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Directed by the esteemed sound artist Francisco López, Birmingham Sound Matter is a compilation of recordings by a collection of artists from the Birmingham, Coventry and Black Country areas of the Midlands in England. Some were born there, some gravitated there from various locations around the UK and further afield.
The project is co-ordinated by Scylla Magda of Modulate, an experimental sound and visual arts project specialising in multi-speaker sound and visual arts events, who first met Lopez in 2007 when he visited the city for the first time to perform one of his legendary Total Darkness concerts at one of Modulate’s Sonic Culture Salon events. After that meeting Magda invited Lopez to direct a compilation project themed around the city. He accepted and Birmingham Sound Matter was born.
Lopez’s concept for the recording of this album is an interesting one. First, each of the artists compiled a pool of sounds they had recorded in and around the Birmingham area. Then, each of them took these recordings and treated, manipulated and processed them to create a second pool of mutated sounds. The respective artists were then free to use sounds from each pool to compose a new musical piece for the compilation. As Lopez quite rightly points out in the sleeve notes, this method of working means that each contribution is as much about the individual artist, if not more so, than it is about the city itself.
Consisting mostly of droning soundscapes juxtaposed with field recordings of gentle environmental sounds such as birdsong or passing traffic, Birmingham Sound Matter is an intensely personal exploration of sound from all taking part. Helena Gough’s opener “Grau” starts with a low electrical hum interrupted with sudden sharp bursts of noise while Martin Clarke’s “Sleep Birmingham Sleep” builds from the calm simplicity of birdsong melting into traffic noise whilst all the time slowly building a radiant hypnotic drone. Higher Intelligence Agency’s Bobby Bird presents “Combustion”, a carefully conceived track full of the haunting detail of a fire burning from the gentle beauty of its flames to its merciless destructive nature.
Changing tone somewhat is “Vortgeist” by Coventry’s Cormac Faulkner that opens with a deep aggressive drone that quickly dissolves into an agitated mix of intimate sounds, minute detail and tiny digital clicks. Annie Mahtani initally follows a similar theme with “Shadows” but soon develops it into a tale of a journey through the city complete with passing traffic, children playing and insects buzzing paired with sinister fuzzy layered drones. Her track could reflect the difference between night and day from the relative safety of the daylight hours to the potential danger any major city can bring after dark before the welcome dawn returns to start another day.
Mark Harris opts for gentle orchestral tones over a steady undulating drone, providing a delightfully serene track that takes on a dark, sinister edge as the drone builds and becomes more prominent and distorted. Nicholas Bullen jars the senses abruptly at the start “Last Days” but offers a track that places tiny fragments of digital sound alongside processed field recordings that dissolve into an otherworldly mix of dark cavernous drones that echo and reverberate in deep underground chambers. Closing the album is project director Lopez’s own composition “Untitled #225”, a track that features skilfully detailed sound, a harrowing tonal backing, the subtle rumble of subterranean drones and processed field recordings that twist, turn and evolve over the course of just under 10 minutes.
Inevitably with something that uses a limited source material there is going to be some similarity between tracks but it is the way in which all the contributors use the material that is intriguing, all of them doing subtly different things and creating different moods, building different aural images and experimenting with different ways of presenting the material that is uniquely their own and distinctly personal to them.
Birmingham Sound Matter is a project focused on the artists involved and the concept more than just Britain’s second city itself. All of the artists are in some way connected to the region and this essentially brings the concept full circle in that it is reflected through the contributions each artist makes and the source material they use. Collectively, it is an intricately composed collection of related works, all intense, detailed, intimate and personal to those creating them. Essentially, this is a gallery of sound art from a group of likeminded artists collated with a clear vision of the finished product from Lopez.
Published by IglooMag [July 30th 2009]