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VVolk * Claudio F Baroni * Olivia Block

Olivia Block 132 Ranks

Se (In) De Bos


This is the third edition in the ongoing Book of Air project curated by Stijn and Bert Cools. The first release in this series was performed by the relatively small Fieldtone ensemble, while the second and third editions are performed by VVolk – a group of 18 improvisers with roots in jazz and classical music. Vvolk may very well be ‘the only ambient orchestra in the world’: (they also perform all night ‘laying down concerts’).

It’s incredible to hear such a large group of improvisers play so restrained, each member playing his/her part but no one claiming the lead, although the instrumental setting constantly shifts and there’s a change in dynamics like ebb and flow.

Vvolk investigates performing and improvising music, in close relation to present time; what are the possibilities in playing music, when changes in this music pass by unnoticed? How do we as musicians relate to the running time of a performance? This clearly challenges the improvising musicians, and makes audience and performers discover new territories in collective improvisation.”



If you don’t listen carefully, you might get the impression the complete orchestra suffers from narcolepsy – only to be kept awake by the slow but throbbing pulse of the three interwoven bass lines that the (somewhat enigmatic) album title Se (In) De Bos seems to refer to. But that would deny the adventurous beauty of this composition.
There is actually very múch happening in this 60 minute piece , but it requires attentive listening to recognise the constant change ‘inspired by the fluctuating objectivity of our daily observations’.



Claudio F. Baroni is a composer from Argentina, where he studied piano and sonology. In 1997 he moved to the Netherlands, studying composition at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague. His website presents an extensive work listbut for those not familiar with his work this release on Unsounds is a great introduction.

Motum (meaning ‘motion’) presents three different works performed by different ensembles.

In Circles II
in four movements of 8 minutes each, is performed by Ensemble Modelo62It is a piece ‘in a constant in-between state’. Reminiscent of Morton Feldman and Louis Andriessen’s ‘De Tijd’, the stretched chords are accentuated by various kinds of percussion instruments. The piece is defying the awareness of time, ‘through subtle shifts in timbre and register, tiny variations in intonation of common pitches [that] start acting between the instruments, along with the acoustic effects of the intervals and overtones themselves’.

Solo VIII-Airis performed by Ezequiel Menalled (artistic director of Modelo62, also from Argentina) and Claudio Baroni on organ. This composition is dedicated to Phil Niblock which may give an indication of what to expect.
“Pedals and manual keys are pressed down during the piece, but it’s not quite notes we are hearing. Instead the piece consists of registration changes, the knobs for registers being manipulated very slowly, and never fully pulled out. The result is a subdued, unpredictable, fluctuating sonority, an almost-organ, the sound of a complete choir of partial voices, with sometimes hints of a tone emerging.”
The impressive and overwhelming sound of the church organ, the breathing organism and the thundering low registers, is haunting, if not downright scary – especially when played at an appropriate volume.

With its 12 minutes and 13 seconds, Perpetuo Motum(performed by Quartetto Prometeo) is the shortest composition in this collection even though it it dedicated to ‘perpetual motion’. Compared to the previous two it is also the most demanding piece of the album.
“Whenever a player plays, it is on two strings: one stable note on an open string, and one slow glissando on a neighboring string. The result is a fascinating superimposition of two incommensurate musical logics. On the one hand, drone harmonies based on open fifths; on the other hand, a Xenakis-like world of pure glissando counterpoint, not based on harmony at all.”

Olivia Block 132 Ranks

OLIVIA BLOCK – 132 RANKS  Also on Spotify

Some of the works above may be be described as ‘minimalist’ to some extent. But perhaps they are ‘maximalist’ compared to Olivia Block‘s 132 Ranks, a sound installation for six speakers playing white noise, sine tones and pre-recorded organ sounds, combined with live performance on the enormous Skinner organ at the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel in Chicago. (However: there is an interesting similarity with Baroni’s ‘Solo VIII-Air’ mentioned above).

“The piece included both the lowest pedal notes, felt in the body, as well as the highest bell tones, played at extreme dynamic levels. At times, sounds were isolated in discrete locations to emphasise the chapel’s shape.”

It must have been an impressive performance. A church organ is one of the very few instruments that cannot be disconnected from its environment. In fact, the entire building it is located in is a part of the ‘instrument’. An organ like this, in an environment like this,  is impressive enough in itself, but even more when combined with a multichannel surround installation where the audience can walk freely, noticing ‘how the acoustics, materials and shape of the space altered the live and recorded organ sounds as Block performed.’

The live recording of Olivia Block‘s performance inevitably includes the sound of the audience moving around through the space. In some weird way this gives extra depth to the result. You can almost hear how small and insignificant people are compared to the large setting and the massive and inescapable sound of the Skinner organ.

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Lawrence English – Wilderness of Mirrors

Wilderness of Mirrors

Complex times breed complex albums.
A sign of the times, maybe.

Not unlike Matthew Colling’s album mentioned before, Lawrence English‘s new album The Wilderness of Mirrors presents a “tectonic auditory offering, an unrelenting passage of colliding waves of harmony and dynamic live instrumentation”.

During the cold war, the phrase “Wilderness of Mirrors” became associated with campaigns of miscommunication carried out by opposing state intelligence agencies. Translated sonically to this album, there’s a ‘singularity’ buried somewhere in the end of each track, but it can hardly be heard: like the truth in the cold war, it is “erased through auditory burial”.

Clearly, this is not an optimistic album.
“The amorphous and entangled nature of the modern world is one where thoughtless information prevails in an environment starved of applied wisdom.”

“We face constant and unsettled change. It’s not merely an issue of the changes taking place around us, but the speed at which these changes are occurring. We bare witness to the retraction of a great many social conditions and contracts that have previously assisted us in being more humane than the generations that precede us.”

“This record is me yelling into what seems to be an ever-growing black abyss.”

For the inescapable, massive, saturated sound on some (but not all!) of the eight tracks on The Wilderness of Mirrors (presented in two uninterrupted parts), Lawrence English found his inspiration in bands that use sound as a physical force, such as SWANS, Earth and My Bloody Valentine. Which of course means: PLAY LOUD!

But be sure to keep your ears open for the softer subtleties that are present, too. Keep searching for the ‘buried singulaties’, because they are not fully erased … they’re only hidden somewhere below the surface.


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Marina Rosenfeld – P.A. – Hard Love

Hard Love

Apart from being an ‘ambient-electronic’ music addict, reggae music- and especially dub music – has been playing a major role in my musical life. There is a distinct crossover area between experimental electronic music and experimental dub reggae, as demonstrated by genius artists like Lee Perry and Bill Laswell (among others, of course).
Dub Music, rooted in reggae, is often very experimental music.

I have heard a lot of ‘ambient’ music cross over to different styles, up to the simple fact that there is no clear definition of what ‘ambient’ music is any more.
But to my own surprise I wasn’t really prepared for Marina Rosenfelds approach on her recent ROOM40 release P.A. / Hard Love“.

Just try to imagine some (fairly radical) sculptural soundscapes with voice-overs by Warrior Queen (Annette Henry), recorded in Kingston, Jamaica. Can you? I couldn’t.

But on the other hand – this may not be as strange as it seems.

Between 2009 and 2001, “New York based composer and conceptualist” Marina Rosenfeld has been developing “an idiosyncratic sound-system, a quasi-sculptural assemblage of customized horns and subs which she called simply P.A. She used the system to reposition resident noise from the sites alongside traces of her own voice.”

For this particular (vinyl) release, Warrior Queen was invited to contribute her vocals, which “acted as catalysts for transformations, propelling the original compositions in new and unexpected directions”.

If, by chance, you are familiar with the previous works of Marina Rosenfeld, such as her 2009 release Plastic Materials”, this use of (seemingly) improvised vocals over abstract soundscapes may feel like a logical progression. But even then, these sounds definitely kick you off the beaten track, forcing you to redefine any genre-definition you knew before.
Radical sounds, indeed. Just don’t expect to find yourself dancing to it.


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Chihei Hatakeyama (Mirror) + Steinbruchel (Narrow)


Room40, the Australian based ambient/electronic/experimental label (run by Lawrence English) kicks off the after-summer season with a batch of fascinating releases. Among these are the beautiful drone-based albums by Chihei Hatakeyama and Steinbrüchel: 


Chihei Hatakeyama – Mirror
Chihei Hatakeyama has earned himself quite a reputation with his earlier albums (on Room40, as well as Home Normal, Hibernate and Kranky). Described as a minimalist with a “formidable reputation as a fearless textural experimentalist”, you might expect some loudness – but Mirror is about the opposite of loudness.
The deep drones (or polychromic and memory-evoking soundscapes if you prefer) are like a mirror indeed.

“Taking layers of composed instrumental passages and then re-recording them in a variety of reverberant spaces, Hatakeyama sought to accentuate and amplify the harmonic qualities of the sounds. Overtones were shaped by these spaces and rich fluctuations emerged from the original recorded elements.”

Some shorter field recordings mark the points of arrival and departure between the composed pieces. Together they present a fascinatingly calm and introspective album.

Chihei Hatakeyama – Alchemy


Steinbrüchel – Narrow
(Ralph) Steinbrüchel is a German musician living in Switzerland. Although coming from a different continent, the music on this album prefectly fits next to Hatakeyama’s“Mirror”: it’s just as calm and contemplative (although Steinbrüchel’s basic sound is slightly more ‘edgy’).

Narrowstarts off with the incredibly low sounds beginning the 20 minute title composition – “melodic layers like waves that gentle swell and fall in a pulsing undulation”.
Additionally, there are four N-Variations, each digging deeper into the original composition,“unearthing unfamiliar elements and minimal layers lost in the dense flows of Narrow.”

Steinbrüchel – Narrow (edit)

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Minamo & Lawrence English: A Path Less Travelled

RM 427

Together with the recent release of Rafael Anton Irisarri  another recent Room40 release came to my attention: “A Path Less Travelled by Minamo and Lawrence English.

An album very well titled, since the five sonic electro-acoustic pieces on this album are indeed uncovering some musical ‘paths less travelled’

Minamo is a 4-person group from Japan recording since 1999. For this record they are working together with Lawrence English adding bass, harmonium, field recordings and electronics to Minamo’s guitar, keyboards, electronics and object sounds.

The electro-acoustic music on “A Path Less travelled” is not ‘ambient music’ but the field recordings and the way the musicians explore their ‘sound fields’ have a lot of ‘ambience’. For most parts, the compositions have a nice lively, improvisational feeling.

“Rather than setting out with prescriptive or didactic ideals for their meeting, the musicians looked further afield for influences to shape their interactions”.

But in fact the musical results proves to be much less ‘improvised’ than one might imagine:
“Drawing on Minamo’s sense of pace and sonic spatiality, English devised a number of arrangement strategies to compress, accentuate and expand Minamo’s initial sketches. Carefully editing and adding to the refined and measured contributions, the record took shape over two years of gradual process led production.

The result is a pleasure to listen to. The music defies categorisation, it is as much ‘experimental’ as it refers to classic ‘rock’ music.
But one thing is sure: you probably won’t hear much of it on your local radio station – because most of these stations don’t really like ‘paths less travelled’.

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Rafael Anton Irisarri – The North Bend


If this album had been presented to me ‘blind’, without knowing anything about it, I doubt that I would have guessed that I was listening to the new Rafael Anton Irisarri album “The North Bend“.

I would probably have mistaken these rather dark repeating loops for a new William Basinski recording.

Rafael Anton Irisarri  (also main member of The Sight Below) obviously isn’t afraid to leave expectations for what they are and explore different worlds.

The music on ‘”The North Bend” is quite different from the piano-focused music of his earlier releases Daydreaming (2007), Hopes and Past Desires (2009) and Reverie (2010).

For that reason, it may take a few extra turns to get used to, but finally the five tracks slowly reveal their secrets and beauty:

” […] a sound of uncertain source and unknown origin; …like wind, far away, but with a depth like a rumbling of the earth.”

The drones, loops and rumbles are somehow related to natural landscapes (the pacific northwest of the United States to be more precise). But this music is not about birds, crickets and refreshing brooks.
It’s about nature on a much larger scale: about vast impressive landscapes that make you feel small and insignificant.
About “Valleys, Mountains, the nearly endless Sea of Trees”…and filled with hidden mysteries.
Like the music on The North Bend itself.

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