SONIC POSTCARDS — 19 REAL + IMAGINARY JOURNEYS IN SOUND
Here you have it comrades, another electroacoustic CD compilation for the masses! Surprised? You shouldnt be; this deluge into compilation mania is not only reserved for the latest CD of the 2003 Grammy nominees, but it is spreading like wildfire into the world of electroacoustics. Cue Iannis Xenakis to roll over in his grave. As far I can figure, this hodgepodge may be due to the fact that most electroacoustic aficionados are fearful of shelling out elusive greenbacks for an entire CD's worth of the dreaded "singular" artist. I can hear the cat calls in the distance, "but I only have so much room in my CD collection for weird/experimental CDs." Has the space in consumer CD collections become so precious that one has to economize by purchasing combination works in place of the historical singular artists? The next thing well see is the appearance of Ned Bouhalassa side-by-side with the latest from Michael Jackson and Perry Como, and for the quintessential ensemble finale, they chuck in some vintage Bob Marley for good measure. Maybe I need to moonwalk away from this pathos a bit. I must admit that I have heard a few good electroacoustic compilation CDs in the past. Come to think of it, the reason why they were good is because they all shared a unifying theme that echoed throughout the projects. Thankfully, Sonic Arts Network has provided the scene with a mostly thoughtful programmatic compilation that provides an essential thread to weave its individual tracks through the diverse blanket that covers the form: electro clips.
Sonic Postcards is the first commercial release from Sonic Arts Network since Klang and Mixed in 1996. For those of you who are not acquainted with SAN projects, here is a quick run down. It is the goal of the Sonic Arts Network to raise awareness of sonic art and to support artistic practice in the United Kingdom. Since 1979, they have sought to share their unique experimental approach to sound and technology through commissions that encourage research, events, and recordings. The flowers of this ambition have not only blossomed into the current frenzy of activity in electroacoustics in and around the United Kingdom, but across Europe as well. This particular compilation CD is an attest to SANs bold manifesto.
Sonic Postcards is a heterogeneous mixture of nineteen short electroacoustic works from a wide range of electroacoustic composers, from acousmatic to soundscape. The theme of the electro-clips CD is "places." These places are immortalized into sonic postcards. Based on the sounds of a particular location, they serve as permanent documents of sonically significant "places" in and around Europe. The concept is a mix between the electro-clip format and soundscape composition. The Sonic Postcards digipack is more or less nicely put together, but with one glaring omission: liner notes. With such abstract material, the casual listener is hard-pressed to understand the significance of any of the pieces. All the same, I have done my best to review these compositions fairly, despite the unfortunate circumstances that surround them.
Comma by Simon Vincent marks the third track on the CD. It is a surreal juxtaposition between droning bells and chanting. The vocal aspect is vividly worked into the resulting soundscape texture. It ends with a music box melody and sounds of laughter in the background. I look forward to hearing more from Simon Vincent in the future. A very short work by composer Michael Bolton, called Remote is a pleasant surprise. This piece is an interesting work with distortion. It throbs in and out amidst small snippets of radio material and digital clips. The piece is just the right length to get a firm understanding of the sonic material. I enjoyed Le Grain De Bruxelles by Greek composer Theodore Lotis, which is a commission of Musiques & Recherches, Belgium. This remarkably stable piece is a symbolic description of the everyday life in Brussels. It provides a good sense of space perception that mixes with textures laden with reverb. Ian Helliwell has included his work New York NY. This piece is one of my favourites in the compilation. It is a mélange of tone generators and old LPs containing sound effects and big band jazz, creating a colourful city collage. It is as if it were a small sonic film that collects an abiding interest in the sights and sounds of the urban environment of New York City; very well done. Reson by Peter Green is said to be made entirely of acoustic guitar source material and exclusively uses the CDP system for processing. It sounds fairly conceptual, but the idée fixe is somewhat lost without a complete explanation of the title. There must be a reason for the title Reson. Another interesting work is Postcard of Babel by Rodrigo Sigal. This piece is composed for flute tape and electronics. It begins with a narration proclaiming, "I would like to take you on a strange journey." What works so well is the integration of the city and jungle sounds coexisting with the narration and flute. This seemingly organic combination is a very successful example of live sound and tape combined. A journey into a Postcard of Babel is certainly a trip worth taking. The next piece to mention here is by Ensemble 8 entitled Thousands of people. E8 are a British collective of composers and sound artists. They produce "sound art" together with words, sounds and textures from different cultures and musical backgrounds. This one is no different, showing off their extremely innovative use of sound material. Refried Beans by sound artist Ambrose Field takes you to the great American west in the 19th C. Along the way, we call in on some unfortunate shootings in Tombstone, Arizona. One can almost smell the beans cooking over the open fire set out in the vast desert of Arizona. Refried Beans was composed specially for the Sonic Postcards CD. This leads us to the next piece by Coryn R. Smethurst - Birthday Picnic on the Mudflats - A Postcard from my Childhood. I ascertain from the descriptive title that this piece is a sonic representation of his childhood birthday picnic. It is an interesting encapsulation of a sonic postcard, where one could imagine what it was like to live that moment. Towards the end of this CD, we find Dom by James Welburn. This is another favourite of this compilation. This piece is a very short excerpt from a series of recordings the composer made at the Dom Church in Lubeck Germany. It is an amazingly sonically interesting space, whos deep and complex reverberation echoes throughout. At the end of this piece we are left with the sound of church bells echoing across the distant land. Dom is defiantly a truly beautiful sonic postcard. Another extremely good composition on this CD is John Ashton Thomass Music of the early 21st Century. It is a live sound and tape composition whose source material sounds as though it consists of saxophone sounds. It has a laid back quality to it that makes is easy to listen to.
All told, this is a decent compilation album that, although uneven in compositional quality, displays a good cross-section of European electroacoustic artists. I must admit, I found it rather difficult at times to make educated reviews of some of the pieces without any programme notes for the said programmatic music. With this in mind, I have left out some pieces that I felt could not stand on their own in a fairly obvious manner. It is nice to see SAN making room for a diverse mix of established and emerging sound artists.