Review by Tobias Fischer | www.tokafi.com
The sound worlds of modern metropolises are by default confusing multidirectional systems. In the words of Swedish artist BJ Nilsen, they always appear to be „both dangerous and beautiful“: Cars and machines have buried the cultural identity of most cities underneath their endless drone, while the simultaneity of confrontational and conflicting noises is creating a complex space which can no longer be fully decoded by the human mind. Artists have responded to the transformation and the creative challenge it implies by integrating this altered reality into their work. Canadian composer Henry Brant came to the conclusion that „single-style music, no matter how experimental or full of variety, could no longer evoke the new stresses, layered insanities and multi-directional assaults of contemporary life on the spirit.“ His massive collages would consequently pit up to six different instrumental groups against each other, contrasting, for example, the frenzied eruptions of a Jazz band with the guided emanations of a Symphony orchestra. Confusion and sensory overload weren't considered unpleasant side-effects here, but a gauge of a composition's truthfulness. In the emerging genre of field recordings, meanwhile, the city was even considered a work of art in its own right, a constantly changing body of sounds, continually re-inventing itself through the autonomous actions of its inhabitants and automated processes.
The latter aspect became prominently apparent in Francisco López's Sound Matter-series and in a way, Sound Reasons, an extensive compilation conceived and organised by his Indian colleague Ish Shehrawat, now congenially ties in with and extends this concept. For „Sound Matter“, López considered the city a well of acoustic phenomena. Recruiting a team of local artists, the group scoured the streets, side-alleys, parks and outskirts in search of inspiring materials in a bid of amassing sources for their compositions. The results, currently documented on two CDs for Pogus (Montréal) and Audiobulb (Birmingham), poignantly counterpointed traditional aural city portraits based on supposedly „representative“ spots, and seemed to suggest that there was no such thing as an urban sound world independent of its spectator. Sound Reasons, too, questions the existence of universal acoustic spaces. But it focuses less on the city as a pool of information and replaces it with the idea of it constituting a feedback mechanism, capable of helping us find out more about ourselves as human beings. Field recordings and music are neither each other's opposites, nor are they, strictly speaking, compositional tools and choices. More accurately, they represent different categories of influences, which, as Shehrawat points out, can both „suggest and lead the other“.
Put more easily, this simply means that even straight-forward beats and melodies are capable of expressing the polystylistic reality and spatial aspects of our environment, if they are the result of a direct expression of the artist's inner world. Those expecting this to be yet another collection of academic Sound Art will certainly be surprised about the stunning diversity on display here. From long, meditative soundscapes, unprocessed sounds of nature and drifting Electronica to minimal Techno, futuristic Dub and moments of Pop-like immediacy, the album not only spans a wide arch of styles and scenes, but actually succeeds in convincingly relating them to each other. Part of this is undeniably down to the fact that Shehrawat, under his Ish S-alias as well as a part of various projects and bands, is co-responsible for almost half of the material. His affinity to warm, richly resounding bass lines, intricate echo chamber manipulations and melancholic progressions shines through regardless of whether he's exploring nocturnal ambient territory with the members of the 4th world orchestra („cosmiconomics“) or revelling in bittersweet songs without words under the edGeCut banner, a collaboration with Namrata Pamnani („last train to Sarai“), which also features his skills as a classically trained guitarist. More importantly, however, all acts represented here treat their sources with both playfulness and respect, manifesting their personality without loosing sight of the sampler's overall goals.
The introduction to the album claims that „the omnipresent nature of sound involves us in a continuous engagement with the objective world; 'in music' we connect to the subjective self and the sonic universe that surrounds us.“ What this implies is that we can neither exclude ourselves from the equation by trying to objectively represent the world around us; nor can we pretend as though the external environment weren't – consciously or unconsciously – influencing our own course of actions and artistic decisions. For Sound Reasons, it was therefore a prerogative to lay these connections bare and render the relations between the outside and inside transparent. An extremely obvious example for this notion is the cross-over of soundSkill's „peshkar“, which juxtaposes a slow r'n'b groove with Indian Folk. There are more subtle shadings, too, however. On dif's delicate and barely two minute short „blue hour“, a harmonic loop and a stoic drum beat run through the entire piece, placing all attention on what is happening on top: Honking car horns coalescing into sensitive melodies and the din of the city attaining thematic character.
It is in tracks like this that the record makes true on its promise of demonstrating the two-sided nature of our involvement with the spaces we inhabit: The music doesn't even try to capture the complexity of what surrounds us but instead reduces it to its essentials and then blends it with the emotional response inside the musician. The result is a far more vivid and „truthful“ depiction of the both calm and agitated mood of an early evening scene on a busy thoroughfare than any field recording could ever be. Ideas like these are not restricted to any particular corner of the world and accordingly, the line-up of the album is truly international. Of course, this globalism also questions how much there is still such a thing as a real space at all and whether creative decisions have long become part of a system of references spread out across the entire globe. On anthemic closer „Maya Saguna“, for example, it might seem obvious that Washington, DC's DJ Spooky is responsible for the grinding Hip Hop beats and his sonic partner Quasim Virjee for the Indian orchestrals. But it could just as well be the other way round.
Like vacuum pumps, the big metropoles are sucking global scenes into their spheres of influence, constructing micro-cosmoses of global villages. That, however, doesn't disprove Sound Reasons's main thesis: That it is never merely the sum of external influences that determines a sonic space but the relationship these sounds build with the observer.
By Tobias Fischer