Christina Kubisch & Eckehard Güther: Unter Grund
Gruenrekorder [Soundscape Series]

rhein_strom: von der rheinquelle bis hafen karlsruhe
Gruenrekorder [Field Recording Series]

Lasse-Marc Riek: Schwarm

Since its 2003 founding, Gruenrekorder co-managers Lasse-Marc Riek and Roland Etzin have done much to establish the German label as one of the foremost outlets for field recordings-related work, and for that matter have been instrumental in establishing field recordings as a legitimate stand-alone genre. Two new releases, the first by Christina Kubisch and Eckehard Güther and the other by Thomas M. Siefert and Riek (under the rhein_strom name), reflect that ongoing commitment; Riek's also represented here by Schwarm, an hour-long recording that while issued on ALARM could just as easily have appeared on Gruenrekorder.

Though the two Gruenrekorder releases are classified differently, Kubisch and Güther's as part of the label's Soundscape Series and rhein_strom's as a Field Recording Series installment, they have more in common that that distinction might suggest: both are grounded in field recordings activity and, as a result of the manipulations applied to them by the artists involved, are soundscapes, too. In terms of content, both also are conceptually oriented around water-related activity. As always with the label's products, the visual presentation adds considerably to one's impression of the material, with each release enhanced by texts and photos to bring clarity to the project and the artists' intentions.

At thirty-two minutes, Unter Grund (Under Ground) is more than half the length of von der rheinquelle bis hafen karlsruhe but isn't compromised by brevity. To create the work, originally presented as a twenty-six-channel installation at the Zollverein world heritage site, Güther and Kubisch used hydrophones and contact microphones to gather recordings in the Ruhr Area in machine rooms (above and under ground), pumping stations, waterworks, ponds, shaft sumps, cages, and spillways, among other locales. In keeping with its title, Unter Grund obviously is as much about what's happening below as above the surface, specifically groundwater that connects rivers through subsurface tunnels that push their way into disused mines and must therefore be drained or pumped so as to avoid drinking water contamination and the collapse of old shafts. In simplest terms, mine water must be managed and controlled as without doing so the tunnel system would flood, which would in turn induce sag on the land surface, soil the water chemically, and essentially convert the Ruhr area into a swampy, contaminated seascape.

An obvious parallel can be drawn between the activities above and below ground and the conscious and unconscious parts of the Freudian psyche. There's an omnipresent tension between what we can know and see and thereby control versus primordial urges operating below the surface. Similar to that, we witness nature's merciless power in its extreme weather patterns and volcanic activity but can only guess at what's going on under our feet at any given moment. It's understandable, then, that the portrait drawn on Unter Grund is neither pastoral nor bucolic. Instead, the listener is repeatedly reminded of the immense strength of the forces operating underground and the potential harm they could cause were they to go unchecked.

In the soundscape, Kubisch and Güther conjure a turbulent world that while not nightmarish is often ominous in tone. When the water pump roars into hydraulic action at the thirteen-minute mark and even more dauntingly nine minutes later, we start to gain some sense of the complex industrial operation involved in releasing the water from its underground channels. At such moments, the soundscape becomes more of a churning noisescape than anything else. Upholding the material's alien tone, “Vision” concludes the release with eight minutes of insectoid noise that suggests the inner workings of the human body as much as earthly activity.

Siefert and Riek's rhein_strom release, von der rheinquelle bis hafen karlsruhe (in essence, from the source of the Rhine to the Karlsruhe harbour) is succinctly encapsulated by the question, “Would you recognize the Rhine by its sound?” Working with recordings collected along a 589-kilometre stretch, the two (Riek credited with field recordings and Siefert with location scouting and photos) have assembled a seventy-three-minute ambient portrait of the river that shifts the focus away from the visual to the purely sonic realm. The river gurgles so dynamically it feels close enough to touch, and rushing water isn't the only sound either: chirping birds, machinery grinding, distant traffic noise, the chatter of people who live by the river as well as other creatures all surface, making for a rich, detailed travelogue; if anything, it's surprising how plentiful non-water sounds are on the recording. Intensity levels fluctuate throughout, with some episodes aggressive and others peaceful by comparison.

In answer to the original query, I wouldn't, in truth, be able to identify the river as the Rhine by the sound portrait presented, but that's no slight against the work's creators. Without the clarification, I'd be able to identify the recording as a document of a setting teeming with activity, both nature and creature-based, and water-related sounds strongly suggestive of a river locale, but I'd be hard pressed to recognize them as specifically tied to the Rhine as opposed to another. But it's an engrossing soundscape nevertheless that holds one's attention as it advances through its multiple changes of scenery and twenty-one indexed stopping-points.

As mentioned, Riek obviously could have issued Schwarm on his and and Etzin's own imprint but for whatever reason opted to issue the hour-long release on the cassette label ALARM. No matter: the release, available in an edition of eighty copies, fits solidly within the field recordings genre regardless of the label on which it appears. In this case, the source material was drawn from recordings Riek gathered of a flight corridor in Hanau-Steinheim near the Frankfurt Airport. Naturally, sounds of overhead planes are prominently featured throughout, but Riek has fashioned Schwarm into a multi-dimensional tapestry by weaving into its design multiple other elements—tolling church bells, construction work, voices, and so on.

While the resultant soundscape on the one hand offers a somewhat literal inventory of the location's sounds, it's also phantasmagoric in the way the various elements have been layered and sequenced into a collage: church bells ring almost without pause during Schwarm, presumably more frequently than they do at the locale itself, and of course the same applies to how often other elements appear, too. Put simply, Schwarm presents a fantastical portrait of the setting, but that it is so makes it no less satisfying—if anything, Riek's deliberate shaping of the material makes it more appealing as a listening experience. As with all such recordings, for maximum effect it's best to set all else aside and give one's full attention to the material.

March 2016