There are sharply plucked guitar strings and a combination of echoes — glitchy snaps, high-pitched synthesized tones, occasionally with a touch of Morse code to them, and the guitar itself playing a complementary line. This is the elegant “Sketch for Electric Guitar, Laptop & Electromagnetic Interference” by A Companion of Owls, aka Stephen Stamper of Helsinki, Finland. In a brief accompanying note he explains in slightly greater detail than the track’s title: “Sketch for single coil pickup electric guitar, monophonic pitch tracking sine wave oscillator, three randomly reversible audio buffers and electromagnetic interference.” The real beauty in the piece may be the pauses, the waiting, the time during which something is held before something else appears — it adds drama, intensity, and narrative to sounds that are quite simple unto themselves.
Begin with a 20-year old box of cassette tapes that capture your old band’s rehearsals. Digitize them, and in doing so accidentally route them through “a jumble of digital filters and delays,” making the sounds overlap and layer. Consider that moment as your stepping-off point for a musical exploration of the mind’s short-term, echoic memory. Result: Echoic, 42 minutes of misty drones that, outside of the opening moments of the first track, bear no resemblance to their source materials. Very little memory of the original is left after Stephen Christopher Stamper is done manipulating the sounds. Instead, we are given a collection of hypnotic structures with a minimalist amount of shift and churn. In places they become large, dense things that take over your head by filling it with big amounts of sound. The first track, “There,” balances on the edge in this, but stays just to the passive side of aggressive. On the other hand, “Out,” the closing track, grows continuously into an overwhelming storm of near-white noise. In other places, as on “Original,” the sounds are sparse and ghostly. On that track, Stamper gives voices from the original tapes more presence, but keeps them just far enough out of aural focus to make you feel a little like you’re eavesdropping. “Bark” finds a half-buried rhythm to work into its ambient flow, but it’s so nicely downplayed it almost becomes subliminal. I like this track, but something in the way its elements come together causes there to be some borderline awkward sound drops, like rough tape edits, mostly late in the piece. It may be on purpose but it’s just enough of a bump to take me out of an otherwise deep ride.
Drone enthusiasts are going to find a lot to like on Echoic. It has a distinct dynamic, shifting constantly and patiently, and Stamper gets down to some very small detail work to add texture. As a background listen, the whispering quality of the sounds goes a long way toward quieting a space. It’s one of those works that will subtly get your attention in new places each time you listen. Loop this in headphones if you’re in the mood for a brain massage—well, until you get to that last track, which will most certainly wake you from your drone-fed reverie. This is well worth diving into and letting it flow.
Available from A Companion of Owls.
Sensory memory basically consists of two main categories: iconic (visual) memory and echoic (auditory) memory. The second one acts when information is processed through an in/voluntary act of listening. Auditory sensory memory is a form of short-term memory and refers to the way the brain can make an exact copy of what we hear, fixing it in the mind for a brief period (usually about 2-4 seconds). Stephen Christopher Stamper, the author of Echoic, says: “The genesis of this album came from a shoebox full of old cassette tapes I had been dragging around for well over 20 years. Containing recordings made by my friends and I, these cassettes had slowly morphed from a type of hastily scribbled musical sketchpad into a tangible form of long-term memory: fragments of thoughts and ideas encoded deep within the tape’s magnetic subconscious”. Fearful of losing these precious memories, or at the very least the means to retrieve them, he pulled his barely functioning Walkman out of storage and began the long and arduous task of digitising this irreplaceable archive. To remember verbal information in the long term it is necessary to process them relative to a precise meaning. The sound-artist has extracted and manipulated these remote pieces, scrutinizing them using his current live performance set-up, subjecting old recordings to delay and various other digital filters.The audio fragments are no longer than four seconds: this is the “echoic” memory, which overlaps with the present, forcing an investigator to re-hear familiar sounds in a whole new way. Not too theory-heavy, the work offers some lovely ambient sequences, drones and feedback loops, developed inside well-defined melodic structures. These methods are nothing new, but they are certainly not lacking in quality and technique.
Reviewed by Captain Fidanza on Oct 4, 2014
Run for your lives it’s the return of Runningonair Music, those insane musical scientists who do some science and then make sounds that the science inspires.
The previous release from this artist featured “algorithmic compositions” in place of what a dullard such as myself would probably call “songs” or “tracks.” It’s okay though, because these fellows are working for the greater good, they’re not building a new kind of atomic bomb in their garages, they’re making these extraordinary albums so it doesn’t really matter what they call the contents.
As before and as with anything made available to the public by this extraordinary label, this is music unlike anything you’re likely to hear elsewhere, made by people who have somehow managed to meld the two, seemingly opposite worlds of science and art and create something beautiful, hypnotic and truly beguiling.
The creator describes these six slices of ambient hum as exercises in extreme short-term memory morphing out of old cassettes. The record label talks up microtonal possibilities and music aligned with the promise of mathematics. Neither gloss makes much immediate sense to me, so here goes: drone-fuzz, magnetic pulsation, vocal snippets, waking dreams, the surf’s steady pound and the hum of utility poles, all mainlining into the concluding and somewhat terrifying cosmic resonance that is “Out”. The wisest words ever uttered by Julian Cope came in Krautrocksampler, when he described Tangerine Dream’s Zeit thusly: “unchanging unfolding near-static barely-shifting vegetable organic-ness takes over the room and permeates the whole house”. This isn’t Zeit. But it travels the same space ways.
This is the second album which is released on the English Runningonair Music label run by sound artist Joe Evans. Stamper is a sound artist from Newcastle who now lives in London working on sound, installations and performances.
The raw material of ‘echoic’ comes from old cassette recordings made by his friends and Stamper himself, who digitizes them and become part of his set-up using a laptop that comes to contain this echoic memory. This term is created by the German psychologist Ulric Neisser, who develops cognitive science and behavioral change to cognitive models of psychology. Refers to how the brain is able to retain an exact copy of what is listened for a few seconds.
The music on ‘Echoic’ consists of six pieces that delve into ambient and drones deploying beautiful atmospheres that invite the listener to a nice trip.
‘See’ conjure-up the ambience of Stars Of The Lid and ‘Out’ and ‘Out’ LovesLiesCrushing’s shoegaze-ambient. Beautiful.
Here’s someone who calls himself a ‘former teenage metalhead’ who likes musical extremity, but is not your standard noise boy. He is from Newcastle and lives in London where he mainly does sound work, installations and performances exploring acoustic phenomena and in 2012 he released ‘Begin Anywhere’ (see Vital Weekly 820), also on Runningonair Music. Now we have some more information, also on the music itself. Apparently the six pieces here originate from a box of old cassettes, which he still drags around, and now found a place in his set-up, which is ‘a jumble of digital filters and delays suddenly became my laptop’s echoic memory’, with credit to Ulric Neisser, ‘a significant figure in the development of cognitive science, echoic memory, or auditory sensory memory, is part of the short-term memory and refers to the way the brain can take exact copy of what is heard and hold it for very short periods, roughly two to four seconds’. These six pieces are densely layered pieces of sound – probably similar sounds overlaying and intertwining each other and creating hybrid life forms of insectoid sounds. Crawling over each other, we look through a microscope and see so much more. It’s, in other words, the work of ambient and drone, all of the more darker nature. As such Stamper may not offer something that is very new or very innovative, but I must admit I quite enjoyed these works. It was highly atmospheric, even a bit crude and raw (in ‘Out’), dark, greyish and a nice tune for a winter’s evening. My favourites where ‘Sea’ and ‘Absent’, for they seemed to have a slightly more lighter tone. If you like drones, ambient and a bit of shoegazing, then I am sure you will find pleasure in this as well. (FdW)