V/A - Landscapes Of Fear [Gruenrekorder - 2015]Now this is a fascinating thing; a two disk set presented in an oversized gatefold wallet with a lavish full colour fold out. On one side a large topographical map of the area around Cologne marked with strange labels such as "Inner Space", "Refugee trails", and "Frontex Operation Corridor". On the other side a multitude of diagrams, photographs, graphical models and maps, some with accompanying text in English or German. The organisation responsible Gruenrekorder specialises in what they call "soundworks and phonography" but this doesn't clarify much for us. The English introductory text begins with a quote from W.J.T. Mitchell's Landscape and Power which starts "Landscape is a natural scene mediated by culture". The music contained on these two disks is a result of a seminar series held at the Academy of Media Arts in Cologne and in their own words focuses "on sound related aspects and auditive experiential modalities for tracing the current conditions for a political and social exploration of fear from a spatial (e.g. geographical, territorial as well as topological and auditive) viewpoint, in order to specifically examine the individual, subjective interests of the participants".
Such a specialised and academically centred project might appear difficult to translate into an engaging sonic experience for a more general audience but the curators have a done a fine job in producing a set of fifteen pieces that easily hold their own without the accompanying theoretical support. Each piece is the work of a different artist with their own specifically developed approach to the project as a whole and as such deserved of their own treatment and analysis. However for the sake of brevity I will focus on a few of the pieces which worked particularly well for me.
Tim Gorinski, Public Demand, and Ali Chakav all address contemporary political anxieties with their contributions. Gorinski's piece titled Amuse 2 utilises recordings of public unrest which he mixes with tort percussive electronics which could be artillery or small arms fire. It's difficult to determine precisely what's going on as wave after wave of shouts, cries and commotion swirl around but if we think about the project's aim we might imagine the urban environment being transformed into a landscape of protest, resistance and potentially violent encounters. Ali Chakav on the other hand takes up a very personal story for his piece titled A Shimmer of Reality which uses an interview with Alireza Sabouri, an Iranian shot in the head while protesting against election fraud in Tehran in 2009. Chakav arranged a series of loud-speakers to approximate the spatial locations of the bullet fragments that remained lodged in Sabouri's skull and then (ala Alvin Lucier) played the interview back whilst re-recording. The effect is a characteristically cavernous drone and crackle which is only broken by a sudden reverberation, perhaps representing the gunshot. Sabouri sadly passed away in Boston two years later as a result of his injuries. Finally on disk one Public Demand have produced a suitably unnerving piece around the theme of Drones. The bomb carrying rather than sonic variety. Although the piece does indeed include a good variety of droning textures which appear to have been processed and fed back on themselves creating feelings of tension not unlike that which a wedding party in Afghanistan might feel upon hearing these noises. Here the landscape is territorialised by the cold technological violence of imperial powers as they survey the ground for potential targets.
Elsewhere on disk one Katharina Mayer's piece Erdmännchenstelle Funkstadt (which seems to translate as Meerkats-Point Funk City!) brings together listening station recordings with environmental sounds. The fold-out shows a picture of large communications receiving dishes pointing upwards perhaps as the title suggests drawing comparison with the way Meerkats stand to survey their environment. The last piece on the disk, a collaboration by Stephanie Glauber and Miriam Gossing is the longest but perhaps the least fun to listen to. It's ostensibly a duet between a satellite navigation system speaking in both male and female American English voices and amplified feedback, possibly from an internet router. Initially quite an uncanny sound it quickly becomes rather nauseating as the voices talk against each other dictating directions (possibly around Cologne) and the feedback rises and falls along with the utterances. If the intention of the artists was to provide a suitable demonstration of how modern digital technology can render experiences of the environment alienating then this is a great success. Then again I've never been an advocate of Sat-Navs.
The second disk is more of a mixed bag with several dark-ambient like pieces and concrete/environmental assemblages grouped with a couple of less accessible vocal led works. Alisa Berger's Der Atmende Raum (The breathing space) is a long complex composition beginning and ending with the sounds of breathing and is styled as a confrontation with the place and history of a 19th century psychiatric hospital in Gorlitz. It's a slow burning piece that gradually opens up after the initial breaths with distant voices, bubbling electronics and tense atmospheres. Eventually the hiss drops out leaving more pastoral sounds and incidental talk. If one could compare this to anything it might be Luc Ferrari's Danses Organique which mapped the progression of a relationship between two women. Here Berger seems to want to map something like the internal experience of a person undergoing early forms of psychiatric care. Moments of clarity are interspersed with numbed atmospherics and unintelligible exchanges. Axel Pulgar's Iujk/Flame is almost a lo-fi piece of power electronics which comes with a suitably irascible description in the notes: "Fear burns your internal organs and absorbed with delight the liquid bile of your liver".
The best of the dark-ambient pieces here is surely Tzeshi Lei's all consuming The Wreckage that Runs our Barrage which at a shade over six minutes in length could do with being a bit longer. The sound sources are suitably obscured but you can occasionally make out a fragment of vocalization, possibly short-wave radio or analogue filter sweeps but it's all so swamped in perfectly controlled reverb that anything familiar is rendered strange and oppressive. The notes make reference to fear as a energy flow haunting our cognitive representations of reality; "Sound of an organism is distorted into mechanical noises, mechanical orders and harmony are corrupted into organic noises". Renate Boden's Year2 and Lena Ditte Nissen's Imaginary Orb are both vocal based pieces in German which my lack of proficiency in that language prevents me from making much sense of. The latter is a text based piece read straight without augmentation. The former appears to be constructed from a combination of automated telephone messages and weather recordings. The set closes with another sinister excursion into drone and environmental recordings this time from an artist going by the moniker Random Supply. Their Public Demand #02 is accompanied by a sketch of wind turbines in the notes which is perhaps a hint at their sound sources. There are strange metallic scrapes, clicks and whirring noises and at one point we hear a dog bark as if it were inside a giant metal tub. The piece fades out before it really gets going (something which could be said for a few of the pieces here) but then after a few minutes there appears a bonus few minutes of swishing noises before the disk comes to an end.
It's a suitably perplexing end to an often strange record. The seminar conveners have clearly given the participants considerable scope to imagine the idea of a landscape of fear. While some artists have taken a more direct route mapping the sounds and tensions within real landscapes, others have taken the notion of landscape to include internal places, and perhaps this is not surprising given the very personal experience of fear. If you lack an understanding of German you will miss out as several tracks and much of the notes are not translated. However even so many of the pieces attain a power and uneasy feeling that seems to speak directly to our times where any place on earth is potentially a site for a drone strike, a satellite photograph, or where our digital devices simultaneously help up navigate the space and block the possibility of finding our own way, all the while uploading our metadata to the citadels of power. Landscapes of Fear speaks to these very contemporary concerns.Duncan Simpson