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The Phonographers Union - "Live on Sonarchy Radio"

Live on Sonarchy Radio documents two long improvisations (divided into 8 tracks), when 8 members of the Seattle-based Phonographers Union got together with Marcos Fernandes; everyone whipped out their CD and mp3 players - plus one laptop - and threw down their found sounds. Doug Haire did an excellent job engineering the live mix: every sound source appears and disappears with finesse, allowing our listening mind to follow the conjunctive trail of ideas and sounds without any intrusions of hard, unbalanced signals. I love hearing so many people improvise using nothing but the best samples of what they've collected from the-world-as-it-exists-through-microphones. Sure, some of the sounds are things you can easily identify and would even be likely to suspect to crop up on a document like this - footsteps, kids in a park, birds, rain, etc. - but the force of this recording depends on the deft composite created by these kinds of sounds blended into a tapestry with more ambiguous! ones.

Oscillating rhythms of grainy bug swarms, warped rubber gongs, someone's dance class, matches striking, mothers chatting, saw blades sharpening, murmurs, luminous fly-zapping machines, basketball gymnasium confrontations, rural weather, carnival-barking church bell tolling toilet bowl gurgling train station dock rumbling: the stories are there if you've got the imagination to make them. Otherwise, the sounds themselves do a fine job affirming their powerful polysignificance in our lives.

     - Andrew Choate, Signal To Noise

Of the nine musicians involved with the Phonographers Union, I'm only familiar with Christopher DeLaurenti, who's best known for his drifting dark ambient work. This recording, however, has very little to do with DeLaurenti's usual music, though even with so many players involved, this live radio session hardly sounds more cluttered than his sparse electronics. Instead, the sound field is lightly splattered with hints of guitar (both lightly strummed or scraped to make a harsher creaking noise), sampled field recordings, clattering percussion, and electronic tones. Apparently, everything comes from recordings, both manipulated and untouched, an ensemble of record players and sound recorders speaking to one another through the voices and sounds of others. All of it combines in a drifting collage that's surprisingly seamless and is also completely egoless - even for those familiar with all nine musicians, I doubt anyone could pick out individual contributions from this sea of noises and gentle sounds.

Voices harmonize delicately in the distant background, water rustles lightly over a country creekbed, and somewhere a cock crows good morning repeatedly. This rustic impression is echoed in the rattling of metallic objects and soft scrapes, evoking a farmer going about his daily chores. It all sounds very naturalistic, like eavesdropping on a private scene rather than listening to an improvised (and broadcast) performance. This group, more than most field recordists, seems particularly interested in using recordings as a vehicle for improvisation. Rather than creating their own sounds in real time to blend with the contributions of the others, these musicians are placing pre-recorded sounds into the constantly shifting contexts created by their peers. Each new addition subtly shifts the ongoing dialogue, taking it to new places as the layers add up to a powerful and cohesive whole.

     - Ed Howard, Grooves

The sound of the suburbs - quite literally.

Somewhere between the jazz-rock experimentalism of Radiohead and the sort of art installations that so upset Daily Mail leader writers at Turner Prize time, you'll find Seattle's Phonographers Union. This album is a radio broadcast of a live mix made out of the nine-strong team's MiniDisc and DAT field recordings. Rain pours down, a dog barks, a child's crying is looped into a Public Enemy-style screaming motif: it has the quality of music, but is sounds like sitting in a park. One of them even claims to have recorded a tree singing. Such ludicrous ambition can only be admired.

     - Angus Batey, Q

Despite the healthy outdoor Methodism implied by their group title, this collective of sound artists and field recording engineers, located on America's north west coast, more closely resemble a group of parlour mystics in their modes of operation. Imagine them standing in passionate silence, waiting to hear a world that only their willfully selective microphones can capture. Then picture them later gathered together in a studio, joining hands over laptops, CDs and MD players. There is something magnificently Victorian about the whole endeavour, the sense of being invited to participate in a strangely beneficial seance.

The goal of The Phonographers Union is, to use their own charming expression, "not to excite, confuse or entertain per se, but to attend to the world." It remains, however, a quaint world and one that is still best approached silently. Presented in its entirety, their set on Sonarchy Radio, a weekly hour-long show devoted to new music from the Pacific North West broadcast on KEXP-FM (for live streaming go to www.kexp.org), is a work of gentle concentration. Each of the contributors was given a pretty free hand in the choice and deployment of their material, the main structure being that any recording used should not be treated or filtered in any way beyond a little equalising or compression.

The resultant interplay between the various 'captures' displays an agreeable subtlety and sensitivity in its shifts of focus and range. Impossible to reduce to any kind of linear development or narrative, it reveals a bustling acoustic realm existing just outside our senses that deserves to be attended to.

     - Ken Hollings, The Wire

This is a beautiful, mesmerizing, highly poetic album. The Phonographers Union -- in this incarnation -- consists of nine artists from the West Coast community of field recordists and phonographers. The best-known names here are Christopher DeLaurenti (his electroacoustic works), Marcos Fernandes (his label Accretions) and Dale Lloyd (his website phonography.org and his genre-defining compilation albums). On April 12, 2003, the nine artists were gathered around a few tables in a Seatlle studio and asked to perform two half-hour long pieces for a radio broadcast. Each musician is armed with either a CD player, minidisc, sampler or other playback devices, and banks of field recordings covering all aspects of nature and human life -- from wind to children, machines to birds, busy streets to water, sports to music. With an acute sense of listening, the artists are combining their recordings (not mere sounds but chunks of space, as the microphone picks up more than just a birdsong or a creaking floor), creating a gripping aural symphony where the listener is left free of linking sounds together or imagining scenes that would accomodate all the sounds heard at one particular moment. More free-form and easy-flowing than musique concr¸te, much more concrete than experimental electronica, this music speaks to the mind and the soul, as some of these sounds are very familiar, but their combinations evoke surreal situations. Since there are too many details, too many events to possibly absorb and remember everything in one sitting, each listen provides a different experience. And even people usually closed to avant-garde music will be able to sense the poetry and the immediacy of this album. Highly recommended as a key statement in the development of "field recording" or "phonography" as a form of sound art.

     - François Couture, All Music Guide

With a name such as The Phonographers Union, I am bound to think of the Sonic Arts Union. In the sixties this was a group of composers who played live electronic music and included Robert Ashley, Gordon Mumma, Alvin Lucier and David Behrman. With The Phonographers Union I sort of see the same thing: this large group of people, nine in total, all armed with their mini-discs, CD players and even a laptop, plugging these into the mixing board and making this giant sound collage of field recordings. The field recordings are not in any way processed or altered, but just a little bit of filtering and EQ-ing. It seems to me that the majority of these people is interested in the 'social' aspect of soundscaping. Apart from the beginning, where we hear animal calls, there is a great deal of people talking (though most of the time not to be understood what they say) and other signs of human activity. The sound is a bit dull at times, I must say as there are many things happening at various levels all the time, but due to the bit muddy mix it's hard to make a good seperation. Maybe it would have been a better idea (but probably not conceptually right) to put all nine players on a multi-track tape (computer) and do a sort of mix afterwards, thus bringing in sharper edges to the material and make it less of a continuos flow. Players include: Steve Barsotti, Christopher DeLaurenti, Marcos Fernandes, Mark Griswold, Alex Keller, Dale Lloyd, Perri Lynch, Robert Millis and Toby Paddock. Many of these people have solo recordings with field recordings, so if you like this (and despite my comments, there is no reason why you shouldn't be interested in hearing this, since it's not bad at all), a world of field recordings will open up for you.

     - FdW, Vital Weekly

In their natural habitat, sounds have a context. An atmosphere, a sonic landscape, and a relation to objects and events within a space. The Phonographers Union, nine "field recorders," capture and reproduce these sounds, like a game of sonic catch-and-release.Live on Sonarchy Radio is a collection of this zoo, played back through laptops and minidiscs, without any effects or adornment.

The result is captivating, evocative and surreal without being insistent or forced. Dripping water overlays Buddhist chanting along with dogs breathing and cocks crowing, spring peepers play against an Asian market, and drains burble under jet plane screams, all without any sense of intended meaning in the juxtapositions. There isn't the sense that any of these environments are constructed by foley artists, and it's mixed well enough to avoid the New Age white-noise label. These tracks become the subtlest suggestions of surrealist narratives, and are more interesting as background noise than as something to actively tune in.

Divided into two parts (which are, in turn, made up of several tracks), Live on Sonarchy Radio moves slowly from more concrete and obviously musical noises (like the subway car chugging by) and into sounds that are less and less representational and more and more colored by their lack of context.

Even words and conversations are both so distant and so incoherent as to turn into texture over meaning, giving the sense of being somewhere else without knowing where that is, exactly.

     - Josh Steichmann, Electric Current

The sound of the suburbs - quite literally.

Somewhere between the jazz-rock experimentalism of Radiohead and the sort of art installations that so upset Daily Mail leader writers at Turner Prize time, you'll find Seattle's Phonographers Union. This album is a radio broadcast of a live mix made out of the nine-strong team's MiniDisc and DAT field recordings. Rain pours down, a dog barks, a child's crying is looped into a Public Enemy-style screaming motif: it has the quality of music, but is sounds like sitting in a park. One of them even claims to have recorded a tree singing. Such ludicrous ambition can only be admired.

     - Angus Batey, Q

From Seattle/San Diego comes an interesting concept - a live improv by a group of 9 phongraphers, armed with their equipment. The Phonographers Union of Seattle was joined by Accretions boss Marcos Fernandes for a performance for radio, provided to us as Live on Sonarchy radio (Accretions, ALP033, www.accretions.com). This is an album to lay back and let wash over you as all manner of site recordings drift into the mix - trains and stations, instruments, talking, noises, animals, other sites, machinery. I'm not sure how they worked it, but the pieces are like any group improv - members had to decide which 'instrument' would take the lead - whether a station, site, or whatever, and the others mixed around it (Doug Haire produced and engineered, so I imagine he had the control of the mix). However, it is a fascinating work. There are two parts, the second possibly having more 'human' components, but both invite you to defocus and let this possible world mix with yours.

Phonography presents the listener with a dilemma - do you listen to the piece as a puzzle trying to work out what the original sounds were and what has been done to/with them, or just accept them and settle into the flow. These releases remind you that you can do both and really just enjoy the works.

     - Jeremy Keens, Ampersand, etcetera

Der Begriff Musik ist stets neu definiert worden, in den letzten 100 Jahren forciert durch die Fülle neuer Möglichkeiten, die Folk, Jazz, Blues, Rock und alle Verschmelzungen dazwischen und Entwicklungen daraus mit sich brachten. Musikphilosophen fragen sich gewiss, ob es eine Parallele zum Universum gibt: Ausdehnung, Endlosigkeit und die Gewissheit, dass die bisher entdeckten Gebiete nur ein winziger Ausschnitt sind. The Phonographers Union sind 9 MacIntosh-Computer-Besitzer, die mit ihrem Laptop und einem Mikrophon durch die Gegend zogen und Alltagsgeräusche aufgenommen haben. Als genügend Material zusammengetragen war, setzten sich diese 9 "Musiker" in ein Studio und mixten ihre Sounds zusammen. Herkömmliche oder "normale" Musik findet hier also nicht im Ansatz statt. Hier geht es um Musik, die Zivilisationsgeräusche und Alltagslärm fabrizieren, in einer übereinander geschichteten Dichte, die trotz des hin und wieder auftretenden Lärmpegels stets meditativ und beruhigend wirkt. Vielleicht, weil so viele Teile dieser Musik bekannt, vertraut sind? Weil diese Töne und Klänge einen tonalen Rahmen schaffen, der nicht schmerzt, verletzt, langweilt oder anödet? Gewiss ist das Musik, mal mit einem dezenten Rhythmus, der sich aus einem laufenden Wasserhahn speist, von einem religiösen Sänger bestimmt wird oder mit einer stampfenden Lokomotive hinfort wälzt. Die Melodie ist ein Hörspiel besonderer Art. Aufregend, neugierig machend, Konzentration schärfend. Weil bekannte Muster allgemeiner Musik ausbleiben und jede Sekunde für ungewöhnliche Entwicklung stehen kann; weil kein Arrangement, das ein Songformat prägt, existiert, bleibt nur, gebannt in diesen Kosmos urbaner Klangwelten zu lauschen. Ein geglücktes Experiment, das mindestens ebenso wertvoll ist, wie beliebte/gewohnte Musik, was immer das für den Einzelnen auch sein mag. Unbedingte Empfehlung!

     - Volkmar Matteis, Ragazzi

Location, Location, Location.

This collaboration / compilation consists of field recordings by folk who may or may not be familiar to you - MARCOS FERNANDES, MARK GRISWOLD, STEVE BARSOTTI, CHRISTOPHER DeLAURENTI, ALEX KELLER, DALE LLOYD, PERRI LYNCH, ROBERT MILLIS and TOBY PADDOCK. Each piece is constructed from various found sound sources - mainly recorded in public places such as busy streets, parks, railway stations and open areas throbbing with the myriad goings on of everyday human activity. Some recording are more obscure - the ambient dullness of a dripping tap in an enclosed space, for instance. Nature also contributes, with birdsong and cicadas, juxtapositioned beside, or rather against, a more Industrial, mechanical sound. Many of the sounds here sound processed and manipulated, and there's even trace elements of musical instruments at the opening end, although these sounds are mostly tuneless, forced into patterns whereby they might be mistaken for 'composed' or 'deliberate' by the contributors themselves. They add a fair bit of studio process to the tapes - treatments and enhancements without removing the bright essential life from them.

So, does it work?

Well, I'd say it's kinda hit and miss, and while I enjoy the slice of sonic world they have captured and brought clinically into the walls of my home, I find that often it's too random to really get the juices flowing, and as complicated and multilayered as they have made it, it's probably as difficult to listen to as to compose (so many variables to make such a pure ambient music into what we nowadays perceive as 'Ambient')

But when it does work, it can chill the air - disembodied voices small-talking about very little may not seem too strange when you happen upon them when walking down the street, but captured forever against a non-judgemental shifting background they are focused into something no longer innocent or instant - caught like holograms, moving so slightly, or frozen in, yet out of time, they become immortalised trivia, a momentary glimpse into the lives of the most dangerous creature on the planet. And when you hear the voices of children it always seems somehow they have, if not been robbed of their innocence, then certainly they have had it put out on public display. And the multilayering gives it an ever-changing sound - sometimes seeming like Industrial Ambience.

This is DUCHAMP territory - found sounds are readymades, no matter how much work goes into cleaning them up. What these guys do, they do well, although approach with caution - it may not be to everyone's taste.

     - Antony Burnham, Metamorphic Journeyman


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