I reviewed another John Young phonogram some years back on empreintes DIGITALes; La limite du bruit, and my brief introduction then fits just as well here, ’scuse me: John Young (1962) is one of those prolific and talented New Zealand sound artists, whom we have come to appreciate very much. Personally I raised an eyebrow over his humorous and discerning electroacoustic text-sound piece Sju, which recently was released on a CD called “New Zealand Sonic Art 2000” from The Music Department of Waikato University in Hamilton, New Zealand. That piece deals with the different pronunciations of the Swedish word “sju”, which means “seven”. It is very hard for any English-speaking person to pronounce the word in a sensible way, but even within Sweden there are at least two major ways of pronouncing it — in fact according to social class, usually! — and a number of minor deviations from those major ways. John Young discovered the peculiarities of this word while residing in Sweden for a while some years ago, and hid deliberations turned into a little masterwork! Though born in Christchurch, Young has a mixed background, inherited from an English father and an Italian mother. His musical career took off more seriously with a doctorate on the manipulation of environmental sound sources in electroacoustic music. He then continued in the UK at the studios of the University of East Anglia, studying electroacoustic composition with another New Zealand émigré; Denis Smalley; renowned wizard of the audios, who has meant more than most for the furthering of methods and ideas in electroacoustic music. John Young has lectured at the Victoria University of Wellington and at De Montfort University in Leicester in the UK. He has also been a visiting composer at a number of institutions, such as the Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada and EMS in Stockholm, Sweden. His focus has been mainly on the acousmatic aspect of electroacoustics, predominately on forms based on the distinction between recognizable natural sounds and computer-based studio transformations.
Of late John Young is also combining electroacoustics with acoustic instruments. Last year — 2007 — Young was awarded First Prize at Bourges, indeed for the main course on this [disc]; Ricordiamo Forlì.
Track 1 (14 subtitles): Ricordiamo Forlì (2005) [53:32]: In Piazza Aurelio Saffi / Interlude 1 / Bitter Storm / Ancient Tear / Winter / Pippo / The Garden / A Little Italian Farm / Interlude 2 — Florence / Forlì — November 1944 / Family Story / Once in Malmissole / The Bomb / Epilogue.
Yesterday, when I listened through this [disc] for the first time, I was quite surprised and mighty pleased, for a couple of reasons. First of all, I always enjoy a kind of art that has it in it to surprise me, to give me something that I hadn’t expected, and which made me think in directions that opened new areas of life to me. This is an ideal artistic situation, but very rare. Perhaps this revolutionary feeling in perception of art — art as the distillate of life; the purest essence of life — was more common in earlier days (I’m speaking about myself), in days when I discovered great electroacoustic works by the gurus of France, like Bernard Parmegiani, Luc Ferrari, Jacques Lejeune, François Bayle, Jean Schwarz and so forth and so on. You can’t find many “epic” electronic or textsound pieces nowadays — but John Young surprised with his Ricordiamo Forlì — and he had the guts and got the label permission to venture into his own family history, which in his case was significant also for a much broader sense of history — so the second reason for my happy surprise was the daring generosity granted by empreintes DIGITALes, because extended sound art like John Young’s in excess of fifty minutes Ricordiamo Forlì falls well outside of common label ground, in this case. Perhaps a task like Young’s would be more natural as the winner of the Prix Italia Radio Art Prize, or being aired on the Kunstradio broadcasts of Radio Österreich. However, here it is on empreintes DIGITALes, and I couldn’t be happier at it than I am, as this might open the door into textsound and sound poetry too, on the famous Canadian label, which has so much credit and power, with which it can act any way it wishes, and be gravely listened to!
I believe I got my first taste of Ricordiamo Forlì in the best way possible; in a dreamy state, because I almost fell asleep as I listened to the work, lying back on my bed, listening in full measures, and letting my fantasy roam. The catch phrases, of course, are the various church bells, which come at you through the wind of time, through layer after layer of absentminded decades.
The background of Young’s sound work lies, as I stated, in his family history and in the history of the 20th century Western world. The booklet is in fact a short story, relating a visit in 2002 — his first one — that John Young made to the City of Forlì in Northern Italy, which is his Italian mother’s birthplace, and the city where his father — a New Zealand soldier of the 8th Army — and his mother met. Young’s mother joined his father-to-be back to New Zealand after the war, and young John later grew up there. On his first visit to Forlì, John traveled with his father, which naturally brought on very special atmospheres. This was his father’s first return since 1945, but in spite of the many decades, his father vividly recalled the city; it’s buildings and streets. John also recalled his mother’s first trip back after 35 years, when she was spontaneously greeted in the street, just naturally picking up where she once left.
This whole story and this set of sonorities keep mixing times passed and times present in a magic way, which we sometimes can experience in art. I recall another time, in the 1980s or 1990s, when all viable 78s were re-released on CD, bringing a temporal depth to available phonograms. I recall how I fell in love with an opera singer from the 1920s — Maria Ivogün! — my feelings traveling back and forth on the lucid Stig Dagerman bridges of Birgitta Suite. This music may sometimes shift your mind through the filter of time, making past and present quite simultaneous; all places here; all times now! Some properties of John Young’s major work on this [disc] allow for this transparent simultaneity, dissolving the irons of chronology into the stuff that dreams are made of. John Young himself talks about bringing “sounds and voices from the past and the present together in imaginary soundscapes” — and it can hardly be explained in better words. This characterizes the splendid fluency and magic of Young’s work, through this many facetted, bottomless sensation of timelessness.
A very personal trait of Ricordiamo Forlì is the story that John Young’s father — as I suppose it is — relates to the listener inside this sound work, explaining the event on a day when John Young’s mother-to-be was supposed to have joined her mother to see her aunt and her cousins, at which time she however pleaded with her mother to be able to instead go and meet the soldier from New Zealand, whom she liked. She ended up seeing this soldier, Young’s future father, and that day the house of her aunt received a hit by a German bomb, killing two out of the three relatives. In the booklet it is explained that Alex Young indeed participates from a 2005 interview, but it is also stated that the main narrator is Franco Bianchini.
John Young deliberates quite a bit on the sonic atmosphere of the city that he finally got to see. He says: “Standing in the centre of the city’s Piazza Aurelio Saffi listening to bells from churches clearly audible over great distances gave me a strong sense of experiencing the sounds as something resonant of the place and its history… that these were voices from the past”
When I listen to this long work of more than 53 minutes, in 14 named sections, this is what I feel, this almost ghastly experience of time and history as one long NOW — and I believe this is the best way, the most honest and respectful way to experience time, to regard our fellow sentient beings, because whenever anything happens to anyone, it happens smack dab in the midst of that person’s here and now, and nothing else really happens or exists.
The swing of a magic wand gets the music going; a crowd is stirring — and the narrator begins his story, to begin with painting a picture of the town and its history, at first in clean talk, without too many electroacoustic embellishments, but soon enough John Young utilizes his skills, letting distant church bells talk back at you from behind quavering filters of time. The most lucid and meditative, alienated keyboard notes rise out of the cracks of bygone days. Various sounds rise from strangeness right up to the commonest everyday sonic expressions, only to veer off again into strangeness and alienation, but oftentimes in exceedingly beautiful sonorities.
The narrator continues his account of the developments of the war, locally around this part of Italy, by Forlì, more and more surrounded and sucked-up in Young’s electroacoustic swell, which seems to work hands-on with time as such, illusionary, in a melancholy mix of old newsreels and old men’s recollections; this violently disturbing air of danger, fear and dark sentiments.
A woman talks in Italian on the backdrop of a thin piano speaking to itself in the corner of a large, desolated hall of the civil society, while one army has left and the next one hasn’t yet arrived, and time holds its breath. Young utilizes his electronic sounds with grace and style, underwriting the sentiments of the days. This whole idea is quite devastating, quite moving: a very unusual electroacoustic epic, touched upon with sensitive fingers. I haven’t heard anything as unusual and original in contemporary sound art since I first came upon Jean Schwarz’s Quatre saisons in the late 1980s. Brittle piano tones give way to isolated chimes of giant bells deep inside hiding.
The misfortune in the shape of a giant German bomb, destroying the family, is told by Alex Young many, many years later — and the story, inside John Young’s sonic and compositional wizardry, seems to swell like a terrible wound right out of the heart of time, again and again, that metallic bomb always hurrying down through these layers of air, these strata of chronology, time and again, and by the end of the day two sisters are always dead and an airplane pilot sits down to dinner. It is impossible to understand the events of a life, of any life — but John Young’s way of telling this story from the late days of the 2nd World War, in this incredibly delicate and touching, beautiful and horrible way, brings life and time so much closer…
Track 2. Arrividerci (2005) [15:35]
This second and last work on John Young’s new [disc] is an unusual one too, in this empreintes DIGITALes environment, since it’s an all-out modern chamber piece. About half way Young blends deep church bells into the music, suddenly rendering the composition quite wider and deeper implications — and he succeeds very well in this mixed-form composition. It is very hard not to have the music appear jagged or abrupt or simply unfitting, when you all of a sudden start to change the chamber ensemble atmosphere with electroacoustics or extraneous sound objects, but once again Young proves his excellent skill and sensitivity, pulling this off and achieving yet another enchanting sound world.
Young explains: “The core sound used in the work is a recording of one of the bells of Forlì’s Duomo, the Cathedral of Santa Croce, which dates from the 15th century. Hearing their chimes amongst the bells of many other churches in and around the centre of the city evoked for me a sense of the timelessness of such sounds and their interaction in space — a physical architectural presence that extends beyond living memory”
John Young’s new [disc] on empreintes DIGITALes has already come to mean a lot to me, and his sound art has thrown me into thoughts and meditation I wasn’t expecting. I love it when art brings me the unexpected and pulls me on up ahead into new ways of thinking.