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GRACEFUL DEGRADATION (variations) - V.A.

Sourdine 001 . 2008





“Graceful degradation” is of course one of Asher’s most intriguing albums, so the fact that seven central figures operating in the planet of microsounds, electronica and minimal ambient have lent their know-how to reinterpret that music should not come as a shock. Ubeboet is the only one who decided to stroll around the early idea, leaving the timbral substance in the proximity of Asher’s distorted piano-on-tape musing and working on that basis in the long final piece, as the others invented new impressions altogether. Steinbrüchel fathers a dazzling cycle of emotional loops and drones interspersed by alien bird-like electronic intrusions, while Kenneth Kirschner evokes spectral images of remote, unrecognizable yet intimate figures. Heribert Friedl mixes clearly audible emissions and impalpable computer-generated hues to elicit intoxicated hypnosis, John Hudak placing his effort not distant from him thanks to attractive sequences bathed in a continuum of liquefied ringing washes. Brilliant things arrive from Steve Roden and Jason Kahn, the former inserting a mesmerizing chant amidst a fourth world-like pulse, the latter letting us get a glimpse of the original recording shrouded by water sounds complete with faraway metropolitan presences and intense participation by a couple of quacking ducks, the whole very “environmental Eno”, regrettably ending too soon, suddenly. An absorbing set, shedding a different light on the work of a composer whose recent success is totally earned.


(massimo ricci, touching extremes)



Only very recently I said Asher should step up, away from the world of MP3 and CDR and start releasing a 'proper' CD. Now he did, but I didn't mean this. Sourdine is the name of a new label, ran by Asher, and in good tradition the first release is a compilation CD. Perhaps the programmatic notes for the future? Asher himself is not present on this CD, but his pals are. All seven of them use, in one way or the other, the sound in decay approach. You have a bit of sound, you loop it, and cover it with dirt. Erase it with computer tools - or better: by analogue means. Add static, add hiss. The original source - be it field recording, be it a piano, be it something else - is sometimes heard, like the erasing process not entirely be completed. It still shows, like a stain that won't away, but a stain that looks nice, so you leave it in. Six of the seven are quite well-known, each of them of with an extensive discography at hand: Steinbruchel, Kenneth Kirschner, Heribert Friedl, John Hudak, Steve Roden and Jason Kahn. Only Ubeboet is lesser known and his best also seems to be a bit louder than the others. A pity Asher didn't put himself on it, but no doubt a CD will be out soon.


(frans de waard, vital weekly)



[NOTE: A special thanks to all of the artists who took the time answer my email requests seeking personal comments/insights concerning their respective contributions to this compilation.]

That bleary, indistinct picture depicted in the album’s cover art is of an old piano Asher had in his Brooklyn apartment - the same one that supplied some of the source sounds for the CONV release. It’s certainly a visual metaphor of the sounds found on this compilation - blurred images of the original source material, sounds that have been recycled, reinterpreted, and recombined.

During several months spanning the summer into the fall of 2005, Asher worked with some recordings that he had made on an old cassette tape. Sprinkled amongst his own recordings are traces of other sounds including Led Zeppelin. He would spend considerable time in his Brooklyn apartment exploring the sounds on this tape searching for different arrangements of the material that he had stored on it. Thinking that he was done with these recordings, he used some of them for his Graceful Degradation CDR release on Conv. Ultimately, he continued working with the sounds on this tape, and it’s the material from this second round of editing that the artists on this compilation used in their variations.

Seven international artists - each of whom is recognized for his own unique forte in the world of experimental music/sound art - were given access to these sound files (which, at the time of this writing, are still available for download here .) It would seem that each artist was allowed the freedom do as he wished with the files - listening and relistening, selecting segments of interest and then editing, manipulating, splicing, augmenting, and flavoring these fragments with his own aural spices and, in the end, letting own artistic intuition guide him down whatever sonic pathway emerged.

Initiating the compilation is steinbrüchel’s variation appropriately titled Shimmer. This is without a doubt a proper way to lead off the album as he has a special gift for creating new compositions using other people‘s sound. Isolating tiny fragments of sound buried within the original files, Steinbrüchel composed Shimmer by manipulating and enhancing them, transforming them into his own musical aestheic. Shimmer is a very flowing piece that retains some of the sparse, spacious piano, distorted hiss, and organic dirt of the original sound files, but he also adds his own signature flickering textures and sinuous tones.

Kenneth Kirschner follows with a beautiful composition of thick, harmonic ambiance named April 17, 2006. Like Asher, Kenneth often works with what he calls “distressed piano sounds” in his compositions. Deciding to take his piece in a different direction, Kenneth selected and layered several haphazardly intersecting segments of the source material and processed them repeatedly until the original source sounds were distorted to the point of being unrecognizable. This cycle of processing and re-processing overlapping fragments had a blurring effect and resulted in the piece having a wonderfully ethereal choral quality.

Initially approaching his variation Rehsa from a microsound/glitch slant, NonVisualObjects co-operator Heribert Friedl demonstrates his expertise at composing with tiny, skittering, fractured sounds that seem to erupt out of no where. It’s not until midway into this eight-minute piece that we hear anything Asher-like. At this point, Asher’s sparse, deliberate piano melodies serve as a bridge marking a transition from a work emphasizing textured microsounds to a slow-moving, droning composition of graceful, bowed tones.

Assuming the middle spot in this compilation, I’ll have to characterize John Hudak’s snd8 as the most jaunty and buoyant sounding work of the seven. There’s a noticeably contagious, busy child-like sonic ambiance present on this piece. It’s intense - not in an uncomfortable way - something more akin to the concentrated pleasure a young child takes in playing with a new toy. It’s without a doubt, the most rhythmic piece present here, laden with toy-like noises and added effects (reverb, delay).

Entering the second half of the CD, I have to credit Steve Roden‘s Gration Degradaceful as being the most unique re-interpretation included here. Starting with no preconceptions, Steve listened to Asher’s source material, manipulating it for the purpose of finding a“ spark” (as he put it), then fashioning a track and listening and re-listening to it, letting his intuition dictate the next move. In the end Steve did something very un-Asher-like by adding banjo and his own voice to the piece and, surprisingly, I have to admit that it works quite well.

In the last two variations, we find Jason Kahn and Ubeboet [Conv label owner M.A. Tolosa] contributing two pieces that come the closest to preserving the sounds of the original material. Jason approached Am Water [trans. On the Water] from an “environmental standpoint” by playing the source material over two speakers placed on rocks in the middle of a stream in Zurich. He then re-recorded the material but this time capturing not only the water sounds of the stream but also other incidental sounds in the immediate environment (you’ll even hearing the honking of an automobile horn). There was no post-production. What you hear is the pristine recording made in the water.

Ubeboet‘s Untitled 305 Variation was originally a 40-minute track extracted from a nearly 4-hour performance. This 17-minute piece is a heavily edited variation - a “radio edit” if you like. The work does indeed sound like it could go on … and on … and on … ad infinitum - a beautiful, haunting, recycling of Asher’s material but shaded with a noticeably different character, mood, and tone.

An excellent, noteworthy first release for Sourdine. There's no doubt in my mind that Graceful Degradation: Variations is a milestone album in experimental music/sound art for the year 2008.


(larry a. johnson, earlabs)