“Often, and especially recently, I wonder whether listening to music isn’t just a distraction from the really important issues affecting our lives”, writes Fluid Radio’s very own Nathan Thomas in his recent review of Matthew Collings’ A Requiem For Edward Snowden. While never exactly asking myself the same question, I have often wondered in the past why it was that so little electroacoustic music seemed to address political issues.
In a broad sense, music production and distribution can be interpreted as political acts in themselves, when conducted outside the traditional channels of the industry. Small labels such as Consumer Waste or Galaverna have commendable declarations of intent, for instance. That, to me, can be enough. When this is espoused with music that can produce shifts, however infinitesimal, in the way I view the world and can alter the linearity of my thought process, I consider the very act of listening to music a highly rewarding activity.
However, there are specifically difficult moments in history, such as the current one, when the political discourse is anything but, that I do feel the need for something that directly addresses some of the most pressing topics of our times. The whole Brexit debacle is a case in point.
The danger is that the results can turn out simplistic and reductive, as it is often the case in similar circumstances. Personally speaking, within the visual arts, for instance, I find the literal denunciation of the plight of refugees by Ai Weiwei, who posed as Alan Kurdi – the three year old Syrian who lost his life on the coasts of Greece – commendable but ultimately rather jarring. To me, it failed to articulate the issue and appeared as a rather facile response.
Incorporating post Brexit messages within their live shows, as Massive Attack have done, helps to vent the anger, while, in other quarters, Cull of the Useless Eaters has analised the Masonic numerology behind the EU referendum. Now that the summer recess is over, and negotiations resume over triggering article 50, it’ll be interesting to see how the debate will percolate into music.
Another significant event within UK politics, is the publication of Chilcot Enquiry report. Without going into the specifics of the conclusions drawn up by Chilcot, and the depressing fact that any court costs and damages incurred by Blair, should he ever stand trail, will be picked up by the taxpayer, it is difficult to see how lessons can be learned by a parliament that voted in favour of replacing Trident with a new nuclear weapons system. Luckily, there’s been no shortage of musicians making a stand on Iraq over the years. While guest editing the Today programme back in 2014, PJ Harvey invited Julian Assange and John Pilger, amongst others, to address media censorship, with Pilger denouncing the many lies that clouded the Iraq war and its aftermath.
Still, given the number of conflicts around the globe, I do find it mystifying that so few of the many correlated issues do originate a sonic response within the electroacoustic domain. While music might not have a responsibility to reflect society, either real or ideal, world events can still inform specific tracks or albums in a significant and thought provoking way.
The sounds of protest and chanting have frequently found their way into experimental releases, where they provide not only a geographical marker, but can also function as an emotional trigger, as in the case of Sohrab’s Shouting at Dictators or Souvenir de Tangier’s Kobane, one of a bunch of electronic tracks infused by Middle Eastern politics from the Polish artist.
Furthermore, field recordings serve also as important sonic documents of pivotal moments in time by mapping dramatically changing locations.
When the Slovak musician Daniel Kordik took field recordings between April and May 2011 at the start of the Syrian civil war in various locations across the country, including Damascus, Maaloula, “Road 90″ to Palmyra, Deir ez-Zur, Aleppo and Hama and their surrounding areas, he probably didn’t expect his album [Sy][ria] to turn into an aural testimony of an obliterated sonic landscape.
One of the most poignant responses to recent terror attacks I recently came across is OUA_BF, by S/QU/NC/R (François Larini), which references the tragic events that took place in Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso) on 15 January 2016, when gunman attacked the Cappuccino restaurant and the Splendid Hotel in the heart of the capital. As Larini explains, the first track HA_HA “is based on a short field recording realised in one take, at night, as an urgent need, a few days after the attack. The loss of a relative and the sudden irruption of violence in a peaceful and beloved country completely disturbed and blurred my perception and memories of my sixteen-year relationship with this place. The multiple layers of sound, interacting with each other, address this shattering.”
The contextual framework of the album colours Larini’s aural environment, giving its sparseness a perturbing tinge, stripped of any overdone pathos.
The Polish label Bbta, has long been interested in the sonic aura of heavily charged locations. Field recordings from places of executions and sufferings featured on its very first release, I by Boleslaw Wawrzyn aka the label’s head honcho Micha Turowski.
Referencing concentration camps, is one of the hallmarks of industrial music, and it is something that figures in several of Bdta’s titles, the most recent of which is Centralia’s second solo outing, Prijedor, a “disturbing spoken play about the hard history of the former Yugoslavia in trance atmosphere at the crossroads of analog electronics and gloomy ambient.”
Prijedor is constructed as one long slow burning track only broken up to accommodate the format’s requirements, as the album is released on tape. It is punctuated by field recordings and snatches of archival recordings featuring Milosevic and ethnic cleansing. It gradually builds up a rhythmic and hypnotic cadence that turns relentless and oppressive while charting through a nebulous galaxy of murky sounds.
The atrocities committed in Yugoslavia already featured in Novi_sad’s Inhumane Humans where the voice of a pregnant woman, repeatedly raped during the civil war in Bosnia, emerges from a carefully woven tapestry of field recordings from insects, cicadas, rivers and storms in the entire area of Ancient Olympia, Greece. The sudden irruption of her testimony buried under a menacing drone, produces tremors that ripple through with a destabilizing effect.
The Chechen wars, on the other hand, seem to have been consigned to the history books, now that attention has shifted to the Ukraine. Indeed, the Chechen Republic only recently made the news courtesy of Gérard Depardieu’s tax avoidance scheme and Ramzan Kadyrov’s lost cat.
The release of Gazawat’s History Written In Chechen Blood is set to jog our memory…
The tracks’ titles read like newspapers headlines and make for a concise narrative, Those who remain are trying to return to the rhythms of normal life; Chechens used to sing and dance while the shells continued to fall down; The village school has been turned into a makeshift hospital; The injured lay in the corridors next to the bodies of people killed in the attack; Russian forces claimed that people killed or injured in the incident were not civilians.
While listening to the album, I reached for Arkady Babchenko’s One’s Soldier’s War in Chechnya, and leafing though it I came across this passage I’d underlined, which to me captures the essence of this release.
“I always used to think that war was black and white. But it’s in colour. It’s not true what the song says, that birds don’t sing and trees don’t grow in war. In fact, people get killed in the midst of such vivid colour, among the green foliage of the trees, under the clear blue sky. And life hums on all around.”
In the liner notes, Gazawat gives a vivid description of his album, “Field recording saturating the collective memory, rotting blood, erosion of snapshots of 90 seconds long newsflash, fading headlines, sinking into oblivion of presidential palace in Grozny. Traumatic noise of grated magnetic tape, from which one side beats the other, so I do not know which of them is worse. Rhythm heels with each step, going in acute silence. News anchors recorded on a tape loop indefinitely, until the death of another innocent victim. Shots that cannot be heard and bullets that have not fallen to the ground. Decomposition of the body, welcome to the Ubu, welcome to nowhere. Such nowhere is everywhere much. You were born twenty years after the war, and you did not found the peace? War and politics is a disaster, which cannot be helped.”
And yet, it is the sound of life humming around, that I found the most effective. Plaintive corroded melodies breach through the barbed wire echoes of combat where time seems to loose its meaning. “It turns out there is nothing out of the ordinary about war – writes Babchenko – It’s just still ordinary life only taking place in very though conditions with the constant knowledge that people are trying to kill you”. Opaque looped drones stall the unfolding of dramatic events allowing for mundane and depopulated sonic intervals to upheld the narrative.
Gazawat is none other than Micha Turowski himself, also one half of Mazut (together with Pawe Starzec) and of Urok (with Robert Skrzyski aka Micromelancolié). Looking at the other side of the Chechen conflict, he has since released the tape Beslan School Hostage Crisis when Islamic terrorists, mostly Ingush and Chechen, occupied School Number One in the North Ossetian town. Almost 400 people died in the siege.
With serendipitous timing, as I was writing this, I received through the post my kickstarter reward from Giles Duley’s Legacy of War project. A beautiful discoloured Polaroid of a Syrian boy from one of the refugee camps in Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan that Duley documented between 2015/2016. “By their nature Polaroids are fragile and unpredictable. With heat, X-ray machines and months of travel – some are damaged or faded. I hope you understand that. Though, for me that is their beauty and appropriate when documenting Syrians in camps who are stuck in limbo, lost to the world, lives that are in many ways faded themselves.”
I’m left staring at the smiling face of this boy, an image more powerful in its understated simplicity than Ai Weiwei rethorical photograph or the recent chilling but tarred footage of the Syrian boy in the ambulance.
Experimental and electroacoustic music can have a similar reach, but it seems to me that all too rarely it attempts to do so.
- History Written in Chechen Blood is available as a CDr and on tape here
- Beslan School Hostage Crisis is available as DL here