Stéphane Garin & Sylvestre Gobart - Gurs/ Drancy/ Bobigny's Train Station/ Auschwitz [Gruenrekorder/Bruit Clair - 2011]This double cd album is quite a sumptuous package, containing an essay (reprinted with French and German translations) as well as numerous photographs. As you will no doubt have guessed from the title, the release concerns the geography of Nazi Germany’s attempts to eradicate undesirables: the camps and industrial apparatus that transported victims to death or imprisonment.
So, the essay discusses Garin and Gobart’s intentions to avoid the “spectacular” iconography of these events and instead encourage a more meaningful, personal relationship with those memories. Thats clearly an excellent idea, but their solution is far from perfect.
So, we have a series of rather beautiful, grainy photographs; taken at pertinent sites, but not adhering to the “standard” imagery associated with concentration camps/etc. Accompanying this are nearly two hours of field recordings, also from those pertinent sites. To be succinct - and arguably dismissive - the photographs are indeed pretty, but the audio recordings are devoid of any real sonic interest. “Bobigny. Train Station for deportation. May 27th 2006” has some interesting watery gurgles, whilst “Madjanek. Men’s showers. Gas chamber. August 15th 2006” has a testing section of silence (between intrusions of subdued tourist chatter); but there’s precious little to justify the presence of the cds. So, given this lack of content, we might ask the point of releasing the album. The answer remains in the last element of the trio: the essay.Martin P
I was talking with a friend a while back, about music and texts; and at one point he laughed and exclaimed “Its like field recordists - they love their words”. (He said this as someone who primarily concerns himself with field recording, on a sonic and theoretical level.) Unfortunately, for much of the time, he’s quite right. A lot of field recordists do seem driven to text, to justify their works. Certainly, here, the essay would appear to be the actual release. It discusses the desire to juxtapose past and present and use “abstraction”, via the field recordings, to encourage contemplation of the tension between past and present; thus achieving a fuller insight/understanding/response to those past events and their memory. This, as I said above, is entirely commendable; and indeed, I could put myself into a contemplative state with the recordings - but it has to be asked: “Is “Gurs /…” the best tool for this purpose?” Alas, the whole project reeks of detached academia. The essay itself is written in clumsy, theoretical language; apparently designed for an audience no different from the artists. You might argue it was, indeed, written for field recordists interested in the theoretical nature of their discipline. The entire release is unfortunately evident of some of the “conceits” of field recording: Garin and Gobart “took the time necessary to faithfully capture the acoustic singularity of every location”… but then used an archaic method to produce a series of photographs all sharing a similar, grainy, textural quality. It might be argued that this plays with ideas of present day realities and the visual qualities of old photographs, but really its the old “audio clarity is god” bugbear. Sonic information has to be represented without manipulation or interference, but that privilege isn’t always extended to accompanying art-forms.
So, as you can tell, I have little good to say about this album. The whole venture works on paper, but it needn’t have gone beyond that stage. I don’t feel that its rigorously realised, either. Despite insisting on no “iconographic” images, there’s a photograph of a crematorium chimney at Auschwitz - images don’t come more iconic than that. The essay translations into French and German are an interesting touch, promoting the album as a serious, almost monolithic statement - yet why no other languages? Certainly a Polish translation would seem a given, if nothing else. Also, accepting the presentation of “Gurs /…” as a weighty, serious document, why are there two pieces at the end, sectioned off as “Extra Tracks”? Given the nature of the subject matter, and the seriousness with which the artists wish the album to be received, this seems at best superficial and at worst puerile. Indeed, the implication could be further drawn, that the audio pieces came first, with the rest of the package following - whereas the essay would dictate that its words were the seed of the project.
(As a footnote, two observations: one serious, one absurd. For seriousness: there’s always a danger with work in this area, of contributing to the general notion of e.g. Jews as victims and victims only. However, its important to remember that there was resistance, organised and otherwise, to the Nazi’s population “cleansing” - indeed, the work of the Jewish resistance (and especially the post-war DIN) could be brutal and severe. For absurdity: six and half minutes into “Treblinka. The forest. August 12th2006”, the windy solitude of the forest is apparently broken by someone burping.)