David Michael - The Slaughterhouse [Gruenrekorder - 2012]'The Slaughterhouse' is like no other release found on the pages of this site. The clues we're initially presented with (its title and label) inspire presumptions that suggest it's a field recording that, like many works in this area, highlights some aural properties of found sounds that would otherwise be filtered out without us being persuaded to listen in a suitably focussed way by lovely labels such as Gruenrekorder.
And, while it certainly is a field recording - and a
downright grim one at that - it is far from those audio documentaries that present their gatherings as sensual, immersive sound objects that convey hidden musical properties of their subjects or artfully contrast tones and textures in time. Indeed, even its author, David Michael, has gone on record to say he "find[s] it surprising that anyone would listen to it at all"!
Michael, by day a computer programmer residing in New York, with his MSc in Evolutionary and Adaptive Systems, was perhaps interested in the more anthropological aspects of documenting the sound of a slaughterhouse from his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. If so, he certainly got it, for here we are presented with a day-in-the-life of a small family business as a man and his son 'process' meat by hand.
It starts and ends like many of the more palatable field
recording-based releases with birdsong and footsteps, as the sound artist arrives and departs. But in between there is little to marvel at, largely consisting of a grey, lightly electrical ambience over which sparse conversation is scattered.
Of course, there is the occasional, revolting sound event that signifies slaughter, such as the brief gunshot that steals the life of a female cow (or 'beef' as the young butcher puts it) or the sloshing of water that follows as the resultant bloody mess is hosed down. But for the most part the focus seems to be on the absence of sounds, an aspect that chillingly emphasises death - the absence of life.
For those with the stomach for such a presentation, it is recommended to listen to the CD while reading the sleevenotes that simply detail the activities accompanying each track. Here, instead of bringing to your attention certain sounds (or lack of them), you find yourself in an unbiased, fly-on-the-wall documentary that's as much about the personalities involved as it is a test on how we feel about what they do. We find out about things like the proprietors' sensitivities, firstly towards the actual recording process where it is suggested Michael stops the tape should the first shot at the cow be unsuccessful, or later when the young butcher talks about his religious beliefs.
It's difficult to put a value on the release, though. The subject matter was always going to be upsetting, but what does it mean to merely listen to a document of death-as-commerce as opposed to watching it on TV or even witnessing it first hand? The soundsencourage us to imagine the accompanying visuals, and in doing so, inspired initially anger in this listener, followed by questions about what is sound art and field recording, especially when they seem to be wholly documentary in nature and less about the sounds themselves (perhaps, mercifully so in this case). And, ultimately, I guess that's what this document does - it poses questions for each individual to answer for themselves.Russell Cuzner