Brian Olewnick, Bagatellen
"Unheard Spaces" consists of two "suites" of five tracks each: one by that title and the first, called "Absence and Presence". This latter set surprises one right at the onset with a small explosion of percussion (Sean Baxter), guitar (David Brown) and cello (Anthea Caddy), not the sort of combination we've come to expect in Samartzis' music. But upon reading his notes we realize the complicated structure of the work. Essentially, it's designed for five performers (field recordings and electronics supplied by Samartzis and Thembi Soddell in addition to the aforementioned) who played in pre-arranged groupings (never tutti) for pre-set lengths of times, otherwise improvising. The time sequences, incidentally, are roughly symmetrical, tracking approximately 4-7-4-7-4 in minute lengths. I'm guessing this sort of "classic" element is important to Samartzis as he underlines its presence with a delicately spare graph of the temporal relationships below the liner notes. For the recording itself, however, he had the musicians reproduce, insofar as it was possible to recall, what they'd played live as a group earlier, but in isolation, without direct reference to the music of their compatriots. Samartzis then utilized post-production techniques to mold and fashion the work, also inviting percussionist Michael Vorfeld to improvise during select portions, adding a new, unprocessed ingredient to the stew. This approach almost necessarily makes for a disjointed and rocky listen, the initial movement's harshly bowed strings and clattering percussion stopping and starting aggressively but entirely unpredictably; rather exhilarating if you give up anticipating and just roll with it. It's an abrupt transition to the second portion, a thin sine tone sharing space with muffled field recordings that hint at an outdoor, urban area with faint steps and door closures. The sine splinters into a trill, the ambient sound deepens and darkens, guitar feedback emerging and rudely slicing through before the harshness suddenly ceases, that lone sine dwindling away through rainfall and setting the stage for the third section. This part is almost overtly brooding and eerie, moans of guitar alongside slithery percussion and brushed surfaces. Symmetry intact, the fourth movement returns to the field--wind sounds and light, wooden rustles and clicks framing some soft guitar. Crickets. A distant, possibly industrial throb. Then footsteps and blurred conversation. The cello is abused. As is somewhat the case with the piece as a whole, I get a strong cinematic sense here, the panning of a camera from room to room, outside and back. The finale returns to the general hubbub 'n' clatter of the opening, though embedded in a dust-filled cloud. This ends sharply, however, replaced by a couple of minutes of train wheels on rail and other ambient detritus.
It's a challenging piece and I found myself going back and forth between greatly enjoying many individual moments and sounds and being a tad frustrated at my inability to merge the sections into any kind of whole that I could grasp "from a distance". Which, of course, might be a fool's errand. I have a feeling I'll be returning to this often enough in the future and extracting a bit more each time.
"Unheard Spaces" is a rather different animal though once again, there's something of a classic arch form in the duration of the sections. But the material consists entirely of field recordings made by Samartzis and Madelynne Cornish, all taped in Venice. In his notes, Samartzis not only references the late Luc Ferrari, whose "Presque Rien avec Filles" is certainly recalled here and there, but also lists the filmmakers Visconti ("Death in Venice"), Roeg ("Don't Look Now") and Schrader (the very undervalued "The Comfort of Strangers") as inspirations. Whether his attempt to sonically recreate an image of the unique acoustical environment of that city, in large part made of aqueous sounds and implied echoing, twisting passageways, is successful will take someone with more familiarity than was afforded me in my own single, brief visit but as pure ear-enveloping richness, it works absolutely wonderfully. The collage nature is clear from near the outset as disparate aural areas abut one another in non-natural sequencing but, as in the earlier suite and more specifically alluded here by the composer, there's a striking sense of cinema, of photographic swipes from one scene to a poetically linked other. A fountain's low burbling segues into difficult-to-decipher, thicker ker-plops. The location shifts and you suddenly hear an Italian child with a protective mama, perhaps shopping in an open-air market. You feel an itch to construct a storyline though that proves elusive. As is virtually always the case with Samartzis' work, it simply sounds great, the placement of aural phenomena in space done so as to allow air and distance between them. Squeaky gears exist in front of idling motors, both of them bisected by the strident blare of a car horn. There's a sense of drama at play as the second movement grows progressively more agitated, motors churning, sirens passing through. After being lulled near the beginning of part three by birds, pleasant conversation, Beethoven and wandering schoolchildren and charmed by the juxtaposition of merchants' cries and outboard motors with a kid's playground, the harsh thunks that manifest near the start of the final section make one feel like Rupert Everett at the receiving end of Walken's out-of-the-blue fist to the solar plexus in the Schrader film. Ultimately, though, the day-to-day drama is washed away in a heavy, cleansing rain. End titles.
"Unheard Spaces" is a gorgeous work, a beautifully layered mille feuille, one of the most rewarding pieces of music I've heard this year. Very highly recommended.