ARTS

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March 11, 2003

Exploring sonic terrain

The title of the first CD of Thomas Köner's Zyklop translates as "a sonorous landscape" or "a landscape of sound," and he says that his artistic intent is to provide a sonic record of a space. Placed as I am in a position of evaluative authority (albeit slight), I assert that he has totally succeeded. Ah, auteurism is très passé, but every now and then I yearn for the reinstitution of the category of "genius"--cases remarkably like these, in fact.

If grocery lists documenting all the instruments or samples used to record an album enthrall you, then allow me to give you a brief runthrough of the ones that sound in "Une Topographie Sonore: Col de Vence:" flies buzzing, crickets chirping, gravel scraping, rain pattering down, cicadas (?) buzzing, jumbo jets roaring, birds twittering, leaves rustling, thunder rumbling, twigs snapping, swings creaking, wind whistling, and on the more contrived side, droning, steaming, sweating, soaking, humming synthesizers. What this all goes to show you is how, from such poetically pure soil, such textural riches can sprout and bloom.

My only point of comparison for "Une Topographie Sonore" is Biosphere's Substrata, another ambient album that operates under a naturalist paradigm. While there are notable structural dissimilarities--Biosphere uses more overtly artificial sounds and less field recordings--the most important difference is that of the place depicted/created. Whereas Substrata conveys vast stretches of open tundra and cracking ice, "Une Topographie Sonore"'s object teems with life, often seeming like verdant rainforest. On the other hand, the middle section is so dominated by gusting wind that the listener might imagine a liminal space between woods and plains, a movement between them.

Did I mention that the piece is beautiful? Is that a criterion by which I may even judge it? The piece has some intellectual pretensions about abstract geography and Euclid (my French is not up to snuff), but that does not stop me from wanting to leave my (specifically urban) space and go to the space depicted herein. There I would have "vacuité et d'immensité" instead of ordure et bruit.

The opening notes of "Des Rives" cast me quickly out of my stupor and into a roiling pot of echoing dissonance, washes of static. The pastiche of screeching tires, automate voices, and traffic sounds are so densely knit together that they alienate me on the spot--the desired effect, I am sure. It would be incorrect to translate the title as "The Rivers"; "Of Rivers" or "Of the Rivers" is closer. By "rives" I think Köner is referring to the streams of information that bombard the sensorium of the city-dweller, and his piece does well in evocation.

By comparison, the title track, which appears in two different versions (both recorded live), is more abstract, conveying warmth and a rotating object but not concrete or corporeal objects. There is a vague "narrative" to its progression from higher to lower frequencies, and from wet to more arid sonics, but that is all I can make of its trajectory.

Lastly, "Tu, Sempre" traverses miasmas of emotional sound on its course, but never settles on one particular mood until the end, when a chorus of men yell some unintelligible phrase in a constant sound loop, resistant to but ultimately defeated by the enveloping drone.

As a means of closure, I feel obligated to tell you that "Des Rives" was an installation at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, so you ought to know that when you listen to Köner you are delving into some extremely cerebral sound. The "deep listeners" out there ought to hear his music, if not for its emotional import, then at least to be aware of an artist truly at the brink of sonic experimentation.