Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Deathprod - Imaginary Songs from Tristan da Cunha

One artist who I'm very surprised has never been mentioned in various discussions of hauntology in music is Helge Sten. One time member of Norwegian band Motorpsycho, and currently one quarter of quasi-anonymous prog-improv group Supersilent, between 1991 and 2004 he created a unique body of work under the name Deathprod, alas one of the silliest monikers I've come across.

The music he creats is electroacoustic, slow and minimal. It conjures forth allusions; to expansive skies, to enveloping fogs, to faded old photographs. Sten works with fragments of sound and brings forth the dirt and grain within them, using mechanical means to create an organic sound of disintegration. The music has a character that is at once monumental and totally vulnerable.

A selected output was released in a non-more-black box by Rune Grammofon in 2004, and I remember it being in the top 5 records of the year for '04 in the Wire. I might discuss other aspects of his work at another point, as it's certainly a point of reference for certain E&V musical projects, but at this point I'll focus on one part, the four 'Imaginary Songs from Tristan da Cunha'.

Tristan da Cunha is officially the most remote human settlement in the world. An active volcano situated half-way across the Southern Atlantic, it has been home to a permanent population since the early 19th century, a population which now numbers around 270, all descended from the original seven families. Of course by now they all have satellite TV, but the symbolic value of the remoteness is undeniable - it is said to be possible, once on the island, to be unable to leave again for a year. Deathprod's compositions use this remoteness as a thematic organising principle; the songs are named after different parts of the island; Burntwood, Stony Beach, Hotentott Gulch and Boatharbour Bay, and the mood of desolate isolation is palpable. The compositions themselves have no literal representative quality, however, preferring to focus on isolation as a broader concept.

The mode of creation of the four short compositions (lasting around two minutes each) is remarkable, and an excellent example of a proto-hauntological conception of musical composition. Sten travelled into the woods of Norway to record fellow Rune Grammofon artist Ole Henrik Moe's violin. These recordings were then edited by Sten, who then, and this is the most remarkable aspect, had them transferred onto wax cylinders, the Victorian forerunners of the vinyl record, whose deteriorated sound quality Sten then re-recorded to create the final pieces.

What a number of possible reference points this method provides us with: we can look back to Edison's original wax cylinder recordings, hauntingly distant to us now, or perhaps we can find parallels in Alvin Lucier's I Am Sitting In a Room, with its use of decay as a way of understanding, or characterising a specific space. The Disintegration Loops of William Basinski are a definite point of reference with their use of degradation as a generator of a kind of thematic development, and then of course there is the foregrounded audio decay of The Caretaker or Philip Jeck.

The pieces themselves ache with fragility, as if they were made entirely from ash (with all of the Derridean implications), ready to disintegrate with the slightest touch, yet possessing a clawing intensity. Along with the rest of Deathprod's oeuvre, the Imaginary Songs... deserve to be acknowledged as significant works of Ghost Music.


Dave Thompson said...
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steve said...

Great post. I'm feeling quite pleased atm...a friend burnt me a copy of a John Scofield CD a guy I'd never heard of but whose music is amazing, and I stumble across this! It's interesting how much one needs to hear different music.....keep blogging your site is excellent!