Mount Fog - We Know Nothing, or.... On Curation

Mount Fog – We Know Nothing, or…. On Curation

Mount Fog is the name of a trio of artists involved in a variety of media, including photography, graphic design, installation, and sound art: Nicola Domaneschi, Erich Grunewald, and Marco Verdi. We Are Nothing is their first audio publication, and also presented as the first release on the brand-new label Hustle Productions. It is a testament to the continued relevance of both brick-and-mortar stores and well curated distributors alike that I recently stumbled across this release only through the perusal of the excellent Careful Catalog. Even within a small community of like-minded listeners, it seems unlikely I would have found this release in any other fashion. (Readers with some additional patience can find some thoughts on such curation at the bottom of the page). I’m thankful I did.

‘In A House Of Many Entrances’ has a logical structure, starting with its opening refrain. We first hear the rustling of random objects and percussion overlaid with some simple tones – formally akin to the tuning of an orchestra prior to its opening movement. Reinforcing the comparison, the sine tone periodically appearing in the opening 30 seconds matches the key of the double flute that follows it, played by Oscar Palou. Interestingly, both seem to me to be between G and G#, and the flute sure enough breaks into a constellation of microtones. These are notes in between those frequencies found on western chromatic scales, and are common to classical Arabic and Indian music as well as early modern classical of western traditions.

I know little about the double flute, aside from understanding that they are usually played in a manner reminiscent of other complex pipes or the sitar – one side holds a drone while the other plays a melody. In this case, the microtones could either be a result of technique or a specific tuning of the two pipes. Double flutes are most common in traditional music of the Balkans and India. Though Gour Goswami played the bansuri (which is not a double flute), as with much raga music he certainly incorporated microtones into his renditions. Further, there are similarities between the shruti box providing the drone in raga and the layered drones appearing on ‘In A House…’, one of which even sounds like a bowed sitar.

In lieu of finding something to embed, try also comparing it with this track by Ismail Mohammed Khoureissan and Mansour el Qasaba which originally appeared on the 1978 North Yemen compilation in the UNESCO Collection.

Though starting with some tactilely interesting electroacoustics, we’ve since mostly had some stylistically pretty, if melodically indebted, music. Keeping things interesting are two main factors. First, the double flute melodies are almost serialist in their chromatic repetitions and variations across the piece. The instrument becomes somewhat buried in the mix which lets it fade out of notice when it harmonically matches the drones, while making its divergences from those patterns jump forward in the listener’s frame. Second, as the piece is nearly overwhelmed by humming mid-range timbres, occasional vocal snippets or the sound of a screeching bowed cymbal (?) provide welcome periodic counterpoints.

About five and a half minutes in, however, we get an abrupt break in instrumentation and rhythm. While keeping some of the harmonic elements and bass drone, a rattling drum slowly plods out a beat with a distant electric guitar screech in the background (not dissimilar in tone or timbre to the occasional metallic timbres of the middle few minutes), all of which bleeds into fading vocalisations. Oddly resembling a Sunn O))) track, it manages to instrumentally reinterpret the mood and character of its first section, changing course without losing site of its origin. The sheer diversity of sound sources, styles, and historicity of instrumentation makes for some complex unraveling of meaning for the listener.

While listening I briefly considered that once in a ‘house of many entrances’, all the entrances become exits, and that through its vague and undefined character ‘many’ might well become ‘infinite’. Alongside the diversity of its instrumentation and styles, the title and its concept of crossing thresholds (literal and figurative) also brought to mind both the writing of Jorge Luis Borges and One Thousand And One Nights, the latter itself a compendium of stories from different eras and cultures (obviously Persian and Arabic, but also Indian), and further, bearing not one common ending but several different ones depending on the compiler. A more literal point of reference, though one with just as much relevance, would be the Critical Resemblances House by Arakawa and Gins.

All in all a decent piece, and rhetorically interesting to boot. However, Mount Fog really come into their own on the eponymous ‘We Know Nothing’. The introduction may remind the listener of the rhythmic elements common to nearly every Senufo release – in this case, some combination of synthetic clicking on a delay line or pedal alongside acoustic contraptions. Part of the attraction to those releases, and present in abundance here, is the anonymity inherent to the sound source’s non-musicality contrasting with the listener’s absolute certainty that it is some completely mundane object that they have in their own house (is that a manual eggbeater? someone repeatedly tapping a USB controller with their index finger?). Given a careful structure and narrative arc, I never tired of the game with Senufo, and it’s just as much fun here.

Though the track quickly becomes anchored by saxophone and synthesizer washes, the timbral balance is maintained (to a pleasantly greater degree than the previous track) through continued close-mic-ing of indiscernible objects and fidgeting. The density of the beat and saxophone are negatively correlated, and as the beat slows to a punctuated crawl the saxophone adds louder harmonic elements. This is structurally reminiscent of a magnification of space and its seemingly inevitable link to the slowing of time – akin to the perception of waveforms within a digital audio workstation, mutating from spiky congestions to broadly flowing and ebbing arcs.

While ‘In A House…’ had an abrupt instrumental and timbral shift with 2 minutes remaining, a similar change occurs here 2 minutes in. A drum kit begins almost apeing the initial rhythm of the delay line, lending the affair a distinctly post-rock vibe. It is technically a loop, but its attack and decay frequently change while individual components are cut and added back in, as though a basic system of feedback is being used to retrigger itself. The further addition of a bass synthesizer line makes for a dynamically dense soundscape. The background fidgeting continues through it all and I’m unsure of what else to call it – it sounds like a field recording of the studio where the track is being assembled digitally, with squeaking chairs and the acoustic artefacts of picking up and dropping various instruments and objects. Whatever it is, it’s subtle but adds an air of intimacy.

Partway through the piece, a field recording of bird calls appears. The calls are interestingly interplayed with the drum rhythms as well as some other complex samples (again the concept of ‘apeing’ or call-and-response seems to be at play here). Further along still a strangely dull piano appears to haltingly accompany the track to its close. I will admit that this everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach, while part of the fun on the first piece, somewhat broke the spell for me here, as the structure of ‘We Know Nothing’ is otherwise almost crystalline. It ends up verging on musique concrète, simply in terms of its polyphony of sources. I can’t help but feel that it would have benefited from a bit of breathing room, and wonder if its editing was at least partly a result of the limitations of the format.

It’s still a wonderful track, and makes We Know Nothing a joy to listen to. While Mount Fog obviously curates its sound collection with great attention to dynamic and rhythmic detail, both halves of this record are a bit too eager to fit as much of that content into their respective durations as possible. Nonetheless, both show great timbral balance and pleasingly cohesive structures. Though it’s their first audio publication, Mount Fog have worked extensively with the medium before, and it shows. Given some refined mastering, and a bit more time to unfold over (maybe a full-length?), I expect, and hope, Mount Fog will surprise us again. Bide your time with this worthwhile release.

Get it at Bandcamp, or directly from Hustle Productions.

On Curation

“How do you find your music?” is a question I am perennially asked. It is most often expressed with something between mild skepticism and disgust as I, for instance, play Kevin Drumm for my captive (not to say captivated) coworkers on the drive home, followed by DJ Marfox in a futile attempt to compensate – both confrontationally (in the former) and genuinely (in the latter) misreading my audience’s willingness to play along. Regardless of its intent, the question is a good one, and one whose answer has become increasingly convoluted for me and listeners of all stripes.

Briefly, I would argue there has been a hollowing-out of purpose in the act of acquiring and consuming music. By ‘purpose’ I do not mean the reasons for listening to music; for all of us these are largely unchanged – pleasure, escapism, social signalling, tribalism, therapeutic benefits (real or imagined). Instead, I am referring to the presence of intentionality and deliberativeness – facets of listening that continue to change as our technological ability to consume changes.

On the one hand are streaming services like Spotify. While still frequently used to listen to specific songs and albums, and although at least metadata are available on individual artists, that metadata and indeed the music itself is at least occasionally algorithmically created pablum from library music producers, best known for the soundtrack to whatever advertisement you last heard. Clearly, this still signals intentionality in the construction of tracks and playlists, even if that intent is to reduce production costs while increasing statistically calculable ‘plays’ (30 seconds or more). However, the deliberativeness of the listener has been reduced beyond that of passive consumption of radio to the virtually unnoticed muzak in privately owned public space. In the former, given sufficient interest and an engaged host, a listener could at least follow-up on tracks or musicians that piqued their interest; in the latter, it is now possible that such musicians are not even people let alone in possession of a body of work (a pattern also occurring on YouTube). Of course, this is a natural extension of increasingly collaborative production of consumer-tested popular culture, and if it satisfies an itch in the listener, so be it.

Similarly, the virality of individual artists and tracks now reaches new highs through the reinforcement of network effects by said streaming services. The social engagement around shared knowledge of specific artists is obviously nothing new, though its function across international borders and widely varying formats and socio-economic groups on such short timescales is.

Conversely, there is a greater diversity of music available for consumption than ever before. Independent and self-publishers use small corners of the same technologies to carve out their niches and take space for traditionally under- or un-represented communities. Even the voices within popular music are changing – reflecting both the long-ignored (in the west) ability of non-white-hetero-male music production to stand on its own terms, and a late if coarse recognition by the industry that capitalizing on changing demographics can mean a return to growing dividends. This has led to some incredibly valuable opportunities for people to find, and even found, communities for themselves across broad swathes of space – digitally, geographically, or otherwise. It is easier than ever to hold a musician to account for their ethos and thereby deliberately listen to or avoid them (Boddika, anyone?).

Along with this latter push for independence grow familiar concerns about the siloing of different communities. My personal opinion is that these effects are a natural stage in the progression towards a more equitable distribution of the power to determine our collective culture, and so, even if (or perhaps especially when) messy or awkward, necessary. Between the cultural questions being raised, and the hegemony of algorithmic playlists and auto-recommendations, what is a discerning listener to do? Deliberative and accessible curation is one approach, and it was precisely that which led to my finding this release, and that to which we aspire ourselves.