Janek Schaefer: Lay-By Lullaby
It comes as a bit of a surprise to learn that Lay-By Lullaby is UK sound artist Janek Schaefer's first appearance on 12k, given how close in spirit their respective aesthetic sensibilities are. For listeners conversant with the sound art field, Schaefer is a well-known quantity who's been creating distinctive sound works and gallery installations during the past two decades; he's been recognized publicly with awards a number of times (in 2008, for example, he was deemed British Composer of the Year Award in Sonic Art), and he currently holds a research post at Oxford Brookes University in the Sonic Art Research Unit. An early example of his imaginative approach is seen in a work called Recorded Delivery that he created while studying architecture at the Royal College of Art and which presents the noises recorded by a sound-activated dictaphone as it made its way through the postal system. Recordings are but one area of focus for Schaefer, with site-specific installations, sound sculptures, exhibitions, and concert performances all part of the presentation mix.
Lay-by Lullaby first came into being as a 2013 sculptural installation in Schaefer's solo London show Collecting Connections that involved a pair of traffic speaker cones playing sound loops from a leather travel case-installed car radio. The project was preceded in 2010 by a related work of diametrically opposite character, the installation Asleep at the Wheel, which focused on the way individuals race through their lives, their feet to the floor and their thoughts distracted and muddled as a result. By contrast, Lay-by Lullaby slows the pace, so much so that the seventy-four-minute recording plays like a document of the inner experiences of a too-tired driver who's parked by the roadside to rest. As he drifts off, lulled by the doppler-like streaks of passing cars and trucks, song snippets and memory fragments rise up, with near-silent pauses between the impressions suggesting brief lapses into sleep. Often smothered in vinyl crackle and surface noise, synth swells, blurry voice samples, song fragments, and pretty piano, church organ, and harp melodies surface; ambient-drone and dub episodes form part of the oft-serene mix; traffic sounds act as an omnipresent ground for the mutating and markedly textural sound-field; and one section in the fourth part even sounds uncannily like woozy material by William Basinski. Twelve tracks are indexed, with all titles adhering to a similar format (“Radio 101 FM,” “Radio 102 FM,” and so on), but the recording registers more as a long-form compositional collage of pronouncedly episodic design.
As an interesting side note, the location recordings featured in the work were collected by Schaefer above the M3 motorway on the far west edge of London, close to where JG Ballard lived. In fact, his well-known books Crash (1973) and Concrete Island (1974) were actually written as the motorway was being built past the front of his house. Schaefer's work is always marked by imagination and originality, qualities that are on full display in Lay-by Lullaby. Though it's a tad more ambient-styled in comparison to some of his works, it offers a fine entry-point to anyone not yet familiar with his world.