Carl Michael von Hausswolff was once referred to by The Sound Projector as “a unique creator whose minimalistic results often belie a complex and labour-intensive working method” – as appropriate a summary of his work as any I’ve read. His most recent release is published on Touch, and is no exception to the rule. We will discuss its musicality, but to address the work in some depth we should first cover some basics. I’ll let the label do the intro:
This musical piece consists only of sounds emitted and extracted from physical matter using emission spectroscopy as the sole basic technology…. whereby the frequencies generated from the material was analysed and transferred into, for humans, a listenable pitch (between 15 and 14000Hz). This captured organic sound material has been stretched, looped, equalised and composed to produce the recording.
Emission spectroscopy is the study of the wavelengths of light emitted when an element or chemical compound is heated or subjected to electrical current and is used to identify the type or ratio of composition of substances the nature or ratios of which might be unknown. For the curious, and to help explain some of the musical concepts later in the review, I’ve included a few more details and graphics on the process at the bottom of the page.
Still Life – Requiem opens with a brief and muted burst of sound similar to blowing across the top of a pipe, immediately invoking the spirit of a reveille. Curiously, this sound fades with artificial reverberation over a few seconds. The reverb implies spatial acoustics, which is an odd conceit given the heavily abstracted audio sources. Perhaps von Hausswolff’s intent is to assert the listener’s presence within the sound-space, and offer a counterpoint to its eerie timbral range? (More on timbre later.) Whatever the case, given the minimal nature of much of the recording, this and the rare subsequent moments of punctuation occupy more of the listener’s attention than befits their duration.
The piece builds from here in von Hausswolff’s customarily careful fashion. Nearly atonal (or nearly inaudible depending on your listening device) bass swirls slowly into greater amplitude as washes of what sound like filter combed synthesis gradually appear. Here again the harmonic and timbral range of the sound is wholly artificial, alienating even, but the listener is frequently reintroduced to the presence of the artist (or at least the idea of human artifice) through audible if subtle jump-cuts in frequency and similar edits. The effect, as with the reverb in the opening seconds, is to subtly humanize the work.
A series of bursts similar to that which began the piece announces the transition between two tonal stages about 5 minutes in, with the second stage lasting the duration of this side of the album. The tonal bed itself verges on being pretty, to my ear approximating G♭m 13, but as it seems to be hitting an A♭ as well it ends up feeling slightly queasy. An odd chord structure given that von Hauswolff (or Touch) reiterates the intent of a requiem in the album’s literature as “radiat[ing] calm, peace and perhaps comfort for tormented spiritual beings”. Such a desire makes somewhat more sense in the opening of the second side, where the major tonal frequencies hover around A9, which relieves some of the harmonic tension.
I was puzzled by how rhythmic it felt on repeated listens, which is likely a result of two factors. The first is the infrequent but regular bursts of simultaneously compressed (dynamically) and expanded (chronographically) bass drones, very reminiscent of occasional vehicles driving past a contact microphone in the midst of a field recording session. As the muted bursts earlier in the piece, they provide nearly the only punctuation of what is otherwise a very limited frequency range.
The second reason it feels intuitive to attribute rhythm to what is superficially echt drone music requires revisiting the concept of emission spectroscopy. The electromagnetic wavelengths typically measured in such a process are on the scale of hundreds of nanometres. Pressure waves in air audible to the human ear range from 17 millimetres to 17 meters so von Hauswolff has ‘pitch-shifted’ by amounts just to either side of 1 000 000 %. As this auditory iteration is so vastly different, by multiple orders of magnitude, the frequency values themselves lose importance while the comparative values and their vectors carry meaning instead.
To that end, the most notable dynamic shifts in Still Life – Requiem occur across the tone beds that comprise its middle, specifically: tremolo and a sort of vibrato. While a single or several base tones are sustained for 1o minutes on each side of the album their volume is inconsistent, fragile, and wavering on a very short scale, producing a seemingly random tremolo on a short time scale (possibly modulated at a few hertz). I write ‘a sort of vibrato’ as the term may not be strictly correct here. Since there are often a pair of tones at harmonic intervals from the primary one playing with similarly irregular and fast tremolo, the effect is that of vibrato to the ear, though this may be an auditory hallucination produced by the complex interrelations of the tones, themselves being sustained at a single pitch. The effect is to produce aperiodic waves of constructive and destructive interference, repeatedly lending brief snippets of beat patterns to much of Still Life – Requiem and encouraging the (perhaps false) attribution of some rhythmic pattern.
Another effect of this construct is to provide a conceptual contrast between the supposed materiality of the physical elements literally sampled for the album and their sputtering and insubstantial appearance on the record. Given the minute scale of investigation von Hausswolff carried out with spectroscopy, it seems to me a further reflection of the jumps in energy orbitals of the electrons responsible for the light waves that were the source of the sounds in the first place. If we, pardon the expression, ‘pitch shift’ the experiment down by a similar order of magnitude, we may also find a reflection in quantum physics: eg. the energy topology of John Wheeler‘s quantum foam, or the quantisation of not only energy but also space required by the theory of loop quantum gravity.
The format chosen for this release is also relevant here. Early in von Hausswolff’s career the ascetic rigour of his work was perhaps best characterised and reproduced by (and for a full decade exclusively released on) compact disc. The format of his publications has varied more recently, as the fashionability and accessibility of vinyl and tape has resurged; however, the choice of vinyl here is obviously pointed.
The artist’s notes on the work state that it was composed as a single piece and only reformatted into two sections to fit on an LP, implying a concession made for some further gains. Those advantages are conceptual as well as aesthetic, and they are two-fold. Firstly, the stochastic audio artefacts introduced by playback (its pseudo-random clicks and pops) contribute aesthetically to the ‘foamy’ dynamics of the original music. Second, through playback the medium itself is slowly physically degenerated and disintegrated. The static electricity this produces becomes a performative or experiential parallel of the process of emission spectroscopy von Hausswolff began the project with. The work’s title and literature also coyly play on this process, as the vinyl could be said to be playing a requiem for itself.
Obviously these inferences stretch rather far afield but, as The Sound Projector’s characterisation of von Hausswolff points to, he goes out of his way to find the most circuitous path to often deceptively straight-forward results. That just enough detail is published to elicit an audience’s curiosity without showing his hand leads me to expect that such extrapolations, valid or no, are at least part of the fun.
Amusingly, despite the rather extreme nature of the sound sources, Still Life – Requiem is still distinctly and recognisably a Carl Michael von Hausswolff album. It plays out across similar structural and aesthetic themes as much of his recent work, particularly Squared on Auf Abwegen. It is, despite its almost brutalist minimalism, carefully composed with a clearly defined prelude, statement of the theme, movements, close, and restatement of the theme (the bursts from the start of the record also end it).
All of which is to bring into question why such mildly absurdist sources were brought into the composition in the first place. As discussed, their relational characteristics were at least an inspirational set of constraints on the process of composition. Von Hausswolff’s Matter Transfer, and even ‘The Sleeper In The Valley’ from his other release on Touch, 800,000 Seconds In Harar, had some equally if dissimilarly convoluted approaches. A relevant question now might be: without knowledge of his praxis, is Still Life – Requiem a worthwhile and rewarding listen?
Listeners can certainly bask in its attention to detail – if you’ve made it this far into the review, you’ll understand there are plenty of details to attend to. Meanwhile, and unlike much of his oeuvre, the timbral range here is incredibly limited. Regardless of frequency, every sound source is akin to a triangle wave with muddy fidelity, while the acoustic dynamics attack, sustain, decay, and release in seemingly standardized ratios (more examples of quantisation?). These were likely aesthetic decisions rooted in the concepts at play, and they succeed in lending a mood of ethereality or otherness, but it can become a rather claustrophobic sound space after 30 minutes for even seasoned minimalists. I don’t believe there is a single sound above 4000 hz anywhere on the album, and it rarely breaks even 2000 hz. Here, again, its release on vinyl may make a great deal of sense as the high-pitched ‘foam’ it adds would completely transform the listening experience.
There are comparisons in a few other directions as well. Obviously the conversion of electromagnetic frequencies to audible ones was similarly performed for NASA’s Symphonies Of The Planets series, though there the act of composition may have been simply editorial. More analagous is Touch’s own Jacob Kirkegaard and his explorations of very low frequencies through accelerometers on Eldfjall, though again the compositional element is minimal. William Basinksi’s Shortwavemusic (previously reviewed here at Cut And Run) and The Disintergration Loops each similarly address the relationship between the creation and consumption (read: destruction) of audio media, and while I would sooner play either series to fall asleep to (or indeed, for an audience), Still Life – Requiem is more concretely grounded in its conception and rigorous in execution.
As with much of Carl Michael von Hausswolff’s work, you will get out of it what you put in. Albums like Graf Spee are immediately attractive to the ear, and reveal their detail almost accidentally as the music builds in welcome familiarity. On the other hand, Still Life – Requiem can be unforgiving even after several listens, and may require more active engagement on behalf of the listener than its superficial drone would suggest. Careful listeners will be rewarded by one of the artist’s more esoteric releases.
Details Of Emission Spectroscopy
For some additional help, let’s head to Wikipedia (emphasis mine):
When the electrons in the atom are excited, for example by being heated, the additional energy pushes the electrons to higher energy orbitals. When the electrons fall back down and leave the excited state, energy is re-emitted in the form of a photon. The wavelength (or equivalently, frequency) of the photon is determined by the difference in energy between the two states. These emitted photons form the element’s spectrum.
As the energy involved in moving electrons between orbitals is quantised (that is, only ever measured in discrete amounts and not as a smooth range of values) and specific to the atom, the energy or light emitted from those transitions only occurs at specific and identifiable locations of a spectrum. The most notorious example (studied in high schools or undergrad chemistry classes the world over!) is that of hydrogen:
As these are electromagnetic waves and not vibrational or changes in pressure of a transmission medium, von Hausswolff would not have simply ‘pitch-shifted’ them into a listenable range (as cutely suggested above). However, their relative frequencies could be replicated within the range of human hearing. Coincidentally, low frequency radio waves have similar wavelengths to those of audible sound pressure.
It is also worth noting that complex molecules and substances can also be studied through emission spectroscopy. Since many different elements’ emission spectra will overlap, constituent parts can be determined by cross-referencing their emission spectra with intensity on a spectral band. By way of example, here is the absorption spectrum (the inverse of the emission spectrum) of visible light from the star Sirius.
Note that the scale on the x-axis of the bottom graph is a bizarre nm x 10-2 with the y axis set at -300 nm x 10-2. The spike at roughly 0 nm corresponds to electromagnetic radiaton in the x-ray and gamma ray spectrum, measuring from 1 nm down to 1 pm respectively. The constituent elements are labelled across the top of the chard (largely, of course, hydrogen and helium). All this begs the question of just what precisely von Hauswolff electrocuted or set aflame to make the album. The cover art of Still Life – Reqiuem appears to be a sample of quartz….