The concept behind this music is so high, it could possibly be over many people’s heads if not caught appropriately. Soundtrack to an installation made in Gothenburg, Sweden in 2003 and well described in the CD booklet, “THE KEENING TOWERS” is John Duncan’s way to approach the hard-to-talk-about topic of infant abuse. Using exclusively children’s voices as a source, John created a soundscape which people can rack their brain on, trying unsuccessfully to find something similar in avantgarde music’s recent history; Ligeti’s “Lux Aeterna” could be a sonic comparison – just to give a faint idea. Children’s voices mill around without a fixed place, like in a subterranean yet airy chorale; treated vocal components bring clucking, breathing and moaning upon a constantly changing wall of notes, at times sounding like a takeoff or a brainstorm, broken twice by several minutes of a screaming kid into a “repeat” delay, the result like a crazed flock of seagulls. When confronted with this almost primal scream, we desperately try to get a grip on our stricken nerves but it’s just clutching at straws: we have to face the hard reality of not being able to do nothing. Freezing emotions out of the being doesn’t work, as one is submerged by them and comes out as if baptized in their own silent sorrow. As far as the composition is concerned, nary a moment in this piece finds us stopping and thinking about the process: the listener’s just overwhelmed and nailed to the seat by John’s vision, so strong that he never looks like jumping tracks to catch the air, instead using a single element to its maximum effect: the economy of means becomes a fundamentally rich sound environment. All of a sudden, the idea of a full-fledged ongoing quest for a radical departure from the ordinary materializes, to achieve extraordinary results: in the land of “a-dime- a-dozen” button-pushing dronescapers whose music races to stand still, being a witness to the constant evolution of John Duncan’s parable is like encountering that one rare person you could find an affinity to; there’s the strong urge to tell it around – nevertheless it’s probably best kept into your heart. — Massimo Ricci, Touching Extremes July 2003
John Duncan, an American who has lived in Italy in recent years, has worked in a myriad of media including performances, installations, hijacked TV broadcasts, Japanese pornographic films, and music. Regardless of the form each work takes, the intent is the same — to create a learning experience. On these two recent releases he abandons his preferred audio material — short-wave radio static — but remains true to that motivating impulse. INFRASOUND-TIDAL is the outcome of an exchange Duncan initiated with Australian acoustics researcher Densil Cabrera. Cabrera audio representations of tidal, barometric, and seismic data became Duncan’s raw material, but the American’s objective was to figure out why Cabrera would go to the trouble of doing this in the first place. Duncan’s efforts to establish a non-technological dialogue with Cabrera went nowhere. So instead of a personal portrayal, the music became a representation of scientific inquiry. Duncan fashioned a series of long, wavering drones and thick grey hisses, then speckled them with tiny scrapes and pops. These unemphatic micro-events evoke the multitude of discreet experiments and investigations that go into the advancement of scientific knowledge.
THE KEENING TOWERS is a more immediate and gripping work. The limited-edition release comprises a CDR and booklet packaged in a DVD case. The booklet’s photos, taken by Giuliana Stefani, show the towers in question standing stark against a dreary sky. They’re 24 meters high, with two speakers apiece pointed at the Gothenberg City Art Museum. During the city’s 2nd Biennial in 2003, these speakers the processed voices obtained from the San Pietro Elementary School Choir. At the exhibit the sounds streamed continuously and were subjected to further processing by the museum’s echoing corridor, but on record you get a single 70-minute track. The piece engenders surprise; so much of the sound has been tweaked into cloudy oblivion that it’s a shock when full-throated screams leap out of the mix. At other points the voices coalesce into masses of clucking tongues or muttering whispers, only to veer once more into unrecognizable territory. It’s possible to take this purely as a rich sonic experience, but the booklet’s dedication to children who have been abused by adults. This echoes one of Duncan’s earliest pieces, “Happy Homes,” in which he called a radio psychologist on the air and related the emotional numbing he’d experienced after watching kids being brutalized by their parents on the bus. — William Meyer, Signal to Noise no. 33, Spring 2004