| VARIOUS | Birmingham Sound Matter
Time: July 09
Media: CD & Digital Download
Info: Typically, recorded sound is considered as a
representation of reality. Birmingham Sound Matter
demonstrates that a sound recording can also be
considered as an entity by itself.
Artist site: www.modulate.org.uk
PDF Press Release: Download
01. Helena Gough
02. Martin Clarke
03. Bobby Bird
04. Cormac Faulkner
05. Annie Mahtani
06. Mark Harris
07. Nicholas Bullen
08. Francisco Lopez
|ARTISTS | Birmingham Sound Matter
|REVIEWS | Birmingham Sound Matter
THE MILK FACTORY
Over fifty years ago, French composer Pierre Schaeffer, the father of musique concrète, described sound
recording as ‘objet sonore’, suggesting that, while documenting a sonic event, it is also one. This is very much the
philosophy behind the Sound Matter series of projects orchestrated by Spanish sound artist Francisco López.
After Brussels in 2004, Montreal in 2006 and Victoriaville in 2007, López was invited to come to Birmingham and
gather a handful of regional sound artists.
The concept behind the Sound Matter projects is pretty simple. Get a few sound artists together, send them
to collect sounds from a particular city, let them process them as they see fit. These two sound pools are then a
common platform for each of the artists involved to create their own work. Contributing to Birmingham Sound
Matter are Helena Gough, Martin Clarke, Bobby Bird, Cormac Faulkner, Annie Mahtani, Mark Harris, Nicholas
Bullen and Francisco López. The project started with a workshop held in early 2009, and the complete process,
from the harvesting of sounds to the processing, composition and recording, took place during the following three
months, with a concert, in Birmingham on 8 July bringing it to a close. This album, released on Audiobulb,
documents the resulting work.
One artist who has worked on a similar project is Bobby Bird. In 2000, Bird, working as Higher Intelligence
Agency, teamed up with Norwegian ambient artist Geir Jenssen, AKA Biosphere for Birmingham Frequencies,
an album made using sounds collected around Birmingham. This followed a similar project three years before
in Tromsø, Jenssen’s home town, during the Polar Music Festival, where the pair created music made
exclusively from sounds sourced around the performing area. Here, he contributes Combustion, a piece which
starts as a slow moving drone-like form, punctuated by regular pulses, but as Bird progressively brings grainy
sounds and, eventually, almost industrial noises, his composition becomes denser and more organic.
Later, Annie Mahtani creates, with Shadows, a piece articulated around two very distinct sections. In the first
one, she weaves light textures into much more robust and dense forms. Following a few seconds of silence,
the more bucolic second part opens with bird songs, but the urban soundscape becomes increasingly vibrant
and predominant, evoking the expansion of the city over the countryside, but Mahtani eventually returns to
nature sounds to conclude. Opening electro acoustic composition Grau, by Helena Gough, is one of the most
complex pieces presented here, as she arranges a series of segments into a narrative sequence which goes
from peaceful and delicate to cold and mechanical, while Nicholas Bullen’s Proximity also goes through a
number of phases, but, apart for a few white noise discharges, his are more tempered.
Others chose a more typically musical approach. This is the case of Mark Harris, whose Last Days focuses on
long progressive drones which are given a soft orchestral feel, while crackles and statics are dusted over the
latter part of the track. Drones are also fundamental to Martin Clarke’s piece. Using bell sounds, treated and
stretched so they lose their percussive aspect but none of their rich tonal warmth, he offers here a surprisingly
ethereal and exquisite moment with Sleep Birmingham Sleep. Concluding this album is Francisco López’s Untitled
#225, which, along its ten minutes or so, builds from slow moving forms into much grander and more ambitious
sound clouds as noises gather along the way.
Francisco López and his contributors don’t aim at building a sonic map of the city here, but use the noises and
sounds it generates and turn them into particles that contribute to the overall work. This is, perhaps, more a
representation of what cities are like, sprawling and ever changing. The result is particularly atmospheric and
fascinating, as all artists share the same pool of sounds, yet each track is an utterly personal interpretation of it.
In the hands of these, sound is, indeed a wonderful object.
The lead artist in this project is that great master of abstract electronic music, Francisco Lopez, whose studies
of noise, silence and the fabric of recorded sound have been a major presence in the realm of electroacoustic
music over the past ten years or so. In this instance Lopez collaborated with a host of regional sound artists,
collecting field recordings from around the city, shaping them into streams of decontextualised noise that are
typical of Lopez's more challenging brand of microsound. Several of the participants come from an academic
background, while others are self-taught, but in all cases the compositional approach eschews the more casual
and pastoral tendencies of the genre. There's some great (if confrontational) material on offer: Annie Mahtani's
cinematic 'Shadows', Mark Harris' droning 'Last Days' and Lopez's own deep and heavy 'Untitled 225' all prove to
be especially rewarding. Recommended.
"Right now heres a project for you Mr Lopez; grab some electronic artists, give them a few mic's and send them
off into a city." That would be the voices in Spanish musical pioneer Francisco Lopez's head talking to him again.
Oh no wait, it has happened, its been done. And here it is - "Birmingham Sound Matter" and it's collaboration of
the weirdest, wonder-fullest, strangest, cl-ickiest, randomist sounds in one record, from Birmingham (of all
This concept is simple enough, but the content is a totally different kettle of fish cakes. You have to really
understand what is going on before you can reach a conclusion to this latest release from Audiobulb. The
Sheffield based independent label releases some of the most unique electronica to hit our playlists.
"Birmingham Sound Matter" creates a compilation of sounds you wouldn't really pay any attention to in a normal
setting. There are children playing, birds singing, bee's buzzing and cars wooshing past.
Francisco Lopez seems to be a very complex individual; by talking about "reality" and all sorts of different mind
sets (this is all on the CD sleeve, not in the music). This is definitely Exploratory music. The headline to the
album is mental enough for me "Typically, recorded sound is considered as a representation of reality.
Birmingham Sound Matter demonstrates that a sound recording can also be considered as an entity by itself."
An entity itself? Sounds like David Icke has had his footing in the door for this one.
Each track has had a different artist dip their musical wick into it. Layer by layer they must have had to tediously
place each sound in a certain way, with a certain effect. 'Last Days" by Mark Harris sounds like the soundtrack
to the film "Crash" with a warm ambient layer of synths and wobbly chords. Helana Gough's - 'Grau' has a glitch
approach, with random bursts of scratchy energy and uncomfortable samples. I'm not quite sure what the hell
she was sampling there!
This is music for the uber intellectual electronic music producer. It's just something that is so hard to understand,
yet its magical in many ways. This is more like a soundtrack to a film really.
Directed by the esteemed sound artist Francisco López, Birmingham Sound Matter is a compilation of recordings
by a collection of artists from the Birmingham, Coventry and Black Country areas of the Midlands in England.
Some were born there, some gravitated there from various locations around the UK and further afield.
The project is coordinated by Scylla Magda of Modulate, an experimental sound and visual arts project
specializing in multi-speaker sound and visual arts events, who first met Lopez in 2007 when he visited the city
for the first time to perform one of his legendary Total Darkness concerts at one of Modulate’s Sonic Culture Salon
events. After that meeting Magda invited Lopez to direct a compilation project themed around the city. He accepted
and Birmingham Sound Matter was born.
Lopez’s concept for the recording of this album is an interesting one. First, each of the artists compiled a pool of
sounds they had recorded in and around the Birmingham area. Then, each of them took these recordings and
treated, manipulated and processed them to create a second pool of mutated sounds. The respective artists were
then free to use sounds from each pool to compose a new musical piece for the compilation. As Lopez quite rightly
points out in the sleeve notes, this method of working means that each contribution is as much about the individual
artist, if not more so, than it is about the city itself.
Consisting mostly of droning soundscapes juxtaposed with field recordings of gentle environmental sounds such
as birdsong or passing traffic, BSM is an intensely personal exploration of sound from all taking part. Helena
Gough’s opener "Grau" starts with a low electrical hum interrupted with sudden sharp bursts of noise while Martin
Clarke’s "Sleep Birmingham Sleep" builds from the calm simplicity of birdsong melting into traffic noise whilst all the
time slowly building a radiant hypnotic drone. Higher Intelligence Agency’s Bobby Bird presents "Combustion," a
carefully conceived track full of the haunting detail of a fire burning from the gentle beauty of its flames to its
merciless destructive nature.
Changing tone somewhat is "Vortgeist" by Coventry’s Cormac Faulkner that opens with a deep aggressive drone
that quickly dissolves into an agitated mix of intimate sounds, minute detail and tiny digital clicks. Annie Mahtani
initially follows a similar theme with "Shadows" but soon develops it into a tale of a journey through the city
complete with passing traffic, children playing and insects buzzing paired with sinister fuzzy layered drones.
Her track could reflect the difference between night and day from the relative safety of the daylight hours to the
potential danger any major city can bring after dark before the welcome dawn returns to start another day.
Mark Harris opts for gentle orchestral tones over a steady undulating drone, providing a delightfully serene track
that takes on a dark, sinister edge as the drone builds and becomes more prominent and distorted. Nicholas Bullen
jars the senses abruptly at the start "Last Days" but offers a track that places tiny fragments of digital sound
alongside processed field recordings that dissolve into an otherworldly mix of dark cavernous drones that echo
and reverberate in deep underground chambers. Closing the album is project director Lopez’s own composition
"Untitled #225," a track that features skillfully detailed sound, a harrowing tonal backing, the subtle rumble of
subterranean drones and processed field recordings that twist, turn and evolve over the course of just under
Inevitably with something that uses a limited source material there is going to be some similarity between tracks
but it is the way in which all the contributors use the material that is intriguing, all of them doing subtly different
things and creating different moods, building different aural images and experimenting with different ways of
presenting the material that is uniquely their own and distinctly personal to them.
BSM is a project focused on the artists involved and the concept more than just Britain’s second city itself. All
of the artists are in some way connected to the region and this essentially brings the concept full circle in that
it is reflected through the contributions each artist makes and the source material they use. Collectively, it is an
intricately composed collection of related works, all intense, detailed, intimate and personal to those creating
them. Essentially, this is a gallery of sound art from a group of like-minded artists collated with a clear vision of
the finished product from Lopez.
In a project overseen by experimental provocateur Francisco López, Birmingham Sound Matter presents evocative
sound portraits of the locale filtered through the sensibilities of eight experimental artists. López, who regards the
world as an infinitely rich sonic resource, takes his material from the natural and urban environments and then
digitally assembles the treated results into provocative set-pieces. Last February, López and the seven
collaborators made outdoor and indoor recordings around Birmingham in order to capture in sound the identity of
the city, and then uploaded the materials to a shared internet space for the project participants to draw upon. As
a result, despite obvious differences between the resultant pieces, a commonality is shared by them, which
helps make the album feel like a unified statement rather than disjointed pieces. Some verge on hermetic and
micro-sound in character, while others are more expansive and field recordings-oriented. Some exude a ghostly
quality that suggests more of a deserted city than booming metropolis.
Intermittently derailed by interference, Helena Gough's “Grau” embeds faintly audible natural and bird-like sounds
within ghostly and whirring masses, while, in Martin Clarke's “Sleep Birmingham Sleep,” prominent field sounds of
seagulls and bird chirps give way to traffic sounds of racing cars, thunder, and even sirens amidst a droning
field of string tones. Bobby Bird's “Combustion” begins as a quieter, contemplative treatment but grows darker as
watery sounds seep in, and then darker still as a menacing ambiance spreads like a virus. A nostalgic mood
pervades the peaceful orchestral treatment Mark Harris brings to his beautifully modulated “Last Days,” with
synthetic string tones augmented by static pops and a swelling bass undertow. A more brittle creature by
comparison, Nicholas Bullen's “Proximity” shatters the calm induced by “Last Days” with a prickly stream of
insectoid noises, ruptures, crow caws, and a crying baby. The natural ease with which the sound patterns flow
into one another during Francisco López's “Untitled #225” evidences the producer's masterful handling of the
elements, especially when a rather sub-lunar beginning eventually expands to become a rich swarm of simmering
noise and dark tonal ambiance. Ultimately, as López himself accurately notes, “the results of this project are as
much about Birmingham as about the participants themselves.” That is, the individual pieces occupy a middle
ground between the imposition of a given individual creator's style and the deference shown by the artist in the
desire to create a sonic portrait that would do justice to the locale.
If the standard practice of sound recording is regarded as a "capture," then in this abstract conceptual electronic
music project, the representation of auditory reality happens through far more complex perceptual mechanisms.
The work considers frequencies and drones, intended as isolated particles, as entities that create other specific
relations, whether of a generic nature or site-specific. The formula is as accurate as it is elementary: a select
group of audio manipulators are sent samples from a particular city. Francisco López collects and coordinates
the authors, who this time are all from Birmingham-UK. The record looks to explore the audio psychogeography
of cities such as Brussels, Montreal and Victoriaville. The end result is fascinating, full of subtle textures, at first
light, then denser - organic - as with Annie Mahtani's piece, or marked by harmonious reverberations, as in the
case of Mark Harris' elaborations, which are unraveled in elegant and hypnotic envelopes. Sounds of nature and
dilated loops - fluctuating - are the basis of the formal application of Martin Clarke's offering, and, in a different
but equally inspired way, the electro-acoustic music of Helena Gough peeps through the grooves. Bobby Bird,
Cormac Faulkner and Nicholas Bullen, too, are actively involved in the project, along with Francisco López
himself, who performs last, an intense and intangible piece which leaves us with the image of a very dark and
Compilation which recently has started on label Audiobulb Records is the new project of Francisco López, guru
of such phenomenon as Musique Concrète. López's arrival to Birmingham in 2007 can be considered the start of
it, there he was giving one of his 'Total Darkness' concerts. Later the musician decided to return, he gathered a
group of British musicians and proposed them all to record sounds inside Birmingham. After a definite number of
records was gathered, all members of the project together with project's director made of them 8 long-lasting
compositions which absorbed the spirit of the idea that sound is not projection of some reality, it's self-sufficient,
and can be considered as an entity by itself. All that was received in the result can be called by fans of
classifications as "non-music". In general, rather amusing notion. What is music and what not? Birds' singing and
cars' noise in the track of Martin Clarke or the sound of water in the work by Bobby Bird as for me belong to
music more than that what is poured out on us by the surface of musical industry.
All material recorded in Birmingham was scrupulously arranged by the musicians. They add their own elements
to the composition to their taste, most often it's dense, low-frequency drone or canvas of vast ambient sounds.
Here one can notice not banal mixture of tracks with field records but the work with this material. Like an artist
works with oil paints, and sculptor with pieces of clay. You think at once that it's something like "abstraction"...
If you play the disc like a background, well, it will be so, but listening attentively you notice the complicated
structure and rich images. You notice that what can't be found in pop music, and people are free-tongued to
call pop music "music"...
BIRMINGHAM SOUND MATTER (CD by Audiobulb) Recently an interesting book was published by Thomas Bey
William Bailey called 'Microbionic' about 'radical electronic music and sound art in the 21st century'. If you want to
know why people do what they do, the likes of Ryoji Ikeda, Peter Rehberg, Merzbow then this is a highly
recommended read. Also featured is a piece on Francisco Lopez. His music doesn't have a story - Absolute Music
he calls it - no message, politically, but he wants the listener to listen to sound. Lopez is probably a fine teacher,
as in Birmingham he did another project in his Sound Matter series. First Montreal (see Vital Weekly 537) and now
Birmingham. Lopez, along with participants went out to record sounds in the city and then throw them into a
soundpool and each was to process them, together and alone, and from that even more extended soundpool,
composers picked the sounds to work with. Unlike Montreal, I have not been to Birmingham, but I imagine a city
with some high buildings and some nice parks. From whatever sound we hear in place here, we hear birds and
cars, all immersed in heavily electronic processing. The participants are self-taught or academic, and we
recognize the names of Helena Gough and Nicholas Bullen among them, but all of them seemed to have the
lessons from the master himself in transforming sounds and composing with the results. None of them seem to
be inspired that much by the Lopezian silence treatments of yesteryear, but they are all present and correct.
Mark Harris is the only one who plays a piece that is closely to 'real' music, with an underlying melodic form. Also
included are Martin Clarke, Bobby Bird, Cormac Faulkner, Annie Mahtani and solo piece by Lopez, who isn't that
'silent' either these days. A fine work.
Audiobulb Is an exploratory music label designed to support the work of innovative artists.
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