[reviews] afe123lcd
mathieu ruhlmann: as a leaf or a stone

classical-drone []
website, u.s.a., august 2010

Musique concrète is enjoying a resurgence from phonographers, taking to the sonic environment with portable recorders and excellent microphones and using the results to create a variety of unique sound works. My previous exposure to Vancouver sound artist Mathieu Ruhlmann has been through works where field recordings were part of the texture, but where long unbroken threads were more prominent. His previous release, for example, "Tsukubai" on the Mystery Sea sister label Unfathomless, is nearly all composed from sustained sounds with barely audible small sounds as if in the distance. On his new album, "As a Leaf or a Stone", the drone becomes one voice among many and is often completely absent, and the small sounds are sharp and crisp. But where "Tsukubai" started life as hydrophones and water, Leaf's sonic sources are a disparate collection of field recordings, obscure instruments like the ukelin and the shruti box, and household objects such as a turkey baster or a coffee grinder.

Since the drone's role in the sound world becomes supportive rather than assertive, the myriad other sounds can be heard. It also means that Ruhlmann is able to create more narrative structures, with the different layers participating with occasional silence as much as with their audible contributions and with changes in sonic scenery occurring more quickly than in drone or dark ambient works. The busy layers, short and sharp sounds, cluster into scrapes and rustles. Sustained layers can hover quietly in the background or rumble through like passing trucks. Voices drift through on a couple of pieces, drawing the listener further in. Some sounds recur in more than one piece, like a plot thread weaving through the album as a whole. Ruhlmann has done an excellent job at keeping all of the objects separate in the sound field, each crackle and rustle clear and distinct.

Musique concrète theorists debate whether a sound object should display the worldly baggage of its origins or should be sufficient unto itself. Ruhlmann lists the sound sources for each individual piece on the inside cover of the album, thus enabling the listener to grapple with the dilemma on his and her own. I find a curiosity about the sounds when I listen, satisfied by these credits, but being able to assign an origination label doesn't illuminate, merely permits the aural attention to refocus on other perspectives. Each of these six vignettes, ranging from four to seven and a half minutes, is a separate journey, sharing a microscopic level of amplified detail and a wonder at the hidden glories around us. Many field recording artists use processing to obscure the details, but there is so much detail here that I suspect that Leaf's sources are fairly raw, with judicious editing for each layer rather than processing the sounds beyond any recognition, an impression solidified with the epigraph from French poet Francis Ponge praising "expression on behalf of the raw object (with no a priori concern about the form of that expression)".

[Caleb Deupree]