VA: Birmingham Sound Matter

In a project overseen by experimental provocateur Francisco López, Birmingham Sound Matter presents evocative sound portraits of the locale filtered through the sensibilities of eight experimental artists. López, who regards the world as an infinitely rich sonic resource, takes his material from the natural and urban environments and then digitally assembles the treated results into provocative set-pieces. Last February, López and the seven collaborators made outdoor and indoor recordings around Birmingham in order to capture in sound the identity of the city, and then uploaded the materials to a shared internet space for the project participants to draw upon. As a result, despite obvious differences between the resultant pieces, a commonality is shared by them, which helps make the album feel like a unified statement rather than disjointed pieces. Some verge on hermetic and micro-sound in character, while others are more expansive and field recordings-oriented. Some exude a ghostly quality that suggests more of a deserted city than booming metropolis.

Intermittently derailed by interference, Helena Gough's “Grau” embeds faintly audible natural and bird-like sounds within ghostly and whirring masses, while, in Martin Clarke's “Sleep Birmingham Sleep,” prominent field sounds of seagulls and bird chirps give way to traffic sounds of racing cars, thunder, and even sirens amidst a droning field of string tones. Bobby Bird's “Combustion” begins as a quieter, contemplative treatment but grows darker as watery sounds seep in, and then darker still as a menacing ambiance spreads like a virus. A nostalgic mood pervades the peaceful orchestral treatment Mark Harris brings to his beautifully modulated “Last Days,” with synthetic string tones augmented by static pops and a swelling bass undertow. A more brittle creature by comparison, Nicholas Bullen's “Proximity” shatters the calm induced by “Last Days” with a prickly stream of insectoid noises, ruptures, crow caws, and a crying baby. The natural ease with which the sound patterns flow into one another during Francisco López's “Untitled #225” evidences the producer's masterful handling of the elements, especially when a rather sub-lunar beginning eventually expands to become a rich swarm of simmering noise and dark tonal ambiance. Ultimately, as López himself accurately notes, “the results of this project are as much about Birmingham as about the participants themselves.” That is, the individual pieces occupy a middle ground between the imposition of a given individual creator's style and the deference shown by the artist in the desire to create a sonic portrait that would do justice to the locale.

August 2009