Various Artists, INstruments

List
Released: 2004



List is a relatively new electronic label based in Paris that is probably best known for releasing Sogar's Stengel record (aka, Sogar's non-12k release). The label's releases generally fall in the abstract, minimal side of electronic music, which can be a good thing or a bad thing, based on who is creating the music. Luckily, List has somehow managed to work with a lot of excellent artists, including Komet, Taylor Deupree, Richard Chartier, 0/R, *0, and the aforementioned Sogar. So I was excited to get my hands on the label's latest compilation, entitled INstruments. The title does a good job of encapsulating this compilation's theme: the fusion of acoustic instruments and digital processing. I'm not exactly sure why the "IN" in "instruments" has to be capitalized, but no matter. This is an exciting work featuring artists I'm familiar with (Sebastien Rioux, Steinbruchel, Herve Boghossian, and Mitchell Akiyama) and artists I've never heard before (Werner Dafeldecker & Martin Siewert, Mou, Lips!, and Colleen). It's a first-rate compilation, partly because of the high quality of the music and partly because the music is so beautifully integrated together that it sounds like the work of a single person.

The idea of fusing traditional instruments or acoustic sounds with digital processing is not new. In the last few years, there have been compilations devoted to guitar/digital collaboration (12k's E*A*D*G*B*E), experimental organ music (Touch's Spire), and Touch's Star Switch On, which compiled remixes of Chris Watson field recordings. And that's just the compilations; there are innumerable solo projects exploring this meeting ground of live sound and computer-based processing. So what makes INstruments any different? Well, for one thing, there is a wide variety of acoustic instruments featured here: upright bass, guitar, piano, clarinet, cymbals, viola, melodica (calling Augustus Pablo!), and cello. I love the fact that the music here features just about every type of musical instrument imaginable. I especially like the inclusion the clarinet and melodica, since I'm not familiar with many attempts to apply digital manipulation to wind instruments.

Of course, this is an electronic album, which means that the original instruments are only the source material, barely recognizable on the finished product. And since computer software has become so sophisticated that any sound at all (even silence) can be transformed into something wholly unfamiliar, many would argue that the source material doesn't really matter. But as an electronic musician (albeit a hobbyist), I can tell you that the source sounds are important, and the more interesting the source material, the more interesting the finished product will be, even if that finished product sounds nothing at all like the original. The source material here is interesting, and what the artists have created out of this source material is even more interesting.

Let me give you just an example of what I'm talking about. Matthieu Saladin and Ivan Solano composed track six, "Syn," using source material culled from a bass clarinet duo. We don't hear anything that sounds like a clarinet, but we do hear a low, humming, brooding sound that resembles (at first) a slow foghorn rippling across a silent body of water (a bay or a lake). This is a clarinet sound that has been digitally transformed into a feeling: a haunting, isolated, murmur. As this track moves along, the foghorn sound rises and falls, as if it was caught in the wind, drifting along, sometimes echoing or splitting into two separate sounds (one high, one not so high). At times, a fuzzy static invades the soft murmur; at other times, the murmur will suddenly disintegrate into static or burst up into a high pitch. For seven minutes and thirty-one seconds, these simple sounds dance around in these ways. It's simple, but it's beautiful, and music like this is only possible because of the fusion of rich, acoustic sounds and digital manipulation.

Most of the music here follows this pattern. It's minimal, yes, but there's elegance to each track that isn't often heard in electronic music, as if this wasn't music at all but audible emotions. I know that sounds a bit flaky, that everyone's favorite music ends up being less about the chords or the guitar strums or the singer's voice and more about one's emotional reaction to those chords or strums or voice. The difference here, however, is that digital processing on this album has effectively removed chords or instruments from the picture, leaving only sounds that must be appreciated as experiences, not as music (if, indeed, it is to be appreciated at all). Most aren't willing to give music like this a chance, and that's a shame, for this is outstanding stuff.

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