Pictures of Men

By Patrick Farmer and David Lacey

Patrick Farmer and David Lacey are both improvising musicians with a percussive bent, though Farmer is quick to point out that it’s been a while since he last sat down at a drum kit. “Pictures of Men” is, I believe, the first collaborative recording from them as a duo, though they have both previously worked with musicians such as Lee Patterson, Angharad Davies, and Rhodri Davies; Farmer is a co-founder of the Set Ensemble and the online label Compost and Height, while Lacey has co-organised numerous performances of experimental music in Dublin under the banner i-and-e.

The work they have created is a slippery fish to grasp. The single 45-minute track begins in a farmyard among the honking of geese and the grunting and squealing of pigs. The sounds are shrill and abrasive, yet also strangely fascinating and unique. Occasionally an industrial hum is heard, followed by a slam; one thinks of the bolts used in the ‘processing’ of animals in an abattoir, but there is nothing to confirm or contradict this interpretation. The piece remains in the farmyard for some considerable time, before new material recalls a series of other locations, vaguely sketched: a train journey, an aviary, a shoreline. Abrupt cuts between locations, and between locations and silence, are often emphasised using devices such as the sound of a stone or metal plate being dragged. One is never entirely sure what one is hearing. Towards the middle of the piece, noises produced by the artists using manipulated electronics and percussion instruments begin to be introduced, but it’s hard to specify exactly where the field recordings end and the studio recordings begin. Later on the squealing pigs return; the piece ends with two jet aircraft flybys.

It seems to me that “Pictures of Men” is aimed at least partly at undoing the coherent sense of location and ‘soundscape’ presented by many works of field recording, using sudden rapid cuts and sounds that are either underdetermined and ambiguous or overdetermined and uncannily ‘hyperreal’ to disrupt the listener’s construction of a consistent sound world. My guess is that this is not simply revelling in chaos for chaos’ sake, but rather a warning against complacency in thinking that the meaning of sounds (and by extension the sources that present them) are naturally self-evident. The sounds in “Pictures of Men” do not function as legible, easily intelligible signs; on the contrary, those that are most immediately identifiable (the pigs, the jet aircraft) also seem the most bizarre, sticking out like sore thumbs in the neatly ordered rows of habitual perception. It is as if the object disappears behind its sound (philosopher Timothy Morton would say, “the object withdraws”).

What this all adds up to is a release with the power to unsettle and fascinate at the same time. We are used to inferring a simple, straightforward connection between a sound and its source, but after listening to “Pictures of Men”, other works of field recording that previously sounded so transparent begin to cloud over. Time to listen some more then.

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