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DJ Bone
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Simon Whetham: Prayers Unheard
Dragon's Eye Recordings

Simon Whetham has been involved in a diverse array of field recordings-based and site-specific projects since a 2005 research trip to Iceland initiated his composing career. Since then, he's recorded in Brazil's Amazon Rainforest; issued material on labels such as Trente Oiseaux, Mystery Sea, Entr'acte, and Gruenrekorder; produced radio works for Resonance FM and Kunst Radio Austria; and participated in residencies at the Art Container in Tallinn, Estonia. But his latest recording might be the most powerful one to date, given the historical resonance that attends the project in question.

Having been invited to perform at Audio Art in Krakow in February 2010, Whetham proposed visiting the city prior to the event to record the sounds of the place and compose a site-specific piece for the event. He stayed in the Kazimierz area, which is the old Jewish location that during World War II became a ghetto through Nazi persecution. Whetham found himself powerfully affected by the setting as it was along its streets that Nazi trucks and tanks spirited away innocent hordes to Auschwitz, and even though the nightmare occurred more than a half-century ago the horror of that time remains as an indelible presence for those who know their history as they walk its streets. Needless to say, the title of Whetham's three-part work refers to the prayers of the Jewish people that went unheard and that haunt the geographical locale as a ghostly testament to their suffering.

In “Part First (An Uncertain Distance),” we're presented with natural environmental sounds muffled, their identifiable character camouflaged by subtle mutations. We hear rumble and the whirr of an engine, as well as other sounds that emerge and then disappear—until the faint trace of a musical theme appears at the six-minute mark, immediately imbuing the material with an aura of sadness. During “Part Second (Paths, Crossing),” the twitter of birds resounds alongside an orchestra's elegiac themes, the innocent beauty of the creatures an obvious contrast to the horrors that await the citizens rounded up and shipped off to die. Despite the ambiguous character of the sounds that emerge, the appearance of muffled voices, mechanical clatter, and trudging footsteps can't help but suggest a train car's heavy doors being opened and its human cargo being emptied. When a machine loudly starts up towards the end of this central part, it evokes the image of a furnace being turned on in the crematorium. A comparatively more ambiguous character pervades “Part Third (The Chamber)” as it opts for an industrial ambient-drone style. But three-quarters of the way along, the mechanical sounds die out and the strains of an orchestra with a solo violin at the forefront rises from the ashes, suggestive of the resilient human spirit, followed by birds and peoples' voices.

Artists are often seen to be treading dangerous ground when they create work that's tied in some way to the Holocaust as they thereby make themselves vulnerable to the accusation that such efforts, no matter how well-intentioned, trivialize an event of such enormity. But that's not the case here: though he adopts an objective and unsentimental eye in his shaping of the work and in the handling of its materials, Whetham nevertheless manages to transmute the site-specific sounds of the locale into a deeply affecting meditation that honours the memory of the dead in dignified manner.

February 2011