narrative pareidolia: rob hayler on other forms of consecrated life

March 19, 2019 at 4:43 pm | Posted in no audience underground | Leave a comment
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Tepe Gawra – A Rise In The Chalcolithic

Elizabeth Cottern – Heschl’s Gyrus

Lynette Sandholm Evvers – Fundamental Colours

The Penitential Station – The Cloud of Forgetting

Eva Kierten – The Shattered Vessel

I have nothing to say about much of the music I love.  Whole genres affect me in profound but somehow pre- or post-verbal ways.  Hardcore punk, desert guitar and techno, for example, are as marrow to my bones, but I am, with rare exception, unable to share that experience in writing.  Many works of genius – last year’s album by SOPHIE, say – leave me spellbound but wordless, happy just to grin and thumb ‘repeat’.  A sharp moment in a pop song on tea-time Radio 1 can cut surprisingly deep:

Why are you crying Daddy?

Oh, you know son: life.  Eat your fish fingers.

Yet here’s this blog.  For archival/vanity reasons I arranged for a hard copy of radiofreemidwich to be printed.  It runs to more than 700,000 words, filling 3,000 pages.  As a physical object it has ridiculous heft.  Clearly, a primal urge in response to the remainder of what I hear is to write – this is the evidence – so what’s the difference?  I could trawl the records for repeated themes and keywords, I suppose, but that is a task best left to hunched scholars in the growing discipline of no-audience underground studies.  Instead I’m going to point to an endeavour that seems to exactly match these mysterious criteria, its presence causing the metaphor engine to hum and glow, and we’ll reverse engineer it from there.

Other Forms Of Consecrated Life is a Scottish label that has released five albums since its inauguration in January of 2016.  It appears to have no online presence other than its Bandcamp page and these releases are only available digitally.  There are bare bones Discogs listings and a Twitter account, also set up in January 2016, which has sent a mere handful of tweets.  Each release is accompanied by a black and white photograph of an historical artefact, a museum piece, presented unreferenced and closely cropped on a plain background, thus shorn of context.  The aesthetic is both neatly coherent and pleasingly enigmatic.  Great logo too.  The tag-line on both Bandcamp and in the Twitter bio is as follows:

Auditory excavations.  Eremetic Music.  Pareidolia.

The first clause doesn’t really need unpacking. ‘Eremetic’ means hermit which complements the idea of a consecrated life, of course. ‘Pareidolia’ is, to quote Wikipedia:

[a] psychological phenomenon in which the mind responds to a stimulus, usually an image or a sound, by perceiving a familiar pattern where none exists.

Thus seeing faces in wood grain or lunar craters, animals in cloud formations, the sound of my son crying out for me in the burr of the bathroom extractor fan and so on.  It will prove relevant.

All five of these releases are wonderful and come highly recommended, especially as there is a catalogue discount available on the Bandcamp page. I’m going to discuss two of them in detail.

I’ll start with Fundamental Colours by Lynette Sandholm Evvers.  Two tracks of heavy, deliberate, scything drone with an oily, liquid surface.  Both exactly 20 minutes long.  I read once that in pre-industrial times a whale’s song could be heard by its brethren hundreds of miles away, the ocean being a sonically clear medium.  The first of these tracks is a lament for this time before engines, a time-lapse audio documentary of the obliterating effect of churn and roar.  On repeated listens it only grows larger: a planet-wide intelligence calling out to its kind for help after an unmanned probe pierces its crust and begins an irreversible terraforming process.  It wails in alien frequencies as its flesh is made our grass.  The second track is equally substantial but less final.  We begin aeons prior with the planet-wide intelligence meditating contentedly on its own circadian rhythms.  We are party to the ebb and flow.  After a few minutes this is augmented by an unmistakeably human choral element as an aspect of this vast consciousness deciphers a radio signal it has slowly come to notice.  It considers composing a reply…

So far, so wonderful.  A beautifully bosky drone that brings out the high concept flash fiction writer in me.  But there is more.  Here are the liner notes from the Bandcamp listing (apologies for quoting at length):

First in a planned series of recordings from the archive of Lynette Sandholm Evvers, who produced a substantial body of work over a 20 year period. A lifelong synesthete, she began working with electronically generated sound in the late 1980s as a means of exploring her chromesthesia; a condition in which certain tones and timbres induce particularly vivid colour hallucinations. Never intended for public dissemination, OFoCL have managed to persuade the Evvers estate to release these recordings because we believe they deserve to be heard by the widest possible audience.

The recordings on Fundamental Colours, and in particular Photism (6), showcase her experimentation with FM synthesis, involving the slow timbral modulation of simple harmonic structures to produce a deeply hypnotic effect. The music presented here has been reproduced by carefully migrating the midi data from her original compositions into a digital workspace, allowing for the best possible fidelity and lowest signal-to-noise ratio. Evvers referred to her compositions only by number, but we have prefixed them with the word ‘photism’ – ‘a hallucinatory sensation or vision of light’.

Fascinating, eh?  An audio excavation of eremitic music!  Intrigued, I did a bit of google-based ‘journalism’ to see if anything else had been revealed in the year since it was released and, with growing amusement and suspicion, soon realised there is nothing online about this artist that isn’t directly related to this album.  Is this a hoax?  A pitch perfect recreation of the ‘discovery of important but previously unknown body of work’ narrative that so thrills anyone (like me) with an interest in ‘outsider’ music or the fringes of art practice?  I found a review in Vital Weekly (1109) in which Frans voices similar doubts, mentioning Doctor Edward Moolenbeek (the Hafler Trio member of questionable existence) and, like Frans, I could imagine the usual suspects going bananas for this if it was presented on a luxury physical format by a sanctified reissue label.

I’m choosing to interpret these liner notes as not being about the release but rather being part of the release.  It may be a true account of the genesis of the project but it doesn’t matter if it isn’t.  The story, along with the other aspects of the presentation, the context of the label aesthetic and the music itself forms a consistent and complete work of art.

Squinting over a plate of fried noodles, my steamed up glasses on the table beside me, I talked with Christopher Whitby about learned behaviour.  Whilst I’m suspicious of notions such as ‘connoisseurship’, I’m happy to agree that experience helps clarify the pleasures and nuance to be found in ‘difficult’ music.  We talked about [and here, in-between the words ‘about’ and ‘how’, three months pass whilst my attention turns again to real life. I forget exactly what was said, my notes are lost, so what follows is a useful fiction. My apologies to Chris] how immersing yourself in noise can be like lowering yourself into a scalding hot bath – initially uncomfortable, even painful, but ultimately profoundly satisfying, even meditative. I spoke about how I’ve learned to use narrative to make sense of my experience of this largely abstract body of art and enjoy conveying this experience by writing it down. My ‘reviews’ are less an expression of opinion, I only write about what I like, more a string of qualia expressed as a story. Not every genre seems amenable to this approach, as mentioned in my introduction, but those that do hit hard.

Onto Heschl’s Gyrus by Elizabeth Cottern. Three tracks, ‘Akoasm’ parts I, II and III, again conjuring the alien. Part I is a description of a mighty creature, the size of a family car, part panther part stag beetle. Its chitin is so black and polished it is difficult to make out its overall form. The impression of power it gives as it elegantly unfolds its limbs, testing the heavy chains that tether it, is breathtaking. It shakes and buzzes, implacable in its obvious belief that regaining its freedom is simply a matter of will, enjoying intimidating members of the court where it takes pride of place in the menagerie. Part II is a recording of a gamelan orchestra performing elsewhere in the same castle, distorted by being picked up on spying devices and transmitted via shortwave radio. This smearing reveals an angry, melancholy subtext under the harmless, celebratory surface. Part III is an epic, half hour journey via ornithopter through the canyons surrounding the court, as if touring the convolutions of a gigantic, calcified brain. Which turns out to be a very appropriate image…

The label has this to say:

‘Auditory aurae occurring in the context of epilepsy have been described since ancient times.’
Unknown artist, Elizabeth Cottern. No previous discography, as far as we can ascertain. Heschl’s Gyrus shows her preoccupation with psychical auditory phenomena. Maximal electronic drone, verging on noise.

Another audio excavation of eremitic music then. Allegedly.  Intrigued by the mention of epilepsy and following a hunch I googled the title and found out that Heschl’s Gyrus are part of the brain that processes auditory information.  This would have been cool enough but reading through the wikipedia entry I found a line which knocked me backwards:

Research on the inner voice perceived by humans led to the identification of these gyri as the area of the brain activated during such dialogue with oneself.

HOLY SHIT! Do I really need to reverse engineer some psychological reason for my writing preferences by examining the qualities of the art or have I just stumbled on a physiological explanation for why some noise leads me to spin stories?  Does abstract music of certain kinds tickle my Heschl’s in a way that gets me talking to myself?  Does it provoke a kind of narrative pareidolia? My tongue is in cheek here, of course, but I’d love to stick my head in some kind of scanner and see which noggin wrinkles light up when listening to and thinking about the output of this exemplary label.  And there is no higher praise than that.


Other Forms Of Consecrated Life


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