Robert Schwarz - Double Negative [Gruenrekorder - 2018]Robert Schwarz' previous effort on Gruenrekorder, The Scale of Things, was a superlative amalgam of dense musique concrete, treated field recordings and modular synthesizer that conjured worlds of amplified natural processes and disquieting soundscapes. The beauty of that record was how it showcased a variety of techniques in such a way to produce a unified, highly composed, not-to-mention dramatic vision of avant-garde electronic composition. Like its predecessor, Double Negative features a cover that hints at what lies within the grooves of the record. The strange almost claustrophobic collage which adorned The Scale of Things gives way here to a seascape, on the horizon of which drifts the unmistakable geometric form of an iceberg, or could be a shark fin or even the prow of a sinking ship? The picture is almost abstract in its composition and finds kin among the similarly abstract and musically dissociated music on the record.
The move towards a more formalistic style is also signalled by the track titles, which here are nothing but a series of three letter acronyms, for what, who knows. WVW opens the A side with field recordings of birds, dissonant modular synth glitches and bass hums. There's a sound that could be the cord of a flag tapping against its metal pole. This draws in the ear, lending the studio effects greater weight. There's a good deal of classic musique concrete techniques on show here and many of those strange acousmatic tricks familiar to listeners of Parmegiani and Pierre Henry are deployed by Schwarz to dislocate the listener from any obvious frame of reference. YSX is a creaking well of submerged percussion, sub-bass and incidental clicks and swooshes. As on his previous record the composer seems to delight in layering uncanny studio processed sounds against wispy atmospheres; at once evoking a sense of environment (water, forest, street) and then throwing the piece into confusion with some closely recorded melting ice or crunching rocks.
If The Scale of Things explored a non-positional perspective on vaguely natural environments Double Negative takes this approach to its logical conclusion. Now even the common thread of nature is thrown into abstraction and thus the resulting soundscape is of a totally fictitious kind. This is perhaps the beauty of musique concrete, its greatest gift. YSY and FSK both utilise some natural sounds, be they bird song, or water or acoustic sounds like bells. Not a single one of these elements is however left untouched. Bells in particular are used in a wonderfully canonical way by Schwarz who reverses them, plays with their attack and delay and generally uses them to evoke a deeply addled sense of space for the listener. Side A ends on just such a moment, fading out the bell to leave us with pastoral bird song.
The distended gongs that open PLW venture into early Nurse with Would territory, complete with creepy wriggling mechanical sounds in the background. The treated percussion are joined by synthesizer drones and other textural elements which build into a dense and totally surreal mass. Here again the ghosts of classic tape composition are with us; this piece carrying something of the abstraction and visceral intent of Xenakis. Tone and textures vie for attention before the bird sounds return momentarily only to be abruptly shut-out by a closing door or hatch. PLP gives us the rainforest as imagined by the BBC radiophonic workshop. Croaking frogs and the calls of parrots are transformed into an alien chorus surrounded by the bloops of digital swamps and the rumble of distant thunder.
The final piece leaves us at the more austere station from which the record began. Metallic drones and synthesizer tones take us far from the haunted mutant spaces of the previous two tracks. Rolling drones and bass surge up over the extended percussion before the tinkle of water signals that we are out to sea, among the waves. Perhaps we've been abandoned on top of the iceberg which adorns the front cover. It's a bleak end to a dark, disorientating record. If The Scale of Things was Schwarz' fever dream of a nightmare jungle expedition, then Double Negative soundtracks the PTSD that follows. Despite frequent nods to the fathers of musique concrete this is still a record light years away from their occasional dry academism. Schwarz' soundworld is a great deal more dank and haunted than that, and it's all the better for it.