Grain Loops / Sand Stems 1-7
Here’s an odd one (or two) from Australian musician Austin Buckett, courtesy of the Room40 label. “Grain Loops” consists of thirty tracks, each with a duration of one minute, each featuring a single looped beat made with sandpaper on snare drums. Now, I’ve heard a lot of snare drum records recently (d’incise’s “Ilhas”; the entire Weighter Recordings output to date), but none had a form and structure quite like this one. The loops are, without exception, metrically regular, uptempo, and timbrally rather aggressive. Each minute passes with little or no variation — sometimes I hear different harmonics emerge over time, though I suspect this is mostly an affect of my ears ‘tuning in’ to the complex sound rather than conscious development by the composer/performer. And the structure of the record as a whole is unmistakably that of a sample CD, those compilations of single sounds and/or short loops sold to electronic musicians as building blocks to use in their work.
Given such material, a question normally deemed laughably obsolete springs irresistibly to mind: is this music? Certainly, each loop has been finely crafted with impeccable skill, and the sounds are novel and rich enough to grab the attention; anyone who has read my reviews of the aforementioned snare works will know that it is a sound I can happily listen to over and over again, particularly when played so well. What throws me is the form: a sample CD sold to be listened to at home, as a collection of complete and ‘standalone’ musical works. How am I supposed to listen to this? Am I meant to imagine, while listening, what multi-layered sound worlds may be constructed from such tools? Or align myself psychically with the rhythm as the fundamental pulse of life (if so why doesn’t it play for longer?)? Or simply admire the technical nous involved in the creation of these loops, as a builder might admire a finely made hammer?
I must admit to being rather flummoxed by these questions, which in itself is an excellent and valuable thing, if only because it makes me aware of other ways of listening beyond my own well-worn habits. The album is accompanied by the free release “Sand Stems 1-7”, which compiles tracks from other musicians of various stylistic backgrounds that take Buckett’s loops as starting points; listening to this collection side-by-side with “Grain Loops” gives an interesting insight into the potential contained within the loops, as well as different approaches to realising that potential. Definitely a curious release, then, but a challenging and refreshing one nonetheless.