Merzouga: Mekong Morning Glory

Part of Gruenrekorder's Soundscape Series, Merzouga's Mekong Morning Glory presents a forty-nine-minute, single-track travelogue by computer musician Eva Pöpplein and electric bassist Janko Hanushevsky. Originating out of the Tibetan Plateau, the Mekong River travels through seven countries (including Laos and Cambodia) and influences all manner of flora and fauna before ending up in South Vietnam. For this project, Merzouga followed the river during the fall of 2008 and recorded as they did so its wealth of life-forms so as to subsequently incorporate the material into a large-form composition. Operating together as Merzouga since 2002, Pöpplein and Hanushevsky bring an inspired concept to the electroacoustic soundscaping genre in merging prepared bass guitar playing, field recordings, live electronics, and computer manipulations into a provocative hybrid.

Emerging quietly out of a cavernous realm of bell tinklings and bass guitar shadings, Mekong Morning Glory exudes a spectral character in its early going (the journey begins in Laos) before the chatter of children's voices humanizes it. At the ten-minute mark, natural sounds wholly dominate, and we feel as if we're moving through a seldom-visited part of the river landscape, one that's nonetheless abundant in non-human life forms. From then on, successive episodes of contrasting character appear; a foreboding one finds us inhabiting gloomy territory replete with haunted slide playing and covered in drizzle (the intent being to evoke the dark jungle covering the river banks), whereas another has us holding on before confronting the fury of waterfalls at the Cambodian border.

There are many striking things about the project. Unlike the usual trajectory that finds a journey moving from civilization to a realm of unadulerated nature—think of Willard's boat trip in Conrad's Heart of Darkness, for example—Merzouga's moves in the opposite direction, with an emphasis on nature-based sounds during the first two-thirds dramatically changing when the tumult of human activity arises and grows ever more prominent until the end. At first individual voices appear, but soon enough a dense cacophany of motorcycles, bicycle bells, car horns, traffic noise, roosters, and crowd chatter displaces the nature sounds heard before. It's a line that Merzouga follows deliberately, the intent being to document the change from the quiet rice-fields of Laos to the bustling economy of 21st-century Vietnam.

In addition, the range of sound that Hanushevsky coaxes from his prepared bass guitar is remarkable, with everything from swampy blues shadings to plaintive guitar lines appearing during the work. In fact, all of the composition's musical sounds are generated by the instrument, with additional elements (Chinese chopsticks, golf balls, knitting needles, wine corks) used to expand upon the bass's sonic range. Finally, the seamless balance the group strikes between field-recorded material and musical sounds helps distinguish Mekong Morning Glory and makes it seem if not unique certainly much different from other field recordings-related recordings. There's no attempt to conceal the interventions of the producers' hands in the presentation of the material, no desire to foster an illusion of a natural world captured in some pure form; that's especially apparent when halfway through the piece water sounds aren't heard as uninterrupted flow (as naturally would be the case) but as a series of convulsions—an effect achieved, one presumes, through computer manipulations. In like manner, Pöpplein and Hanushevsky alternate liberally between field recordings and musical episodes, sometimes blending the two together and at other times keeping them separate.

February 2012