Daniel Blinkhorn: Terra Subfónica

Lasse-Marc Riek: Helgoland

That two of Gruenrekorder's latest releases are field recordings-oriented hardly surprises but what does—as is so often the case with the Frankfurt-based label's releases—is how the sound artists involved, Lasse-Marc Riek (co-runner, along with Roland Etzin, of Gruenrekorder) and Australian composer Daniel Blinkhorn, build on that base to create work that distinguishes it from that of others.

Helgoland is Riek's affectionate homage to Germany's only ocean island and one of the places in Europe most densely populated with birds; in fact, it's the only place within Germany where one will encounter the marine birds heard on the recording, specifically the Common Murre, Northern Gannet, Northern Fulmar, Razorbill, and Black-legged Kittiwake. Though bird sounds dominate, other life forms, such as the Great Green Bush-Cricket and the Grey Seal, are also heard. For this forty-seven-minute portrait of the North Sea locale (available in 500 CD copies), Riek spent two years collecting thirty-five hours of audio recordings, with the result an amazingly rich and evocative acoustic painting of the landscape and its inhabitants.

Like establishing shots, “Sand” and “Brandung” familiarize the listener with the naturalism of the site in the tumultuous sounds of unrelenting water and wind forces. Riek's view zooms in closer to introduce the cawing and fluttering of bird colonies in “Lummenfelsen,” after which their vocalizations are presented with an amazing degree of clarity, whether it be the the scratchy screech of the Arctic Tern (“Küstenseeschwalbe”), the nattering cry of the Lesser Black-backed Gull (“Heringsmöwe”), the guttural croak of the Northern Gannet in “Basstölpel,” or the chirps and calls of the Guillemot in “Lummensprung.” The latter piece is especially fascinating as it actually documents the moment when Guillemot chicks leap into the water for the first time, while their parents egg them on, so to speak, to take the plunge.

Riek's material illustrates how distinctive a particular bird's sound can be, such as, for instance, the mournful cry of the Black-legged Kittiwake (as documented in “Dreizehenmöwe I”), although admittedly it's hard at times to resist projecting interpretations upon what's heard. We seem to be eavesdropping on an intense argument between the Lesser Black-backed Gull and Black-Legged-Kittiwake during “Dreizehenmöwe II,” for example, though it may simply be a record of concurrent vocalizations as opposed to exchanges. As varied and rich as the birds' sounds are, the recording's most memorable sound is that of the Grey Seal pup whose seemingly anguished cry is heard so vividly during “Kegelrobbe / Jungtier.” Helgoland ultimately feels like so pure a portrait that the disconcerting appearance of a plane in the final track “Flugzeug- Kegelrobbe” seems like a violation of sorts, a reminder of the degree to which industrialization can despoil the beauty of the natural world.

Terra Subfónica, a radiophonic work (available in 500 CD copies) by Daniel Blinkhorn, holds up well if experienced on purely sonic terms or as a recording whose aural content is amplified by the track-by-track detail the Sydney-based sound artist and field recordist generously provides. Presented in the form of nineteen miniatures, the recording documents one of his primary interests, specifically the relationships between people and the sonorous environments they inhabit, the latter often existing as subliminal parts of the larger, complex fabric. Blinkhorn's preferred term for this is “sub sound” as it refers to a terrain existing just below the threshold of awareness. A panorama of sounds originating from field recordings, instrumental music, and electronic music constitutes the raw materials out of which the miniatures were developed. The pieces are a diverse and eclectic lot that, despite being so multi-varied, share a common theme and consequently hold together as a cohesive statement. Vocal sounds, clarinets (by Rémi Delangle), guitars (by Jeremy Sawkins), and even, surprisingly enough, hip-hop beats (by Olivier Zeller) surface during the recording, adding to the rich landscape assembled by Blinkhorn.

We begin with nature sounds, specifically the quiet gurgle of a seascape (the first of three such vignettes) and its gentle breezes, before moving onto “Subfón – Monochrome I,” a monophonic work (one of two on the recording) that uses jazz guitar as a constellating point for myriad sounds, natural and industrial, drawn from the other Terra Subfónica pieces. The second seascape fixates on the robust sound activity associated with a colony of hermit crabs Blinkhorn encountered on an island off the coast of Venezuela, the sounds suggestive on their own of insectile activity rather than the up-close recording of creatures crawling overtop of one another in a confined space. The third seascape shifts the focus to sounds below the water's surface, namely the burble, snaps, and clicks produced from a coral reef and the many marine creatures that live alongside it. Consistent with the nautical theme, water, ship, and harbour sounds captured on location in Sweden dominate “Norse Hamn (Norse Harbor).”

As reflected in its title and incorporation of manipulated clock sounds (whirrs, ticking, chimes), time is the obvious theme of “Sub Chron I,” which Blinkhorn amplifies further by including a field recording of a public space to emphasize how fundamentally our everyday lives are configured by clock time. Dominating “Corpus Sanus – Computare” are glitchy electronic sounds Blinkhorn captured by opening the casing on his computer and using microphones to record the inner sounds of the machine, which he then processed using—what else?—computer software. Glitchy and real-world sounds intertwine in “Relatively Loud Tones” when bleeps and electronic chirps rub shoulders with church bells, door slams, and people talking, the sum-total of which reminds the listener of the rich array of omnipresent sound he/she is surrounded by and largely desensitized to.

“Corpus Sanus – Hominis” records the inner sounds of the human body, specifically the heart, blood, and lungs, something Blinkhorn effected by taping a handmade ‘stethoscopic' microphone to his body during a soundwalk through the traffic-laden urban environment. By contrast, “(Sub)Urban Mantra” moves into the outer world to capture a teeming cityscape of people-related sounds, a busker's guitar a kind of glue connecting the bits together. Fragmented whispers form the backbone of “Voix Sous,” an ethereal soundscape of noticeable ebb-and-flow that perhaps comes closest of the pieces to being a prototypical electronic composition of the contemporary kind. Zeller's beats accompany sounds of Blinkhorn's three children playing—tumbling, rolling, giggling—on the first of the three “Toy Bagatelle” pieces, the third of which assumes a more abstract form in manipulating and time-stretching the sound produced by a single key on a toy piano.

A vast range of environments is explored over the course of the fifty-five-minute recording, and one comes away impressed by how effectively Blinkhorn brings to the listener's awareness the huge number of sonic worlds—micro and macro, natural and urban, inner and outer—one is experiencing and immersed within at any given moment. In that regard, the experience of listening to Terra Subfónica proves to be transformative.

July 2013