R. Schwarz: The Scale of Things

The witching hour is upon us—or maybe it just feels that way when Robert Schwarz's material fills the air. Seven nightscapes by the Vienna-based sound artist appear on The Scale of Things, whose thirty-six-minute running time lends itself perfectly to its vinyl presentation (300 copies available). Schwarz creates his macabre settings using a number of different elements, field recordings and modular synthesizers among them, to fashion dark evocations that play like expressions welling up from some deep, malevolent part of the psyche. Yet while the source materials Schwarz worked with in producing the material can be itemized, the resultant pieces present themselves as complete entities first and foremost, with all of their sound details woven into compelling wholes.

There's an old-fashioned, gothic character to these aural visions, as if Schwarz cobbled them together by hand rather than using digital means. It's the kind of material that frays one's nerves and keeps one up at night, watching the windows and doors with dreadful anticipation for signs of intrusion. While they're not musical settings per se, there is an undeniable musicality to the way the pieces unfold. In this case, Schwarz sequences sounds—ominous rumbles, cryptic night chatter, footsteps, grinding machinery, et al.—in much the same way a conventional composer orchestrates notes.

The opening piece, “Drift Following the Seam,” plunges the listener into a nightmarish realm where visitors haplessly stumble, never to be heard from again. During “In the Flat Field,” a murder of crows (or some equivalent swarm) blackens the horizon before blanketing everything in its path with dust and ash. Insect noises in “Self-Propelled-Sound-Particles” suggest flies buzzing around a corpse, the body still offering ample material for creatures to feed on, while the long-form “Mabalel” might be the most impressive of the lot in the way it seamlessly advances through multiple episodes. Two examples hint that track names were not arbitrarily selected: “With the Witch” is about as disturbing a construction as one would expect from one so titled, and the directional movement alluded to by “From Surface Downwards” could refer to a coffin's descent into the ground or even a journey to hell. Schwarz's sound paintings possess incredible evocative power, and, through an accumulation of detail, each piece brings an imagined world into being in a most convincing manner. Not a moment is wasted in these seven mesmerizing settings, and every detail counts.

June 2015