Me r c u r i a l Talents
Urgent warnings of climate disaster have spurred recordists and musicians to open new dialogues between people and the natural world. By Lewis Gordon
When describing the darkness of ecological awareness, the eco-philosopher Timothy Morton frames it in terms of film noir’s moral murkiness. “Ecological awareness,” he tells us in 2016’s Dark Ecology, “is that moment at which these narrators find out that they are the tragic criminal.” In the fossil fuel-guzzling West, at least, there are only degrees of culpability. The UN’s IPCC Climate Report published in October drove headlines that we have only 12 years to limit the most catastrophic effects of climate change. Rising sea levels, extreme weather events and climate-driven human displacement were back on the agenda after seemingly slipping under the radar since the 2015 Paris agreement. Persistent, albeit low level and perhaps ignorable anxiety of climate change metamorphosised into visions of the apocalypse.
The year’s music has not been short on cataclysmic imagery. Oneohtrix Point Never’s Age Of uncannily channels the prismatic horrors of the moment, weaving technological, political and, yes, ecological anxiety into a strangely seductive meditation on a near future Armageddon. Its stark jump cuts – from Baroque-like harpsichords to screamed vocals and arpeggiated synths – capture a contemporary disorientation, revelling in the possibility of powerlessness. Perhaps surprisingly, OPN’s bleakly sardonic sonic outlook finds kinship with Laurie Anderson and Kronos Quartet’s Landfall. On “Nothing Left But Their Names”, Anderson warns of the extinction of species in a deadpan delivery against the quartet’s eerie, harmonic strings. Elsewhere, Puce Mary’s The Drought invokes the violence of desertification with noisy biblical flair.
Other artists have subverted the shock of environmental destruction by immersing listeners within soundscapes of emergent life. 7Fo’s two releases this year – Moment (Selected Works 2012–2017) and Ryu No Nukegara – sound like fizzing ecosystems, all made using the Osaka based artist’s half-broken, recycled equipment. Similar are the blooming electronic compositions that make up Toxe’s Blinks, “Perfect 2” delivering a euphoric primordial wilderness rendered in synthetic hyper-detail.
Electronic artists have taken the aesthetics of ecosystems even further by striving to simulate their complexity. Objekt’s Cocoon Crush is peppered with lush sonic ecologies – sounds supported by complementing systems, processes and structures – all created through CPU-intensive computer software. Oliver Peryman’s work as Fis is similarly dense. The New Zealand artist inaugurated his record label Saplings at the tail end of 2017 with Ngā Parirau O Te Kārearea, a collaboration between himself and Māori artist Rob Thorne. Striking a partnership with Eden Reforestation Projects, Peryman has ditched the usual physical formats, instead planting trees for every digital unit sold. When I spoke to him earlier in the year he told me bluntly, “I don’t think that I need to go and make a whole load of biomimicry style tracks. The forest doesn’t give a fuck if I’m walking and listening to tinny, shallow pop music.” And yet Thorne’s thick sheets of electronic noise, as well as the taonga pūoro instruments hewn from the land itself, simultaneously convey the impenetrability of the natural world alongside our closeness to it.
Andrew Hunt’s work as Dialect and Raft Of Trash has most effectively explored sound ecologies in relation to climate change. The crunchy synth-driven compositions of Loose Blooms shift between twinkling micro-systems and panoramic aural landscapes, a pertinent reminder of the different levels at which the issue plays out. The Liverpool based producer developed elaborate chains of effects, entering into improvisational relationships with outdoor recordings, his computer and its software, crafting ecosystems of interdependence and co-creation. Raft Of Trash’s debut Grouw, meanwhile, utilises ambient sounds from city-building simulation SimCity 3000 to explore, in Hunt’s own words, “new rhythmic patterns less about dancing and more about harnessing a natural dialogue”. Across each of the deeply psychedelic releases, he challenges the human-centric ideology underpinning environmental exploitation by enabling listeners to peek into his systems of life.
Such electronic compositions, by nature of their abstraction, run the risk of failing to resonate with listeners. But field recording, through its documenting of environmental sounds, has provided a more immediately tangible output. Indeed, the practise has undergone a boom in recent years reflecting a rising interest in place and environment. Cathy Lane and Angus Carlyle’s 2013 book In The Field: The Art Of Field Recording was reprinted in 2018 alongside the first run of Joeri Bruyninckx’s Listening In The Field: Recording And The Science Of Birdsong. In Slovakia, Jonáš Gruska has developed LOM’s range of affordable recording equipment in a bid to make such activities more accessible. Irv Tiebel’s soothing Environments album series, which flourished in the 1970s, was the subject of a timely reissue as a afters of Los Angeles warehouses, phone booths, scrubland industrial buildings, either side of the year 2000. Books: the first two volumes of Virginie Despentes’s Vernon Subutex trilogy were great, both as sprawling, state of the nation satire and as autopsy of the independent arts scene in the age of mass disruption by internet. The English translation of the third volume sometime next year is one of the few resolutions I’m hopeful about.
Claire Biddles Much of what I enjoyed this year was characterised by complex resilience.
The Inheritance, Matthew Lopez’s two part play transposing Howards End to contemporary New York City, left me emotionally devastated but empowered by its show of strength. Records by Molly Nilsson, Virginia Wing and Devon Welsh were tentatively hopeful transmissions from the wreckage of 2018. Visible queer joy in pop is its own kind of hopefulness: the majority of my year has been soundtracked by Troye Sivan, Years & Years, MNEK and Christine & The Queens. In Glasgow, where I live, I welcomed the opening of Category Is, an independent LGBTQ+ bookshop owned by my friends Fi and Charlotte – a space of sanctuary at a time when it’s still desperately needed.
Some other moments of joy: a compelling performance by one of my favourite singers, Sean Nicholas Savage, at Stereo in Glasgow. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread and Kogonada’s Columbus: two exquisite films that I haven’t stopped thinking about. Reading The Glamour Chase, Tom Doyle’s biography of Billy Mackenzie, and laughing at every paragraph. And the afternoon when I listened to Cat Power’s cover of Rihanna’s “Stay” for three solid hours.
Raymond Cummings Cons: a slow-expanding, doomed numbness in response to the unholy state of US politics; pop culture feeling increasingly like an inaccessible alternate dimension; Mother Nature clapping back with a vengeance, internationally; a sense that the music journalism business is contracting, even twisting, in frightening ways; the long awaited Bey/Jay album whiffing.
Pros: finding solace in longform musical statements like Mike Shiflet’s ambitious, incrementally metamorphosing Tetracosa and Autechre’s delirious NTS Sessions
40 | The Wire | 2018 Rewind