the dense undergrowth.
Featuring eleven “Cassetopia” variations, the album begins with sparse and spooky nocturnal meanderings before the cryptic tinkle of a music box suggests relocation to a child's nursery. Grinding noise experiments speckled with the garble of distorted voices and smeared horns surface thereafter, though it bears worth mentioning that Courtis's noise pieces, which tend to creak and whirr at a comfortably calibrated pitch, are always easy on the ears. On side two, an initial excursion into deep space leads in turn to agitated flutterings, the raw scrape of a violin, and the molten, grime-coated groans of an electric guitar. The sense of woozy disorientation that pervades Cassetopia culminates in the closing track, a crackle-drenched vignette that drunkenly sways more than any other piece on the album.
Similar in adventurous spirit is Recovery Suite, whose ten unusual pieces merge the drosscillator (a customized analog oscillator) manipulations of David Ross with the shakuhachi (Japanese flute) playing of Clive Bell. “Dystopic lounge ambiance” isn't a bad label for what the two are up to, given the relaxed, free-floating feel of the album material, and the press release's statement that Recovery Suite is “free music, but not in the free jazz way” also makes a lot of sense. Given the exotic soundworld presented, the suggested reference points, among them Cluster and Fourth World Vol 1: Possible Musics by Brian Eno and Jon Hassell, turn out to be accurate, too.
While Bell doesn't appear on every track, Ross does, which makes the drosscillator the dominant sound element on the recording. The device is capable of generating a broad range of sounds, however, so Recovery Suite avoids sounding repetitive. Drosscillator-generated clicks, pops, whirrs, throbs, sputter, primitive beat patterns, and even a melodic pattern or two surface within the tracks, with Bell's breathy shakuhachi blowing bolstering the distinctive character of the tracks on which he appears. When the two combine forces, the album takes on the feel of a plunge into an uncharted jungle, with the heat and humidity so intense that the increasingly disoriented traveler grows unsure of whether the unsettling sounds are real or the product of hallucinations. At such moments, the album is best experienced with the lights turned off and the curtains drawn.