Sunday, August 17, 2008

Janek Schaefer - Alone At Last (Sirr 2008)

Alone At Last
Sirr 2008

Listen: Come On Up...

Janek Schaefer is a sound artist whose work often functions in a very specific setting, not so much breaking down boundaries, but re-establishing connections between sound and art, like on the recent Extended Play (Triptych for the child survivors of war and conflict). But Alone at Last is somewhat different. For a start most of it is recorded in a studio, but as with his other pieces, there are still strong concepts, which underlie its production and its raison d’etre. Each piece was written by Schaefer in response to a challenge to produce a piece of music for a compilation CD or installation. Because of this, Alone at Last is, perhaps one of Schaefer’s less cohesive albums in the sense that there’s no overall theme like 2006’s Migration, but a collection of almost disparate themes flowing from one idea to the next in imaginative free play through a mixing desk and (originally) projected onto a screen. 

As typical of Schaefer’s work as a sound artist, the intention is still to produce the effect of a visual anamnesis in the mind of the listener and depending on your state of mind, could be anything from rainbow drenched sunsets and casual beach nudity (Title Track) to axe-wielding sociopaths stuck in a nightmarish, playground (Scarlett Arrives) or you could just take your cue from the album artwork (pictured above). Using digital techniques on self-built record players to manipulate a variety of sounds, from field recordings to turntable scratching to Spanish sitcoms, Schaefer’s music is probably one of the closest things to an aural Rorschach diagram that I can think of.

As with all of Schaefer’s work, the pieces on this album are beautifully composed electro-acoustic soundscapes. The title track opens with the sound of rain, water, waves etc. but this is no new age jungle recording for pregnant women to have a relaxing bath to (even if the static alone might induce labour, I’m not sure that’s what Scaefer would have intended), instead he uses his skill as a composer to manipulate these sounds, adding layers of orchestral sampling, keyboard sampling, vinyl sampling and various other electronic flourishes.

Free improvisation is one part of his technique, sure, but his skill lies in integration. At no point on the record, does anything sound out of place, from the Spanish sitcom, breaking into gentle guitar strumming interspersed with mechanical sound recordings, and accompanied by an orchestral crescendo to what I think is Kristen Guru Murphy’s voice on Boulevard périphérique next to some French dialog, which sounds like it came straight out of sixties New Wave cinema. One of the great things about Schaefer’s ability as a composer is his ability to surprise. When listening you never know what’s coming next, where the last sounds came from, how he’s going to mix them together, but it’s his skill as a composer that holds the whole album together and despite the lack of an overarching theme, Alone at Last still feels like a coherent work of art, pushing the boundaries between sound and music.

No doubt this is still ambient, but as subtle as Schaefer’s palette is there’s always so much going on it’s hard to take it all in on first listen. For those of us left wanting more from works like Brian Eno’s Ambient series, Schaeffer delivers in exquisite fashion.


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