This is Jonty Harrison’s third phonogram on empreintes DIGITALes, and his first Audio DVD. Harrison is such a well-known guru of the studios and noble jester of electroacoustics that it wouldn’t serve much purpose to dwell on personal info, except maybe just to state that he upholds a professorship of Composition and Electroacoustic Music at Birmingham University, as well as the directorate of the Electroacoustic Music Studios and Birmingham Electroacoustic Sound Theatre (BEAST). Lately he has also appeared with Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, conducting Stockhausen’s Momente, and with the University New Music Ensemble, conducting Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring — to mention a choice few of his engagements.
To me, Jonty Harrison’s art has always been the most curious and rewarding, leading further than one could have expected; deeper into sound as such, on par with Stockhausen — though Stockhausen went about these investigations down different paths — and intuitively applying clay and paint in a fearless sounding counterpart of J. M. G. Le Clézio’s most nitpicking, frivolous literature; La Fièvre, Le Déluge, Terra Amata, La Guerre, La Quarantaine, Ballaciner etcetera… Jonty Harrison is much more than a mere electroacoustician. He’s a genuine, authentic, original, veritable 21st century Renaissance man!
Track 1. Undertow (2007) [12:19]
A naturalistic swell, ocean touching shore. Heavy night, massive density. Dense masses. Roars shifting weights. Weights shifting roars. The gods scoping fluids. A sudden immersion, submersion, lowering — a dive; that insulated, grayish roaring, like the space shuttle boring into the uppermost layer of the atmosphere, lighting up; that feeling of drowning. The submerged state of mind. Blood and water pressure. Atmospheres. Suffocspheres.
Rippling closeness and distant thunder. The skin-tight rippling grows on you, louder, tighter — closer, clearer — blotting paper tight. You hide with a gang of pikes in the shadow of a hull, beneath a silent wreckage, air bubbles rising, percussively: a cool boil.
The thunder of the undertow dies away, while the close-up ripples and their sonic shadow play form a new kind of submarine ensemble, all but imperceptibly, very gradually taking effect, slowly changing things around, taking power in the rushing of wonderfully nuanced gray, brown, black and transparent fluids, in a lustful game of ever-changing pressure and bewildering motion, turning the spirit of the times around as the ocean out in the night moves over in its sleep and mumbles…
Jonty Harrison is a master of intricate sound worlds of ascetic beginnings; complex sonorities from monotonous events. In one compositional gaze he fathoms the wide scope of the ocean and the molecular wilderness.
Tracks 2 — 5. ReCycle (1999-2006) [47:39]: Rock ’n’ Roll / Internal Combustion / Free Fall / Streams
Jonty Harrison explains his grand work on this CD, made up from the four constituencies of ReCycle:
“ReCycle is a series of four works based loosely on the four Greek classical elements: earth — Rock ’n’ Roll; fire — Internal Combustion; air: Free Fall; and water — Streams. The title came primarily from the fact that many themes and sound types I have used in earlier works are revisited here, but it also reflects the possibility that listeners may detect a sub-text of environmental concern — something which I readily acknowledge and which runs through much of my work since the 1980s”
Track 2. Rock ’n’ Roll (2004) [11.43]
Harrison’s preoccupation with the sounds used in Rock ’n’ Roll also calls for some words directly from the composer, since they so clearly explain the way in which he goes about his art and arrives at such interesting and highly enjoyable and exciting results:
“When we moved house, we inherited a heavy garden roller with a concrete wheel and a rusting steel tyre [tire is spelled tyre in British!]. Rolling this around the garden pathways proved sonically interesting. In the studio, my attention became more focused on the ‘rock’ sounds than on the roller sounds which had originally caught my ear. In particular, I became preoccupied with getting as close as possible to the rocks (possibly even ‘inside’ them), in contrast to the more open, spacious and ‘environmental’ use of the roller and the garden ambience. The multi-channel format allowed a further exaggeration of this contrast, using stereo speakers for the close material and a surround array for the ambience”
These are indeed rocky, rough, crude sounds, basic and bouncing, splintering; musical properties of sorts rising out of mineral worlds: clay, sand, rock — reminding me of a few older, legendary electroacoustic musique concrète masterworks: Gabriel Poulard’s La mémoire des pierres, Michel Redolfi’s Desert Tracks and the Sub Rosa production Lilith | Stone. For sure Jonty Harrison’s brute mineral finesse places me directly back into yesteryear’s darnest, most forlorn Lapland valley of Unna Reaiddávággi, by power of suggestion! Harrison’s garden roller sonorities once again open up this rock desert with it’s steep glacier on the far side, tempting me with the treacherous pass between the Pyramid and the Knife Summit, my Petzl Charlet Irvis Flexlock crampons strapped tight on my Extra Wide Island Meindl Pro hiking boots and my 25-kilogram heavy Haglofs backpack shaped along my back, containing concentrated wildlife food, a Haglofs Annapurna 3000 sleeping bag that can withstand chilly temperatures, and the most practical little one-man Hilleberg Akto tent, good for a thousand storms! Jonty Harrison’s Rock ’n’ Roll gets me real close to those rocks, even to smell them as I crawl across wave after wave of chaotic formations, to finally get onto the snow and ice of the glacier incline, rising steeply a few hundred meters. It might seem comical to some that a garden roller of the most domestic and homey Birmingham back yard kind can invoke sensations of semi-risky glacier passages — but it has to do with the sound that Harrison gets out of it, and nothing else; the mineral purity and harshness of sound! Thus rock deserts of Northern Lapland and mountain passes across tilting glaciers couldn’t be better illustrated, having my hairs stand on end as I relive my lonely and lustful rock desert adventure of 2007… and as in the earlier work Undertow, the composer manages to wring a seriously exciting sound world out of meager beginnings, painting a masterly rock rage, the gravel growling through gruesome geological grievances!
The only thing that perhaps will be hard to fit into my Lapland vision is the squeaking sound from the garden roller’s rusty wheel… A wild aspect of the close-up rock sounds is their spatiality, phasing madly! Another non-Lapland fitting circumstance is the presence of common garden birds! There were birds present in the previous Undertow, too, but seabirds.
Track 3. Internal Combustion (2005-06) [11:43]
Yet more crudity! I really begin to enjoy Harrison’s tour-de-force, hammerhead audicity: now cars! To begin with he swings the automobiles past, phasing in and out, crossroadswise, in a way you’re used to hearing them… but then… engines just start up, or begin to start up, coughing, hawking, falling apart in the process; car engines just trying to catch their mechanical breath, clear their exhaust throats, losing the body battle, gravel gliding down into gearboxes, engines imploding in rust and heatstroke… A sonic joy to listen, completely insane — reminding me in some ways of the also utterly mad Racing Car Opera by Swedish textsound guru Åke Hodell. Jonty Harrison’s art is exceedingly gifted; fun and sonically reverberant: barnstorming gale force audio: garage-gargantuan! And, aah, the phase-shifts inside this enginecide!!! Finally a jet-engine drops a dry rain of gravel on wasted automobiles huddling for destruction in a gravel pit where sand martins breed…
Track 4. Free Fall (2006) [7:54]
Wheezing whispers of sound, slowly growing contours and directions in an accelerating descent into a hellhole of heart-burned gravity. Everything is in a hurry; a gray, flaking, hot hurry… Lava, cockroaches and meadowlarks, and W. E. Johns’s Bigglesworth slowly rising over a Somerset airfield…
Track 5. Streams (1999) [16:12]
Bouncing, jittery bubbles, and the unlikely, cozy sensation of water scarves around your neck — the sound of close-miked rivulets like nightjars!Harrison grasps the horrific and silvery sonorities of a stream and commences to paint the town, embellish the whole world’s oral cavity, messing with balance organs deep inside skulls.
Rain can sound like fire!
Track 6. Afterthoughts (2007) [15:59]
Harrison comments on Afterthoughts, but in my mind his thoughts fit well with much electroacoustic daydreaming:
“The everyday sounds of a suburban garden in early summer evoke more disturbing memories and imaginings as the listener drifts into semi-slumber…”
Distant airplanes beyond the cityscape provide a basic murmur of the common cardiography of existence, while the familiarity of magpies scratch calligraphic patterns in three-dimensional recollections through our close pasts. Nothing is happening in its usual pidginlike, muffled growl. This modern life is a curious mix of animalism and machinery.
Harrison wouldn’t be who he is if he didn’t stretch reality in his elastic artisanship, so the commonest trait of garden and city gets pulled up in enchanted realms, extracted and contracted and layered and corrugated — and in particular dreamed upon, fantasized upon, mirror-hall speculated about, and painted across the bulging canvas of time and space, and all across the uncertain filter of time itself: wonderful!
To sum this CD up in a very basic way, I’d like to express my loud and clear admiration for Jonty Harrison as a genius and a jester of sound and sonic composition, and as a very fun and very serious artist. He brings you deeper knowledge of sound and sound art, and leaves you in quite a better mood than when he found you. Hurray!