Stories Part Five
Reviewed by Joe Lockard
Monday, September 10 2001, 5:07 PM
In 1930 Walter Benjamin wrote"[W]hat characterizes the run-of-the-mill reviewing industry is its unrestrained indulgence in its own reactions -- and its pretense that an aesthetics still exists, whereas there has long been none. In truth, the starting point of criticism must be the perception that aesthetic criteria are in all cases completely devalued."
This is very much the case for contemporary electronic music reviews, where there are few if any available charted aesthetics for reference. Technical analysis, frequently preferred by the artists, has little to say to non-initiates. Then there are the rambling, pretentious theory ramblings of Mille Plateaux owner Achim Szepanski and kindred sorts who attempt half-baked syntheses of digital music criticism with Deleuze and Guattari, producing glorious laugh sentences like "Clicks and cuts are conjunctions as permanent ecstasy and...and...and...they refer to something else. Their medial implication consists of permanent ability to be connected." This is no more than a provincial and self-marginalizing attempt to impress with linguistic legerdemain, not one that cares to speak to folks.
Comparison is yet another descriptive mode, but one that in short order grows very limiting. I might write that in terms of its relationship to rhythm and drive that this new Stilluppsteypa album, for instance, much more closely resembles an Errol Garner side of electronica rather than the hard-blowing Dizzy Gillespie end. This is an indicative approach, but it relies overmuch on the accessibility of its reference and the cultural vocabulary employed.
Comparison here does little. Like music that has intrinsic cause for interest, this album resists adjectival reductions. Part of Stilluppsteypa's positive aesthetic virtue lies in thwarting easy description or categorization. As Benjamin observed and the inapplicability of precedent and comparison emphasize, an aesthetic no longer exists and must be reinvented. The conceptual vocabulary that surrounds Stilluppsteypa's music is still as much in development as this musical aesthetic itself.
Stilluppsteypa is a group of ex-pat Icelandic experimentalists more interested in exploring their own ideas of quiet composition than they are interested in excited sonic assaults. They have been migrating between electronic music studios in northern Europe for years now, working with a lengthy list of fellow experimental artists like the legendary Nurse with Wound and the equally well-regarded Hafler Trio. Since 1992 this three-man group has produced eighteen releases.Stories Part Five is their second release on Mille Plateaux's Ritornell imprint, providing much better music than Mille Plateaux's recent release of Geoff White's boringly polite Questions and Comments record.
While the music is neither stiffly cerebral nor aethereal abstraction, Stilluppsteypa's electronic chamber music needs a couple of meditative listenings to absorb its minimalist effects. Their compositions often approach the status of sound artifacts more than compositions per se. It is production that contends against simplified understandings or technique-based reductionism. The laptop rock generation's methodology of sequencing looped sound snippets disappears beneath the surface of an accomplished acoustic mood, a sign of Stilluppsteypa's skill. In their best work, a sound-object emerges into brief existence and then abruptly ends. Sitting in the midst of fixed attention to that sound-object, there is a pang of abandonment when the composition finishes and disappears in mid-air.
"Objects with Shiny Surfaces," a rather brief piece late in the album, exemplifies this determined attempt to capture an image-idea and bring the exercise to an end once the sound-object has been defined. In this effort at expressive elaboration, there is an inherent alienation from music-as-commodity. No one will be buying a Stilluppsteypa album for the bouncy beat and catchy tune. Only one track on Stories, "All the Drums Shiver," even remotely approaches danceability. Where an aesthetic adopts a conscious distance from the market, that anti-market character pervades the music. Mass commodification is the border that marks out other musical genres: indefineability means unsaleability.
Exemplifying this resistance to commodifiability, a mid-album track like "Guest One and Six Make Me Want to Sleep" sweeps back and forth with nothing but scratch noise. Such scratchy backgrounds often feature in Stilluppsteypa's compositions, the aural equivalent of 1960s Super-8 scratch films that signified the emergence of an alternative aesthetic. Similarly, indefinite and searching noise effects here serve as compositional preludes. One of these works, "Malemachine," for instance, achieves a mysterious evening effect that emerges into a rounded, full-volume scene. A seeming bell chord tolls in the background as an underwash of granular sound carries the arrangement to a finish. The scratchiness smoothes out repeatedly through the album's compositions, as though to achieve a rich and symphonic note.
This reach towards a certain grandness is especially noticeable in the "Yes Sir Can I Improvise," which concludes with a lengthy sound wave generation. A track like "Memories of Brown Bucket" is a persistent wave-sound and artifact of looped composition, one that by force of repetition draws listeners into its seemingly hollow minimalist interior architecture to 'listen outwards.' Stilluppsteypa wants much more than to manipulate sound; they clearly want to arrange a fresh relationship between listeners and a new architecture of sound.
Stories Part Five is available from Ritornell