Tokyo-based sound artist and Critical Path label founder Yui Onodera has every right to be proud of his two-CD project Vernacular, an impressively presented, 100-minute compilation that collects pieces by fifteen sound artists from eleven countries (a sixteen-page booklet also is included with the release). Onodera is one of those featured on the release, but he more critically assumed the role of midwife in bringing the project to fruition.
Many of the contributors are sound artists scattered throughout the globe comfortably operating in the field of electro-acoustic music, their work as often presented in gallery installations as on stage. One of the obvious themes the project highlights is how connected the artists are by shared practices, no matter the degree of geographical dispersion involved; certainly cross-border collaborations have never been easier to facilitate. For Onodera, this is a good but also bad thing, as it introduces the potential for standardization and the lessening of a specific locale's unique signature. On a thematic level, Vernacular represents Onodera's attempt to challenge that tendency by featuring artists who, in contributing to the project, remain mindful and sensitive to how a sound can carry with it traces of a particular culture and locale.
Some sounds, especially when presented sans visuals, are more generic than others, however. The outdoors field recordings sounds in Steve Roden's “If Here, Not There, If Not There, Then Here” presumably were recorded in Pasadena, California, but might have originated from any number of places (much the same argument could be made about the plane and environmental sounds featured in “Vangsaa: Revisited, Reduced” by EARlabs manager Jos Smolders). Sometimes what ends up individualizing the pieces are not so much the immediate physical traces of the setting captured in a field recording but rather how the artist personalizes the work through his/her handling of the non-field recordings elements. The thick slabs of crackle exhaling in alternating formation during “Rest in Peace Knowing the Sound of Angels,” for instance, seem very much emblematic of the style one associates with Janek Schaefer. Similarly, “Adventurers Fen” is more identifiable as the work of Cambridge, UK-based Simon Scott in how its musical parts are arranged than by its field recordings, no matter how evocative the latter are. And that cavernous cloud of reverb rolling through “A Spectacle of Malleable Glass-Alchemisphere Three” has Kim Cascone's fingerprints all over it.
Vernacular opens strongly with a perfectly rendered meditation by Athens-born ambient artist Hior Chronik called “Sketches of You,” a brooding strings-based evocation that entrances for the full measure of its six minutes. More representative of the recording is Onodera's “Blue Planet Sky,” which, created for the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, is a quintessential gallery piece that creeps ever so glacially through geological fields of quiet rumble and blanketing winds. Also memorable are “Tenebrae,” an immersive ambient-drone soundscape from Italian duo Tu M' (active until 2011), and “Magnolia,” a back porch reverie of guitar-generated haze by Argentinean Federico Durand. Piano plunks dominate Kenneth Kirschner's “July 10, 2012,” while an ominous tone dominates the prickly electrical setting “Local Fracs” by Belgium sound artist Yves De Mey (Dale Lloyd, John Grzinich, Lawrence English, and Troum also contribute material to the collection). As always with such projects, the listener can leave the conceptual baggage behind and simply experience the material on purely listening grounds, and Vernacular holds up perfectly well when approached in that manner.