Strong Output Near Saturation: James Fella: Solo Recordings
A review by John Collins McCormick
The solo recordings of James Fella can be considered experimental, noise, improvised, drone, avant-garde or any other marginal genre that entail audio work using hard to define sound sources. His most recent recordings, available on compact disc or as digital download (some on vinyl or as limited lathe-cut records) include See Tall Palm, Expanding Gap, Weak Left-Input, Slots/Inner and Sanctum/Tusks/Desolation. While Fella’s solo work shares many stylistic similarities to the aforementioned genres it does not strictly rely on these features to create the work. Instead it operates aware of genre stylistics without the need to follow them. This awareness likens his work to others such as Incapacitants, The New Blockaders, The Haters or Damion Romero to name a few. His work differs however, in that his solo records are presented as uniquely his own. Fella’s process is indicated through it’s product, a hallmark of postmodern art. His “compositions” are created through improvisations which are then reworked and improvised against multiple times. Their final iteration is without center, without ground, as the work presents itself as form and content simultaneously and seemingly without definitive author. The listener is included in the process and the product through the act of listening, a feat that inculcates “normal” modes musical dissemination and reception has passed.
These recordings are available from Gilgongo Records, his own imprint and it’s subsets Deliberate Indifference, Weird Machine and Alien Summer. His work is a new music that utilizes reevaluation of improvisation, use of machine as instrument, instrument as tool, multiplicity/duality of place and multiple platforms of dissemination. The work is striking and made with care in hopes of abandon. It breaks tradition and forges new modes of technical mastery of time and space.
Each advent in art is a way of superseding the last. Art exists to articulate human dominance over space and time. Each art form does this in a variety of ways. Art allows people to control the world around them as individual articulate moments. Maybe moment by moment. Initially visual art and song were used as a way to recount an event, and thus each was susceptible to memory’s shortcomings. As these shortcomings were poked and prodded memory gave way to imagination, which allowed one to create and recreate myth into something more tangible. Historical painting, representation of religious stories, these things utilized art as a way to supplement the eye or ear in the real world for an eye that can see into the past, into the myth.
Music has always existed concurrent to its presented time-space to create a new, heightened time-space that proposes a mastery of material to control sound and listening. “Classical” music is rigid in it’s desire to control sonic material and instrumentation; each sound being notated well before its audition.
Modernity heightened this desire to further control and manipulate time and space. As our wants and needs developed through technology, so then did the aesthetics that control and define time-space. Strict figurative painting gave way to impressionism, gave way to the multiplicity of cubism, the breaking of collage, the action and emotional expressions of abstract painting, gave way to the material as content of Minimalism and the thing-in-it-selfness, the stuff of thought and meeting you in the middle of Conceptual Art. On and on, people find new ways to reinterpret mastery of materials so as to further control time and space.
Expanding Gap: A lush silence, most likely a by-product of the recording process, a flicker of pitched percussion and swelling tonal sounds. These pitched sounds could be a guitar string struck passed the nut, an mbira, a music box – the swelling tonal sounds are more than likely electric guitar. Both sounds occupy the stereo field. Distressed electronic sounds with short duration and slight, punchy scratches of distortion soon join in as more swells converge with one another and the plinking pitched percussion sounds, having once been the focus, fade into the background. Suddenly a prolonged sound appears in the higher register, atop the field of swells. It seems to neither overpower, nor compliment the previous sound field, but instead exist as a new element. It begins in the right channel and is soon after mirrored in the left. Again, neither dominating nor complimenting until the peaceful guitar swells drop out suddenly, giving room to squeaking prolonged sounds, joined by a careening feedback of low register. The mood has changed from one of airy pleasantry to something darker, as tape collaged sounds are stressed forward and back at various speeds. Darker does not mean unpleasant. Sounds collect in an unknown manner atop the rush of feedback. A thick distorted bass sound appears and almost occludes everything in its path, yet the tape sounds persist. The sound field has deepened. The rumble departs nearly as it appeared. Beeps appear, bouncing between both channels and things are grinding, being scraped, presenting themselves against a backdrop of slightly rolling sustained color. Syncopated buzzing guitar sounds bounce between the left and right channel, accompanied by whining shots of feedback, a distorted rumble fills out the sound until it takes over, leaving the syncopated sounds in the past. The rumble fades into a saxophone phrase being delayed and looped. The saxophone sounds build on one another, again sounds are introduced that don’t seem to compliment nor distract from the initial phrase, the new, distorted sounds have more of an object quality to them than the previous tape sounds. These distortions vibrate as if they have an inside and an outside. The saxophone slides into these sounds. This pitched, object distortion persists for a few minutes before giving way abruptly to a static sound, a room sound, bodily movement in a space and a steady feedback whine. The saxophone joins the whine as does unplaceable mechanic sounds, a movement of parts. The tape collage rejoins and everything is creating a place against the sound of a featureless-place where someone is moving. It builds and builds and falls apart into a made acoustic place, objects bump into the ear slowly, then build into a persistent texture rumbling in each ear amidst airy electronic sounds.
With music, western music in particular, we see a similar progression. Lissajou gave the sound of western instruments their equal tuning when he standardized tuning forks through the use of a visualized physics of sound waves. From here, notation also achieved standardization: at once rigid and liberating: standardization provided the ability to move a music from one place to another with a great similarity in it’s reproduction. Print, as McCluhan assured us, collapsed the oral tradition in favor of duplication and an “end-based” means of communication. “It positioned man up-right, toward the horizon.” This newfound ability of reproduction is perhaps a pinnacle in a traditional ideation of control of a time-space continuum. It is however a rather one sided power structure. Musicians are controlled through someone else’s ideas. Spontaneity is unwelcome. To draw a comedic relationship to painting, it is this same thought process that found Michelangelo depicting God as a man with a beard. It was Michelangelo’s technical mastery of paint on a surface that gave him the power to reiterate “God in Mans image…”
See Tall Palm: A wave fades in and with it it’s overtones, a throb begins to propel this durative sound. The gain of the sound continues to increase until this drawn out hum begins to distort. This long form distorted sound has many levels and contains many frequencies. It seems to be pulling itself in different directions as a conglomerate of it’s parts. It has low, full bass frequencies as well as mid range, crunchy frequencies. It does not contain any high piercing sounds. It is rather comfortable to hear. The sounds oscillate against each other as more gain is added and then subtracted, causing ripples in distortion and tone. Stasis is teased, but never held as change is gradual, but persistent. Frequencies remain predominantly on the low-end and the crunch of distortion fills in the edges of the stereo field, crackling and popping as propelled by these low frequency drones. The sound rolls and lilts forward constantly, albeit slowly.
The space of these sounds is the space they themselves create. One does not recognize place in this recording, one is provided with the place carved by it and ones listening. It references itself simultaneously with us as listener – wherever we may be. It reaffirms and joins rooms by accentuating their features.
The piece undulates like a mirage. While staying close to complete saturation the sounds warble in and out causing difference in distortion and volume, yet the sound is ever present and never nears a rest. It surges, it recedes, it continues. It’s persistence is not repetitive however, each swell is marked by a slight change in frequency and gain, resulting in new conflicting waveforms. Inside each moment of sound is another moment inside the last moment, swelling into the next. The sound insists itself as a conglomeration of itself, highlighting it’s being with yours in time and space. It aggravates itself. These tiny constant shifts in frequency ratio cause an illusion of movement in time. The piece feels motionless, then as if it is dragging itself, then it moves at a gallop, it sprints to a standstill.
It blasts, reels, flaps and waves. It staggers and slouches and kneads. It does not pierce or punch. It does not rest. It is comforting more than it is repellant. It creates questions. It fades away.
Improvised music breaks the rigid continuum of composed time-space through deft sonic manipulations. Each player is included in considerable respect to one another within a given time-space. This is something of strange advent in that it shares similarities with stream of consciousness displayed in writing and painting dating back to early modern fiction (Joyce, Woolf) as well as writing experiments from the Dadaists and Surrealists. Music lagged behind the literary arts, perhaps because music had been deemed the abstract art par-excellence due to sounds ability to conjure, even reference emotion without referencing the human figure or notions of past or future. For it is with sound, music, each moment is heard in a continual present. “Free-jazz” had been the most modern of arts to exert mastery over time and space because it is made in the continual present of which it is heard. Experienced live it does not produce anything, its material is concurrent with it’s construction – the sight of production is the sight of consumption. It presents a listening situation wherein the players and the listeners are nearly on the same social level. It can even be argued that the listener gives power to the performance and vice-versa in an exchange that is rather egalitarian. In this exchange the material generated is at once form and content combined, or at the very least the content presented is self-referential and does not point to something outside itself. Recordings of this work further reify much of these concepts. Listening to a recording of a live improvised performance of an ensemble or solo artist does not, as one might imagine, freeze the performance for analysis, but creates a movable time-space which will interact with many time-spaces allowing for simultaneity and a dual life of an ephemeral material, sound.
Weak Left-Input A: Hiss puts us in the machine as stabs of stressed distortion break the left and right channels. A rising swirl of a strained motor begins to dictate movement of the stabs, of the hiss. There is lots of change quickly in volume as entire groups of sound are forced up and down, nearing silence and then back to a full volume. Stressed cassette sounds bounce from left to right. A motor hums, is distorted, is cleared, is stressed, distorted, cleared. These processes amass sound around the cyclical motor sound rising to thunderous proportions, only to fade into airy pitched drones of low attack with much resonance. These sounds are still distorted, but there is a more peaceful nature to their prolonged being. They do not conflict with one another to create dissonance, and they do not converge to create harmony. Instead they move from one another to be as themselves next to each other until they vie for space and are squashed under one another and into an enveloping drone of low frequency. It mingles with the higher register sounds, each vying for audible-space in a similar, cyclical, motoric manner, dulled with distortion and tape hiss. These sound events collide and wind down in a destructive manner to stop abruptly.
This new music created from recordings of live improvisations, re-contextualized through digital-editing, disseminated on multiple platforms rearranges mastery over time and space. It is unique. This new work, the new music, is the next logical step in articulating mastery over time-space beyond freely improvised music and Conceptual Art. It combines new technology, improvisation of acoustic engineering, improvised place, a wedding of form and content that denies implicit figuration by implying (albeit obliquely) affirmation of the listener, a work of aggressive textures, performance of the real and implied, and placelessness aimed at space in which the work is amplified.
Weak Left-Input B: Buzzing thrum waves and multiplies itself into low register feedback – jumps itself – and soars. The sound opens up to pitched guitar plinks for amounting moments, moving from speaker to speaker. There is a hard drone for these events to move around that inserts itself as dead-end buzzing. The drone leads into a moment of dynamic metallic guitar that leads back to the steadfast buzz. A rushed pluck of guitar gives way to the drone dive bombing, followed by trails of whistling and fuzzy plunging feedback. This movement persists, the drone holds it’s buzz while a bass sound repeats it’s self, throbbing downward. It runs aground. Warbly, twinkly guitar bounces and jangles into a repetition of non-meter and into soaring gentle frequencies of low attack panning back and forth. This tranquil sound event is interrupted, slowly by fuzzes and clippings and popping and a very low hum which turns into grumbling. A tape smoothed grumblic collecting gain and crunch moves with abandon into stressed delayed bursts of guitar squeal and feedback. The energy is high albeit confused. It twists itself into tumult. The sounds roil in grit and propulsive grind. Slowly it leaves itself and the place of the tape machine asserts its hiss against the grinds destructive passing.
Much of this music is made with non-musical sounds (in the traditional sense) and is created in large part through machinery (often a combination of digital and analog electronics) or in combination with extended technique or careless performance on traditional instruments. This work is often referred to as noise, this is in reference not to it’s actual sound quality, as one might guess, but in it’s ability to interrupt the power relationship designed by “traditional” music. The music and it’s sound sources are often challenging and perhaps even abrasive in their texture. These sounds are chosen to further challenge the extant forms of control over time and space in that their volume (which can be very loud or extremely quiet) does not exert the same type of content in its materiality as do those sounds produced by conventional means. Utilizing electronic means of sound production, and sonic processes, reevaluates the virtuosity included in performance of a traditional instrument, replacing or rewriting this relationship of dexterity with one of engineering. (While much audio equipment is slightly gender biased it does not carry any inherent gender qualities that say, are historically built into the electric guitar or drums.) This shift to machine from instrument, or machine as instrument or the extended circumstances or willing naivety of traditional instruments creates a social condition more suitable for people of varied backgrounds that at once eschews and subverts musical/literary content in favor of sound as material, fastened to itself as both form and content.
Slots/Inner Sanctum/Tusks/Desolation: The hum of production nestles with slightly plucked and struck objects, offering sounds of slight percussive resonance, and persistent electricity. These fickle sound objects move in the stereo field and amid their static-infused space begin to resemble the deconstruction of a music box. A new percussive resonance emerges in tandem – trill, rolling metallic sounds are pitched up and down mid phrase – gathering volume and intensity. A mangled representation of a voice begins to fill in the space created by the percussive sounds, and is soon joined by a low, rumbling frequency. Everything begins to increase in volume and soon punctuated stabs of sheer distortion appear atop the mass of collected sound objects. These stabs too begin to collect in duration and amplitude until an all out, stuttering, ripping and rumbling sound object congeals into a mass of sonic movement. The sound field is intense and reveals itself densely through itself. It expands and contracts simultaneously, quickly, creating a thick moving texture. The intensity swells giving favor first to low frequencies, then scratching bursts of high frequency distortion. This give and take becomes processional amidst the wall generated by the layering of each sound event. Movement is constant and each new piece introduces itself harshly against this wall of amassed sonic objects. Ripping static juts against the fanning blade of low pulse bass. Boiling fuzz rushes with fine-ground frequency modulation. Acoustic space is denied on the recording to assert that of the listener. Rushing electronics reassert vibration as material while deconstructing notions of music. This propulsive crash closes into the insertion an overarching cyclical drone, that fades in and out, away from the crushing, fast paced accumulation and into a new sound event. This driving, cyclical sound washes in slower, stressed streams of clashing distorted waves. The sounds begin to mesh themselves together, undulating in intensity, denying rest, and let themselves ride. The drone consumes and moves under wailing soars of manipulated feedback. It intwines and hardens amid the blistering distortion of the sound itself, careening full speed on to it own waveform, collecting resonance where it is heard, activating the acoustics provided. It washes back on itself. Lacerated and jilted repetitive motifs replace the careening wail. Whips of mangled effects interrupt the motif, and push them back and forth in an unclear battle for figure/ground relationship. The tension drops, space surrounds the motif, a slight phase, a shifting body, rest. A saxophone, a television, breath, the mechanics of instrumentation: the world reveals itself.