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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

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Unlimited Editions: Radio Art Zone

A radical space on the airwaves is opened up by Radio Art Zone whose forthcoming 100 day project brings together experimental broadcasters from around the world. Image: Radio Art Zone event calendar

Imagine a radio station that sounds different every day. This is the key premise of Radio Art Zone (RAZ), an ambitious project that will broadcast for 100 days as part of the European Capital of Culture Esch2022. On air from 18 June to 25 September, the station will feature only two programmes each day: a bespoke 22-hour piece and an informal 2-hour lunchtime show. For the former programme, which will transmit different compositions every day, over 100 artists, groups and collectives were invited to contribute their durational radio artworks. Meanwhile, the latter show is a space for cooking, eating and relaxed conversations that will broadcast live from different kitchens in the Esch-sur-Alzette community in Luxembourg.

RAZ was conceived by Sarah Washington, Knut Aufermann and Luxembourg’s community broadcaster Radio ARA. Washington and Aufermann have been collaborating since the early 2000s, helping to establish London’s Resonance FM before creating the itinerant initiative Mobile Radio, in 2005. Mobile Radio fosters a global network of practitioners by creating temporary stations at festivals, conferences, and one-off events. Their previous projects include Radio Revolten festival held in Halle in 2016, as well as Mobile Radio BSP, a station set up in 2012 coinciding with the 30th São Paulo Bienal.

Over email, I asked Washington how Mobile Radio approached curating its new project. “The concept this time was to offer the largest on-air exhibition of radio art the world has so far seen,” she explained. “It’s part of our determination to enable more people to become aware of what thousands of artists have been working on for decades, typically with little recognition or recompense.” 

Planning began five years ago after Radio ARA approached Knut and Sarah about joining Radia, the international radio art network they co-founded. A meeting with producer Sandra Laborier led to a proposal for Esch2022. “One of my long-standing wishes was to run a radio station for a year, which [would] feature only live work by a different artist each week,” said Washington. “Working within the Esch2022 framework meant that we were obliged to reduce the scope of our ambition. The overall concept was to draw on as many disciplines as possible: radio, installation, performance, drama, algorithmic composition, spoken word, documentary, plunderphonics.”

RAZ has already transmitted several taster broadcasts in the run up to the main event, including an improvisation by Limpe Fuchs and Hartmut Geerken, who met for the first time live on air, and a textural turntablist set from dieb13. The complete list of upcoming participants reads like a who’s who of the radio art world. It ranges from familiar names like Radiophrenia’s Mark Vernon to American teenager Echo Roe, the youngest programme maker on the list.

With so much material, what are the pieces that stood out to Washington the most? “We were lucky enough to contact artists in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Haiti. Mega Mingiedi & Jaguar Ntumi operate their show out of Mega’s taxi, instigating interactions with passengers to excavate the cultural, social and political histories of Kinshasa. Jean-Daniel Lafontant presents the Easter rituals of Temple Na-Ri-VéH, a spiritual compound that provides shelter, food and services to the local community in Port-au-Prince. I’ve also been taken aback by the artists who decided to carry out endurance feats. Ralf Wendt will walk the highways and byways of the Capital of Culture area broadcasting his encounters live for the entire 22 hours of his show.” 

Aside from broadcasting on Radio ARA’s new 87.8 FM frequency, RAZ will be syndicated to a dozen international partner stations, including Wave Farm in the US and ∏Node in France, each of whom are free to choose how much of the stream to relay. Community project lumbung Radio will transmit some of the stream during documenta 15, while Resonance Extra will broadcast the entire 100 days.

Considering RAZ’s idiosyncratic programming, the whole project can be viewed as an artwork. Washington admitted that the station is also an opportunity to examine radio as an art form. “[It is] radio by artists,” she said. “We have refused to define it further for decades, fearing that any particular canon may emerge and become fixated upon. The beauty of radio art is that it is freeform and performed upon an endless canvas.” |

Ilia Rogatchevski
Originally published by Wire, May 2022

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Off The Wall: Art, Photography, & The Album Sleeve

A new exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery sheds new light on the relationship between records and their covers. Exhibition photographs by the author.

“In the very beginning, I was hanging books on the walls like art pieces,” explains Antoine de Beaupré over email. “I realised that sometimes people were looking at me in a strange way. I then started to swap the books with records and suddenly a lot of ideas arose.” De Beaupré is a book dealer, publisher, and curator. Librairie 213, his Parisian bookshop, specialises in rare and out-of-print photography books. His primary passion, however, has always been music. “I started to buy my first records as a teenager in the mid-80s. LPs were cheap because CDs were taking over. I became a collector without realising it!” 

This month, For The Record: Photography & The Art Of The Album Cover opens at The Photographers’ Gallery in London. The show utilises de Beaupré’s extensive record collection as an opportunity to explore the interrelationship of photography and music as manifested in the medium of the album cover. The show is composed of many iconic and some lesser known LPs displayed in Plexiglas frames. The covers are grouped by themes, which closely follow the structure of Total Records, a catalogue of the original exhibition (co-curated by De Beaupré, Serge Vincendet and Sam Stourdzé) held at the Rencontres d’Arles, France, in 2015.

There is an evident attempt to redress the narrative, where the musicians take centre stage, by giving equal credit to the photographers and graphic designers responsible for visualising the music. Aside from Andy Warhol’s infamous banana, which donned the cover of The Velvet Underground & Nico, and Hipgnosis’s conceptual photo shoots that communicated the epic nature of bands like Pink Floyd, there are more obscure covers on display. A collection of “race records”, which were created for African American consumption, are noteworthy not only for the music they documented, but also for their depiction of a segregated United States. Records released by labels Yazoo and Riverside portrayed the daily lives of communities stigmatised by institutional racism, as shot by Dorothea Lange and Jack Delano, while Bluesville prominently featured blues legends from the Mississippi Delta on its covers. 

A small section of the exhibition is dedicated to visual artists who utilised the record as an extension of their practice. These limited edition pressings include documentation of a Joseph Beuys performance, a lecture on happenings by Allan Kaprow as well as Misch- U. Trennkunst, an experimental spoken word release by Dieter Roth and Arnulf Rainer. “Transartistic”, the chapter dedicated to the same theme in Total Records, includes many other works, such as Harry Bertoia’s Sonambient series. It’s understandable that the curators chose not to dedicate more gallery space to these works – mainstream concerns are much more likely to draw the crowds – but it’s a pity nevertheless. 

Jazz is shown to be responsible for influencing both the way that photographers approached their subjects and the aesthetics of album cover design. Lee Friedlander, who is best known for his urban social landscapes, launched his career working for Atlantic Records. Friedlander’s enigmatic portrait of Miles Davis for In A Silent Way, released by Columbia in 1969, is displayed here alongside photos of Ray Charles and Ornette Coleman. It is said in the curators’ notes that jazz taught the young Friedlander a sense of improvisation. Although this isn’t evident on these particular LPs, the sense of freedom that jazz evokes can be seen on releases by ESP-Disk. You can practically hear the saxophone skronk when looking at Sandra H. Stollman’s double exposure portrait of Albert Ayler (Spirits Rejoice, 1965), while the same photographer poses Sonny Simmons, on a rock in New York’s Central Park, to resemble a monument to self-expression (Staying On The Watch, 1966). 

Blue Note’s visual identity is well documented and it’s always a pleasure to view these covers up close. The catalogue for the original exhibition shows the photographs as they appear on the albums alongside the uncropped originals. Considering Blue Note’s famed attention to detail, it’s a shame that the original prints are not displayed here, only the records. In order to dive deeper into the story behind the images you have to buy the book. 

Thankfully, a series of prints by Linda McCartney allows the public to make a comparison between the moment as it was captured, and the final product. Iain Macmillan’s portrait of The Beatles for Abbey Road is woven into our cultural fabric to such a degree that copycat covers have become a cliché. This is best exemplified by the nearly naked Red Hot Chili Peppers crossing the same street with socks on their cocks (The Abbey Road E.P., 1988; not on display). McCartney’s behind the scenes shots, however, show The Beatles as human beings grown tired of their iconic status, but who are willing to play along one final time. A shot of a passer-by talking to Ringo Starr, while the rest of the band wait to cross, is touching. 

Another highlight is a wall dedicated to political records. Some releases use sound as propaganda, such as Mai-68, a 7” that features field recordings made on the barricades during the May 1968 uprisings in Paris. Others, like Rage Against The Machine’s eponymous debut, co-opt the image of revolt (in this case Malcolm Browne’s Pulitzer-winning photograph of Thích Quảng Đức’s self-immolation) to align themselves with an anti-establishment ideology. 

The adjacent wall shows albums that have fallen victim to censorship. This is a potentially excellent case study that could have been better realised. Out of a handful of examples, only two censored albums sit alongside their uncensored siblings: Beggars Banquet by The Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland. A graffitied toilet, shot by Barry Feinstein, was initially rejected by the Stones’ label in favour of a mediocre typographic cover, while Jimi Hendrix himself disapproved of David Montgomery’s photograph of nineteen nude women lounging against a black background. The image was still used for the UK release of Electric Ladyland, but the album was sold in brown paper bags by retailers. 

Despite some flaws, For The Record challenges the idiom that a book shouldn’t be judged by its cover. This notion is problematic, because it assumes that design is subordinate to the content inside. Even if a well designed book jacket doesn’t reflect the prose, at least you still have a great cover to look at, Germano Facetti’s design direction for Penguin being a case in point. The same goes for records. Before streaming, the cover would be your first connection to the music and, for many photographers, shooting covers was an additional platform for their craft, replete with its own set of nuances.

The way in which many of us consume music may have changed, but the album cover remains an essential conduit between artist and listener. Antoine de Beaupré agrees: “From my perspective, great covers shine through [with] their visual language or the esthétisme established by the record labels. We all have a relationship with vinyl. What I did was to contextualise a popular object, to see it in a different way. When you walk out of the show, you may stop in a record shop and buy a record, just for the cover, and put it on your wall.”

For the Record: Photography & the Art of the Album Cover will be on display at The Photographers’ Gallery, London from 8 April until 12 June 2022.

Ilia Rogatchevski
Originally published by The Quietus, April 2022

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Valentina Magaletti

Art brut and surrealism help defeat the boredom of repetition for Italian drummer Valentina Magaletti whose projects range from gamelan ensemble work to orchestral improv, and hauntological dream pop to dub. Photography by Amanda Hakan.

Valentina Magaletti leans forward in her chair, drumsticks in hand. She’s sitting in the front row at London’s Cafe Oto, listening attentively to the nine piece Ensemble Nist-Nah. She was invited to play with the French gamelan ensemble by the percussionist and band leader Will Guthrie, and after the latter’s brief introduction, Magaletti jumps behind Oto’s battered house kit for the fourth composition of the set, “Rollin”. Guthrie conducts the ensemble behind a red Premier kit on the opposite side of the stage, and the space between the two drummers is filled with metallophones, gongs of various sizes, bells and Indonesian percussion instruments.

There’s a temperate duel between Guthrie and Magaletti, with each drummer repeatedly striking their handheld cymbal before muting it on the snare. Before long, Magaletti kicks in with the bass drum on each quarter note, giving the composition a house music flavour. By the time the other players come in on the sarons and bonang, Magaletti is in full swing, moving around the drums in brisk but carefully articulated movements. Her cymbal work is light, leaving space for the pitched gongs and metallophones. In her signature gestural style Valentina rolls across the toms and disengaged snare, bringing to attention their complementary timbres.

Magaletti is a prolific drummer who manoeuvres between disparate sound worlds. She has worked with experimental musicians like Lafawndah, Julian Sartorius and Gnod’s Marlene Ribeiro, as well as more mainstream acts such as Bat For Lashes, Gruff Rhys and Nicolas Jaar. In 2017, at the suggestion of This Heat’s Charles Hayward, Magaletti stood in for the late Jaki Liebezeit playing alongside Sonic Youth’s former drummer Steve Shelley in The Can Project, who blasted through a live rendition of Can’s debut album Monster Movie with original vocalist Malcolm Mooney at London’s Barbican Centre.

Magaletti was one half of acclaimed electronic duo Tomaga, until Tom Relleen’s death in 2020. She has released solo work, notably 2020’s A Queer Anthology Of Drums on Cafe Oto’s Takuroku imprint. Her other projects include Avvitagalli, CZN, UUUU and Holy Tongue, but each outfit has its own pool of collaborators and a direction different from anything else that she is involved with, with Vanishing Twin, her art rock trio with Cathy Lucas and Susumu Mukai, probably the most accessible of her projects. 

Magaletti and I speak a few days prior to her performance with Nist-Nah and subsequent departure to the US for a Vanishing Twin tour. Over a video call, interrupted only briefly by Magaletti’s cat Ashby, I ask how she manages to collaborate so frequently and with such a varied strata of musicians. “I never slag off any opportunity, if I like the people,” she replies. “You always learn something, or you learn what you don’t want to do. I’m always being told that I’m a softie and should say no more. It’s very clear when it’s me writing and producing, and when I play for someone else. Yes, it’s my drumming, but it’s serving someone else’s music. I don’t see them being connected.”

Magaletti started drumming around the age of 12, when a music school opened near her parents’ house in Bari in southern Italy. She was introduced to the idea that drumming could be a profession by seeing Debbi Peterson playing with The Bangles on MTV. “They looked fantastic. All of them. Not the drumming style, but the vibe. I thought it was a fantastic job. I wanted to study drums and see what it was about. The main thing that separates you from playing the drums or not is having access to a drum kit.” Her first set came piecemeal with a snare and hi-hat given as Christmas presents over a couple of years. After realising that she wouldn’t give up, her parents eventually caved in and bought her a white Rogers set. “To this day, I don’t think my mum knows what a drum kit is,” she laughs. “If she cleans my room in Italy, she dismantles it.”

One of Magaletti’s teachers was Agostino Marangolo of the prog rock band Goblin, known for their scores for the Italian horror film director Dario Argento. Another was the jazz drummer Michele Di Monte. While Di Monte’s traditional methods informed Magaletti’s early bebop style, Marangolo’s beastly breaks and penchant for time signature changes influenced her search for more unconventional sounds. She also studied marimba and vibraphone and experimented with prepared percussion. 

Along with her ideas as a composer, these early experiences informed Valentina Plays The Batterie Fragile, a 2017 live recording from the Super Flux festival at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Tours in France. On it, Magaletti plays a porcelain kit, conceived by visual artist Yves Chaudouët and made under the supervision of ceramicist Marjorie Thébault. By applying wire brushes, wooden reeds and rubber beaters to the static white material, Magaletti’s strokes summon unusual textures that range from wobbly cello-like tones to something akin to a steel pan.

“It’s an instrument that is totally fragile,” she says. “I was transfixed by the idea of presenting something that has different connotations to it being a macho instrument. A drum kit made of the most delicate material, conceptually, is fantastic.” The success of this performance led to a second ceramic kit being made specifically for her. A follow-up recording of the second kit has been produced with engineer Leon Marks, who, along with Portuguese sculptor João Pais Filipe, collaborates with Valentina on the ritualistic percussion project CZN. 

The Batterie Fragile is an instrument that rewards delicacy while inviting the player to experiment with texture. Anything more, and the drummer risks destroying the artwork. How important is texture to the rest of Magaletti’s music? “Texture is everything. I’ve always had this idea of playing Lego when playing music; playing with frequencies and finding what’s missing. I’ve been using contact mics probably for 15 years now. I can flip between tribal and industrial. It’s very versatile to me.”

Our conversation recalls one of my earliest drum memories: John Bonham’s lengthy solo on “Moby Dick”, as documented on Led Zeppelin’s 1976 concert film The Song Remains The Same. Even as a child, his performance struck me as ego-driven and boring, as if the drums served only to show off Bonham’s technique in the loudest way possible. “It’s already such an ego boost to have a solo show that you really have to keep it in a box,” she nods. “You have to make sure that everyone who has paid for a ticket to see you gets to have the same fun that you do. I think there’s a social responsibility there for every performer.” 

She moved to London in her early twenties and almost immediately started working in the music scene. One of her first bands was Econoline, a Fugazi-inspired quartet who landed a John Peel session in 2002. Since then she’s worked with Gum Takes Tooth and Raime, among many other projects. In the early 2010s, she joined Demian Castellanos’s psych rock vehicle The Oscillation, where she met bassist Tom Relleen. “[Psych rock] has never been my music,” she admits. “I’ve always found it really boring. I think the most important thing in my life was that Tom felt exactly the same. We departed quite naturally away from the guitar and started Tomaga. The freedom of it was incredible: hours of field recording, hours in the studio, micro recording, dictaphones, hydrophones. It was very stimulating, creatively, because there was never one point of reference that we would emulate.”

Between 2013 and Relleen’s death in 2020 after being diagnosed with stomach cancer, Tomaga collaborated with artists such as French composer Pierre Bastien, and released a substantial body of work on labels like Hands In The Dark and Meakusma, compiling three terabytes of sound and music, according to Magaletti. Relleen’s compositions, combined with Magaletti’s post-jazz inflections, often suggest a rediscovered library music archive. It’s a paranormal sound world that’s forever peppered with a healthy dose of oblique recordings. Tomaga’s final album Intimate Immensity was completed just prior to Relleen’s death. Possibly their finest work, the record shifts between states of joy, melancholia and paranoia, managing to be psychedelic without ever slipping into predictability or acid trip cliche. 

The collage-style approach to composition is also apparent in Magaletti’s other projects. Due Matte, her collaboration with Marlene Ribeiro, grew out of a 2019 residency at Sonoscopia in Porto. As part of the Hysteria project, the duo ran percussion workshops for female artists who were keen to explore new working methods. iPhone recordings from these sessions became the groundwork for the record. A patchwork of lo-fi sources – tribal drums, rattling fence posts, grainy woodwinds – intermingle with sweeping horns, spatial effects and the occasional spoken word piece. These recordings are akin to a leftfield dub album, and the overall impression is of an outsider artwork that fears empty spaces. 

With so much raw material, I wonder how Magaletti organises her work into a coherent whole. “I approach it in a very Kurt Schwitters way: hard-cut edits, putting them together, making sure that the narrative is uninterrupted.” Allusions to visual art have crept up in previous interviews, specifically dada and art brut. To what extent does visual art feed into her aesthetic? “It’s never been a problem for me to feel connected with that way of conceiving and producing art. I think it’s an exercise to defeat boredom, to create an ongoing surprise in the listener. You know when you listen to a record, and you know exactly what it’s going to sound like? My challenge is to always surprise; to turn the page so you don’t know what the fuck is going on.” 

The stratification and layering inherent to collage is an important factor in how she perceives her own work. In the same way that a collage can be viewed from various perspectives, when you listen to a sound piece assembled from various sources, new details present themselves to the listener every time. 

Although such qualities are evident on solo recordings like A Queer Anthology Of Drums – a dark and intimate diary of her London lockdown days, where drones, recordings and modulated percussive objects serve as foundations for Valentina’s explorative drum work – the concept of montage is best embodied by Avvitagalli. This sound art project also evolved from lockdown sessions, this time spent with Pino Montecalvo in southern Italy. The duo produced a couple of limited edition cassettes, Avvitagalli and Onde Curiosa, for the Bari based “un-folk” label Music À La Coque. Replete with unique covers appropriated from vintage exercise manuals and gambling books, these albums layer recordings of Montecalvo’s toys, handmade instruments and pilfered radio broadcasts with Magaletti’s percussive prowess. 

Avvitagalli’s third instalment, None Corsa, is due for imminent release on vinyl via Horn Of Plenty. Most of the same sound sources are there, but this time the spectral radio voices and wayward sound effects are conceptually tied. “It’s about absence and presence,” Magaletti explains. “[The album] comes with a photographic book. We trespassed a mansion [with photographer Adele di Nunzio] that burned down a day before a big wedding. Everything there – the tables, this beautiful piano, frames on the wall – all destroyed. The fire left these crazy prints on the wall. It’s really ghostly.” 

The idea of ghostliness is also present in Vanishing Twin, who began life as a quintet in 2015 before recently downsizing to a trio. The band name is a reference to vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Cathy Lucas absorbing her own twin sibling in utero, and Vanishing Twin’s music is evocative of phantoms residing in dilapidated radiophonic equipment. Visually, their aesthetic is steeped in op art and surrealism, but their waltzy interplay of bass, melody and synthetic textures recalls the hauntological dream pop of Broadcast. More recent work like 2021’s Ookii Gekkou sees them channel Piero Umiliani film scores as well as Alice Coltrane and The Art Ensemble Of Chicago by employing soulful jazz, lounge and funk elements. The shift is especially prominent in the playing of Susumu Mukai and Magaletti’s rhythms.

To date, most of Vanishing Twin’s recordings have been made at Malcolm Catto’s Quatermass Sound Lab studio in London. Catto, drummer and leader of the cosmic jazz group The Heliocentrics, collects vintage analogue equipment, and utilises it to achieve the late 60s and early 70s sound of soul and psych. Will the band’s fourth album be in a similar retro style to their previous ones? “I don’t think so. We’re changing direction this time. The next album will be more experimental and free.”

Magaletti has several other experimental ventures on the horizon. First up is Modern Dance Gold: Vol 1, the debut record by her new band Better Corners, featuring mastering engineer Sarah Register, who also plays guitar with Kim Gordon’s touring band, and Wire’s Matthew Simms. Evolving from Simms and Magaletti’s previous collaboration UUUU, the album was recorded remotely and weaves together prepared piano, flutes and modular boxes to create a drone-laden soundscape. Valentina’s distorted rhythms on “It Feels Like Forever” are particularly harrowing, next to the album’s more ambient passages. 

Holy Tongue, a dub project with producer Al Wootton, is also preparing a couple of releases: a cassette of their live set at London’s Servant Jazz Quarters is in the works and a third studio EP scheduled for release before the end of the year. “We’ve almost finished the album. It’s going to be massive. We’re taking it to another level with flamenco and this massive brass [section].” London improvisation figurehead and dub music veteran Steve Beresford, who has previously worked with Magaletti and double bassist Pierpaolo Martino on 2020’s Frequency Disasters, appears on two tracks. This is a dream come true, as Beresford played on some of Magaletti’s favourite dub tracks, from The Slits’ Return Of The Giant Slits to Vivien Goldman’s “Private Armies”. In the past, Magaletti and Beresford had also performed together as part of London Improvisers Orchestra.

But Magaletti has a more personal record on the cards. “I was awarded the [PRS Foundation] Women Make Music fund this year. Thanks to them, I’ve just finished my solo album. It has been produced and mixed by Marta Salogni. It’s my most proud work, because I play all the instruments, not just drums. It’s a 360 degree diary, in the vein of Dean Blunt: prankster sonic collage, programmed beats, drums and poetry.” As a drummer-composer, Magaletti eschews convention. Not interested in using the same kit, cymbals or brands as other drummers, she is always on the lookout for alternative textures to add to her palette, whether they be manifested in found materials, effects or handmade instruments created by collaborator João Pais Filipe.

Throughout the conversation, Magaletti talks about drumming as a language that can convey a certain narrative or story. I asked her to unpack this idea. What does it mean to project a narrative through drumming? “In terms of message, it’s never a case of showing people that I can play drums, or feeling like an animal in a circus: the woman playing drums,” she explains. “It’s more about ingoing and outgoing energies between me and the audience. I want to achieve that balance of the absence and presence of sounds. Making sure that everyone in the room can resonate with what I’m saying and not just be listening to a person drumming, which would be excruciatingly tedious, from my point of view, as a listener.” 

Avvitagalli’s None Corsa is released by Horn of Plenty.
Better Corners’s Modern Dance Gold: Vol 1 is released by The state51 Conspiracy.

Ilia Rogatchevski
Originally published by Wire, April 2022

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Coventry Cathedral & Drapers Hall, Coventry, UK

Deliaphonic celebrates the life, work and legacy of pioneering electronic musician and Coventry native Delia Derbyshire. Prior to her death in 2001, Derbyshire envisioned creating an event – along with Spacemen 3’s Peter Kember – called Multi-sensory Electronic Sound, Music and Arts. Its function aimed to go beyond the typical music festival format and incorporate workshops where participants could try out various instruments such as the VCS3 synthesizer or theremin. The idea was to make sound making technology accessible to everyone. This fourth edition of Deliaphonic, which is part of the Coventry UK City of Culture initiative, attempts to realise Derbyshire’s family-friendly vision.

Inside the cathedral, which serves as the principal venue of this four-day festival, can be found various multisensory installations and workshops. Many are aimed at children, who are actively encouraged to interact. In the undercroft, festival co-founder Alex Miles demonstrates a collection of devices that convert light vibrations into sound, while upstairs Dan Mayfield’s School of Noise project invites attendees to play vegetables connected to an ototo, an instrument which allows any conductive material to generate sound. Another highlight is Caro C’s Coolicon Lampshade Installation. Eight lampshades, suspended inside a tent, can be played by the public with beaters. The lampshades’ enamel-coated steel bodies resonate like bells and are said to have been Derbyshire’s favourite sounding objects.  

A screening of the film Delia Derbyshire: the Myths and the Legendary Tapes puts the proceedings into context. Directed by Caroline Catz, who also stars in the leading role, the film is somewhere between a documentary and Brechtian theatre. The aesthetic language of the movie is saturated with what Julian House of Ghost Box Records calls the “background of tape”, by which he means Op Art, BBC title cards, and magnetic tape effects. Aside the festival logo designed by House, this flirtation with 1960s modernism is also present in the creative direction of a number of artists at the festival. Vanishing Twin’s waltzy interplay of bass, melody and synthetic textures is the most prominent example of this. Their sound is heavily indebted to Broadcast and, by extension, early electronic psychedelia such as Derbyshire’s band White Noise. 

For others, the link to modernism is less apparent. For example, both the warped footwork of Friday headliner Loraine James and The Specials founder Jerry Dammers’s dissonant soundtrack to George Shaw’s hyperrealist suburbia paintings feel very contemporary in the alienation they espouse. Future Rave Memory by Richard Fearless, meanwhile, uses treated double bass to create brooding dystopian atmospheres. The piece works well in the acoustics of the cathedral and a fitting antithesis to the Radiophonic Workshop’s playful reworkings of Derbyshire’s signature Doctor Who theme. 

Marra! by Natalie Sharp (formerly known as Lone Taxidermist) rises above all other performances in terms of its subject and originality. The theatrical piece examines the dialect, ceremonies and rituals of Cumbria, which has been home to both Sharp and Derbyshire (in her post-BBC years). Footage of cattle auctions, champion gurners and pub folk singers are juxtaposed with recordings of Seychelles moutya drum rituals, car alarm loops and discordant electronic noise. Through her immersive exaggerated theatrics (there are four costume changes during the set and a butcher-led crowd intervention) Sharp, a first-generation immigrant, portrays how strange local customs can appear to an outsider. Marra! not only feels relevant, but also aligns itself with Derbyshire’s experimental spirit and outsider myth.

Ilia Rogatchevski
Originally published by Wire, April 2022

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June – Window Of Time

On his new album for Artificial Dance, Tsampikos Fronas aka June takes a departure from his dance orientated earlier work. Recorded between 2018 and 2020, Window of Time sees the Berlin-based producer explore sparser arrangements than his previous releases.

The record unravels like a dystopian cyberpunk novel, something akin to William Gibson’s Neuromancer. Both the title track and ‘Stratagem / Predator’ create an increasing tension that builds through repetitive sequences. The arpeggiated synths on ‘Year 2092’ evoke images of sprawling metropolitan cityscapes, while the claustrophobic mood of ‘The Master of Electricity’, the first track written for the album, wouldn’t go amiss on a soundtrack to a sci-fi thriller like Blade Runner.

Created using modular synthesizers, analog sequencers and analog polyphonic synths, Window of Time eschews melody in favour of cold, pulsating rhythms. Combined with haunting choral toplines and minimalistic flourishes, such as those on album closer ‘Elegy’, June invites the listener on a free dive into their subconscious; to navigate boundless, unexplored territories.