BIFEM: Sultan Hagavik, Only Extasy & Motion

Jason Tavener Photography BIFEM 2017 ONLY EXTASTY AND MOTION_MG_9742
Sultan Hagavik perform Only Extasy & Motion. Jason Tavener Photography.

Review by Kishore Minifie Ryan

Polish duo Sultan Hagavik are somewhat of an exception to BIFEM’s usual aesthetic. Whereas most of the compositions presented at the festival are notated meticulously and require performative virtuosity, Sultan Hagavik’s performance is unscored and virtuosity is almost ​irrelevant. In the tradition of John Oswald’s Plunderphonics, they take tapes of popular artists and manipulate them, using cassette decks and Dictaphones, into something new.

Mikołaj Laskowski and Jacek Sotomski, with their bleached hair and face masks, have an androgynous, doll-like appearance. Their masks, besides from the thick black eyebrows and bright red lips, are translucent. On their recordings, their instrumentation is often credited collectively as “portable cassette deck players and Dictaphones” and although they sometimes specify the individual cassette players that each of them use, their respective contributions are less important than the overall impact of their combined performance. Furthermore, the fact that their faces are hidden makes it more or less impossible to identify them individually.

One has much longer hair that protrudes from under his beanie and wears a low-cut shirt that reveals chest hair. The other wears a colourful vest and pyjama pants. They sit among the equipment scattered across the stage, which includes several cassette players, a Walkman, a keyboard and, most likely, a Dictaphone or two. Behind them is a human-size statue of a gorilla with a baby. At the front of the stage is a much smaller statue of a bear.

The first thing we hear is a sampled voice counting “one, two, three” followed by grindcore-esque blast beats played on an ’80s drum machine. The wall of intentionally out-of-time samples and beats comes to a halt and for a couple of seconds and we hear the decay of a cymbal. Then the voice again “one, two, three, four” and more blast beats with noisy tape samples. After the first “movement” the audience does not applaud and we listen as they eject their cassettes from the decks and insert new ones.

Only Extasy & Motion is presented as a long form work, but the “movements” have less in common with New Music—at least in terms of duration and form—than they do with the pop and metal genres they borrow from. Would the audience applaud after each movement (song) if Sultan Hagavik performed in a different context?

The second movement begins with a low drone that quickly speeds up and merges with multiple layers of warped instrument samples. A soul or gospel song—most likely a well known one, but one that my friends and I were unable to identify—is buried under the sound of squeaky sped-up tape. The tape speed is manipulated in such a way as to create an atonal Theremin-like melodic contour. This “theme” is interrupted by a short segment of low tape drone with faltering blasts of the soul song. A recapitulation of the atonal Theremin theme cuts abruptly to the high pitch texture of a cassette being played in fast forward or rewind. The movement is concluded with a warped flute-like melody that sounds as though it is taken from the same soul song.

Only Extasy & Motion is most evidently derivative of John Oswald’s Plunderphonics technique in its third movement, which sounds as if it is created entirely from samples of one recording. Rammstein’s self-titled 1995 song begins with low synth hits and the tape speed is initially, albeit briefly, consistent. For the first time we hear a discernible key, or harmonic point of reference, but this is quickly eliminated by an increase in tape speed. The well-known guitar riff (with bass and drum kit) is paused at the end of each bar, or sometimes after a couple of beats, giving way to a low tape drone, presumably created from samples of the same song. Snippets of the famous guitar hook are played back at slightly different tempos before the song is heard only in fast forward and, quite possibly, in rewind, at speeds that make it unrecognisable.

In the fifth movement we hear a woman screaming sexually. The vocal sample, presumably taken from a porn video, is manipulated in such a way as to create a melodic contour of sorts. This porn-melody is somewhat reminiscent of the atonal Theremin-esque line in the second movement. However, the porn sample is played back in start-stop bursts and as a result is somewhat less suggestive of a Theremin. That is to say, its staccato-ness interrupts the horizontal contour. At one point the tape speed is slowed—like John Oswald’s 1988 plunderphonic recording of Dolly Parton’s “The Great Pretender”—in order to make the female voice sound like a man’s.

There are also several movements in Only Extasy & Motion that are not characterised by appropriation of popular songs. One movement is defined by bird sounds and another is built around a dance hall beat and a simple chord progression. At one point one of the performers in Sultan Hagavik hammers out a simple chord progression on an actual keyboard (set to piano sound) and repeats this for a surprisingly long time. The other performer eventually positions the microphone in front of his face and the audience wait in expectation. When he sings his voice is drenched in reverb and other effects, making it hard to distinguish from the rest of the music. After some time, everything fades out except the piano sound. The singer sits without moving and again we listen in anticipation. He triggers a loud sample of a female voice singing “baby” and the audience laughs. He triggers samples of “baby” and “don’t stop now” repeatedly until the audience gradually stops laughing.

The denouement of Only Extasy & Motion is made from The Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”. Initially the bluesy guitar riff is punctuated by a snare-like rhythm on beats two and four achieved by quickly switching a cassette deck on then off. The vocal anacrusis “she’s so…” and the triplet guitar arpeggio that follows remain relatively untouched besides from slight tape speed manipulation. John Lennon’s vocals, “I want you, I want you so bad” are mixed very loud and the rest of the track is almost muted, lyrically and thematically echoing the “baby” and “don’t stop now” vocal samples and pornographic sound bites, all of which accentuate the strong sexual implications of the work’s title. The denouement is reminiscent of the Rammstein movement in terms of its loud dynamic and blatant plunderphonic treatment of a guitar-oriented pop song. A section characterised by somewhat minimal variations in tape speed transitions to a section made up of fast forward and rewind sounds over tape noise. After everything fades to silence, a vocal sample of a woman sings what sounds like “Zola” and then something indiscernible—I could not identify this sample either. The audience laughs nervously, then applauds.

Only Extasy & Motion could be understood as a feminist critique of popular culture, but whether or not Sultan Hagavik intended it as such is ambiguous. The transformation of porn audio into melody is an unusual form of appropriation. Evidently, judging by the audience’s laughter, most people find the porn-melody hilarious, although others may well find it upsetting. Do Laskowski and Sotomski wear masks merely as a means to remain anonymous? Do they slow the tape down purely to make the porn-melody sound funnier? Or are their androgynous masks and the fact that they briefly slow the tape down to make the porn sample sound like a man meant to be understood as critiques on gender norms? The fact that The Beatles’ song is characterised by an expression of lust and is sung by a man combined with the inclusion of highly sexualised female vocal samples mirrors the objectification of women within the popular music industry and society in general, but whether these samples were combined with feminist intentions—or perhaps as a comment on heteronormativity—remains indeterminate.

Only Extasy & Motion
Sultan Hagavik
Trades Hall
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
Saturday 2 September

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