Imagine Edvard Graham Lewis' deep narcoleptic voice rendered blurred and trembling, but not deprived of its force, reciting arduous phrases over a disquieting pulse that transforms into rumbling. No, it's not a nightmare we'd have after a night of dusting off the Dome discography or the collection of drone music, but a reality even more threatening: PURPOSE STIMULATED, the first track on an album that puts our man Lewis beside another master of destabilizing sound, John Duncan. We can't imagine what the two explored during their encounter in Sweden that sent them into this work: better to abandon ourselves to letting the nightmare unfold.
The voice, we were saying. For awhile now Duncan has centered on this sonic element with some concentration, as if a still sleeping energy resided there, capable of emitting unexpected forces vital to his art. After being goaded with the children's voices in the rousing installation THE KEENING TOWERS at the Gothenburg Biennial last year, and after having processed other voices in work proceeding this one (including the recent TONGUE with Elliott Sharp) with varying results, Duncan hits the target in this record thanks to the dialogue with Graham Lewis, who provides experience and elegance in sonic manipulation equal to his interlocutor and -- obviously -- an inimitable voice. Together, the two remix and manipulate shortwave, filters and field recordings to give form to four tracks woven together by a submerged pulse, never made heavy by useless reiterations or static moments. CYCLE is an unending avalanche, in STEP the voice is again 'visible' although whispering and laid over recordings of steps, tolling that accentuates the path toward the End.
'All presence amplified', Lewis recites in the first track, but it's in the second that the two are so very good at amplifying a 'sound-presence' that in the past has often accompanied Duncan's 'phantom broadcast' where the darkness is remixed in Lewis' experiments. FALL is the heart of the album, lasting half an hour, a voice that's slightly modulated and split into infinity. An orchestra of ghosts dance in the mind, a line of sound insidiously vaulting and lapping, becoming intertwined in the end. Toward the middle the sound seems to crouch, lose its majesty and examine its own roots, immersed in a threadlike panting on which the track unravels. Great masters of sonic modulation, Duncan and Lewis have created a seductive, profound work that never gives in to temptations of monotony. A must-have experience. (7)
Daniela Cascella, Blow Up
When you listen to a form of music crossing a giant disruptive discharge and an oppressive mantra of modifying stases, there's a good chance of John Duncan's involvement. Continuing his work on vocal treatment and shortwave - see his releases with Elliott Sharp and Asmus Tietchens for reference - this time Duncan pairs his effort with E.G. Lewis' voice and field recordings. "Fall" finds the couple in a febrile state during a morass of cosmic radiowave boost joined by sepulchral stabilizating choirs from urban ruins. In "Cycle", a long-sighted image of dark incandescence shakes ears to the point of hopelessness, while you're looking for a solution to all this perception derangement. "Purpose stimulated" and "Step" present Lewis reciting his lyrics, mangled by Duncan's processing or whispered in a large hall setting. This is high-gauge sound art, where lapidary glances and forsaken imaginary landscapes macerate the remnants of our illusions. Yet, right then, our purification from recycled intelligence begins: cheap ideals and borrowed philosophies don't belong here.
Massimo Ricci, Touching Extremes
The spark for this collaboration ignited several years ago when John Duncan saw Graham perform with Carl Michael von Hausswolf in Vienna. Having been very keen on Dome, John suggested working together by using recordings of Graham's voice as a springboard. This continues his vocal manipulations with Elliot Sharp and Asmus Teitchens.
Originally from the US, now based in Italy, John Duncan is a high calibre sound artist. He has a substantial catalogue of work published by Staalplaat, Streamline, Touch, Trente Oiseaux, Die Stadt, and his own label, Allquestions. He has worked with Andrew McKenzie (CONTACT) Francisco López (NAV), Bernhard Günter (HOME: UNSPEAKABLE), Max Springer (THE CRACKLING). Mention of these names alone is a good indication of the radical sonic territory being mapped out.
Along with his trademark use of shortwave signals, Duncan's modus operandi is to abstract source sounds quite considerably, creating smeared masses of sonic granulation, like vapour trails. It is only on the opening and closing tracks that Graham's voice is recognizable, bookending the whole with typically intriguing texts. Elsewhere, it's completely ground through the mill.
PURPOSE STIMULATED opens, like some kind of perverse prologue, with a rippling, buzzing, texture out of which emerges a slithering timestretched text. Both liquid and brittle. The beheaded Ian Holm in Alien. A slippery soliloquy. Ventriloquised verbals. On valium.
This makes way for FALL, a gateway into the abyss. This substantial track (33' of the album's 46') evolves like a colossal wind, rushing the listener headlong into a vast open void, to arrive, about half way through, into a more meditative space created by the warm crackle of shortwave signals that fluctuate in a strangely reassuring way, punctuated by various pops and cracks. A lively medium. A carrier. From virtual space to radio space. Ether. The invisible flux out there. An energy field. A space that Duncan has been navigating for many years, once described as using the tuning band like a divining rod. Duncan's digital dowsing locates resonant spaces. Finely formed frequencies. The listener bobs like a cork in a pond. The source sound for a significant part of this was a minute and a half recording of a controlled rant by Graham on foot of meeting a rather objectionable character. Not that you'd remotely recognize it as such though. Anger vented becomes vent (drone).
On CYCLE, from a recording of a heavily hungover Graham 'wailing' in the bath, comes a frothing mumble of heavily processed signal, very visceral, the body reduced to a gurgling essence. A gargling broth of digital garble. Slo-mo swallow. In reverse. A sonic spin cycle.
STEP closes the album in a kind of exhausted epilogue. The background is a field recording of the Emmanuel Vigeland Mausoleum in Oslo. A deeply reverberant space. Cathedral-like. Whispering voices heard in the background, occasional footsteps, a door closing. In stark contrast, Graham's voice is a very close-miked confidential whisper, drawing the listener in to an almost confessional space, his words with us almost before they are uttered. 'Take a step forward and tell the truth'.
Conceptually the album is like a series of rooms the listener is taken through. A narrative of sonic architecture and architectural space, vocal presence and human resonance. Occupancy. Absence. Trace. The shorter tracks orbit like satellites around the massive gravity pull of FALL, undoubtedly the piece de resistance of the album. Even to the extent that the shorter tracks seem underworked by comparison. More like sketches even.
Less of a collaboration in the strict sense, this is more of a John Duncan album that Graham guests (or ghosts) on, his presence flitting in and out of the frame at the beginning and end, elsewhere stalking unrecognized like some undead condemned to wander. Invoked as spirit presence. A haunting. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but there is the inescapable feeling, interesting as the fruits of this collaboration are, that there's more potential here, considering the pedigree of the protagonists, something which might benefit from working together more closely, over less protracted periods, rather than one largely being the source for the other's manipulation.
© Fergus Kelly 2004