Janek Schaefer: Extended Play [Triptych for the child survivors of war and conflict]

Extended Play is another marvelous audio work from British installation artist Janek Schaefer who here deepens his conceptual artistry by infusing it with a powerful emotional core. Some background is necessary to fully appreciate what he's accomplished on this recording. The birth of Schaefer's child in 2005 intensified his awareness of the fact that his own mother was born in war-torn Warsaw in 1942, and thus inspired him to create the Extended Play installation in honour of world-wide child survivors. Relatedly, he learned about the “Jodoform” system used by the BBC World Service during World War II, which involved the embedding in music of secret messages that were then decoded by The Polish Underground, and about the Polish folk song “Tango Lyczakowskie,” which describes how children in 1918 were forced to take up arms to defend their town. Having selected a short phrase from the tune, Schaefer, aided by his arranger Michael Jennings, developed a ten-minute score which was performed and recorded as solo parts by pianist Michael Jennings, violinist Simon Hewitt Jones, and cellist Thomas Hewitt Jones that were cut to vinyl. In the installation, three sets of three retro record players played the EPs (a grouping for each instrument) at 33, 45, or 78 RPM. Those same players were used for the recorded version's first three tracks, which are followed by a twenty-four-minute nine-part ensemble where the instruments' recordings are layered at various speeds, and “Radio Jodoform,” a collage wherein the “Tango Lyczakowskie,” recorded using a 1940s radio, appears. Though it would still be captivating if heard purely on its own terms, Extended Play assumes a stronger resonance once the listener is familiar with the project's background.

It's noteworthy that the first sounds heard are the click of the turntable and the arm dropping onto vinyl, erstwhile reminders that we're hearing sounds generated within a specific context and environment as opposed to ethereal sounds emanating from some hypothetically abstract sphere. The omnipresence of vinyl noise too is critical, not so much for the textural dimension it adds but as another reminder of the music's physical origins. Schaefer leaves pregnant pauses between notes, content to let the quiet drift of crackle resound in the absence of instrument sounds. Exemplifying the turntable's central role in the process are the physical adjustments—pitch-shifting, and the sudden wind-down that halts an instrument in its tracks and the wind-up that follows moments later—that likewise remind the listener of the material's “manufactured” character.

Though minimal instrumentation and pitches are used—each of the opening three pieces is reserved for a single instrument in duo and trio formations—Schaefer's constant manipulations keep listeners on their toes, so to speak, and consequently attention never flags, even when the opening pieces are ten to fourteen minutes long. The “chamber group” approach to the lengthy fourth part makes for a sonically rich experience that helps prevent it from seeming overlong too. The concluding collage is naturally ear-catching for the contrast its vocal-and-accordion folk song adds to the recording. In a time when despair is so prevalent and resignation so appealing, how refreshing it is to be presented with a project that so imaginatively celebrates, in Schaefer's own words, “hope, survival, and new beginnings.”

August 2008