VA: Au Clair De La Lune

Yann Novak: The Breeze Blowing Over Us

Yann Novak and Jamie Drouin: +ROOM-ROOM
The Henry Art Gallery

Au Clair De La Lune takes its inspiration from the earliest known recording of the human voice which was made by Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville on April 9, 1860 using his own invention, the phonautograph. As the resultant “recording” consisted of a series of scratches on a roll of blackened paper for which there was no available playback method, it went unheard for 148 years until scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory converted the material into ten seconds of audio, enabling one to hear a woman singing bits of the folk song “Au Clair de la Lune.” That fragment serves as a means to an enriching end on Infrequency's double-disc recording with well-known sound artists (Steve Roden, Stephen Vitiello, Bernhard Gunter, Christophe Charles, among others) creating new compositions using the fragment as a starting point. The common thread connecting the nine disparate treatments is, of course, that vocal melody (charmingly off-key in a couple of places) which often surfaces as a rather ghost-like presence haunting the pieces.

Roden inaugurates the collection with a bright and melodic two-minute prelude (“Aucla Irde Lalu Ne”) before “A Short Story” by Lionel Marchetti and Yôko Higashi situates us within the sort of experimental territory we would expect from a recording of this kind. Over the course of the nine-minute meditation, the original, softly-uttered vocal melody is heard alongside a wealth of other sounds, vocal and otherwise: the groans of a seemingly helpless elder, the squeal of a baby, whistling and sputtering noises, and so on. Sleep Research Facility's “Dark Side of the Lune” makes good on its rather woeful title by traveling through deep space with all of the cavernous rumble and echo that the notion entails. Lance Olsen's “The Creature That Drank Sound” presents a rippling mass of processed sounds and voices (French-speaking adults and children, the original vocal material), while Stephen Vitiello and Molly Berg's “Claire Song Sung” splinters the familiar children's song into shimmering shards.

Three long-form settings by (Infrequency co-founder) Jamie Drouin, Gunter, and Yann Novak compose disc two. Drouin's “Soot and Paper” immerses the listener within a microscopic universe of rippling textures and reverberant drones. The original melody is heard in severely distorted yet still recognizable form at the outset of Gunter's “Les Voix Du Passe / Chantent L'avenir / Clair De Lune” and then persists as a snuffling nucleus for augmenting ear-piercing tones and atonal piano splashes. At recording's end, barely audible swathes of hum and simmer in Novak's “Time Forgot” take us on a twenty-minute journey that's even more sub-atomic than Drouin's.

Au Clair De La Lune earns its recommendation for bringing attention to a valuable historical document but also for being, on its own terms, an inspired and splendid conceptual recording. It's especially fascinating to witness what results when two such extreme audio poles—the earliest known recording and the vast potential of modern technological methods—converge.

Concurrent with its release is a solo recording by Novak titled The Breeze Blowing Over Us. Audacious in its own way, the piece was recorded in Seattle on an extremely hot day in 2008; that the day also happened to be part of the first weekend he spent with his partner (Robert, one presumes, given the dedication on the sleeve) lends the recording an emotional dimension that otherwise would be less conspicuous. What makes the recording unique is that Novak used a simple recording of a fan next to their bed as the sole sound source, which he then transformed using digital processing into a full-blown, epic soundscape. It's a prototypical exemplar of ambient sound sculpting with Novak slowly moving the thirty-nine-minute work through numerous episodes: immense clouds rumble as they advance and retreat in wave-like manner; rustling streams underpin upper-level, whistling drones; electrical tones resonate over a glimmering hum. That the amplified sound of the fan is also audible—or at least appears to be so—allows the listener to contextualize the material as it mutates through those contrasting episodes. The work is distinguished by its clean design, with its constituent parts meticulously woven into a seamless flow without a superfluous element in sight.

The inarguably prolific Novak also appears on +ROOM-ROOM, which in its originating form is a pair of 4-channel sound installations for two adjacent galleries currently showing (until May 3) at the Seattle, Washington-based Henry Art Gallery (the audio CD presents stereo versions of the works). The artists' pieces attempt to explore how one's perception of a particular space—a gallery room in this case—is affected by sound. The pieces themselves are based on actual ambient noises recorded in the galleries and thus aren't metaphors but, in fact, sonic "transcriptions" of the physical spaces. As is often the case, however, the adventurous listener—or at least one with an appetite for long-form drones—can appreciate the material sans familiarity with the project's background.

Novak's “+ROOM” emerges from a minute of silence with an organ-like drone that's slowly joined by high-pitched, whistling noises. Without deviating from its drone character, the piece undergoes subtle transformation in timbre and volume throughout its half-hour duration, advancing loudly at times and then retreating towards near-silence at others. The material swells into a buzzing swarm that one becomes so acclimated to that when the swarm drops out for a moment at the twenty-five-minute mark, one is jolted by its sudden disappearance. Par for the genre, Novak's overtone-generating drone induces an hypnotic effect as it wavers in space before returning to the silence from whence it came. Drouin's “-ROOM” immediately announces a shift in tone by rolling out a sub-lunar hum that swells into an ambient mass of (what at least appear to be) environmental sounds. Rumbles appear amidst a thick wave of hiss until the elements merge into a singular billowing entity that as it expands and contracts almost imperceptibly grows in size and volume. Interestingly, while the two pieces are identically-timed (at 31:25) and both use the galleries' ambient sounds as source material, they're almost completely unlike one another in character.

These fine Infrequency and Henry Art releases make natural complements to recent discs from Dragon's Eye Recordings for which Novak acts as creative director: Clinker's On the Other Side... (for L. Cohen) and Kamran Sadeghi's Through Thickness (both recently reviewed at textura).

April 2009