Ernst Karel - Swiss Mountain Transport Systems [Gruenrekorder - 2012]Well, as the saying goes, you wait around for ages for public transport field recordings and three turn up at the same time: first there was the Psychogeographical Commission’s ‘Widdershins’, a disorientating trip on the Glasgow Subway system, followed a few months later by Chris Watson’s glorious ‘El Tren Fantasma’, providing compressed sonic highlights of a Mexican railway journey, and now Chicago-based composer Ernst Karel brings us a generous selection of sounds from Switzerland’s mountainous vehicles.
Throughout the latter half of 2008 Karel documented a wide range of machines designed to get people up and down the slopes, from gondolas and funiculars to chairlifts and even a helicopter. Edits of these recordings, seemingly unprocessed and therefore purely documentary in nature, are sequenced across this 78 minute disc.
As well as being a longstanding experimental musician, Karel is currently an anthropology lecturer at Harvard University, and this album initially seems to sit more comfortably with the latter role as a demonstration of how man’s mountain-conquering machinery has been assimilated by the natural environment, adding new routines and events to the previously predominant alpine ecologies. So, as well as emphasising the mechanical, unconscious rhythms as heard from within, we also witness the external sounds of birds, insects and the rustle of leaves in the wind as part of the journey. In addition to this, the casual chat of passengers can be heard in many of the pieces, inclusively placing human behaviour as a pivotal element in this environmental hybrid of nature and nurture.
But, as well as being a kind of instructive insight into Karel’s “sonic ethnographical” research, or a train-spotter’s audio-catalogue of Switzerland’s transport heritage, the sounds are a delight to behold by themselves. Like the aforementioned releases by Chris Watson and The Psychogeographical Commission, listening to the disk brings textures and tones to the fore that would otherwise go unnoticed by a tourist treading the same tracks. There’s often a violent drama in the juddering machinery that threatens the passengers with their own mortality; or there’s the musical qualities of the darkly droning engines that undulate and extend eerily along each incline. Indeed, if the album title and sleevenotes were less transparent about the soundsources the work would stand-up as a series of immersive and affecting electroacoustic set pieces describing, perhaps, more fantastical flights.Russell Cuzner