Philip Jeck An Ark for the Listener

[Touch; 2010]

Styles: turntablism, experimental, ambient, sampling
Others: Christian Marclay, Fennesz, Gavin Bryars, Alter Ego, Janek Schaefer

Philip Jeck’s latest album for Touch follows faithfully in the path of previous work by the British artist. As before, Jeck mixes the sound of salvaged Fidelity record players with Casio keyboards, minidisc recorders, bass guitar, and effects pedals. The use of old turntables as instruments serves to highlight the bygone sounds of machines once considered the height of sonic fidelity and convenience. Jeck is not being true to the original function of this technology, but rather to its subsequent history as a way of mediating time and space.

Jeck’s work shows fidelity to hip-hop aesthetics in ways that go beyond the obvious connections of turntablism and sampling. Most notable, perhaps, is the way his art engages with questions of space, at one moment seeming to faithfully reflect an external sonic world, the next engaged in creating sonic space itself, summoning up seemingly tangible sites in which to place its listeners. Hip-hop followed a trajectory that began with the sonic reappropriation of urban space, then, via producers such as The Bomb Squad, the production of an aural reflection of urban noise, before going on to claim the mainstream soundscapes of shopping centers and the mass-mediated spaces of popular culture. From the subcultural confines of pedestrian-based locales to the booming ubiquity of jeep beats, hip-hop steadily territorialized sonic space as the millennium approached.

What was left behind is hinted at in alternative hip-hop, grime, and dubstep’s haunted ghost samples. Jeck’s work taps into this refuse and can even be seen in hindsight as a kind of proto-dubstep, its technological crackles and blurrings hinting at a subterranean soundworld at once contemporaneous and hopelessly lost. It is highly appropriate that Jeck uses old vinyl records and discontinued turntables as the mainstays of his art, for the sonic textures they provide serve as reminders of the spectral persistence of supposedly obsolete technologies. But if vinyl has refused to go away, its cultural memory work is hardly a mainstream pursuit, meaning that its fetishists labor in a kind of constant limbo between present and past.

This subterranean aspect seems particularly relevant to An Ark for the Listener, which was inspired by a Gerald Manley Hopkins poem written as an elegy for five nuns drowned at sea in 1875. The work is divided into seven discrete pieces, each bearing its own title. As in other shipwreck-inspired works — Gavin Bryar’s The Sinking of the Titanic, Denis Eberhard’s Shadow of the Swan, or Explosions in the Sky’s “Six Days at the Bottom of the Ocean” (the latter two both inspired by the Russian submarine Kursk) — the soundworld evoked is an underwater one that alternates between hypnotic fascination, isolation, and terror.

There’s an icy clarity to second track “Ark,” which manages to mix a sense of calm with an equal sense of foreboding. It’s hard to know whether we are above or below the water at this point. “Twentyninth,” like Eberhard’s work, is built on descent, while sounds of dripping water presage imminent disaster as they echo uncannily through the metallic corridors of “Dark Rehearsal.” “The All of Water,” the penultimate track of the suite, delivers the most terrifying message, its wall of noise rising in crescendo to first envelop, then crush the listener in its ocean of sound.

Woven around these pieces are three iterations on a piece entitled “Pilot,” the last of which is most reminiscent of Jeck’s earlier work. Temporarily eschewing the sparse, becalmed sonics of the preceding tracks, “The Pilot (Among Our Shoals)” manages a stuttering beat that hints at some sort of rebirth, only to fade again into the silence of the lost.

There are two “coda tracks,” remixed from the vinyl-only 2008 album Suite: Live in Liverpool. Both fit with the muted, elegiac mode of Ark, especially “Chime Chime (Re-rung),” with its vinyl crackle suggesting the ways in which loss is as much about transference as absence, about the creation of new sonic textures via the obliteration of old. What has gone leaves in its wake a new sonority; in Jeck’s hands, records and record players act as mediums to channel those ambient ghost sounds. An Ark for the Listener provides a suitably spooky séance and helps to cement Jeck’s reputation as an unparalleled purveyor of phonographic memory work.

Links: Philip Jeck - Touch

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