DinahBird: A Box of 78s

David Michael and Slavek Kwi: Mmabolela

Manfred Waffender: Places In Time: Thailand & Myanmar

One of the things that helps make Gruenrekorder's products so fascinating is that they encompass such a wide range of styles and genres. In presenting phonography, audio-visual work, and sound art, three recent releases (each a different format) by David Michael and Slavek Kwi, Manfred Waffender, and DinahBird provide an excellent illustration of the label's range.

The first of the trio is Mmabolela, a double-CD set of field recordings-based settings by Slavek Kwi (aka Artificial Memory Trace) and David Michael. Working in the realm of phonography, which treats nature as an acoustic site teeming with musical sounds, the two collected their recordings during a November 2013 residency at the Mmabolela Reserve in Limpopo, South Africa during Sonic Mmabolela, an event organized by Francisco López and James Webb. Adding to the release's interest is the fact that Michael and Kwi gathered their recordings at the same time and place (in a liner note, Michael writes, “We each now have many recordings of the exact same events, but from slightly different perspectives”), which naturally encourages the listener to attend to their respective presentations with that detail in mind.

Kwi's CD extends twelve pieces across eighty minutes, the shortest of them a single minute (a close-up of Xmas Beetles) and the longest a twenty-minute nocturnal portrait (one of three) featuring cicadas, frogs, and baboons. Kwi gets close to the subject matter, resulting in sounds that can sometimes seem almost violent when they seem so near. Of course, these ever-stimulating nature mini-symphonies don't feature hippos, toads, birds, frogs, bats, and beetles only but the environment, too. Sounds of wind, water, thunder, rain, and rustlings of various kings appear throughout as a backdrop to the chirps, cries, grunts, windpecks, and buzzing. Though Kwi's interventions appear minimal with respect to the raw material involved, some degree of compositional design is apparent in the overall sequencing, the transitions between pieces, and the occasional interventions that occur within them. There are moments, for example, when the insect thrum in the final nocturnal setting starts to resemble an electronic soundscape as much as a field recordings piece.

Just as Kwi closes his CD with a twenty-minute setting, Michael opens his with one of equal duration, “Skavek's Dry Creek,” a peaceful portrait flush with bird chatter. Michael weaves seven settings into an uninterrupted travelogue that transitions seamlessly from day into night (“Midnight on the Limpopo”) and from locales featuring the bellow of hippopotamuses to one with baboons and bats. In the aptly titled “Duets,” the chattering counterpoint of various creatures is heard for thirteen hypnotic minutes; replete with grunts, chirps, and other noises, “The Bridge To Botswana IV,” on the other hand, is characterized by boisterous levels of activity. If the buzzing seems to swell at CD's end, perhaps it's because we're spending the “Afternoon With An Impala Carcass.” If there's one difference between Kwi's and Michael's presentations that stands out more than any other, it's that whereas Kwi's at times reveals the presence of the artist, Michael disappears from view in his. Though the listener is obviously aware that he's the controlling hand who's selected and sequenced the material, his presence is camouflaged by the absence of noticeable interventions.

Abetted by sleeve photos of dung beetles and millipedes, the recordings enable the listener to feel as if he/she has been transplanted into a resplendently rich soundworld teeming with exotic birds, animals, and insects. The optimal conditions for immersion in this case call for loud volume, darkness, and a high-quality sound system; experiencing Mmabolela in accordance with such conditions helps facilitate the illusion that one is at the site, even if only for the 160-minute duration of the recording.

In his Places in Time series, Manfred Waffender creates ‘audiovisual moods' of different places, twenty of which are featured on his latest DVD release. Thailand and Myanmar are the focal points of the 110-minute presentation, which follows similarly themed editions focusing on New Zealand, Tansania (Tanzania), Petersberg, Montepulciano, Norway Fjords, New Brighton Beach, and Gentle Annie Point (the first in the series appeared in 2008). In the opening scene, creaks and scrapes produced by a river-based landing station resound as boats dock and riders decamp. Elsewhere, people are seen crowding city streets, outdoor markets, rain-soaked pagoda and temple sites, going about their day-to-day lives shopping, working, and playing. Bells, birds, car horns, voices (speaking and singing), motorboats, fabric-weaving, crashing waves, and popular and traditional musics form part of the soundtrack, and imagery includes both landscape and people-based scenes recorded in the city and country at day and night. Waffender parks his camera in single locations, content to let the abundant visual and auditory detail before the camera provide the necessary stimulation. Scene changes occur with regularity, an approach that gives the work a patchwork-like quality.

Visiting the various locations proves to be an educational experience, though the presentation would benefit from the inclusion of titles to clarify the precise location of what's displayed in the scenes. The sleeve does indicate that Bangkok, Yangon, Mandalay, Ayarwaddy River, Inle Lake, Koh Chang Island, and Lonely Beach are among the locations shown and the DVD ends with a listing of the locations and the dates when the scenes were recorded, but clarifying that onscreen throughout the DVD would assist the viewer unfamiliar with the settings. It's worth noting that while Places in Time: Thailand and Myanmar is an audio-visual project, it can function effectively as a purely audio presentation, too, given that Waffender has designed the sound portion so that it flows continuously.

Issued on twelve-inch vinyl (300 copies) as part of Gruenrekorder's Sound Art Series, DinahBird's A Box of 78s is the most curious release of the three. As its liner notes reveal, it's an extremely personal project for the artist in question, a Paris-based radio and sound artist who creates radio programmes, audio publications, installations, and soundtracks. A Box of 78s concerns a leather box containing over fifty 78 rpm recordings of classical music and opera that was inherited by DinahBird's grandmother and who took the box with her when she left Salt Spring Island, British Columbia in 1925 (where she was born in 1910) and kept it with her until her death in 2000. Twelve years later, DinahBird retraced the box's journey back to to the island and, assisted by her great-grandfather's diary and related notes, played the records outdoors on a portable gramophone where her grandmother and family lived and recorded what happened. With conversations with today's island residents woven into the material, the release functions as a nostalgic collage, an audio scrap book of sorts, that blends reminiscences, observations, field recordings, and music.

In keeping with the idiosyncratic nature of the project, the album itself is unusual in the way it's split into a ‘trackside' featuring seven collage-styled pieces and a ‘loopside' featuring twelve loops. Of the two sides, it's the first that's key, given that it's the one on which the various sound elements are woven together, among them the speaking voices of living persons (British and Canadian voices and those of young and old people, too), the warble of an opera singer on an old 78, and sounds of boat creaks, hiking, seagulls, and birds.

The past (the 78s, the reading of diary entries) and present (the surprise of a Salt Spring Island resident when informed about DinahBird's project) fuse together in the ‘trackside' in a way that emphasizes the project's strong historical dimension. As the artist herself writes, “This piece is about rekindling lost, and perhaps forgotten, sounds. Are they so very different to those my grandmother heard?” Certainly the nature sounds would be much the same; as far as people are concerned, there's an implication that though generations change, their story-telling traditions persist as they're passed along from one to the next.

Compared to side one, the ‘loopside' is non-linear and bereft of narrative grounding. Yet even so its twelve loops do impart an hypnotic effect and in abstract manner do allude to the project's cyclical theme in the repetition of each's loop content. A clear connection to the first side is also established by the selection of the sounds featured within the loops, which include bells, dribbling water, and an opera singer's sustained note. When presented as a never-ending loop, each of the twelve tracks can't help but assume a rhythmic character. But as interesting an idea as the ‘loopside' might be, it's not as involving as the ‘trackside' nor as engrossing. Though A Box of 78s in its presented form still proves fascinating, a more satisfying result might have involved DinahBird extending the first side's concept across both.

February 2015