Stephan Mathieu On Tape

[Häpna; 2004]

Rating: 3.5/5

Styles: minimalist electronica, field recording, ambient drone
Others: Shalabi Effect, William Basinski, Gas

On Tape is a 32-minute, single eponymous track constructed by German experimentalist drummer and knob-twiddler Stephan Mathieu. Mathieu mixes free-jazz recordings from the Swedish saxophonist Magnus Greenberg and trio Tape with his own minimalist drumming and gentle washes of electronic hiss and organic, acoustic texture. The liner notes state that the work was recorded live in Stockholm, though it's unclear if all instruments were played live or simply dropped in by Mathieu on the fly. The key word here is ambient: nine minutes in, all we've heard is a few scattered taps, long-held notes played by an unidentifiable instrument (probably sax), and some digital wispiness or manipulated tape hiss. You'd better turn the volume up, too -- there's little here to make your spectrum analyzer jump. By the 11th minute, one can hear what sound like distant bird chirps and perhaps a flute in the mix, along with some jumpy hiss-squiggles.

Might it be appropriate to call ambient electronica like On Tape a connoisseur's Pure Moods? Percussive bass notes aren't heard until the track's 18th minute, and are used to the same hypnotic effect as the track's wind instruments. The liner notes match the music perfectly -- a handwritten note (presumably by Mathieu himself) lists the contributors to the "wonderful evening," and is printed on matte paper to look like authentic penciling. The artwork depicts photographs taken looking out the windows of what appears to be a nature lodge, with mounted and captioned cross-sections of trees visible upon the room's walls. I can't help but feel that I probably wouldn't enjoy this music in a live setting -- I'd get impatient, tired of standing, or restless for conversation which would doubtless be shushed by pious laptop disciples.

On Tape is a sonic meditation best served by a meditation of the listeners' own, perhaps with the aid of accompanying visual, nasal, or narcotic stimulation. That I muted the track a couple of times to be sure I wasn't listening to my computer case fan should give the reader an idea of On Tape's placidity. But while Mathieu's album is modest, it's also very good, though perhaps not quite as much so as the $17 list price would seem to warrant. I was a little disappointed to hear prominent bird sounds in On Tape's final minutes -- which one can find on everything from Songs:Ohia to Everclear -- but the indistinguishable eddies: snatches of speech, perhaps, and low-frequency rumbles that accompany the chirps exemplify the valuable parts of the piece. Naturally, On Tape exits with as soft a whisper as it begins.

1. On Tape

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