Unfamiliar Listening: A Brief Introduction to Experimental Field Recordings

For many, the term “field recording” evokes the greatest hits of natural sounds: ocean waves, rain, and birdsong. Indeed, one of the earliest field recordings dates to 1889, when an eight-year-old Ludwig Koch wax-cylindered the song of a white-rumped shama. In more recent history, anyone of reading age in the heyday of National Geographic may remember Roger Payne’s Songs of the Humpback Whale, inserted as a flexi disc in a collectible 1979 issue. Ten million copies of it were printed—more than any album ever produced in a single run. Payne’s classic and others like it endure for their scientific value, serving as springboards for studies of language and the potential for interspecies communication. They also spawned a robust environmental movement at a time when modernity was threatening to divorce humanity from nature. By the same token, microphones can get too close to their subjects, as in Hans Lichtenecker’s “archive of endangered races,” which documented descendants of the very peoples his comrades slaughtered in German Southwest Africa (what is now Namibia). Even the most benign anthropological motivations have fallen under retrospective scrutiny.

I will not be reviewing such projects here. Instead, I wish to examine—and, I hope, bring fresh ears to—a visceral stream of experimental field recordings. While tracing the origins of such an amorphous category can be difficult, an indisputable pioneer is Jeph Jerman, whose seminal work tops the list below. Kindred visionaries in this sphere of influence include Francisco López, Alan Lamb, and John Tulchin. I highlight their endeavors, subjective as my favorites among them are, in the interest of expanding their embrace of sameness through difference.

These recordings constitute a form of sonic travel to worlds at once internal and distant. Some are spliced and collaged within compositional frameworks in tandem with electronic and acoustic instruments, others manipulated beyond recognition, and still others presented as they are—but always with an aesthetic in mind, even if that aesthetic is simply to let sounds “happen.” Their significance cannot be overstated—not because they represent an overarching artistic ethos but precisely because they shun that motivation in favor of genuinely borderless spaces. It’s not often we can listen to a corpus of sounds without transfusing the blood of our politics and ideologies into it. Here, we can. Such comfort means more than ever in a world on its knees, wondering whether the healing will begin.

Jeph Jerman: Early Recordings ’81-’85

Also known by the moniker Hands To, Jeph Jerman first set out with his cheap cassette deck in the 1980s to document the act of listening while questioning its practices and apparatuses. What continues to fascinate about his recordings is how raw and curated they feel. And while some of his most unadulterated work (e.g., Beach Tree and Birds, 2001, A Pyrrhic Victory) is woefully difficult to track down, this compilation of early recordings is a grounded place to start. Lo-fi swaths of mostly industrial settings (e.g., “Metal Fabricating Shop, Colorado Springs”) reveal an unimaginable depth in the mundane.

Alan Lamb: Archival Recordings: Primal Image/Beauty

In 1976, Australian biomedical research scientist Alan Lamb first discovered the abandoned stretch of telephone wires that would define his artistic endeavors to come. Dubbed the Faraway Wind Organ, this massive vibrating skeleton loosed eerie songs at the touch of an air current, echoing since his childhood into a mature desire to record them. That he did, often for hours at a time, assembling choice passages into this otherworldly diptych. Whether whispering the mantras of uninhabited terrain or choiring like a Glenn Branca symphony, these requiems step out of time and ooze their way into the bloodstream.

Maggi Payne: Ping/Pong: Beyond The Pail

Maggi Payne is a venerated composer and multimedia artist whose output has largely focused on electro-acoustic constructions. Her field recordings of “dry ice, space transmissions, BART trains, and poor plumbing” congregated to astounding effect on 2010’s Arctic Winds, but 2003’s Ping/Pong: Beyond The Pail preserved another level of intimacy. Its two 30-minute tracks, recorded in a galvanized steel pail, offer complementary experiences of rainfall through the intermediary of the album’s eponymous vessel. The first catches the rain openly, while the second inverts the pail for a drum-like effect, sealing us in a metallic chamber without excuse for distraction.

John Tulchin: Location Recordings

This collection’s first track, “Fire Alarm From A Distance (Winter Park, FL.),” is indicative of John Tulchin’s questing spirit. It’s also one of the most haunting field recordings in readily available form and an entry into an album unlike any other. The pragmatic titles—“Metal Structure In The Desert (Dead Horse Ranch, AZ.),” “Log Partially Submerged In Water (Seattle, WA.),” etc.— only deepen the possibilities of interpreting them. Somehow, knowing what we are hearing makes it clear how much we miss. Thankfully, we have Tulchin to fill in those gaps with heartfelt portraits of time incarnate.

Quiet American: Plumbing And Irrigation Of South Asia

Quiet American, an homage to the novel by Graham Greene, is the sound manipulation project of San Francisco Bay Area artist Aaron Ximm. Plumbing And Irrigation Of South Asia is at once exactly what it sounds like and something else entirely. Nominally, it is a vast collection of field recordings of various community fixtures, such as a drainage pipe in Madikeri (India), a water pump in Khulna (Bangladesh), and a toilet in Kathmandu (Nepal). Other locations include Vietnam, Burma, Laos, and China. Beyond that, it is an unassuming travelogue filtered through the mesh of a respectful phonographic memory.

Jgrzinich: Insular Regions

John Grzinich is a sculptor combining found sounds and instruments of his own design. For this 2005 release, he gathered personal impressions of Mooste, a rural Estonian village. Insular Regions is among the more tactile albums in this guide’s category of interest. Its resonant intersections of wood, wind, and wire feel like a portal into another dimension. And yet, we are constantly reminded of their fleshly purview, which Grzinich sees no reason to hide. What we hear is what we get, even when we know it has been transformed through technology, because every electrical circuit runs on our conductivity.

Loren Chasse: Synthesis of Neglected Places

Loren Chasse is a humble public school teacher in San Francisco who seems never to have lost that childlike wonder for the world around him. Synthesis of Neglected Places was originally produced as a cassette in 1998 by the Unique Ancient Tavern label. Over the course of eight parts, it lives out every moment in the full knowledge that the act of recording will change its genetic makeup. As Chasse’s most crepuscular album, it speaks in tongues of light and shadow in equal measure, drawing out tasteful keyboard touches as if from within.

Loren Chasse: The Air In The Sand

Loren Chasse leaves behind precious recollections of experiences you never knew you had. That such dreamlike qualities are elicited from unabashed reality sets his work apart. The Air In The Sand shares the spirit of 2002’s Hedge of Nerves, which meshed the crackle of vinyl with sounds of the elements, expanding that aesthetic to welcome wider-reaching absorptions. By revealing the natural in the artificial and vice versa, he pays deference to the molecules common to all matter, guiding them in chorus even as they lead him in kind to voices hibernating until they can be amplified.

Click on the sub-cover titles below to see my reviews of other vital albums in this loosely allied genre.

Francisco López: Addy En El País De Las Frutas Y Los Chunches

Eric La Casa: The Stones Of The Threshold

Collin Olan: Rec01

David Dunn: The Sound of Light in the Trees

Lionel Marchetti: Portrait d’un glacier

John Hudak: Pond

Koura: Shisō

MNortham: Molt And Anecdote

Seth Nehil: Uva

Murmer: Eyes Like A Fish

Jonathan Coleclough/Murmer: Husk

Jgrzinich/Seth Nehil: Confluence

Ralph Alessi Quartet: It’s Always Now (ECM 2772)

Ralph Alessi Quartet
It’s Always Now

Ralph Alessi trumpet
Florian Weber piano
Bänz Oester double bass
Gerry Hemingway drums
Recorded June 2021, ArteSuono Studio, Udine
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Mixed December 2022 at Radiostudio RSI, Lugano by Manfred Eicher and Stefano Amerio
Cover: Fidel Sclavo
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: March 17, 2023

Trumpeter Ralph Alessi returns to ECM with his fourth leader date for the label, this time with a newly minted European quartet that reflects his relocation to Switzerland in 2020. Alongside Florian Weber (piano), Bänz Oester (bass), and Gerry Hemingway (drums), he carves out a vivid baker’s dozen of original material.

“Hypnagogic” not only sets a tone but also establishes the album’s heart, the veins and arteries of which are traced with anatomical faithfulness by Alessi and Weber. It’s one of a handful of duo turns (including the subcutaneous title track) building on their nearly 20-year relationship as sonic allies. Abstract yet comforting, their dialogues feel like waking from a dream yet holding on to its fading tendrils. The effect is such that when the light of “Migratory Party” reveals a rhythm section trailing an even longer history, the band’s ability to balance independent voices and melismatic intermingling reigns supreme.

Both as musician and composer, Alessi creates constant washes of color. Whether in the groovier strains of “Residue” (a fantastic testimony of Oester’s talents) or in the nocturnal urbanism of “The Shadow Side” and “Diagonal Lady,” he navigates every moment as a director would a scene of actors improvising within a loose script. The latter two tunes have a three-dimensional feel that yields the album’s deepest magic.

When at its most forthright (“His Hopes, His Fears, His Tears” and “Everything Mirrors Everything”), the band swings forward and backward rather than side to side, while the dramatic resolution of “Hanging by a Thread” leads perfectly to the concluding “Tumbleweed,” bringing us back to where it all began.

(This review originally appeared in the April 2023 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Qasim Naqvi/Wadada Leo Smith/Andrew Cyrille: Two Centuries

Two Centuries is the second album from former ECM producer Sun Chung’s Red Hook label and may one day be regarded as its most defining release. As electronic musician Qasim Naqvi, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and drummer Andrew Cyrille put 11 of Naqvi’s tunes under their triangular microscope, the cells of our listening are magnified.

“For D.F.” opens with a political charge. Written for Darnella Frazier, who captured George Floyd’s murder, it uses distortions to evoke the white noise of our collective trauma. As subtle as this music is, with its near-comforting swells and honest lyricism, it offers not a moment of reflection but the reflection of a moment, a vivid gaze at a life lost on the brink of a society in turmoil. This is, perhaps, the deepest nuance of the titular centuries, the dividing line of which is drawn not numerically but on the shifting sands of justice.

What follows is a veritable tilling of melodies made possible as much through listening as playing. The foundation is often forged between Cyrille’s tools and Naqvi’s febrile choices of color. In fortifying each for harvest, they dip into disparate references. Hear, for example, the influence of Bryn Jones in “Sadden Upbeat,” while “Tympanic” recalls Sofia Gubaidulina’s String Quartet No. 4.

Contrasts in mood abound, ranging from sunlit (“Palaver”) to brooding (“Wraith”). “Bypass Decay” is of special note, chugging like a train against (and ultimately losing to) an encroaching night. Throughout, Smith speaks (e.g., “Spiritual is 150”) and sings (e.g., “Organum”) in equal measure, but always with a message to convey in the role of griot, reminding us of something spiritual, though severed from any particular tradition. As is evident in “Orion Ave,” where the free-floating hymn reigns supreme, faith walks these empty streets alone, trailing its shadow like a burden of care.

Enrico Rava/Fred Hersch: The Song Is You (ECM 2746)

Enrico Rava
Fred Hersch
The Song Is You

Enrico Rava flugelhorn
Fred Hersch piano
Recorded November 2021
Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Cover: Fidel Sclavo
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 9, 2022

Pianist Fred Hersch makes his ECM debut in intimately grand fashion with maestro Enrico Rava on flugelhorn. Their meeting at Lugano’s Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI yields some of the most effortless jazz you’ll likely hear this year. Hersch’s opening embrace eases us into Antônio Carlos Jobim’s “Retrato em Branco e Preto” as if the set could open no other way, fanning expository poetry in place of lantern flame. An old-town quality prevails, navigating cobblestone streets on tiptoe yet never losing its footing.

Contrary to immediate expectation, this is followed by a free improvisation, which tempers the familiar with new shades of meaning. George Bassman’s “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” gets a delicate and rhythmically endearing treatment, while the title track by Jerome Kern is enigmatically transformed into a crystalline snowdrift of memory. Thelonious Monk’s “Misterioso” walks a fine line between dream and reality, giving way to artful abstractions that reveal two minds with lifetimes more to say, as do the originals that precede it. Whereas “Child’s Song” (Hersch) conveys innocence with a nostalgic, summery feel that harks to yesteryears, “The Trial” (Rava) renders an entanglement of spiral staircases and other modern architectural details. All of this leaves Hersch alone with “’Round Midnight,” floating into the promise of a new day, uncertain though it may be.

These musicians achieve the extraordinary by sounding like one unit without sacrificing their voices. They dance as few know how, unfolding a love letter one page at a time until only a wax seal seems appropriate to protect its contents from the sun’s bleaching touch.

Julia Hülsmann Quartet: The Next Door (ECM 2759)

Julia Hülsmann Quartet
The Next Door

Uli Kempendorff tenor saxophone
Julia Hülsmann piano
Marc Muellbauer double bass
Heinrich Köbberling drums
Recorded March 2022
Studio La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Cover photo: Thomas Wunsch
Produced by Thomas Herr
Release date: August 26, 2022

Although Julia Hülsmann has crafted a hearty sequence of trio records for ECM, including 2017’s Sooner and Later, there has always been something even more intimate and honed about her quartet with tenor saxophonist Uli Kempendorff, bassist Marc Muellbauer, and drummer Heinrich Köbberling, as is refreshingly obvious throughout “Empty Hands,” in which Hülsmann throws notes like petals onto the waters of life to see where they might flow. As they did on this album’s predecessor, Not Far From Here, these effortlessly attuned musicians navigate her sound with familial affinity. After “Made Of Wood” deconstructs the introductory mood, a melodic breeze wafts over the keys, carrying over into “Jetzt Noch Nicht.” Taking two forms—initially as a duet with Kempendorff, later as a swinging outing for all four—it delicately offsets tracks like “Fluid,” an emblematic realization of their capabilities that rejoices in the ongoing moment.

Muellbauer contributes three originals with a more geometric approach to time and harmony. In his “Polychrome,” the piano is a wavering shadow, the saxophone a refraction of light stepping sideways past us, while in “Wasp At The Window,” a locomotive whimsy ensues. The landscape outside our window remains the same, but its description changes along the way. Hülsmann’s ability to carry so much cargo in so fine a mesh is marvelous. Kempendorff and Köbberling offer a tune apiece. The former’s “Open Up” balances emotiveness and restraint, and the latter’s “Post Post Post” is a standout for its liminal expressivity.

No Hülsmann set would be complete without an ode to the popular canon, and her reading of Prince’s “Sometimes It Snows In April” is no exception. With charming comfort, it promises hope at the end of a long and harmful tunnel that none of us saw coming.

Paul Giger: ars moriendi (ECM New Series 2756)

Paul Giger
ars moriendi

Paul Giger violin, violino d’amore
Marie-Louise Dähler harpsichord, chest organ
Pudi Lehmann gongs, percussion
Franz Vitzthum alto
Carmina Quartett
Matthias Enderle violin
Susanne Frank violin
Wendy Champney viola
Stephan Goerner violoncello
Recorded January 2015
Chiesa Bianca, Maloja
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Guggisberglied was recorded 2021 in Walenstadt
Cover photo: Jan Kricke
An ECM Production
Release date: August 26, 2022

The music of Paul Giger became a part of my blood when I first encountered 1989’s Chartres. Not since J. S. Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas had I understood just how architecturally robust the violin could be, to say little of 1993’s Schattenwelt, which introduced his violino d’amore, a custom instrument with five main and six sympathetic strings. If those early albums were temples of the spirit, then ars moriendi is a waystation of the flesh—if not vice versa. The ambiguity of such distinctions gives the album a timeless charge. Across the pages of its cavernous imaginings, Giger writes a real-time scripture of inspiration, building on echoes of lives before and since.

His mythologically tinged Guggisberglied, reinterpreting a popular Swiss folk song of unrequited love and the life one gives up in its name, follows a tracking shot of the human form, shifting in varying degrees of inevitability between innocence and decay. Cradled by the hush of flowing water, what we once saw as shadows are now the shadows of shadows. Such subtlety of framing and placement of subjects is possible only in one whose mind works as a camera. Giger looks within from without, the tones of other cultures beating his drum. The violin body is a percussive force, a multitracked orchestra of emotional instruments. Giger also plucks the lower strings in qanun fashion. Currents of molecular awareness caress the riverbank, praying for a peaceful transition into lifelessness.

The latter sentiment connects to the overarching title. “In the late Middle Ages,” explains Giger in a liner note, “a literary genre of devotional books illustrated with woodcuts flourished under the name ‘ars moriendi.’ They gave instructions on how to ‘die well.’ The purpose of this tradition was to attune the soul to the ‘art of dying’ in order to save it for eternity. Music is also an ars moriendi, an exercise in the ‘becoming’ of a note, of ‘being’ in sound and of ‘passing’ into silence—or into an inner reverberation.” These concepts refer to a triptych of Tyrolean painter Giovanni Segantini, subject of the eponymous documentary by Christian Labhart, for which Giger wrote the music. Selections from that soundtrack take up much of the present album, including three stages of Agony. In the company of percussionist Pudi Lehmann (gongs, singing bowls, frame drum, and conch shell), keyboardist Marie-Louise Dähler (harpsichord and chest organ), and the Carmina Quartett, he builds a tower of wonder one layer of stone at a time until time itself is suspended. As ice dissolves into water and further into steam, the violino d’amore opens light to reveal its individual colors, loosening the bonds of the material within the immaterial through the inherent art of refraction. Zäuerli mit Migrationshintergrund is rooted in the Swiss yodel, harking to 1991’s Alpstein, albeit in far subtler clothing.

Transcriptions of Bach carry over from the film, including two for violin and harpsichord (the choral prelude “Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ” and the Largo from the Sonata No. 4 in c minor), angling the mirror of our lives into a cell of collective memory where melodies play on repeat. There is also “Erbarme dich” from the St. Matthew Passion, as sung by alto Franz Vitzthum in a breathtaking arrangement for violin, chest organ, and strings. Vitzthum’s beauties culminate in Giger’s Altus solo II, stitching ground to sky with threads of silver. In the harpsichord’s tactile light, a mournful catharsis takes shape. Like M. C. Escher’s Rind, it suggests a face. Whether forming, unraveling, or holding its own against a patchwork of clouds, its eyes remain fixed on memory.

Patricia Wolf: I’ll Look For You In Others

“What is grief? Can only the sun name its layers?” So writes Edie Meidav in her lyric novel, Another Love Discourse. What the author soliloquizes through words on a page, Portland, Oregon-based electronic musician Patricia Wolf actualizes through synthesizers, algorithms, and the emotional transistor of her own throat and lungs. Written and recorded in 2020 following the loss of her mother-in-law and a close friend, I’ll Look For You In Others treats the interface of flesh and technology as a force to birth something meaningful in the wake of deaths that may feel meaningless.

These messages activate every molecule of “Distant Memory,” which in its first breaths betrays the oxymoron of its title: No matter how distant a memory may seem, it is always nearer to us than any external trigger. Memories are as much a part of us as the oxygen and neurons that complicate them, and I cannot walk through this music without feeling accompanied by the echo of a past self who knew no better than to live as if mortality were a tragic lie. Every swell, pulled from the corona of active denial, finds its way into acceptance. And yet, “The Culmination Of” reminds me of the darker times when solitude cultivates necessary mourning beyond the prying eyes of those who care a little too much. Here, as in the title track and “Severed,” the human voice sheds its communicative uniform in favor of raw expression.

It’s a stark reminder that even if we haven’t lost someone directly over the past three years, the pandemic has turned us all into targets of its burning arrows. In the eyes of a virus, there is no parsing of memories into categories to be filed until we are ready to reckon them. Rather, it destroys what it can, mutating when it can’t, and scars the skins of souls. Such is the tenor of “Funeral,” in which an organ bleeds across the floor of a chambered heart, even as the light of dawn cracks a smile through tear-stained windows. And though we are left to wander with only pieces to show for our future, “Recombination” is possible with that near-magical glue of cohesion: time.

In the same way that the absence of bodies magnifies the presence of spirits, “Lay to Rest” throws a handful of slow-motion dust onto the coffin in emphasis of the bereaved funneling its descent. And while “Letting Go” promises closure, it may just be another link in the chain that binds the living and the dead. If anything, loss is an opportunity, and an opportunity is a portal of transformation. We cannot go through Wolf’s journey without being changed, knowing that loss has sewn its threads through all of us.

To quote Meidav again: “On the wheel of feelings, is wonder the true antonym of grief?” If so, this album is a wonder of healing at a time when the world itself has been reduced to an ailing organism in more ways than one. Let it hold you close, never letting go until your cheeks are dry.

I’ll Look For You In Others is available on bandcamp here.

Pascale Berthelot: Saison Sècrete (RJAL 397037)

Pascale Berthelot
Saison Secrète

Pascale Berthelot piano
Recorded November 29, 2018
Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Mastered by Nicolas Baillard at La Buissonne Mastering Studio
Steinway grand piano prepared and tuned by Alain Massonneau
Release date: October 26, 2020

Pianist Pascale Berthelot, a remarkable interpreter of (and favorite among) living composers, becomes one herself—in a sense—throughout this program of five extended improvisations. Liberated at the behest of Gérard de Haro, engineer and head of Studios La Buissonne in France, these unabashedly visual evocations of in-the-moment imaginings constitute one of the most multidimensional piano recordings I’ve heard in years. While its impressionism lays its head as much on the shoulder of Poulenc as Jarrett, it shapes itself one body part at a time without the ultimate need for such comparative garments. Regardless of the lines of reckoning we might connect from Earth to its distant galaxy, it validates the listener’s imagination, and in that spirit I offer mine in return.

“Balance des étoiles” opens the curtains as if in expectation of morning but instead finds the moon masquerading as the sun, rising in mimicry of dawn. The toes become restless for the feel of soil between them, the heart for a lamp to light the way. What began as a reverie ends as a descent into ocean, where prose and poetry comingle until the difference is impossible to make out. In “Ciel s’illune,” the sky and earth are flipped, so that another distinction—that between inhalation and exhalation—is rendered mythological. When we at last get to the center of this genetic spiral, “Nuits, chères” abandons the lie of tranquility for the truth of its unsettling, thus evoking the bliss and deeper love that a relationship conflict can yield. Even in “Chambre sans langage,” in which the intonations of dampened piano strings resound like a knock at the door, spiritual tendencies move beyond prayer into communion. And so, when the dream of “Clair éclat de l’M” lights a ponderous candle with its tongue, it adds one last link to the chain we’ve been extending all along, dragging behind us a memory box whose contents we have already forgotten.

And yet, we mustn’t fool ourselves into thinking that the world Berthelot describes existed before these utterances. Rather, we experience it as she does, unfolding in real time at the touch of flesh and key until something inevitable arises. Thus, the recording itself is a song made up by a child lost in the woods, holding on to lullabies as the only answers to her questions of fear and emerging all the stronger for it.

Heiner Goebbels: A House of Call (ECM New Series 2728/29)

Heiner Goebbels
A House of Call – My Imaginary Notebook

Ensemble Modern Orchestra
Vimbayi Kaziboni conductor
Recorded September 2021
by Bayerischer Rundfunk
Prinzregententheater, München
Engineer: Clemens Deller
Recording engineer: Gerhard Gruber
Mixed and mastered by Clemens Deller, Heiner Goebbels, and Gerhard Gruber
Cover photo: Gérald Minkoff
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: August 26, 2022

With A House of Call, Heiner Goebbels peels back his most significant layer of multimedia music for the stage. This self-styled “imaginary notebook” incorporates archival recordings of prayers, songs, and other speech acts into dialogic relationships with a full orchestra. Much of what we hear is old and anonymous, barely hanging by a thread of preservation and never imaginable in a concert setting. And yet, here it all is, wired together like some elaborate lie detector of our shared past, pinging with increasing frequency to signal every denial of complicity by proxy. Tempting as it might be to view such a project through an archaeological or ethnographic lens, to do so would strengthen the very contradictions it wishes to dilute in its reckonings of time and place. “The music is a direct response to the complexity and roughness of the voices,” says Goebbels in his liner note, pointing also to the radiance thereof against the opacity of present traumas.

Across four thematic assemblages, the Ensemble Modern Orchestra, under the direction of Vimbayi Kaziboni, draws upon an intimate relationship with Goebbels to bring his vision of death to life. Part I, “Stein Schere Papier” (Rock Paper Scissors), cites Pierre Boulez’s orchestral work Répons as foundation, magnifying its call-and-response principle with glimpses of Goebbels’s art rock band Cassiber from the same period (the early 1980s). The initial stirrings of a privileged crowd indicate the biological venues we often fail to maintain. The instrumental colors are fluid, attentive to detail, and indicative of various styles pouring from many portals at once. The story of Sisyphus, as retold in Heiner Müller’s “Immer den gleichen Stein” (Always the same stone), wraps the orchestra in a chameleonic skin. And as the street noise of a Berlin building site from 2017 stirs up a vortex of unread manifestos, faded newspapers, and other detritus, we begin to treat all words as fair game.

Part II, “Grain de la voix,” borrows from the Roland Barthes essay of the same name, in which the French philosopher asserted the power of language to shield oneself against the glare of mortality. Ghosts from the Caucasus region open their lungs, strings trembling beneath the surface as a violin leaps in sporadic response. Thus, the hypocrisy of destroying the questions of culture to answer them is outed. When more modern recordings, like that of Iranian musician Hamidreza Nourbaksh intoning Rumi from 2010, reveal themselves, they take on a volition that blinds the orchestra’s feeble attempts at imitation. The juxtaposition is critically self-aware, a score written in scars. The evocation of Komitas and Armenian soprano Zabelle Panosian hints at the spiritual planes being razed in addition to the physical, as scrutinized in Part III, “Wax and Violence.” The title refers to the wax cylinders weaponized by pseudoscientific ideologues whose voracious appetite for the “exotic” was only the beginning of their consumption. In particular, Hans Lichtenecker’s xenophobic aural documents of the very people German soldiers would later destroy through genocide pull us by the ears. A recording of school children in the Namibian village of Berseba is even more haunting and spawns a big-band catharsis—if falsely so called, for what do we have to be released from by comparison? The effect is even stronger in the laments and incantations of Part IV, “When Words Gone,” wherein Amazon rituals conducted in lost languages blend into lines from one of Samuel Becket’s last texts amid digital whispers.

The danger of all this is reading the wrong kind of sorrow into everyone we hear. We latch on to familiar names like life preservers, forgetting that the nameless have been speaking truth all along. And so, while it would be easy to call this the pinnacle of Goebbels’s work, it might be more appropriate to see it as his valley of the shadow of death. We walk through it, guided by hands unseen, in faith that hope awaits us on the other side. But to get there, we must be willing to face the hostile forces of collective memory, thick with the mud of misunderstanding.