Xuan

As our understanding of the natural world grows in complexity, so too do the tools and techniques we devise to further our collective knowledge. Practitioners of increasingly specialised disciplines of knowing, we harvest data from innumerable networked sources and feed them through farms of optimised compute cycles. Nature becomes more and more systematic, and our systems become more and more alive. A leaf becomes a dataset, a molecular mosaic, a genetic blueprint. Scientific methods of information abstraction form templates for the organisation of society, the production of culture, and the management of the environment. We slide unawares between biological and technological metaphors; seldom do we concern ourselves with the question of precisely who is mimicking who. We trace the developments of ant colonies and financial markets with equal curiosity and precision. Somewhere in the world, across a matter of minutes and seconds, a video of a small furry creature is going viral.

Seldom do we concern ourselves with the question of who is mimicking who. Yet at times Ennio Mazzon’s new album “Xuan” seems calculated to raise precisely this concern, the single long track blending environmental sounds with the chirp and holler of machines in such a way as to blur the distinction between the natural and the artificial. Both field recordings and machine-generated noises are made to exhibit the same characteristics of complexity and contingency, compelling a kind of listening that perceives both as instances of the same phenomenon, as part of the same environment. In such a scenario, one would expect the introduction of tonal harmonies to constitute a retreat to safer, less interesting musical territory, yet in “Xuan” this does not appear to be the case: the ambient chords that appear mid-way through the track instead seem to offer a kind of self-reflexive commentary on the ongoing categorical confusion, suggesting anxiety and unease while stopping short of presenting the convergence of nature and artifice in unambiguously negative terms.

Art’s ability to help us think differently about the world in which we live and grapple with its challenges in imaginative ways is often cited as an attribute that distinguishes it from the simple pleasure and emotional affect of entertainment. To be sure, “Xuan” can be both pleasing and emotionally affective, yet to me it would seem to offer more than this: I hear in the work a sophisticated engagement with the question of how our understanding of the relations between nature and machines is changing, undertaken via entirely aesthetic means (by which I mean it is all there in what is heard). The growing interest in field recordings in the context of computer-based music production points clearly in such a direction, yet I am aware of very few artists who have begun to explicitly consider this issue, yet alone in such a compelling manner, though of course there are many other perfectly valid uses of nature recordings being fruitfully explored. Even if the most the record could hope to achieve in this regard is to make audible the growing similarity between two representations that used to be so unalike, to make such an idea make a little more sense is by no means a small achievement.

I may well be overstating the work’s conceptual basis here, though Mazzon’s previous work, including collaborations as one half of Zbeen and his curatorship of Ripples Recordings, has already established him as an artist thinking seriously about the conceptual possibilities of sound. At any rate, “Xuan” is essential listening, not only for dedicated fans of experimental music and sound art, but for anyone interested in what art has to contribute to the ongoing venture of learning how to live in a complex and constantly changing world.

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