Album review by Henry Andersen
Anything repeated enough times comes to seem different. When a scratch on a vinyl record creates a locked groove, the resultant loop of sound pulls itself away from the normal tension and release of the music around it. The natural choreography of the stylus is disrupted. (Imagine the stylus as Sisyphus pushing his boulder up the hill, only to have it fall back down each day. In this moment, Camus will tell us, “[o]ne must imagine Sisyphus happy.”) If you’ve ever left a locked groove playing for some time, or fallen asleep to the clicks and pops of a stylus on the cardboard centre of an LP, then you’ll know that there is joy to be found in stripping away the narrative function of music and letting it go nowhere for a little while.
Grain Loops is the latest LP from Sydney based composer and sound artist Austin Buckett. Though the album is released on vinyl, the loops from which it is constructed are digital, not analogue. That is, they have been made by cutting and repeating digital waveforms recorded by Buckett during a residency in Banf, Canada. All of the recordings are made by passing sandpaper over the surface of four snare drums. This techniques is a favourite of Bucket’s, for the rich variation in noise colour that it can create. In most circumstances, the detail of this coloration would pass unnoticed but on Grain Loops with each snippet of sound bracketed by repetitions of itself, the finer details of the sound (call them grains if you like) suddenly become magnified. Hear that filter-like effect in the left channel? no? listen again. and again. and again.
The album’s drive to repetition is carried by its macro-structure as well. There are a total of 30 tracks – each track lasts for exactly one minute and is made of one loop (of around 1-5 seconds) repeated to fill its allotted, one-minute bracket. The decision to have each track last one minute seems quite arbitrary (for me it could have been longer) but the decision to keep each track at equal proportions to its neighbours is vital. Even as the sonic qualities and groove of each track change, the essential concept is repeated – like 30 manifestations of a single idea or 30 photographs of a single object. You could think of the form of the whole album as something like a ‘theme and variations’ – only without the theme. The album doesn’t have an ‘original theme’ in any traditional sense (proven by the fact that the album’s tracks could easily be shuffled without upsetting the form). If there is an ‘original theme’ it is the concept and it isn’t heard so much as it is hinted at by the common factors that span each variation.
If there is a chance to escape modernism’s morbid obsession with progress, it is through repetition. Anything that loops back on itself can’t be moving foreward. We can forget that grand narrative for a little while and just enjoy the feeling of going nowhere (what could be more comforting, and more endless, than the sound of windscreen wipers in a storm?). As each track of Grain Loops plays, even as we know it will only last a minute, it feels like it could play forever – has played forever. It seems to stretch past the horizon in every direction. And then, all of a sudden, we are back where we started – with Sisyphus, the stylus and the locked groove. Anything repeated enough times takes comes to seem different…
By Henry Andersen
Partial Durations is a RealTime/Matthew Lorenzon joint project.