Mathieu Ruhlmann: This Star Teaches Bending
There's a real-world dimension to Vancouver-based sound artist Mathieu Ruhlmann's This Star Teaches Bending (available in 200 copies) that makes it especially affecting. In May of 2010, his mother Valerie Joy was diagnosed at the age of sixty-three with a rare lung disease for which there was no available cure; in a recording that acts as a requiem of sorts, all of the sounds on the five-track release were drawn from medical equipment used to treat her during the last six months of her life (sounds of location recordings and amplifications of the human body are also part of the sonic design). More specifically, the recordings were made over the course of that six-month period, not after it, and thus the work's creation came into being during the last stage of his mother's life.
The album title is actually one Paul Klee used for one of his paintings but the selection isn't arbitrary: not only was the painting completed in the year of his death, but he, in analogous manner to Ruhlmann's mother, lived out his life plagued by a rare skin disease, scleroderma, for which there was no cure or hope of improvement. Firming up the connection even more, each of the recording's tracks takes its title from a painting created in 1939-40, the last year of his life.
The listening experience is enhanced by Ruhlmann's listing of the sound sources for each track. This means that the listener isn't left to puzzle over a particular sound but knows instead that the clicks and static noises in “Captive, This World/Next World” come from a coil pickup on medical equipment, for example, and that the whooshing sounds originate from an oxygen tank. One is thus able to visualize the kind of activity going on in the hospital room when such details are provided. It's a move that can be unsettling, too, such as when the low-level gurglings coursing through “Stilleben” solely originate from three days of amplified stomach fasting.
Speckled with passages of microsound crackle, creaks, rustlings, and other squirrely noises (a raccoon even finds its way into the ten-minute piece) “Eidola: Erstwhile Cannibal Man-eater” is as striking a setting as its title. “The Hour Before One Night” assumes an almost sci-fi quality when the rippling and shimmering sounds of an amplified room light and electronic heart rate monitor are conjoined. Fittingly, given a title that implicitly questions the soul's fate upon the physical termination of life, “Whence? Where? Whither?” comes last. Interestingly, though, it's the one track that incorporates outside sounds, specifically traffic noises and footsteps from the hospital car park.
Rather than cluttering up the sound field with multiple layers, Ruhlmann generally leaves a lot of space in the tracks, which not only allows the component sounds to be heard clearly but also imbues the material on This Star Teaches Bending with a barren and thus lonely character that feels appropriate to the subject matter. It's the connections between the recorded and real-world sounds that most distinguish the recording, however.