Matthew Revert and Vanessa Rossetto’s new album for Erstwhile Records comprises three tracks, each of which is constructed from a variety of field recordings, found sounds, and close-miced objects and instruments. Central to each of them seems to be the forming of a clearly defined space — not the expansive, abstract s p a a a a a c e of ambient music, nor the ‘literal’ illusion of a specific geographic location presented by some schools of field recording, but rather a more quotidian, everyday kind of space, one built up from innumerable small, mostly peripheral observations and interactions. Domestic interiors are presented through chinks of crockery and other small objects; outdoor environments take shape through diffuse urban sounds and voices of passersby, some of whom, with some bemusement, catch the field recordist red-handed in the act of recording them.
Many writers and artists have reflected on how our occupation and traversal of spaces consciously and unconsciously influences our behaviour and our sense of who we are. In her book “Atlas of Emotion”, Giuliana Bruno argues that film can be understood as a site of transit, as “a haptic experience that engages the body in the movement of desire, prompting both ongoing voyages of discovery and ceaseless returns home”. By means of this “tender mapping”, filmic spaces produce affects that are both motive and emotive, transporting us to realms both ‘real’ and ‘fictive’ as well as tracing the outlines of our daily habits and inner thoughts.
Bruno is proposing a particular perspective on cinema, but she could just as easily be describing “Earnest Rubbish”, particularly the ways in which the habitable and habitual are intimately connected to memory and feeling — just replace “film” with “audio”. It’s not so much that the sounds of an urban park, a spoon rattling in a cup, or snatches of salsa from a background radio evoke specific recollections — I taste no Proustian madeleine here. It’s more a matter of how spaces, be they concrete or represented, come to be through the juxtaposition of numerous small details, and how they are activated by means of occupying and transiting through them. This committed inhabiting and wandering is something that “Earnest Rubbish” pulls off very effectively and affectively.
I wouldn’t want to impose this as the sole frame through which to listen to this music, though. Revert and Rossetto are adroit enough to prevent the tracks from congealing or solidifying into any fixed, immutable thing, using devices such as TV and radio soundbites, snippets of banal conversation between themselves, and traditional musical elements such as the ascending and descending melody heard on ‘Making a Documentary’ to muddy the waters and defer final interpretation of their work. The pieces have their variations of intensity, repetitions and hearkenings-back, beginnings and endings just like one would expect from any piece of music.
I suppose many of Erstwhile’s recent releases have had some audibly sensible relation to space and place, be it along the lines of Graham Lambkin and Jason Lescallet’s intimate histories on “Photographs”, the location-based exploits (heck, let’s go ahead and call it psycho-phonography) of Toshiya Tsunoda and Manfred Werner’s “detour”, or the more abstract, dance-like explorations of space that characterise Michael Pisaro and Christian Wolff’s “Looking Around”. Revert and Rossetto’s collaboration (by my count, only the seventh record in Erstwhile’s 80-strong main catalogue to feature a woman artist) fits comfortably into this pattern, while drawing its own playful, habitable bounds — a space not just for exploring, but for living in.
Update: Jon Abbey from Erstwhile Records has been in touch to correct the number of releases featuring women artists on his label — it’s actually 18 out of 73, the AMPLIFY live recordings counting for rather more catalogue numbers and female contributions than I’d accounted for. By this count, women hold up a full 25% of the sky. And that’s not counting the contributions of Yuko Zama, whose designs grace the covers of most Erstwhile releases these days.
To be clear, it’s not my intention here to criticise Erstwhile, who do a great job getting otherwise unheard music out into the world, and whose gender balance is significantly better than that of many labels who send in their promos to Fluid Radio HQ. It’s just that whenever I hear great work by artists such as Vanessa Rossetto, Olivia Block, or Andrea Neumann (all of whom have featured on Erstwhile releases), I wonder why there aren’t more women participating in experimental music. I expect the key causal factors kick in well before the demos land on Jon’s desk. So does our culture generally work to place the field of experimental music in the category of stereotypically male domains, alongside the likes of team sports and computer programming? Or are there things that the scene (including we male critics) can do to encourage more female participation? Thoughts and suggestions in the comments please…