HEADPHONICA: LABEL OVERVIEW
By David Grundy
Opening the envelope: a black and white photograph of an apartment block, blurred shadow of a window-frame in the front, dominating the right-hand side of the shot; sharp perspectival swing to the tower (or the section of it that is visible) in the centre, rimmed with a thin white outline tracing the edges of the building, half ghostly-aura, half child’s add-on. Traces of white thumb-prints, white flecks, white edge of the card encroaching on the straightness of the photo’s lined edges, pushing in from the left-hand side, as if the building might be pushed over by the weight of the dark grey sky – even as that sky remains depthless and flat, impenetrable or simply just empty, a blank screen reflecting back the nothing it faces.
In one sense the photo is so neat and formal – the tower-block’s wide white windows so neatly arranged in their rows and columns – but there’s something more here than the flatness of a mimetic formalism. The composition suggests at once randomness and exactness, at once the imperfect glimpse, the glance round the corner (as something terrible approaches) and the laborious product of hours setting up. This might be said to sum up Headphonica as well: a net-label, founded in late 2006, whose entire back-catalogue I was sent along with a helpful note on the back of the afore-mentioned photo-card. The music they put out mixes elements of lo-fi, underground aesthetics with sleek, shining surfaces as flat and inscrutable as the photograph’s blank grey sky, the simple chord patterns and formulaic vocals of contemporary electro-pop with the noises and bleeps and metallic sonorities of the avant-garde, and even jazz, on acoustic instruments. With 67 studio and 10 live releases, their output is impressive in terms of sheer size. Yet however tempting, challenging, or appropriate it might have felt to listen to every release back-to-back, on a paranoiac drink and drug-fuelled odyssey of music and darkness, I decided in the end that the Hunter S. Thompson or Lester Bangs approach was probably not best suited to either my current disposition or to writing that would make much sense of what I was confronted with. Thus, I went instead with the listen-carefully-to-selected-releases-and-make-detailed-notes-of-impressions-and-points-of-interest approach; so, while I wasn’t able to make my way through all fifty hours, hopefully I’ve gone at least some way to uncovering some of the surprises and mysteries to be found in between the ears, on the headphonica trip.
Mr and Mrs Brian: Richest in Cream (Headphonica 007)
Headphonica have released 8 albums, mostly EP-length, from ‘Mr and Mrs Brian’, about whom no little information is forthcoming, apart from the fact that their real names are Sven Hendrik Steffens and Lasse Kanit. Their output is pretty diverse, from the slowed-down vocals, bursts of noise, and touches of manic exploitation-soundtrack-fake-organ-jazz on ‘the disgusting organic theme or the proliferation of incarnation’, to the sludge-rock of ‘Y/Shmart’, but centres mainly around the ‘impersonality’ of beats and electronic sounds.
Headphonica 007, ‘Richest in Cream’, is a series of warped sexual pop songs, traversing a number of styles as seems to be customary with this project, its sound-scapes dominated most of all by deliberately artificial-sounding keyboards. Perhaps its finest moment is the second track, ‘foyer d’amour’, whose nicely-constructed, catchy musical structure bolsters up the deadpan spoken-word delivery, the sound of someone ushering a customer into a brothel. (Given that there’s no one else in the ‘space’ for the man to be addressing, it would seem that the customer is the listener, searching for his cheap sonic thrills from his position of safety and power.) The voice continues, offering the customer limitless food, drink and sex; to get on in this world, “all that you need is your penis and cash.” Such promises are delivered with the dry politeness of a butler or a porter, though touches of a sardonic sing-song humour show through the blandness, eventually exploding into the laughter of multiple voices that plays out over the last third of the tune – simultaneously the delighted sound of the customer in his paid-for paradise and the brothel bosses counting their cash. It’s a hollow and horrible hilarity, somewhat akin to the mocking despair ushered in by the laughter on Gorrilaz’ ‘Feel Good, Inc.’, and with none of the dreamy flights of fancy which that song offers as a contrast to the bleakness. The laughter ends, leaving one voice to fill out the final few seconds –a female one, the first time a woman is allowed a voice of her own, to be more than the object of shop-window talk (“we’ve got brown, blonde or foxy ladies – take two of them, lay in between, and cover them with your loving cream”) a voice suggesting at once an orgasm and the sounds of tearful desperation, the briefest glimpse, beneath the ‘groovy’ exterior, of those who suffer – who always suffer – for the sake of the white, western man and his pursuit of endless pleasures.
The rhymes in ‘foyer d’amour’ are childish and scatological – “but listen there’s one important order to you: no children, no pets, no wounds and no poo” – yet at the same time, they’re an important part of the way the track’s jokey mask shows through the real terrors underneath. As the “important order” indicates, the brothel is carefully regulated (though not, it would seem, to the benefit of those who provide its ‘services’), as full of petty rules as any other institution– rules which offer comfort, which allow the customer to feel safe at the same time as ‘letting go’, pushing out imaginary limits and breaking the arid routines of normality while never straying off the demarcated path down which they’re really being lead. William Blake would have it that “Brothels are built with bricks of religion”; in this case, the brothel seems more like some kind of adults-only holiday resort where flesh is brought and sold as any other commodity – a happy-clappy place where desires are manufactured, sold, and ‘fulfilled’.
One might say that the impersonality on ‘Richest in Cream’ is that of human beings, blindly following their way through a world of pleasures which are ever- present (for a price), switching on the TV and watching blue movies, indulging in endless fantasies while masturbating on the hotel (or brothel) bed. Humans are reduced to their most basic levels, mechanically repeating actions which they pretend make them feel better but which only conceal an ever-widening void within and without, and which most often can only occur given the suffering, direct or indirect, of someone else.
Mr and Mrs Brian: Oceanic Disco Bots ’05 (Headphonica 008)
The issue of impersonality is addressed even more explicitly on the next album in the Headphonica catalogue, ‘Oceanic Disco Bots ‘05’. Here, the ‘Brians’ briefly allow but then deny even the nihilistic enjoyment to be found in the darker realms of modern beat-based dance music, and substitute for it a world of awful repetition, of endlessly-circling nightmare-loops, of inexorable and grinding two-minute Groundhog days. There’s a narrative thread structuring things here (one could perhaps call this a ‘concept album’, though without the pompous grandiosity that implies): a cross between a cheesy sci-fi scenario to laugh at heartily through mouthfuls of crunching popcorn, and an actually and insidiously disturbing paranoiac sense of a society infiltrated by technology on every level. It’s the robots…the robots…they’re here! They’re at the door!
Each track is named after a different ’bot, or type of ’bot. There’s the ‘godBOT’, who seems to be ordering everyone to have a good, mindless old time, jerking themselves to death in some spasmodic party (this disco is so big, it’s oceanic); then his spokesman, the ‘preacherBOT’ who whips everyone into a further frenzy, the “skin over metal” of the “disco-bot” given a sexual drive as the preacher shouts on and about the ‘programmic beats’ which are all that exists in this prison-disco (though everyone seems quite happy here, out of their mind in the annihilation zone, as they were even before the robots came).
‘timeBOT’: the aural equivalent of an epileptic seizure in a disco where the strobe-lights have sped up to double-speed and won’t turn off; ‘magmaBOT’, squelchy and reversed sounds like the asthmatic gasps of a monster struggling through the slime, minimal shrugs of low bass and the faint sounds of an oblivious drummer jamming in the other room.
‘partyBOT’: over driving drums and bass, the sound of a phone conversation –a friend urges the initially disbelieving Mr Brian to check the door, and receives the answer he’d suspected: “you won’t believe who’s at my door – it’s robots: an army of robots!” Electronically-altered voices buzz out their message over and over – “this is how we like to go” – the phone’s automated voice reads out an error message. The disco bots have turned dangerous….
‘deconstructionBOT’, metallic bangs and crashes, mixed in with loud disco beats and awkward sudden silences. This is music from the era of the scratched-CD, the possibility for endless looping, repetition beyond imagination, sound that can exist indefinitely on the terms set out at it birth, that just needs one finger to set it in motion and then carries on and on through its eternal limbo. Kettle drums, the sound of dozens of war-film soundtracks and war symphonies, find themselves in new, technologically-advanced territory in ‘warBOT’, together with crackle of radio voices. On ‘emergencyBOT’, beat-boxed voices take their turn – and it’s truly an emergency as humans too are transformed into repeating automatons (or were they simply that already, with only the illusion of freedom in their playground of pleasures, of endless ‘choice’?).
‘lostBOT’: an accordion and a voice, mixed-down and surrounded by more clunking beats, the sound of the deadened survivor singing the same lines over and over as he stares into his oblivion. With ‘skyBOT’ we’re into the world of some dodgy 80s TV-movie or computer game, all blaring keyboards and big beats. ‘babyBOT’ ensures things end on a sinister note, looped infant chimes and whispering voices the nearest thing to a lullaby present in this apocalyptic scenario. A click, the phone off the hook, the record stopped spinning: a minute of silence. Then, just when you were reaching for the off-button…one final burst; somewhere in the mix there might be the elements of a melody which sounds almost orchestral, but it’s near-completely drowned out by the beats and hisses and the insistent two-note motif that drifts through this mess, oblivious to its surroundings.
Is this an imagined future apocalypse, or this really now, the nightmare truth of a mechanised, technology-reliant society which has given up thinking for near-automated activity? Yes, the record’s paranoid and knows it; but maybe it believes what it presents as parody and joke, as two people messing around with beats.
Chocolabor: Download for Airplanes (Heaphonica 015)
‘autopilot instructor’ seems to be building a relaxed ambient feel, but as the repetitions of the single melodic fragment which make up its entire five minutes increase in volume, the whispers and wheezes of a human voice, the whooshes and vague suggestions of beats, and, in particular, the gradually overpowering deep-bass rumble, create something more ambiguous (though the piece ends before reaching the full noise-climax it promises).
‘fucktakeoff’, at twice the length, keeps its cards even closer to its chest – at first. A single, foghorn-like drone, accompanied by a barely-discernable vocal sample, is joined by hisses, steam-train clacks, and what sound like distant industrial drills, which almost completely overwhelm it around four minutes in, the stable element now being provided by some boxy drums featuring a particular prominent crash-cymbal. The rest of the track mixes these drums with further sounds of industrial movement and occasional washes of vaguely choral keyboards.
This all breaks off abruptly in the midst of another swell in volume; the following miniature, ‘no more delay’, at less than a minute long, is the most sonically sparse piece on the album, consisting of the pulsing of one harsh and buzzing drone. ‘funkverbindung 119’ immediately contradicts the title of its predecessor by prominently featuring a female voice heavily treated with delay, at first panicky, coughing and spluttering and crying, deployed in a sinister manner reminiscent of Aphex Twin’s ‘Selected Ambient Works’. Brief respite, of a kind, comes through what sounds like a flute played through a wah-wah pedal, and a drum and bass beat, but these turn out to be only intermittent elements of the texture, which is dominated by smeary, wailing keyboards.
‘Eurofight/ Kunstname XVI’ uses the same keyboard sounds at a slower pace, over another drone, with the flute again making an appearance; the whole thing suggests the desolate cries of circling sea birds as heard during a particularly nauseous spell on a particularly desolate beach. Finally, the only true moment of peace on the entire album, despite all the promises, is closer ‘The Commander Pipe’: simple sets of keyboard chords, played with a slightly heavy touch which suggests a church harmonium. In itself, it’s not very remarkable, but, in context, it does just fine.
New Earth Objects: Live @ Gruenowski (Headphonica.hplive.001)
New Earth Objects are Marian Reinig, Clemens Wegener, and Tommy Neuwirth (Wegener and Neuwirth are also involved in the running of the label). Of their releases, the first, ‘Live at Gruenowski’, is the more jazz-flavoured, though ‘ambient, sample-based instrumental music’ is the more accurate description. The first section, nearly forty minutes in length, begins with a vibraphone-like keyboard tentatively taking the ‘lead’, though various electronic elements are soon blurring distinctions between instruments, between actions happening ‘now’ and those looped from ‘before’, to create the impression of a gently-tinkling, slowed-down gamelan. Vocals haphazardly spray out words, maybe subliminal messages, maybe someone stuttering over the telling of their tale so much so that the message is lost. Another keyboard and a guitar assume greater prominence, heavily laden with phaser and delay effects. Twenty minutes in and a bass-line moves into the picture; finally, the brief simulacra of a jazz vibraphone solo, before things move into an electronic haze; a more pronounced beat, return of the gamelan feel. The meandering keyboards and tinkling loops continue into Part II, along with a vocal sample chopped up, reversed, replaced by another (“if I told him, would he like it, would he like it if I told him, now, not now, now…”). Part III ups the tempo a little; more samples, bursts of Spanish radio, things running out of steam: keyboard noodling with the sounds of background chat, clinking cutlery, laughter. In truth the focus was probably lost after the end of the first part: the impression from the last twenty minutes is that of clinging on to fill up space.
New Earth Objects: Improvised Bedroom Stories (Headphonica.hplive.002)
‘Improvised Bedroom Stories’, at half the length, is a little more focused. Part 1, the louder of the disc’s two slow, lazy jams, builds itself around a looped chord, a brief melody (played on what sounds a little like a marimba), and unremitting, un-deviating electronic beats (with occasional electronic manipulation of sounds – stutters, pops, radio whines). A few minutes in, a male voice, seeming to sing to itself more than to anyone else, drifts out in a high-pitched ethereal mumbling daze, the semi-audible lyrics not delivered on top of this texture so much as floating alongside. The piece builds volume towards the end, vaguely jazzy keyboard and guitar becoming slightly more active in their deployment of melodic material (one might even describe the keyboard as ‘soloing’, though the parameters which have been set dictate a more collective music, the dogged pursuit of limited motivic material over a long stage to introduce an unquiet, rock-flavoured trance).
I find this works best played several times over: on first listen, the trance doesn’t quite set in, but, after a few goes (the whole thing only lasts 27 minutes in total), I find that the music’s infiltrated and altered my mood-settings in a way that’s quite disturbing. I say ‘disturbing’, but, on the surface of things, there’s little evidence for this. Yet while the second track, in particular, has a very laid-back vibe, soft twanging guitar picking out unhurried lines over blissed-out bass-line, joined by a melodica warbling away as if from the soundtrack of some ‘lyrical’ road movie, things never feel entirely still, entirely quiet, even as they’re only very gradually developmental: the comfortable ruminations of guitar, bass and melodica are made less comfortable by the introduction of electronic elements, twittering away louder and louder, from background to foreground, and by the late entrance of vocals, which initially sound like a zoned-out, less angsty Thom Yorke, and then pick up on a raga-like vibe to the music with some semi-Indian melismas.
So, while the album’s described as ‘meditative’, it seems to be a meditation on nothing, travelling at a speed that’s not overly slow but which seems unlikely to land us in any radically new territory any time soon: travelling with no particular purpose, to no particular destination, happy to simply wait for things to uncover themselves – or to remain hidden. Stories mumbled in the half-light, not-quite believed, not quite-disproved, there on the cusp, in the distance, half-seen in shadow.
Een Pianist? : Live at Heliogàbal [Barcelona], 26 sep 2007 (Headphonica.hplive. 004)
José Manuel Tabernero creates works which leave the impression of being moody and muted, though the timbres and volumes applied are often quite sharp (beeps, clicks, scratches, glitches, the vibrations of extremely low frequencies). The moniker chosen seems to arise from the fact that much of Tabernero’s work involves the remixing and remaking (sampling, or otherwise manipulating) piano music – often, it would seem, that of Erik Satie.
Most often, the method is for a bell-like single chord or set of notes to repeat, at regular or irregular intervals, as part of a more fractured electronic texture. On ‘Diferencial IV’, the effect is something like that of a Morton Feldman piece, with the electronics providing an extra layer of activity at the same time as (deliberately) never seeming to go anywhere; by seeming to play against the static nature of the sample, they eventually reveal themselves to be underscoring it. I suppose the danger might be that they come to seem mere background, lulled into inoffensive reverie as the spice in a dish whose flavours are otherwise inordinately similar; yet the quality and variety of sounds produced, for the most part, avoids this problem.
I say ‘quality and variety’, which is perhaps a cover for not really being much good at describing what precisely this means in terms of actual sound events. What’s lacking here is my probably, in large part, my personal critical vocabulary, but there may be larger issues as well, the need for a widespread, comprehensive critical vocabulary to describe electronic sounds. Even years after the first experiments have solidified into elements of musical production and sound open to anyone (listeners and musicians alike), the way we talk about electronic music is still primarily in terms of acoustic instruments and of certain sounds which are expected from them.
Somehow it makes it easier to talk about work such as Taberno’s when one can tell that the original source for the material came from someone playing a conventional instrument – a laptop, a machine, sure, but one neutralised into domestic familiarity. Traditional instruments can be viewed as simply tools to be used, to which the performer can maybe even have a physical relation of some sort (blowing on a flute, drawing the bow of a violin over (animal)gut-strings, hammering the keys of the piano). The non-human nature of the tool does not change our perception of the ‘humanness’ of the performer, or of the music. Electronics, though, associated with technology, the machine – through film and books and everything else – can’t be thought of the same way – or we refuse to do so. Even as it has become easier to produce the semblance of playing an instrument more in line with the conventional sense of ‘instrument playing’ – the laptop, sleek and compact, as opposed to the studio clustered with reels of tape and switchboards and the like – the music actually produced can’t quite be comprehended as emerging from recognisable human causation. In other words, one can’t always tell whether this particular action produces this particular sound, can’t be certain of an established relationship invoking comforting elements of control and certainty.
The weakness of the opening piece, a remix of one of Satie’s most famous Gymnopodies, is precisely due to the fact that it makes its electronic nature more accessible, remains too close to strictures and rules of a sort which, while perhaps fine when considered on their own terms, are heading in a different direction than Tabernero. It’s too easy to hear the original sound source, and, once the basic melodic pattern has dragged itself out, one keeps thinking ‘it’s that famous Gymnopodie slowed down’ – it seems too gimmicky, too obvious. Of course, slowing things down is in itself can be a successful artistic practice – think Douglas Gordon’s ’24 Hour Psycho’, bringing out new terrors beyond the 90-minute pulp-schlock format in which Hitchcock jokingly indulged, tapping into infantile fear and desire and pushing the horror film’s voyeuristic tendencies even further to the front than they are normally: blaring things out with a full orchestra rather than merely trumpeting them, in a manner at once more subtle than Hitchcok and more obvious, more over-stated, more crude. Or, in musical terms, Leif Inge’s ‘9 Beet Stretch’, a 24-hour version of Beethoven’s ninth, the touchstone of the western classic repertoire turned into the grinding wash of super-slow ambience. A betrayal of the revolutionary ideals bursting out of the score; a commentary on the way that these ideals have become mere background noise, mere ambience, through the bleeding-chunks format in which most popular classical music is presented today; an examination of the material and materiality of sound, stripping ideology from sound in as direct and physical a way as possible. Perhaps ‘9 Beet Stretch’ is all of these, perhaps none.
Tabernero’s piece, to my mind, has neither the conceptual nor the aesthetic logic or illogic of such a project – but that is by no means true of the rest of this performance, which I found to be fascinating listening, tempering glitchiness and apparent randomness with elements of restriction and control, discrete use of samples with less easily-identifiable sounds, the quasi-ambient repetitiveness of the ‘soundscape’ with the fractured and occasionally noisy world of musical collage. Caught between worlds of fragmentation and cohesion, particles of sound spin out in loops and webs, dots and streams of data, visibly or invisibly connected, floating loose and free in the prison and prism of altering and unchanging perceptions. Beautifully contradictory yet single-minded, this is music of purpose and poise.
Noel Taylor: Foundry Solo Triptych (Headphonica.hplive.007)
The seven minutes of solo clarinet to be found on Noel Taylor’s ‘Foundry Solo Triptych’ call to mind the ‘Abime d’Oiseaux’ from Messiaen’s ‘Quartet for the End of Time,’ in the combinations of intense silences with long, held notes that crescendo into piercing heights and fly into bird-song trills only to sweep back down into melancholic reverberations. Apparently recorded in the converted basement of a pub while beer kegs were unloaded above ground, the acoustic allows notes to sing out beyond their natural resting-places, but it doesn’t echo oppressively; and Taylor’s hardly one to rely on natural atmospherics over musical effect, in any case.
M. Del Zotto/ M. Spanghero: Blind Statement (Headphonica.hplive.008)
More free improvisation comes along in the form of ‘Blind Statement’ by pianist Michele Del Zotto and bassist Michele Spanghero. “To improvise is like making a statement without knowing the matter of the speech but your mood; a blind statement that can be a strong assertion.” This, then, is music that’s not made from a position of certainty, authority, and pre-determined control, but that opens up pathways to realms not accessible except through a certain openness – though one that also entails a willingness also to be decisive, when the moment calls for it, to make the risky decision that turns the whole piece on its head, that determines new directions, new possibilities.
The disc opens with Spanghero sticking mainly to rhythms and repetitions while Del Zotto picks tentative, though firmly hammered melodic paths until he finds a repeating chordal figure which forms a new structural basis, building in intensity as he begins to pick out single notes in alternation with the chords which he and Spanghero clump out in unison. Still there – barely there – the rhythmic patterns accelerate, growingly increasingly frenetic as Del Zotto springs swelling and frequently dissonant variations on the initial figure. Notes spiral upwards, parody(?) of Lisztian Romantic-era piano excess, though Spanghero’s high register sawing suggests an altogether more strained and sincere state of mind, and Del Zotto’s flowing repeated melody with arco accompaniment keeps the moment suspended in the genuine.
Perhaps the only way to move on from that height is into a quieter, less cluttered and decisive texture; almost as if the players are retrospectively embarrassed at the heart-on-sleeve nature the previous piece took (not that this invalidates what was done, in any way). Bass harmonics, piano chords with the sustain pedal pressed firmly down, alternating with strums and plucks on the strings. Similar patterning to the first piece: a tendency towards the repetition of alternating ideas, the gradual pursuit and development of these in a way perhaps more indebted to the forms of classical music than to jazz’s linear successions of fresh ideas or to more helter-skelter styles of improvisation. The risk is of seeming too studied, too polite (or, indeed, of the opposite – of a kind of melodramatic excess), but Del Zotto keeps his melodies on edges – of dissonance, of over-floridity – while Spanghero seems more interested in the shades to be found in limited areas, small variations of pitch changing the colour spectrum behind Del Zotto’s dogged, almost motoric pursuit of melody. By the end of the track, things are once more loud and dramatic, though with a greater sense of galumphing urgency.
Back to inside-piano, scraping bass, metallic tinkle and tap and squeak; kept up for longer this time, though at the end we find once more a semi-parody of classical music, this time the sort of simple melody that one might find in a collection of piano music for children. To the final piece, and Spanghero’s still exploring those registers and elements of his instrument which move it away from its jazz associations, a growling, grinding sound sustained and perhaps even growing in harsh vehemence underneath the dogged Del Zotto, dogged as ever in following the places the melodies take him.
All the music mentioned above can be downloaded for free (in MP3 format) from Headphonica’s website: www.headphonica.net