Through recording compositional music in public spaces, artists surrender a degree of control in production by allowing their environment to manipulate captured sound quality. Locality becomes instrumental to the project, which is realized by embarking on an enterprise that has the potential to be particularly tricky. First off, there is the question of permission and the consequences that ensue if it is not obtained. Then there are logistical factors concerning equipment and how it is set up, feeding wires around obscure fixtures and operating with bad lighting, for instance. There’s also the issue of jurisdiction and letting some of that go in order to give a particular slant or angle to the work. Reasons for taking such trouble tend to vary, from creating a precise atmosphere dependent on the location to making a particular statement about the projects being created in a given setting.
When place adds a political or a symbolic reference point to the music, an altogether (over)loaded dimension permeates. Diamanda Galas transcended these dimensions with her hideously chaotic Plague Mass, an AIDS awareness performance she executed at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, which resulted in one of the most difficult and hard-hitting protest albums ever burnt to disc. The show itself was a primary factor, sure, but the fact that it was accomplished in a cathedral added contextual implications that go beyond sonic appreciation. The same could be said for Einstürzende Neubauten’s Arbeit, which was pieced together inside a pillar of the Stadtautobahn bridge. Setting was employed, not only as a design mechanism indebted to the materials gathered for the structure’s erection, but also to ramify the project statement about communal space and the socio-political situation in West Berlin at the time.
Such recording preferences allow for a curious pretext to The Swifter and the location they have utilized in forging their debut effort. The group is composed of BJ Nilsen, Simon James Phillips, and Andrea Belfi: an electronic music producer, a classically trained pianist, and an experimental percussionist, respectively. They constitute a group of international practitioners working together for the first time under a moniker borrowed from the protective line that prevents a ship’s capstan bars from falling out of their sockets, a self-professed experimental triad with a nautical bent and a tendency to manipulate abstract soundscapes. As a collective, they adhere to a camp where environments are key in achieving their meticulous textures, without necessarily bearing a partisan or scriptural stance, despite capturing their primary effort at the Grunewald church in Berlin. Their technique resonates deeply as a consequence of the setting in which they have chosen to perform, which is outstandingly reflected in this final mix.
Similar undertakings by equally ambitious artists are by no means uncommon: Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden, Tori Amos’ Boys For Pele, and PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake were all recorded in churches so as to amplify unequivocal sonic models. However, the latter two of those albums were laid down in buildings frequented by practicing congregations, whereas the church Mark Hollis and Tim Friese Greene chose was apparently abandoned. A distinction is brought out, therefore, between selecting a mere shell of theological sanctity and an operational place of worship used every day by people wishing to connect with their spirituality. Both choices surely have an impact on the performers, as they face varying degrees of religious paraphernalia depending on congregational status.
What makes Grunewald a practical choice is that issues of permission and logistics have been tackled by like-minded artists in the not too distant past, and for good reason. The structure has a superb setup, a singular spire, stone walls, and beautifully deep reverberation prospects that have been captured using a range of techniques for live concert and LP assembly alike — the most relevant example of which, aesthetically speaking, is A Winged Victory For The Sullen, whose gorgeous ambient piano compositions saw them finding a spot on TMT’s Favorite 50 Albums of 2011. The building has also played venue for Dustin O’Halloran, Nils Frahm, and Peter Broderick in recent years, which not only indicates a distinct relationship between the Evangelical event organizers and contemporary (non)classical musicians, but also a desire to promote the distinct and hallow acoustics that come from live renditions at the church.
The Swifter combine their desire to record in an open, public space with the nautical aspects of their namesake. They aurally transform the alter into the hull of a ship, which bulges and splits as the group grace their makeshift platform. The transpiring set plays on these themes through track titles in addition to the coarse reverberation that clings to Phillips’ trembling keys and Belfi’s sporadic percussion, a delicate vessel at the mercy of a cascading body of water, chopping and slipping in tempo and rhythm. The ambiance embodies tumultuous quality, which exposes one of the central reasons for choosing this space: The Swifter utilize the loss of acoustic control that was wonderfully harnessed by A Winged Victory For The Sullen and use it here to bridge switches in pace that are so curiously explored on, for example, the second half of “Neap Tide,” which folds tidy and repetitive high notes into slowly encroaching percussion before breaking off into an imposing drone. Where these projects diverge somewhat is in their apparent mood; an air of uncertainty bisects the seemingly improvised jams this inconspicuous trio conjure as Nilsen feeds Phillips’ beautiful renditions through his wily circuitry.
Such subtle moments are also alluded to in the seafaring references that trickle across The Swifter’s tracklist. The interplay amid the stone-wall acoustics of Grunewald and the unyoked compositions that spill out over its decks create the most forsaken, precarious sensations — the sound of a bow creaking on “Swallow” or the rapid engulf of piano and percussion patchwork on “Wave Guidance Allows Three.” This is a project that remains loyal to its underlying themes while leaning heavily on the interference, or even the guidance, of environmental surroundings. The four resulting tracks bolster the groups’ decision to record at Grunewald while emphasizing their intent on using the building as a vehicle as opposed to exploring the possibility of lacing their songs with a message that veers anywhere outside of sonic temperament. In this case, it makes for an absorbing, resplendent listen that pulls on the unique talents of each musician, despite the isolated and forceful pieces they present here. A manically inspired protest album this is not, but through utilizing the capacity of their venue, The Swifter have cultivated a celestially enchanting debut.