Antje ý Vowinckel - Terra Prosodia [Gruenrekorder - 2015]
'Terra Prosodia’ comes in a shiny digipak, with liner notes from Vowinckel and Christina Kubisch. The album has eight tracks, all to the shorter side of things: the longest, nearly eight minutes; the least, just over two minutes. The pieces have all been constructed from short recordings that Vowinckel has collected, of disappearing European dialects.
Vowinckel’s notes inform us that her intentions are to present the spoken words as pure, melodic sound, deliberately stripped of context and connotation. These words are seldom interfered with; sometimes they are looped or stuttered, moved around the sound-field, but ostensibly they are presented bare. Instead, Vowinckel accompanies each ‘short spontaneous story’ with cryptic sound elements; which she describes as being inspired by and tied to the speech, but independent. At this point, I need to abandon my measured words, and just cut to the quick: this might be the most baffling album I’ve heard for a long time. The minimal accompaniments to the monologues are frankly brain-halting - and not in a good way. They could be largely, and cruelly, described as ‘a toddler with a casio’. I’m aware that that’s very harsh, but it hopefully gives a sense of what’s going on. They often sound like some kind of atonal, arhythmic ‘fake jazz’ backing; shadowing the voice or engaging in call-and-response routines. If this wasn’t enough, these - almost parodic - backings are conducted using the worst sounds possible: either casio presets or sounds very akin to them. This reaches a zenith of hell on the seventh piece, ‘Gutamal’, which pairs a female voice with a galloping double bass, and a brass/woodwind keyboard sound (begins shouting) set to portamento. Portamento. It sounds absurd. There are other, more colourful, elements (percussive ruler twangs, humming), but literally nothing which doesn’t arouse bafflement or sad laughter. I do believe its one of the worst things I’ve ever heard.
At the risk of sounding snooty, I’m very sure that Vowinckel is doing something very ‘clever’ here - most likely analysing the dialects in terms of rhythms and melodic intervals (etc) and then constructing sympathetic accompaniments. (This would account for the distinct amusicality of much of it.) But, regardless of the merits of this approach or idea, the simple fact is that the sounds chosen are just awful - or rather, they carry awkward baggage which can only evoke a response of laughter or confusion. Interestingly, Kubisch’s notes refer to a ‘subtle and profound humor’ in the album, which really just raises even more questions: is ‘Terra Prosodia’ meant to be funny? Is the actual sound of people speaking funny? Exaggerated personal speech quirks can certainly be amusing, but: really…?
I mentioned the shiny digipak in my first sentence of this review, and that’s somewhat important. If this had been given to me on a blank cdr, with the message, ‘You have to hear this - its crazy!’, I think i would have ‘enjoyed’ it - then filed it under ‘Cool Outsider Stuff - to be listened to about once every two years’. But the album is presented with all the trappings of high art - sombre liner notes, a scientific ‘angle’, and artwork that evokes old electroacoustic/tape albums; it provokes a slightly different response. The base response for both ‘versions’ could be boiled down to a bafflement, but with a different tone for each. To my mind, the ‘outsider’ version would evoke a merry bafflement - whereas the Gruenrekorder version evokes a somewhat sad, slightly angry bafflement. Its presented as something worthy, but falls way short of its own evaluation. Of course, this shows the difference context can make; so, if we take Vowinckel’s suggestion of removing that context from the sound, we’re left with a recording that is essentially… a bit rubbish.Martin P