Stephen Cornford

Music for Earbuds

Having recently reviewed Yann Leguay’s excellent “Quasi Static Crack Propagation” on UK label Consumer Waste, I was initially inclined to approach label co-curator Stephen Cornford’s new solo release “Music for Earbuds” in much the same way. After all, both works consist of music composed using re-purposed electronics (Leguay’s from various CD, tape and DAT machines, Cornford’s from the feedback between those cheap little earpieces you get free with iPods and a single cassette head), and in a recent interview Cornford had written eloquently about putting consumer electronics to uses that their original designers had never dreamed of. It took me a little while to hit upon the idea that maybe, perhaps, something more was going on.
The most obvious ‘clue’ is the middle track — in typical Cornford style, the title of each track is simply its track number, so this is “03”. Upon first listen, I needed several moments to convince myself that I wasn’t hearing recordings of bird song. The veracity with which Cornford has mimicked the individual sounds of a diverse rainforest full of birds using nothing but a cassette head and earbud is nothing short of astounding. However, it was only when I started thinking about how to describe the album’s other four tracks, the harsh insect-like buzzing of which I had up to this point considered quite abstract, and when I noted these tracks’ relative lack of any sort of compositional development when compared with the record from Leguay, that an impression began to form that I soon found unable to shake.

That impression was that what I was listening to was in fact a collection of nature recordings. The more I listened, the more I recognised all the familiar characteristics of the nature recording as a type or genre: the ‘metallic’, droning timbres that sound so like microphone captures of insect activity; the aforementioned chirruping and screaming of birds; the apparent absence of imposed structure or of compositional devices, any variations seeming undirected and stochastic; even the continuation, in true nature recording tradition, of the rainforest recording long past the point by which I’d gotten the idea. An album of nature recordings: ‘earbudus bristolianus’. I’m still not sure whether this uncanny mimicry is intentional on Cornford’s part, or is merely the product of my own overheated imagination. But perhaps the fact that such a resemblance is perceivable is enough to set a question itching at the back of one’s mind: what is actually the difference between ‘Music for Earbuds’ and a ‘real’ nature recording? Could any act of making an earbud or a speaker or any kind of manufactured sounding device sound like a bird or an insect be considered, at its core, an act of semblance? After all, at the end of the day it’s all current through a wire.

There’s another possibility here, of course, and that’s that I’m completely misreading what Cornford is trying to achieve with “Music for Earbuds”, and that the only one plagued by such doubts regarding the possible animal life of consumer electronics (or the mechanical lives of birds and insects) is me. After all, those earbuds only sound like birds because there are real birds, right? Exactly. In which case, you should absolutely sit back and enjoy this album as another fine example of the interesting abstract sounds to be derived from mistreating consumer electronics, and assume that any resemblance between the sudden ending of the last track and the abrupt cuts used in nature recordings to signify the pressing of a field recorder’s ‘stop’ button are entirely accidental.

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