Francisco López: Through the Looking Glass

Kairos (5 CDs: 0012872KAI)

26 August 2009 4 stars

LopezIn Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, Alice ventures through the mirror to explore the space shown on its surface. It is the space of our own world in reflection; but this area she enters is not, as would be anticipated by reason, a direct representation of the world: rather, the looking glass, in the process of doubling the world, distorts and transforms it, summoning the people, places and objects of the world to a different order of sense and nonsense (to the entertainment of the reader).

The analogy is a fitting one for this collection of works by Francisco López. López has worked for the past thirty years in the twin field of musique concrète and sound art. This area of activity demarcates a mode of art that has arisen only relatively recently, resultant of a hitherto impossible engagement with sound that has been enabled by modern technology. Here we find the composer (or sound artist) working directly with sound and acoustic events instead of dealing with them indirectly through musical notation. In this way, like Alice, the listener is given a world that is not a representation of their own one, but a transformation of it into something new, unknown and inviting of exploration.

Rainfall, storms, birdsong, city street traffic and village festivals are some of the things previously used as models by composers from classical times up to now. But latterly, technology has allowed direct presentation and manipulation of these events themselves by way of recording technology. Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry were the pioneers of this work, inventing the concepts of musique concrète (concrète as the composer works directly with 'concrete' sound) and l'objet sonore (music considered as a material event). Considering Schaeffer's importance to contemporary composition and musical thought, it is surprising that his treatise from the mid-twentieth century, Traité des Objets Musicaux, remains untranslated into English. The consequences of his thought are seeing themselves worked out variously in the work of many composers (Lachenmann, Murail and López to name but three) who have found in them a fruitful alternative to the calcified conservatism of orthodox academic musical thought.

This five CD set (sold for the price of a double CD) contains works that for the most part have been issued previously on different small independent labels, labels featuring underground artists that would usually not be found performing at venues for contemporary music. As such, it signals something of a crossover, and offers up the intriguing possibility of these two channels beginning to enjoy more of a confluence than they have hitherto had. Further, it suggests that such a confluence, as brought about in the listening habits of the customer, lies in the hands of record labels and venues to bring about, acting as mediums of the listening possibilities available to consumers.

In his thought-provoking sleeve notes (a rarity in contemporary music releases), López sets out his ideas regarding the interface of music, sound and perception. Music has arrived at a juncture where the eye of the creator now falls upon perception itself: its eyeshot, the arc of its vision, the spectrum that allows it, and the fabric of those visions that appear. All falls into question, and rightly so: 'While millions of people today gather fixed extractions of reality [e.g. photos]… with the specific purpose of somehow perceiving that reality again through an illusion… some of us work with the realisation that those extractions, in fact, are a different "reality" in themselves.' The work engaged in here is the production of sound environments and acoustic vistas: a 'creation and construction of virtual worlds of experience out of that spatial, temporal and material substance of reality.'

Each disc is in this way strikingly different in mood, with the sources used for the recordings, as well as the compositional outcomes reached, diverse in character. La Selva (1997) comes from a recording done at the eponymous biological station in Costa Rica during the rainy season, and straightforwardly features the live organic environmental sounds of a jungle: water, crickets, birds, and other sounds less readily discernable. Belle Confusion 969 (1996) features recordings from tropical and subtropical forests in different countries, but does not at all sound like it: it rather creates an indistinct world of its own, a continuous drift of drones and whooshes. Other works have as starting point recordings taken from New York buildings, Spanish streets and undefined sources, and may or may not sound like their source material: in line with López's method, the pieces move between 'straight sound environments, through a medium level virtuality transformation, to a complete unrecognisability of the original source matter.' Some beautiful, mysterious worlds are ushered into existence; and the work presented is nothing if not multi-faceted.

Although subtle and non-bombastic in approach, the collection of works on Through the Looking Glass can present a startling and affective listening experience, shifting one out of one's normal listening habits and rearranging musical boundaries. The ears become subsequently alive to all sounds – the wind outside resonating though an otherwise silent house, cars passing by in the distance, the fridge humming at a constant interval heard from another room. Like an amniotic fluid (the image is Murail's) the worlds brought into being here wash over the listener, altering one's acoustic sensibility and effecting a transport within one's quotidian experience: López does not only transform the environments he has recorded, but also that one in which a listener habitually finds oneself.

By Liam Cagney