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Anton Ponomarev’s Language of the Avant Garde

P​/​O Massacre recorded their second album Aural Corrosion in Moscow last February, just as Russia was preparing to invade Ukraine. Neither member of the expansive noise duo, which consists of saxophonist Anton Ponomarev and guitarist Anton Obrazeena, is new to exploring extremes; it’s difficult to imagine the horrors of war not finding their way into the music. 

“Anti-War Music” is split across two sides of an LP, unraveling with a foreboding cascade of metallic sweeps, butchered guitar strings, and rapid kicks. The Japanese noise legend Merzbow guests on the track, contributing a cyclone of brutal electric pulses that evoke the disorientating horrors of warfare without ever eclipsing the sonic field. “Chanting The Resonances Of Atrocity”—also split across two sides—features Swiss composer ​​Alex Buess. His frenetic beats encircle Ponomarev’s mournful saxophone and Obrazeena’s repeating guitar motif, imbuing the composition with an adrenaline-soaked panic.

Neither Ponomarev nor Obrazeena now live in Russia, but bearing in mind that dissent can land you in prison there, I ask Ponomarev if, for him, noise is a form thereof. “First of all it’s an outburst of emotion,” he explains from his home in Zürich. “It is an expression of protest, but it also brings you pleasure to make and listen to strange sounds that someone else might find torturous. It’s a search for a new language.”

Ponomarev’s interest in novel forms of communication developed from his love of metal. Bands like Sepultura, Pantera, and Slayer instilled in him an appreciation of extreme sound. It wasn’t until he became interested in jazz—in particular, the work of John Zorn—that Ponomarev decided to play. “I didn’t think too long about which instrument to choose,” he says. “The alto saxophone was in first place.” Picking up the instrument in his 20s, Ponomarev was self-taught initially and then attended the Moscow College of Improvised Music. It was diving into the Russian underground music scene, however, that propelled him onto his current trajectory. 

In 2008, Ponomarev joined Brom, a group of revolving personnel led by the bassist Dmitry Lapshin. Brom is an aggressive vehicle that mixes elements of hardcore, jazz and improvised music. Their eponymous debut—if you discount a couple of prior self-released titles—came out in 2011 on Long Arms Records, a label founded by late stalwarts of the Russian avant-garde Sergey Kuryokhin and Nick Dmitriev. In the dozen or so years that Ponomarev played with the group, Brom recorded a wealth of material and toured across Russia and Europe. The band’s most recent two albums, Sunstroke (2018) and Dance With An Idiot (2020), were released by the Peter Brötzmann-affiliated Austrian label Trost Records.

Parallel to his work with Brom, Ponomarev was very active in the improv scene, playing with the likes of Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, the Norwegian free jazz bassist, or guesting on Obrazeena’s unforgiving noise rock project JARS. “It was a positive time,” Ponomarev recalls. “With every year that passed, there were more and more interesting musicians or bands; we were organizing concerts and festivals. Despite the music not being at all commercial, the scene was thriving.” He goes on to say that the war has decimated the Russian underground; many musicians have left the country.

During this time, Ponomarev also formed the group Teufelskeller—German for “devil’s cellar”—with bass player Konstantin Korolev and drummer Andrey Kim. Their debut self-titled album, released late last year on WV Sorcerer, is infused with a heavy, restless energy that is drawn from the band’s improvised performances and metal influences. “We spent a whole day in the studio, from morning to night, just us in a room,” Ponomarev says. “Everything was recorded live. There was about two hours of material, from which we chose six tracks. Four of those ended up on the album.” 

Although Teufelskeller are performing in Stuttgart in May, the future of the band is uncertain. An injury forced Kim to leave the project (Maxime Hänsenberger is stepping in for the upcoming show) and for Korolev, who still lives in Russia, travelling to and from the country is problematic. 
Ponomarev remains prolific, however. He has other projects in the pipeline, such as a duet with Chinese guitarist Li Xing. Last year, he toured with Riot Days, an award-winning theater production based on Maria Alyokhina’s memoir detailing her time with Pussy Riot. The tour was in support of Ukraine, and raised funds for Ohmatdyt children’s hospital in Kyiv. “It was one continuous tour that lasted for months,” he says. “A crazy amount of concerts. It was a great experience and done for a very important cause.”

Ilia Rogatchevski
Originally published by Bandcamp Daily, February 2023

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Kings Place, London, UK

Themes of metamorphosis abound in NikNak’s immersive performance. The concert begins with a meditation that resets the mood of the room. Many in the audience feel inclined to sit or lie on the floor. Piano loops and birdsong are embellished by a winter treescape projection, while a female voice, lifted from YouTube, encourages us to “find compassion for the self.” Before long, the guiding voice distorts and discordant sounds enter the fray. Calm is replaced by trepidation. Down the rabbit hole we go. 

Nicole Raymond aka NikNak is a turntablist and Oram Awards winner who activates her instrument through storytelling. Sankofa, her 2022 album that tonight is performed in full, is a deeply conceptual ambient record. While the title references the Akan word for retrieval, the album itself is inspired by comic book narratives and evokes the story of a black woman (Storm) discovering her superpowers. Sankofa also symbolises the quest for knowledge through critical examination and the album’s track titles echo this theme by hinting at the protagonist’s character development.

The sounds themselves largely consist of a varied library of field recordings and found sounds. These are often collected by Raymond on journeys and the way she treats the source material during the performance mirrors its transient origins. Using a Serato setup allows Raymond to mix her digital library without compromising the tactile advantages of vinyl. Samples are looped or scratched and sent through a series of delays, filter sweeps and reverbs, while synthetic chord sequences construct unstable fortifications around them. The venue’s complex speaker arrangement means that certain frequencies pan around the room, disorientating the ear. Every now and again a deep bass drop arrests the air and reminds our bodies of their physical limitations. 

The projections, which are edited in real time by the Bristol based artist Loëpa, not only provide a focal point, but also illustrate what we hear: polygonal kaleidoscopic patterns, melting organisms, light tunnels, and Rorschach-like distortions. The colours shift from warm sunburst hues to dark subaquatic greens and back again. I am reminded of Boards of Canada’s Geogaddi album artwork as well as the light vortex scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Loëpa later explains that they are indeed influenced by 60s and 70s psychedelia, manipulating footage to “create the comic world, but have it be sensory and about the living things around us”.

The voices of the afrofuturist authors Octavia Butler and Toni Morrison also appear in the set. They discuss how popular science feeds the joy of speculating and that writing fantasy counters the boredom of everyday life. Much like her podcast series The Narrative, Raymond wants to increase exposure of content made by other black women, trans and non-binary creatives and this is why Butler and Morrison are present. However, the way Raymond alters their speech on the decks, from intelligible to incomprehensible, makes me wonder if their inclusion is meant to highlight censorship or the silencing of black authorship. “I love how you picked all of that up,” she tells me after the show. “It’s mainly just the texture. It’s very improvised a lot of the time. Sometimes I haven’t listened back to [the recording] at all and I’m just there, in the performance space, with these sounds responding to them live. The next time I perform it will be different. That’s the beauty of it.” 

Ilia Rogatchevski
Originally published by The Wire, February 2023

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Wilbury Radio

The Storeroom, Letchworth Garden City, UK
Photo: Karma Please by Dugald Muir.

Founded in 1903 by the English urban planner Ebenezer Howard, Letchworth Garden City was the world’s first purpose-built alternative to the overcrowded and polluted conditions of industrialised cities. The utopian project aimed to reconnect people with nature by combining the best aspects of the city (jobs, housing, amenities) with country life. Letchworth became a model suburb, but its size and proximity to London meant that the town was culturally sidelined.

Wilbury Radio is a one-day festival designed to redress the balance by bringing experimental music to the town. The inaugural event is co-organised by the local netlabel Wilbury Tapeworm (run by Tony Venezia), Russell Walker of the Barlow Index gig series and curator Kristian Day’s Playing Fields initiative. Eight acts perform in a modest room adjacent to a local brewery. The space holds around thirty people, but it’s the perfect size for what the festival’s curators call their “pilot project”. 

Jakub Rokita’s cmykscum opens proceedings with interconnected samplers and a small modular rig. Field recordings of sheep and rustling leaves are looped and morphed into crashing waves of reverb that evoke subaquatic imagery. An ambient laptop set by Anna Peaker subconsciously mirrors the marine theme, answering cmykscum’s sense of impending catastrophe by layering gentle drones on top of each other to resemble a chorus of distant foghorns.

Karma Please employs an impressive combination of near-obsolete tech with innovative software. An old Akai sampler that utilises floppy disks and self-made cassette loops emit drones fit for a cathedral. A granular synthesis app deconstructs the source sounds into decadent overtones, the stoic reveries of which are occasionally shattered by the clunking 4-track tape machine.

The drones are not limited to electronics alone. 3 Versions of Judas, a sludgy noise rock trio who formed specifically for the event, strives for obliteration. Featuring Venezia on bass, the band’s half hour set sees guitarists Xavier Marco del Pont and Hallvard Haug circling around a descending bass riff. The sound is embryonic but has apocalyptic potential. The duo Telepathic Visions, meanwhile, employs a more subtle approach. Verity Birt and Tom Sewell use loop stations and a web of effects to turn familiar instruments (guitar, recorder, keyboard, voice) into a beatific wall of sound. 

The final three acts conspire to subvert indie tropes. Tom Hirst aka Design A Wave delivers deadpan lyrics over short backing tracks. The music, played from Hirst’s phone, is reminiscent of James Ferraro’s instrumentals. It’s an entertaining set, floating somewhere between stand up comedy and karaoke. The Bomber Jackets, a trio consisting of Sian Dorrer, Dan Bolger and festival co-organiser Russell Walker, perform reticent synth pop that combines alienated vocals with ironically optimistic melodies. Closing the night is The Leaf Library, a drone pop collective. Kate Gibson’s vocal delivery and the band’s dynamics nod a little towards Stereolab, but there are plenty of other subtleties, such as Daniel Fordham’s infectious saxophone blasts, that keep the sound evolving. 

Before returning back home to London, I ask Kristian Day why Wilbury Radio chose Letchworth for its first ‘transmission’. “Hertfordshire doesn’t have a big city where scenes like this naturally gestate,” he explains. “What you do find though are interesting artists working alone. They develop in isolation like marsupials. It’s all about strength in numbers and collaborating in order to share ideas and amplify our reach.”

Ilia Rogatchevski
Originally published by Wire, January 2023

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Cyborg Soloists

Cafe Oto, London, UK
Photo by Sisi Burn

Zubin Kanga’s Steel on Bone begins with the composer attacking the venue’s piano strings with a pair of metallic rods. The percussive sounds are sampled in real time and manipulated by the composer’s movements. With the help of multi-sensor MiMU gloves, Kanga warps the samples, sending them through a series of time bending effects. Moving in and out of the piano, Zubin looks as though he is physically extracting soundwaves from the instrument and threading them through the air. Inspired by medical documentaries, as well as the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa, Steel on Bone posits abrasive violence against the notions of delicacy that you may normally associate with the piano. 

The performances tonight have all been commissioned by Cyborg Soloists, Kanga’s technology-focused research initiative, and most of the pieces are performed by him. These projects utilise artificial intelligence and motion sensors to explore music’s relationship with innovative technologies.

For Nina Whiteman’s cybird cybird, Zubin lifts his arms in exaggerated wing-like movements. Using Movesense sensors, he creates a series of electronic chirps, which are then mirrored on the piano keys. AI-generated images of bird hybrids are projected on the wall, while a robotic voice offers motivational advice. Whiteman’s piece imagines cyborg avians to be ubiquitous in our chaotic environment and is partially inspired by a satirical conspiracy theory proposing that birds aren’t real. 

Nwando Ebizie’s I Will Fix Myself (Just Circles) is dominated by mechanised voices – underscored by Kanga’s piano and a Moog emitting theremin-like tones – that read passages from various sources. Principal among them is Blake Lemoine’s conversations with LaMDA (a Google AI that Lemoine helped build and considered sentient). Phrases like “I do not have the ability to feel sad for the deaths of others” suggest that this monologue imitates sentience, but is detached from the nuances that make us human.

The UK premiere of Neil Luck’s 40-minute work Whatever Weighs You Down begins and ends with Zubin dragging a microphone across the floor. Large TV monitors flank the stage showing the composer-performer James Oldham, tied by a rope to another protagonist, tugging his way through a dilapidated labyrinth. As the men break through to a chapel-like space, a female voice lists phrases synonymous with overcoming. Luck told me that he sees their journey as a “Sisyphean struggle upwards, or a kind of reverse katabasis” layered with failure and resistance.

Musically, there are three movements. The first suggests descent, with the pianist’s melodies complemented by electronic sounds that move down the frequency range. The second is about communication or, as Luck put it “implied understanding”. Black and white projections of the deaf choreographer Chisato Minamimura appear, showing her hands mid-sign, glitching like electronic doves, while Kanga’s MiMU gloves echo their movements. Composed for left hand piano, the third movement is reflective. Minamimura appears upside down, like a half-forgotten fragment from a falling dream, while a series of incomplete sentences flash up onscreen. 

Luck talks about the material for Whatever Weighs You Down “as sedimentary layers of rock”. In fact all of tonight’s compositions are conceptually loaded. Some of the contextual information is only hinted at, incomplete. Watching the performances leaves you with the impression that you are the AI, trying to compute an endless stream of data and taking days to piece together what it all means. 

Ilia Rogatchevski
Originally published by Wire, December 2022

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Interstellar Funk & Loradeniz – Never Been

Never Been is the first collaborative release by Loradeniz and Interstellar Funk, who produced the EP at a Volkshotel artist residency in Amsterdam, in 2021. The record examines the interplay of synthetic melodies and Loradeniz’s vocals, which are underpinned by meticulously crafted rhythms. Steeped in melancholy, many of the tracks on Never Been evoke the essence of departure, complex emotions and fading memories.

‘Freefall’ – which has already been played by DJs last summer – opens with a solid bassline and crystalline melodies. An urgent kick and racing hi-hats intensify the composition, while the dominant topline brings to mind a rapturous dance at twilight. An allegory of communication, ‘Hidden Tongue’ has Loradeniz pronouncing splintered vowels, like a malfunctioning public service recording, over a reverberated snare, deep kick and repeating glockenspiel figure.

‘Fly Me In’ begins with an arpeggiated melody, before slowly combining multiple electric accents and delicate vocals with spoken word passages exploring notions of escape. The heroic overtones of ‘Situational Lullaby’ develop subtly with layers of synths reminiscent of mid-90s soundtracks, while ‘Lurking Orange’ closes the release with its listless refrain and snake-like percussion.

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On Screen: Artūras Barysas

Image: Rimgaudas Karvelis in Akivaizdu, bet neįtikėtina, 1982

Restored short films 1972-82
Artūras Barysas (Director)
Art-Film / LRT Mediateka 2022

Artūras Barysas was a filmmaker and vocalist who, along with his group Ir Visa Tai Kas Yra Gražu Yra Gražu, had a profound influence on the Lithuanian underground. Known to friends as Baras, he co-founded the band with guitarist Artūras Šlipavičius in 1987. Their early post punk recordings are a maelstrom of anarchic energy that resonated with Lithuanians living under the Soviet regime in the late 1980s. As a frontman, Barysas was magnetic, modelling himself after singers like Captain Beefheart. He continued performing with the band on and off until his death in 2005.

As a film director, Barysas was most prolific in the 1970s and early 80s. Being a member of the Lithuanian Amateur Filmmakers Union gave him access to equipment and relative freedom from communist censorship. Despite his myopia, Baras created dozens of shorts and almost always cast himself in a leading role, employing others to operate the camera.

Films like Anekdotas apie metrą (Anecdote About The Meter, 1976), in which Baras orders a metre’s worth of coffee, or Esė (Essay, 1981), which shows a young couple indulging in western contraband, have a prankster-like quality evocative of Fluxus happenings and softly critique the absurd rigidity of Soviet society. Other films such as Romas, Renata, Rimas (1977) and Taina (1974) are more lyrical, but maintain an aura of subversive irony.

Baras often shot with natural light and had his actors improvise, adding a sense of realism to the scenes. Akivaizdu, bet neįtikėtina (Obvious, But Unbelievable, 1982) is shot in a cafeteria – complete with bemused onlookers – and shows two men from different social circles dining at the same table. This homogeneous setting acts as a backdrop for their mutual prejudices. Those men, Barysas suggests, are no different from the utilitarian uniformity of the Soviet system that both feeds and confines them. 

Barysas is sometimes compared to the Lithuanian-American filmmaker Jonas Mekas, but Mekas documented everyday life in a diaristic fashion. Barysas, inspired though he was by quotidian experiences, constructed works of narrative fiction. One exception is Mes (We, 1980). It depicts WWII veterans taking part in a Victory Day parade. The restored footage is accompanied by a series of descending drones. Šarūnas Nakas’s eerie music shifts the emotional resonance into one of foreboding, negating the film’s original ‘patriotic’ soundtrack. Stylistically, Mes doesn’t deviate far from other propaganda documentaries from this time. The ambiguity around its message allowed Mes to be interpreted as ironic by Barysas’s contemporaries and sincere by the amateur filmmakers union.

In his personal life, Barysas was sometimes a contentious figure. He was plagued by years of alcoholism and abusive to his partner and their son. Barysas’s volatile nature is apparent in some of his films, too. Intelektuali Popiete (Intellectual Afternoon, 1982) sees Baras attend a zoo and taunt the animals. Du kart du (2×2, 1972) is a tale of classroom rebellion that descends into adolescent misogyny. A misbehaving student, tasked by his female teacher to solve a basic maths problem, fantasises about abducting and cooking her. In Sniegas (The Snow, 1978) Baras’s character attacks his female companion in an argument. The film closes with a distressed toddler struggling to make its way through deep snow. A metaphor for life’s unrelenting challenges, perhaps, but was it necessary to exploit a crying child to make this point?

Although Baras’s films were screened during his lifetime – at festivals or underground events – they were never distributed widely. Some have been lost, while others are beyond repair. Fifteen surviving 16mm prints have been digitised and published online by the Lithuanian public broadcaster LRT. The original soundtracks were often collaged from Baras’s own record collection, which made licensing improbable. 

The project’s producers, Robertas Kundrotas and Dovydas Bluvšteinas, commissioned twelve contemporary Lithuanian composers to create music for the films, culminating in the Baras LP (Zona Records, 2022). The all-male cast includes established practitioners like Gintas K and Oorchach who navigate industrial beats and black ambiences, while others like Arturas Bumšteinas and Haruspic (Artūras Šlipavičius’s duo with saxophonist Vytautas Labutis) take a lighter approach that is perhaps closer aligned to Barysas’s original vision. 

Tas saldus žodis… (That Sweet Word…, 1977) shows Barysas scaling a gate in a vain bid for freedom. This one-minute short encapsulates the late director’s struggle to survive amid hostile restrictions imposed by an occupying regime. Despite his problematic personal life, Baras was a genuine auteur. His films deserve wider recognition as they offer alternative vignettes into Lithuanian life during the Soviet era and, being dialogue free, easily transcend linguistic barriers.

Ilia Rogatchevski
Originally published by Wire, Nov 2022

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Field Of Dreams: Listening After Nature By Mark Peter Wright

In a new book published by Bloomsbury, sound artist Mark Peter Wright unpacks the knotty politics of field recording. Images of Tellenes Wind Farm, Norway courtesy of the author.

Where is the field in field recording? Does it begin when the recordist enters the location, when they press record, or when we press play? If the field exists in the playback medium, to what extent does the signal-to-noise ratio affect its manifestation? What is really being captured and what are we not hearing? How does power function in all of this? How is agency performed and negotiated? In his new book, Listening After Nature: Field Recording, Ecology, Critical Practice, Mark Peter Wright writes “Field” with a capital letter to “stress the fabricated nature of its making”.

Wright is an artist and researcher whose practice intersects sound arts, ecology and experimental pedagogy. He is a member of CRiSAP (Creative Research Into Sound Arts Practice) and lectures at the University of the Arts London. Wright taught several modules that explored field recording on the MA Sound Arts course at UAL when I was a student there. Sound studies can sometimes come across as a dry subject, but I found Wright’s sessions, as well as his outlook on field recording, to be very engaging. Listening After Nature: Field Recording, Ecology, Critical Practice is Wright’s first monograph on this specialist subject and the material is drawn from years of artistic practice, teaching, writing, and research.

Early on in the text, Wright notes that field recording began as an anthropological discipline and its history is problematically tied to colonialism, racism, and exploitation. He cites indigenous and postcolonial scholarship, suggesting that the idea of a neutral recordist or neutral recording has never been tenable. This is because, Wright argues, there is no division between nature and culture; human intervention has always encroached on the wilderness. The author also acknowledges that systemic racism, white privilege and social inequalities have played a part in constructing our institutions and cultural practices.

Carl Stumpf, a German psychologist and pioneer of ethnomusicology – a practice that developed in response to the shortcomings of text-based observations – is one example of imbalanced power dynamics. Stumpf amassed a collection of recordings of musical cultures from Japan, India, and Cameroon, but made these audio documents in Berlin. Many of Stumpf’s recordings were actually of diasporic communities who performed their traditional rites as a form of entertainment for the Western voyeur. This phenomenon of the human zoo, also known as ethnological show business, grew out of hierarchical divisions enacted by Darwinism, which was a colonialist project that attempted to categorise the Other.

Wright points out that exploitation also extends to the animal kingdom. In 1889, an eight-year old Ludwig Koch – a pioneering wildlife sound recordist – made the first known recording of birdsong. Committed to a wax cylinder, the work documents the song of a common shama bird that was “displaced from Southeast Asia, relocated, and recorded within a cage in Germany”. This story brings to mind Céleste Boursier-Mougenot’s touring installation From Here to Ear (1999) in which a flock of zebra finches live among amplified electric guitars, activating the instruments when landing on or interacting with the strings. It’s unlikely that the birds have given their consent to participate and their captive performance, as well as the broader genre of wildlife recording, “resonates ethnomusicological histories in which asymmetrical power relations underscore the recorded encounter”.

Another key theme running throughout Listening After Nature is humankind’s geological impact on the planet. The Anthropocene is exemplified not only in greenhouse emissions responsible for climate change and the proliferation of microplastics in the environment, but also in our flippant attitude to the catastrophic potential of nuclear power, as well as the mining of minerals essential for the creation and maintenance of electronic devices. The fact that these devices – microphones and recorders among them – are intimately tethered to the postcolonial economic structures that surround the extraction of their constituent parts is not lost on the author.

The third chapter deals with the “sites and sounds of anthropogenic entanglement”, factoring in works such as Peter Cusack’s binaural walk through the oilfields in Bibi Heybat, Azerbaijan (Sounds From Dangerous Places, 2012). Cusack’s approach is described as sonic journalism. This technique advocates for factual and emotional content to be interlinked with relevant metadata sourced from the site in question. It insists that “nonhuman environments and phenomena should not be captured for their compositional merit but rather their affective and informatic qualities”. Elsewhere, Wright recalls listening to Andrea Polli’s Sonic Antarctica (2009), an album of field recordings, interviews, and data sonifications that capture scientists working at an extreme frontier. The scientific instruments and other industrial interventions come into friction with the ‘natural’ sounds inherent to an ecosystem undergoing rapid climatic change.

Wright isn’t interested in defining the genre of field recording, but he does spotlight what field recordists actually do, i.e. their documentary practice. Wright’s notion of the “Noisy-Nonself” is used to conceptualise the authorial presence of a recording. The author’s presence can be audible, as in the case of feedback and handling noise – sounds that were traditionally seen as undesirable – or inaudible, such as the silent field recordist “not wanting to disturb a fragile ecosystem” who, through their self-imposed dissolution, becomes “a form of white noise that we have learned to ignore”. There are artists who challenge these tropes and Wright mentions Hildegard Westerkamp’s ‘Kits Beach Soundwalk’ (1989) as an example. Westerkamp annotates her recording of the Vancouver shoreline, taking the listener through her process and editing decisions. By focusing the microphone onto the crackles of barnacles rather than the “acoustic detritus” of the city, Westerkamp engages us in the restorative potential of nature recording.

Although it is debatable exactly how restorative sound recordings can be in the context of a dying world, Listening After Nature does suggest that a more responsible approach is overdue if we wish to retain a field of any description. The book is a fine attempt at reassembling the existing cultural frameworks embedded in the niche but loaded genre of field recording.

Listening After Nature: Field Recording, Ecology, Critical Practice is published by Bloomsbury Academic

Ilia Rogatchevski
Originally published by The Quietus, September 2022

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Model Home

Model Home
Cafe Oto, London, UK

Model Home is a duo from Washington, DC who make improvised avant rap infused with punk energy. Since 2018 they have released over 20 albums, most of which are unceremoniously titled in ascending numerical order. Consisting of producer Pat Cain and rapper NappyNappa, Model Home specialises in combining fervent beats and challenging electronic noise with off the cuff lyrics about harmony, unity, and freedom.

The duo perform in profile while lo-fi visuals dominate the screen behind them. Cain commands a table topped with electronic devices – self-built modular synths, a Roland TR-08 drum machine and a variable speed cassette player – all linked up by sprawling wires fed through a small mixer. Countless tapes litter the desk. Their plastic shells are marked with titles that suggest the character of the loops within: industrial, snappin, fake sax. NappyNappa stands across from Cain at the same table. His equipment is limited to a microphone and a digital sampler, which conspires to chop and rearrange most of the semantic coherence delivered by the MC. The pair face each other but rarely make eye contact, both lost in the collective cascade of their synthesised noise.

The group is performing a two-day residency. Prior to their Saturday show, Cain explains to me that each night is different and that their improvised approach led to Model Home’s prolific output. “When we first started out it was very intense,” he says. “We played very frequently: twice a week for a year or so. That forged [Model Home] together.” Regular durational sessions taught the duo not to linger on what the project should become. While their respective individual practice has roots outside of the band (NappyNappa has a parallel solo hiphop project and Cain’s background includes playing “skronky jazz in Buffalo”), together they make music that dips one foot in corrosive industrial textures and the other in catchy, irresistible grooves.

Halfway through their set, supporting act Dee Byrne briefly joins Model Home onstage. Byrne’s filtration of saxophone through various delays and other effects results in a multitude of tones that range from rhythmically meditative pulses, which recall waves crashing on a beach, to the chillingly physical apparitions of a formerly sentient AI. During her solo set, Byrne has to contend with summer pop music bleeding through an open window. When playing with Model Home, however, any possibility of interruption from the outside world is obliterated. 

Before the gig, I ask NappyNappa what his subjects are and whether his words are improvised or predetermined. “I have a bank of ideas, not necessarily the words themselves,” he says. “I want to push forward the idea of a universal sense of freedom that comes with realising that we need each other.” His preferred method of conveying such messages, at least within the context of Model Home, is by playing with frequencies using delays and phasers. “It becomes less about the words themselves and more about the energy,” he admits. “It amplifies the energy of what I’m saying.” 

As NappyNappa’s distorted flow glides over Cain’s squelching synths and warbling tape loops, I catch the phrase “termination of the body”. Keeping in mind our earlier conversation, this may be Model Home’s call for transcendence, guiding you away from any intellectual critique of form towards, as NappyNappa puts it, “a hyper-awareness of the state of existence”. 

Ilia Rogatchevski
Originally published by Wire, July 2022

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Interstellar Funk

I wrote a few words about the upcoming Interstellar Funk tape for Artificial Dance:

Artificial Dance founder Interstellar Funk releases Live At The Rest Is Noise – Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ. Limited to 150 cassettes, the recording documents Interstellar Funk’s performance at Amsterdam’s Muziekgebouw concert hall in October 2021.

The 45-minute set ebbs and pulses, leaving behind Interstellar Funk’s penchant for hard-wearing club sounds in favour of melody and texture. Some passages mirror elements from the studio album Into The Echo (Dekmantel, 2022), but the live setting allows Interstellar Funk to expand and explore richly detailed sonic spaces that highlight his skills as a composer-performer.

(AD018) Interstellar funk live at the Rest is Noise – Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ, Amsterdam (14/10/2021). Limited cassettes and digitally available at the end of July. Buy it here.

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Tickling In My Head: ASMR At The Design Museum

With a tingle running down the back of his spine, Ilia Rogatchevski explores the world of ASMR at London’s Design Museum. All photos: Ed Reeve for the Design Museum.

In the centre of the Design Museum’s subterranean exhibition space is a room constructed from scaffolding and long curling beanbags. When viewed from above, these intertwining cushions resemble the folds of a human brain. It’s an appropriate staging for a show examining the cerebral world of ASMR. The room is busy, but the atmosphere here is tranquil. People are lying on the beanbags, relaxing with their headphones on, watching one of the many TV screens hanging from the ceiling. Each screen shows footage that may trigger a pleasurable physical response in the viewer. This could be something benign like a series of close-miked cooking tutorials or a film featuring a young Björk explaining how television works.

The term ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) was coined by ethical hacker Jennifer Allen to describe the physical sensations of euphoria, tingling or deep calm that can arise from auditory stimulation. Textural sounds such as whispering or tapping can trigger ASMR, but the feeling is highly subjective. Allen first encountered this phenomenon in her twenties, later documenting her experiences on a health forum in 2009. As it turns out, many other people experienced tingling in this context and it wasn’t long before a decentralised ASMR community grew online. Allen launched the first ASMR Facebook group and lobbied Wikipedia to reinstate the original entry about the phenomenon, after it was found not to have met the editors’ standards. Reproductions of documents from Allen’s archive, which relate to the movement’s early manifestations are displayed on the gallery walls.

ASMR is a child of the internet, flourishing on video sharing platforms such as YouTube and Twitch. Its proponents, otherwise known as ASMRtists, generate content that ranges in genre, from whispered roleplay videos to looping digital animations. In recent years, ASMR has exploded in popularity, with some videos racking up millions of views online. One creator, Gibi ASMR, boasts around 4.24M subscribers on YouTube. Weird Sensation Feels Good: The World of ASMR is the first time that this popular interest which is, conversely, rather niche at the same time, makes itself palatable for an IRL mainstream audience.

In a short trailer for the show, the exhibition’s curator James Taylor-Foster of ArkDes (Swedish Centre for Architecture and Design) puts ASMR’s popularity down to an innate desire for slowness and tactility in a culture dominated by ubiquitous and alienating digital devices. “ASMR came out at a moment in which our smartphones were becoming quicker, bandwidth was becoming more plentiful,” he says. “This strange constellation of things was designed to make our lives more efficient. ASMR harnessed them and, within that, carved out a space for slowness, softness and sweetness.” He goes on to say that ASMR is often designed to help deal with loneliness, social anxiety or insomnia. It satisfies our need for intimacy and is ultimately trying to replicate the feel of human touch.

Aside from supporting Taylor-Foster’s argument for ASMR’s use as self-medication, the exhibition also highlights the phenomenon’s relationship with audio technology. In an effort to make your experiences as sensorial as possible, many ASMRtists employ binaural microphones for their recordings. A few of these are on display, such as the Neumann KU 100 Dummy Head, and great fun can be had whispering into the microphones, especially if somebody else is wearing the headphones.

The London-based artist and researcher Julie Rose Bower takes the opportunity for somatic exploration further with a specially commissioned piece Meridians Meet. Bower’s installation is a live-studio environment where visitors are invited to interact with a variety of tactile materials: a desk with an assortment of brushes, a faux leather mountain range, a cave with multiple suspended speakers urging you to clap into the microphone and listen out for the generated echoes. For those who lack access to microphones or simply have little experience in music technology, it can feel empowering to experiment with sound and texture. Children seem to revel in this participatory element, as do many of the adults.

ASMR can also be a disconcerting experience. One of its converse characteristics is misophonia: the emotionally-driven hatred of sounds such as eating, yawning or chewing typically made by other people. Next to a bank of TVs featuring popular ASMRtists, who attempt to define their vocation on camera, stands a sculpture by Tobias Bradford. That feeling//immeasurable thirst (2021) is a disembodied rubber tongue, which writhes and salivates in a perpetual loop. The artificial organ is convincing in its imitation of the tongue and is all the more unsettling for it. Nearby, Marc Teyssier’s Prototype for Artificial Skin for Mobile Devices (2019-2020) and The Voice of Touch (a skin-like silicone tablet that triggers vocal bursts upon contact), from 2022, further invert the generally positive spin of the exhibition and summon a grotesque Cronenbergian future where your Instagram feed can be stroked, pinched and squeezed.

Thankfully, there is a Bob Ross chill out room to placate any dystopian associations. Ross was an American painter and host of the long-running instructional TV show The Joy of Painting. In around thirty minutes, the viewer would be shown how to create a landscape painting step by step. Ross’s soft spoken demeanour, combined with the sounds of palette knives mixing oil paint and brushes scratching canvas, made him the ‘Godfather of ASMR’ in the popular imagination. His show is indeed hypnotic. Despite the banal outcome of the actual paintings, the finished versions of which flank the walls, the programme is a pleasurable watch. At the time of writing, the Bob Ross YouTube channel has 5.27M subscribers and there are plenty of certified Bob Ross instructors who carry the torch forward.

Artists like Holly Herndon, in collaboration with Claire Tolan (‘Lonely At The Top’, 2015), were already treating ASMR as an aesthetic concern several years ago. However, their work reached a largely underground audience, many of whom would have been well versed in online culture. It’s fitting that an institution such as the Design Museum is finally recognising the aesthetic significance of ASMR, just as the movement reaches adolescence and strives for maturity.

Taylor-Foster, who has met the challenge of curating an exhibition largely composed of digitally native content, sees ASMR as an important contributor to the future of design: “ASMRtists are some of the most finely attuned material culture-ists of the world. They understand that all these materials don’t just have a function, but they’re sensory objects. All these questions of close-looking, close-listening and close-feeling are going to become even more important for designers in the coming years.”

Weird Sensation Feels Good: The World of ASMR is at London’s Design Museum until 16 October 2022

Ilia Rogatchevski
Originally published by The Quietus, June 2022