James Wyness testimonial

James Wyness – 09.03.2012

There’s a lot that one could write about an album like this, primarily because the artists are very clear on their intentions and I’m in the privileged position of knowing what these intentions are. Related to this of course, is the thorny issue of whether the album achieves what it sets out to achieve.

Something I often forget to do in reviews is to let the reader know in general terms what to expect. In playing this cd for the first time I expected to hear some ‘nice’ field recordings, perhaps typical of Aragon or at least leading me to believe they were typical of Aragon, along with some ‘musicalising’of the sound world (there is indeed percussion and digital synthesis at play) generated by these field recordings.

This expectation, playing on the notion that somehow a landscape will print itself as sound directly to tape, is played upon by a host of artists or more accurately by the labels that represent the artists. For example we might have Scandinavian artists whose work, because of the stark beauty of the Nordic terrain, the topography or even the light, must surely in turn somehow convey that same sense of stark beauty as the landscape portrayed in the images. This sonic art version of judging the book by its cover is a trend in the ascendancy.

Despite there are being no images or image filled booklets with the cd, I still expected to hear Aragon. Which I didn’t. Instead I was treated an engaging and fairly original twist on the whole notion of representing what is unique about place or places by means of sound. A twist in which the artists are in a sense trying to have their cake and eat it vis-à-vis the field recordings, on the one hand letting some of the representational aspects of the recordings unfold, yet holding back enough by means of abstracting from the recordings and having them function as strands in a tightly spun musical fabric.

I know from correspondence that the artists were influenced by specific historical practices in the visual arts. I won’t go into detail here, but it’s important to acknowledge that they are in the business of making ‘a series of sound portraits, not supposedly objective depictions of the sonic characteristics of given locations’. Furthermore ‘the field recordings were fundamental, but they were important as sound sources, not as determinants in the structure, or even the nature, of each location’s sonic narrative’. This is interesting, the use of the word ‘narrative’, because my reading of many of the individual works is that they did indeed offer a narrative, in the sense of telling me something about the various locations, commented upon by music from the pair, almost like a form of abstract musical theatre or theatrical storytelling with musical accompaniment. Of course that’s the problem with making art – you never can tell what people will make of your work, can you?So after all that I’m happy to say that broadly speaking and quite consistently throughout the work, the artists’ intentions were well met.

As for the sound world of Punto Cero Aragón, well, it’s an eclectic world, at the same time exciting, dynamic and unpredictable in matters of timbre, sound sources, density and texture. We have instrumental, electronic and environmental sound, dialogue and other vocal snippets in all manner of juxtapositions and layers. There are passages of great virtuosity in the percussion, balanced by passages of admirable restraint.

If I were to draw any direct correspondences between the sound world created by the artists, which of course has some of them in it, and the location, I’d say that we are given here an enthusiastic picture of Aragón, full of vitality, variety and great beauty.

What I would like to do if I had more time and space would be to take a range of work like this, where field recordings are used in innovative ways, and to investigate some of the intentions behind the works, looking less at aesthetic issues (for example in relation to this album I know from a knowledge of previous works that Matthews is clever enough a musician to have figured out what ‘works’ and what doesn’t) and perhaps more at the relationships between the following elements and at the notion of agency in relation to each individually: the index (artwork) and what or where it points to; the artists(s); the prototype, in this case aspects of the soundscape of Aragon; the recipient or patient, most often the listener. This terminology – indexes, prototypes and so on – isn’t my own. I’ve taken from Alfred Gell, whose work Art and Agency, an Anthropological Theory, is, or should be, essential reading for anyone who works with or has interests in field recording contextualised as ‘art’ and who wants to move on from purely (and largely what we might call Western) aesthetic views of contemporary art.

There is a profound difference between this kind of work and work using similar resources which aligns itself, consciously though seldom acknowledged as such, with the tradition of the avant-garde (yes, there is such a thing). Here the work is ‘about’ many things at once. I say this in the firm knowledge that everything which takes place in the context of social interaction (such as contemporary art) is always about more than just itself. But this is admittedly a large topic outside the scope of this little review. Too often in the avant-garde, the work is ‘about’ very little except the artist and their career, which on reflection is much more an attribute of the arrière-garde.
Finally, this work gets better the more you listen, a rare treat in itself.