Ricardo Villalobos electronics
Max Loderbauer electronics
Soundstructures by Ricardo Villalobos and Max Loderbauer
Developed and produced at Laika Studio, Berlin, September-December 2009
Pre-mastering: Rashad Becker
Mastering: Manfred Eicher and Christoph Stickel
Original recordings produced by Manfred Eicher
The term “acousmatic” was first used in reference to the philosopher Pythagoras, who delivered his lectures from behind a screen while his students sat mutely on the other side. Many centuries later saw the introduction of European closed-eye listening practices, blindfolding audiences to ensure a musical experience devoid of visual bias or distraction. Yet it would take musique concrète pioneer Pierre Schaeffer to realize the deeper potential of such a situation when he replaced screen with loudspeakers, from which issued sound collages of indeterminable origin. Now the ears wore the blindfold. According to Schaeffer, imaginary sounds are ontologically distinct from the objects that produce them. They begin with an effect and work back to cause. The acousmatic experience, then, fundamentally separates sound from source.
This equation is never foolproof. Once the sound in question has been activated it takes on a familiarity of its own. Where Schaeffer perhaps shortchanged his own convictions was in never turning the mirror around, for the mise-en-abyme of his sonic philosophy indicates not only an external distinction, but also an internal one—namely, that in their solicitation found sounds morph into experiences in and of themselves. The severance is a divided cell, an audible illusion whereby infinity speaks.
Another possibility: that, even in the intimate knowledge of a source, the acousmatic experience may thrive. Acousmaticity depends on spacing of source, case, and effect; on reversibility between inner and outer. At its heart is an aporia. It can never be more than an interpretive effect of the listener. In such a context, our instinct pushes us toward treating sound as material, especially when we can hold recorded art in our hands and manipulate its realization at will. The moment we press PLAY, two temporal realities—that of the recording and that of the listening—share a space. Time collapses.
With this in mind, I turn to minimal techno wunderkind Ricardo Villalobos and experimentalist Max Loderbauer, who were given permission by Manfred Eicher to dip their hands into his label’s unfathomable catalogue and finger-paint a fresh compositional framework of suggestion and inner-space. As a self-styled “synthesis of two musical worlds,” Re: ECM does, in fact, create a third, acousmatic one. Without access to individual tracks, the Berlin-based DJs looked to separable bits for sampling, and to the gaps therein. In so doing, they went beyond effect to aftereffect, charting the ghosts of these pristinely recorded sounds (which, no matter how you splice them, betray their source). Yet in the hands of this artful duo, even the obsessive ECM listener (points to self) will find there is still an enigma to be had. Much of this feeling derives from the fact that Villalobos and Loderbauer took an improvisational approach to layering these loops and elements in the studio. Their acousmaticity goes from the outside in.
At the risk of oversimplifying, I am tempted to separate this recording’s mesh into its classical and jazz streams. Though the genres are not so distant, their approach manifests differently throughout. Looking to the latter first, we find a marked balance of organic and electronic. More than balance, even, is the unity of these two categories—again, not so distant. Said unity comes mostly from the Christian Wallumrød Ensemble, specifically the Fabula Suite Lugano (ECM 2118), making adroit use of Giovanna Pessi’s baroque harp in “Reblop” and its counterpart, “Replob.” Both are sparkling odes. Pianos unravel chains of icicles, swaying hand in hand with satellite interruptions and wave distortions. The inevitable nod to Jon Hassell comes in “Requote,” for which a cunning horn winds its way in a bowed expanse of intimate measure. “Redetach” ends the album on a snare- and cymbal-driven journey into the center of a vast digital biome. Gloopy and viscous, this bubbling drone touches feet to ground, its back to sunset. The remaining Wallumrød refraction comes in “Recat,” this time from The Zoo Is Far (ECM 2005), for a groovy, if subdued, drum ‘n’ bass vibe. Gut strings wince in self-reflective heartbeats as the ghosts of drums flip from open to shut. With its scattered rhythms, rusty veneer, and granola crunch, this track takes due cue from Boards of Canada. Out of this shadowy enclave we are dropped like buckshot into water for “Retimeless.” Penning its tale from the ink of Timeless (ECM 1047), its windblown beats and vocal blips dance their gavotte in moonlight. Miroslav Vitous’s Emergence (ECM 1312) affords another fond look back at some of the label’s classics, as does “Rensenada,” drawn from Bennie Maupin’s The Jewel In The Lotus (ECM 1043). Whereas “Reemergence” lives on the underside of a snare drum, the other lumbers across its top surface before liftoff. Louis Sclavis makes a knotted cameo in “Reannounce.” The raw material this time is his L’imparfait des langues (ECM 1954). Metals and reeds flick their throats away like the cigarettes that have destroyed them, leaving a pile of dreams for ashes. Clay percussion trades places with outer contacts, devolving into a contest of morals for the sample-addicted. The Wolfert Brederode Quartet’s Currents (ECM 2004) finds new life in “Recurrence.” As much a mantra as a challenge to silence, it finds itself flanged for want of a sharper blade. Enrico Rava’s Tati feathers the wings of “Rebird,” a distorted pathway of grace.
From Russian composer Alexander Knaifel comes the bulk of the album’s classical skeleton. As the dark side of this moon, it puts the emotional back into the rhythm-formula of the club, seeking in its body-to-body connections something akin to the heart-to-heart. Much of this pulse comes from Svete Tikhiy (ECM New Series 1763) and Amicta Sole (New Series 1731), giving us soprano Tatiana Melentieva’s otherworldly rise above all in “Resvete.” In such primordial surroundings, she sounds for all like Cathy Berberian reborn, radiant still through a tintinnabulation of brushes and cymbals. Distant sirens splash through smoke and cloud, each indistinguishable from the other against the Ligeti-like whispers of “Retikhiy.” Where in this ritual passage rhythm remains paramount, sandy and free, in “Resole” it recedes for a spacy vibe reminiscent of Vesptertine-era Björk. BLAZHENSTVA (New Series 1957) yields its embryonic “Reblazhenstva,” laying choral strains on a bedding of digital beats while a cello spasms and swoons from its own melancholy residue. Swiss violinist Paul Giger’s Ignis (New Series 1681) makes a morose appearance in “Reshadub.” Its drums tremble before an oncoming train of opaque intentions, crumbling into radio dial anxieties at the moment of death. This leaves only Arvo Pärt, whose Kanon pokajanen (New Series 1654/55) inspires the throat-sung drones and sacred curtain of “Rekondakion.”
All of this shares a border with a glitch aesthetic, by which the crust of representation cracks open to reveal something intrepid and uncompromising. Its skin hosts as many nests of reality as there are humans, each a node of anxiety. Whether or not this anxiety yields pleasure has much to do with personal preference, but also with the fact that all sounds are phenomena. Only our allegiance determines their marketability. And so, if we instead let the organic experiments of Villalobos and Loderbauer breathe as they will, if we avoid weighing down their pockets with texts such as this, then the soundness of their message will grow of its own accord, rampant and unbridled in the photosynthesis of blind appreciation.
(My thanks to Brian Kane, whose discussion of acousmatics gave me context for the present review. To hear samples of Re: ECM, click here.)