Peter Kutin: Burmese Days
Antje Vowinckel: Terra Prosodia
Gruenrekorder releases typically make a strong impression for being unusual and audacious, and, despite being dramatically different in concept, these recent recordings by Vienna-based composer Peter Kutin and Berlin-based sound artist Antje Vowinckel are no exception. Kutin's is a vinyl release that roots its side-long compositions in 2012 field recordings from Myanmar, whereas Vowinckel's CD features eight sparsely designed sound compositions oriented around dialects and disappearing languages.
The thing I like most about Burmese Days is that it plays like a formally composed symphony of sorts, with field recordings used in place of conventional instrument sounds and Kutin sequencing the field recordings so that each side creates the impression of being a multi-part suite. Adding to the material's appeal are musical sounds contributed by Berndt Thurner and dieb13, whose Burmese metallophones and electronics-and-turntables, respectively, merge with Kutin's field-recordings and electronics on the two settings. An accompanying press note accurately characterizes Burmese Days as something more akin to an abstract composition than a traditional field-recordings album.
There is an underlying political dimension to the project in that Kutin was only able to gather the field recordings half a year after the military dictatorship announced its withdrawal from the area, a development that in turn allowed journalists to officially enter and explore the locale. But despite the promise of peace and democracy (when Obama visited at the end of 2012, for example, he became the first American president to have visited Myanmar in fifty years), violence has persisted in the form of ethnic clashes in the western Akran state and deaths in violent altercations between Muslims and radical Buddhists. In fashioning his material, Kutin aimed to translate a diverse set of personal experiences into satisfying aesthetic form, and the result shows that he accomplished that goal. Both sides weave different kinds of sounds into evolving soundscapes: the first offsets the agitated thrum of insects and babble of crowds with the meditative stillness engendered by a struck metallophone; the second follows tinkling bells and singing voices with train clatter and inner city commotion.
Kutin brings years of experience to the project: a producer of live performances, film scores, theater productions, and radio plays, he's collected field recordings at mountain ranges, jungles, deserts, prisons, protest marches, and war zones. That experience shows in the ease with which Burmese Days' various strands come together. Helping to unify the work are the non-field recordings elements, which effectively act as connecting agents for its multiple stages.
Vowinckel's Terra Prosodia (which received an honourary mention for the 2012 Prix Ars Electronica) is compelling also, albeit in a different way. The fascination here lies in attending to the vocal sounds as pure sound, as melodies that emerge simply through vocal utterance and the richness of human expression. There are currently approximately 6000 spoken languages, many of them destined to disappear. An arguable upside is that if a dialect or disappearing language is shared by a small number of people, those who don't speak the language can experience the utterance as pure musical expression.
For Terra Prosodia, Vowinckel asked a number of people to present short, spontaneous stories based on personal experiences. But though the stories recounted deal with storms, excursions, accidents, etc., their content doesn't matter: what does is their manner of presentation. The recording doesn't, however, feature a single voice within each of the eight pieces; instead, Vowinckel augments that primary element with a second voice or instrument, the latter at times a soft, synthesizer-like keyboard. It's a smart move in that it makes for a much more stimulating listening experience, especially when call-and-response effects occur between the voices and when instrument sounds slither and scrape through the background. In addition to the phasing treatments applied to the melodic instrument, “Rumansch” includes cello-like sounds plus percussive noise that suggests an object being dragged across a concrete surface; the stop-start movements of the speaker in “Gascon,” on the other hand, are mirrored by acoustic bass-like accompaniment.
It all adds up to a thirty-five-minute recording that's admittedly odd but also engrossing. Listening to it through headphones, one finds oneself attending intently to the diction of the speaker in question, the timbral qualities of the voice, and the changes in pitch and tempo that regularly occur within human utterance. While some of the languages spoken sound alien, the one spoken by the young boy in “Provencal,” for example, sounds like a French dialect, whereas the one spoken by the older male in “Wallis-Deutsch” strongly suggests German. A headphones listen also enables the listener to better appreciate the work's spatial dimension, as Vowinckel gives careful attention throughout to the placement of elements within the recording's mix.