Posts Tagged ‘Simon Whetham’

Misanthropic Agenda – MAR056 – 4th December 2020

Christopher Nosnibor

It’s been a few years since I last engaged with Simon Whetham’s work, which at least up to a certain point had a certain preoccupation with geography, or least location. In a sense – albeit somewhat tenuous, that relationship to place remains as a backdrop of sorts to Forced to Repeat Myself, which documents a tour (remember those?) in 2018.

Perhaps the absence of touring has driven many artists to review their archival recordings, and on Forced to Repeat Myself, Whetham contemplates the way in which touring drives a tendency toward homogeneity in terms of the way each night’s performance is assembled. For rock bands and acts performing compositions of a fixed nature, this is part and parcel; the repetition of set lists and even, over time, between-piece patter and introductions. But for artists whose work is based on improvisation, repetition is undesirable – after all, at what point does repetition become something rehearsed and preplanned?

As the accompanying text observes, ‘One characteristic aspect of the touring experience that is not discussed often enough is the dilemma of repetition. Not repetition as a mechanism of the work itself, but as a tedious consequence of being obligated to perform night after night in quick succession. Generating a completely unique performance for each stop, even with the assistance of improvisation, is a laborious undertaking that consumes too much time and sanity, while adhering to a rigid set of rules leaves one open to both burnout and diminishing returns. Is there a way to split the difference so that both performer and audience are always engaged to the highest standard?’

And so this is the context for Forced to Repeat Myself. As a document, it’s a curious one, and it may or may not be ironic that the cover art for Whetham’s ‘live’ album is a photograph of a venue with rows of empty seats. If it was indeed shot at one of the shows where Whetham performed on said tour or any other (and the presence of a flipchart suggests otherwise), it was surely during soundcheck. But then, history can be subject to so many manipulations, and the time and space begins to flake over the passage of the latter… the relevance of the track titles is unclear: they’re not dates, and this is not some kind of aural tour diary. Nor are the tracks really the same. Yes, Whetham does revert to certain tones and textures as one would expect from the same equipment operated within a more or less predetermined set length.

Random is only so random, and external factors invariably influence and direct the shape of things. That said, the same performance is never the same performance: different venues of different shapes and sizes, the kit run through a different PA, different audience responses… Life in lockdown may feel like perpetual groundhog day, but the reality is that we never live the same moment twice. No-one is more acutely aware of this than Whetham himself when he comments, “In each situation objects and materials unique to the space were incorporated into the performance setup and structure, generating sounds or resonating with them. And yet I could hear similar scenes, movements, even spaces. This repetition determined the dynamic of the composition, working with it and against it.”

And so we return to geography, location, in the most immediate of contexts. And over the course of the album’s eight pieces, the identifiable repetitions are few, as the same sounds are reworked, remixed, reimagined, and with each manipulation, however subtle, they’re a step or phase away from their previous version.

But over the course of the album we’re reminded just how strong Whetham’s ear is for texture and tone, and there is a spectacular abundance of crackling overdoing distortion, groaning drones humming clicking, bangs and scrapes and minimal electronic sounds colliding and vibrating against one another – hard and violently. The absence of audience sound and the up-close fixing of circuits mean that this doesn’t feel or sound like a live album, but it is, every inch, a hard sonic challenge.

mar056 digipak

Crónica – Crónica 103 – February 2016

Christopher Nosnibor

Simon Whetham has a considerable history of taking sound recordings – often environmental sounds – and working them into something unrecognisable, by means of various sonic and software mutations. Against Nature emerged from an exploration of what Whetham describes as ‘errors and failures’, using ‘badly built microphones, over-burdened amplifiers, motors driven by sound impulses, misbehaving software and objects toppling’ as part of an organic process. The album is in many ways accidental in nature, the end product determined more by the material than the artist. It could be seen, in some respects, as a project of artistic self-erasure. This album may bear Simon Whetham’s name, but his function here is as a conduit, more of an editor than an author of the work.

Against Nature may only contain five tracks, but the tracks are both lengthy and intense. Screeding noise sustains interminably, piercing tones that aren’t drones but something altogether more serrated. Pink noise switches to white noise. Hums crackle, fizz and whizz and gradually build to immense, barrelling walls of noise that suck the listener into an immersion tank of sound. The quieter passages lull the listener’s senses, a gentle breeze and the occasional clanking of what sounds like a yak’s bell evoke almost pastoral images, before once again building sonorous, scraping tension that creeps and swells. Metallic clattering grinds like a cement mixer. Blasts of static and white noise tear through silence.

The five movements of Against Nature are not rhythmic in their formation, and are free of anything one might refer to strictly as percussion. Primarily, it’s a work of tonal exploration, as sounds bend and bow against one another, straining and generating sonic frictions, but beneath it all, there are natural – or unnatural – resonances, pulsations, which form their own subtle rhythms. And these resonate biologically, psychologically, rubbing with and against the brain-waves and gnawing away, prodding the nerve-endings and ultimately working their way under the skin.

 

Simon Whetham - Against

 

Simon Whetham Online

Baskaru – karu:38

Christopher Nosnibor

Whereas Whetham’s previous work has been preoccupied with geography, the specifics of location, his latest offering uses found sound and field recordings in a very different way. Rather than evoke particular places and experiences, What Matters is that it Matters conjures much vaguer, more abstract notions of place – or perhaps more accurately space, both external and internal.

In a world in which global digital networks render time, place and space subjective matters in many respects – geography is increasingly a state of mind – What Matters is that it Matters offers as much an exploration of a type of psychological topography and a physical one, and forges a sonic labyrinth which the listener’s mental processes amplify, consciously and otherwise.

The album sees Whetham explore forms and textures with haunting, atmospheric compositions. Waves of grainy sound gauze over trailing whistles and drones. And the crackle…. Once you’ve tuned into the surface noise, there’s no escaping it. Of course, this being a CD release, the crackle of interference that rises and falls and disrupts the smooth swell of gently turning drones isn’t real surface noise. It’s the evocation of surface noise. But this in itself is sufficient to trigger a sequence of association. The nostalgia for the vinyl age… as likely now to prompt reminiscences of listening to trip-hop releases which in turn evoke a bygone era, or otherwise provoking recollections of listening to your parent’s scratchy old vinyl and falling in love with the music of a previous generation. Equally, the crackle may call to mind a youth now long gone, and with it, a swell of disparate emotions, nostalgic and conflicting. You don’t hear these things: you feel them, in the pit of your stomach, trickling through your nervous system, twitching in the back of your mind.

I digress… but this is all about the digression, the fleeting idea that life past will forever hang in the air, occasionally needling the present time of the listener, whether welcome or not, whether invited or not. What matters is not the album per se, but the experience, the way in which it resonates: what matters is that it exists, and does resonate – almost subliminally – on a number of levels. What matters is that it’s personal, intimate, interior. It matters, and it matters a great deal.

Whetham

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Simon Whetham Online