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Christoph Korn & Lasse-Marc Riek: Series Invisible - Collection 2

Merzouga: 52°46' North 13°29' East – Music for Wax-Cylinders

Early 2012 saw the release of Mekong Morning Glory by Merzouga duo Eva Pöpplein and Janko Hanushevsky, the release a long-form, electro-acoustic soundscape that witnessed the two merging prepared bass guitar playing, field recordings, live electronics, and computer manipulations into a fascinating fusion. There is both a key difference and fundamental similarity between that project and Merzouga's latest, 52°46' North 13°29' East – Music for Wax-Cylinders: the difference is that while source material for the earlier release rooted itself in field recordings collected along the Mekong River, the new recording draws upon the historic wax-cylinder recordings of the Berlin Phonogram-Archive (Pöpplein and Hanushevsky specifically drew upon material that spans the years 1905-31 and includes sounds recorded in locales such as Hungary, Egypt, Western China, Central Switzerland, and Southern Bali); the similarity lies in the overall compositional structure the duo adopts, with the new recording, like the earlier one, predicated on the idea of a single, long-form soundscape that assumes a highly personalized character through the inclusion of Pöpplein's electronics and Hanushevsky's bass playing.

How the Berlin Phonogram-Archive came to boast a collection of 16,000 wax-cylinder recordings is a story in itself. Due to poor health, musicologist Erich Moritz von Hornbostel was unable to travel to faraway countries and so instead from 1900 onwards became the recipient of phonograph recordings sent to him from all around the globe (apparently an edict by the Prussian Emperor dictated that all German trading and scientific expeditors were required to travel with a phonograph and send their recordings to Berlin). Hornbostel couldn't possibly have imagined the degree to which it would today be regarded as an invaluable aural document of a long-past world.

One of the more interesting issues arising out of the project has to do with the philosophy of the current archive's management team, who have typically aspired to clean up the historic field recordings so as to present their contents in as pristine a manner as possible for today's listeners. In the booklet's Epilogue, the Berlin Phonogram-Archive's Albrecht Wiedmann explains that digital editing has typically been applied through the use of special denoising programs in the service, but that sound artists (to whom the organization has granted access to recordings digitalized over the past fifteen years) have brought him to see things in a new way; Wiedmann himself writes that for sound artists “(e)very crack is warmly welcome, every acoustic irregularity or peculiarity can be significant for their creative process.”

Certainly Pöpplein and Hanushevsky, who recorded the thirty-nine-minute piece live in concert at Alte Feuerwache, Cologne, in fall of 2012, are prime exemplars of the sensibility referred to by Wiedmann. There are scratches, ripples, and cracks aplenty in the recordings the two weave into their piece—though not so much that the dizzying flurries of voices, yodels, chants, and musical sounds (piano, percussion) documented in the recordings are drowned out. Pöpplein's manipulations often add a woozy quality to the material that bolsters its hallucinatory character, while Hanushevsky responds to the historical material by sometimes voicing a bass melody and at other times exploiting the textural potential of the instrument in his improvisations. Given how integral the field recordings are to the work in question, Merzouga's expression of gratitude “to the men and women whose names have been forgotten, but whose voices can still be heard on the wax-cylinder recordings of the Berlin Phonogram-Archive” is entirely apropos. Like Mekong Morning Glory , 52°46' North 13°29' East – Music for Wax-Cylinders ultimately plays very much like a travelogue, though of a fundamentally different kind.

The other Gruenrekorder recording is a curiosity of sorts, a veritable non-aural release (hence the Series Invisible title) that perpetuates a conceptual tradition that also would include John Cage's 4'33” and Stefan Goldmann's Ghost Hemiola—the former the well-known ‘silent' composition and the latter a double-vinyl collection issued by Macro in 2013 of empty locked grooves (that is, the discs present no sound other than the surface noise of the vinyl itself). More precisely, Series Invisible - Collection 2, credited to Christoph Korn and Lasse-Marc Riek, is a book that includes no physical music but instead contains “a detailed list of recordings and a detailed list of date and location of the erasure of these recordings.” One page, for example, identifies the location as “Night Flight of a Screech Owl Over the Courtyard,” the exact times when it was recorded and deleted, and its duration (two minutes and forty-five seconds). Issued in an edition of 500 copies, the booklet lists fifty tracks (totaling zero minutes and seconds)—the result “an audio-event noted and transformed into script”—and is the second in an ongoing series, with the third collection scheduled for release in fall of 2015.

February 2014