Somnambule - Writing About Music

Overland ~ Naturestrip compilation

Overland is a compilation on Australian label Naturestrip which contains four pieces by artists invited to submit work using field recordings. Such recordings, be definition made outside of the studio, have the power to effect a distinct and occasionally uneasy sense of transplantation. Sound portraits can be more vivid than a photograph and this is very much the case with Toshiya Tsunoda’s ‘Reclaimed Land’. The sullen roar of traffic in the middle distance, an emergency service siren, a car engine that starts up and fades rapidly, a solitary cicada chirruping. Each of these sounds imparts a similar sense to that of viewing a 3d image wearing those slightly comical red/green glasses. This low level sonic scene is interrupted by whipcrack noises which sound like stones hitting other stones. The sense of place is so strong that it seems possible to picture the scene - surely the recording was made on scrubland littered with detritus and bordered by wooden fencing. Why this fragment of time, this place, this duration? Upon further listening the stone throwing acquires key significance. It indicates a human presence within the frame of capture: throwing stones is something to do when there’s not much else to occupy yourself with. Perhaps it’s Toshiya Tsunoda himself waiting for the self-imposed duration of the recording to complete. The effect of this realisation changes everything about the piece, the stone thrower is as bored as we the listeners might otherwise be and the piece is changed from empty reportage to a drama. Reclaimed Land is simultaneously sonic portraiture in the vein of the hyper-realists and a piece of very deadpan humour.

Joel Stern’s ‘Saltwort’ proffers what sounds like marbles running or rattling in bottles, a quicksilver sound that multiplies to become uncomfortable, a sense of the brittle fragility of the material. Again here is sound which verges on the experiential. Other noises now, the running/rattling diminishing and being succeeded by the white noise of electrical contacts, of water flowing that might otherwise be the signal of an untuned radio. Tarab’s ‘Of Hollow Traces’ is reminiscent of the unnaturally stretched cry of a train whistle in a tunnel which is slowly overtaken by the sound of gas escaping and the unsettling rumble of a long drawn out explosion reverberating somewhere underground. Water bubbles. The harsh crackle of synthetic fire; the slow scraping of metal. Lawrence English recorded ‘A Summer Crush in New York and Tokyo’ over the course of a couple of months and the piece offers up a variety of sounds such as talk and noise in a 16 minute piece. There are undercurrents of looming bass and the caw of a crow casts shadows around the chatter and incidental noises of cafes and streets.

The pieces on Overland initially bear similarities to the monastic aspects of free improv, however the subtle decisions made by these sound artists create whole worlds of drama and perspective. Perversely the location of these works in the sort of ambience that surrounds us, unnoticed, every day imparts a level of abstraction that’s more powerful the more obvious the source is. The world is thus offered up as the ineffably strange, unknowable experience that it actually is. As such Overland is singularly challenging, but if the listener is prepared to engage attentively the effort is certainly worthwhile.
Colin Buttimer
May 2004
Published by the BBC