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Radio // Aparanthesi
aparanthesi A (2000-03), 30m00s [excerpt]
Track 1 from Aparanthesi
CD: empreintes DIGITALes (2003) IMED 0368
1 June 2004
By Udo Kasemets in Musicworks #89 (Canada), June 1, 2004


“… a most extraordinary, imaginative, and intelligent work of sonic art.”

“Perhaps the earliest sound O remembers noticing was the summer cicada. Later there was a dilemma — was the cicada biological or electrical? Where did it come from?” O is none other than John Oswald, and this quote appears early on in An Aparathentic Bio, an autobiographical memoir included in the package containing a compact disc featuring a most extraordinary, imaginative, and intelligent work of sonic art. (Indeed, I could continue with a whole series of alliterative i-words to describe the qualities of the CD: inspired, inquisitive, intimate, inviting, involving, illuminating, informing, and on and on.) When I call it a package, I don’t mean it’s packaging in the commercial sense. Sure, it has an appealing cover design. But that, too, is part of the completeness of the whole presentation. Not only is there one of Oswald’s inimitable (another i-word) photo-images on the exterior of the slide-in case, but there are also hidden images inside the cover tube. The autobiographical notes are printed on the hard covers that protect the CD. And a folded three quarters of a meter-long sheet carries, in small print, two columns of text on each side of an interview where John Oswald discusses in great detail the making and contents of the recording. Nothing of the above is window- dressing. Oswald’s work is never compartmentalized. Every aspect of research, preparation, realization, and presentation is part of a whole. So, when he writes about O’s curiosity about the cicada; or how O explored the innards of a transistor radio to understand its secrets; or how O experimented with the variable speeds of a phonograph and of reel-to-reel tape recorders; Oswald suggests to the reader that intimate involvement (yes, the i-words) with the reality of sounds and their sources is the foundation of any true musical experience. He invites (i-word!) the reader to enter into O’s world, where what appears to be simple and mundane will eventually emerge as intricate (another i-word) and even quite miraculous. Mind you, the music on the CD can be enjoyed without knowing anything about its maker and makings. Its sounds are organized so sensitively, elegantly, and competently, that their pure physicality draws the listener into the soundscape, and holds her or him there until the almost inaudible fadeout which brings both of the pieces on the disc to a close. Any attempt to describe the pieces in the framework of a brief review is doomed to failure. The parting points for the pieces are the most elementary tunings known to anybody with even the most cursory interest in sonic reality. The first Aparanthesi is based on the frequency 440 Hz — the fundamental tuning tone (named ‘A’) of the Western musical system. For the second aporanthesi Oswald chose the North American electrical standard, 60 Hz as its tuning base. As a plain sine tone, or a piano or cello sound (the only two “conventional” instruments employed), their choice may appear utterly mundane. But the commonality disappears when Oswald exploits the numerous variables underwhich these materials can be exhibited. For instance, there is a delicate but definite difference between hearing the piano range’s eight As as struck on the keyboard, and as they are modulated from a single-source A. Oswald describes one of his processes where the eighty-eight keys of a piano are all tuned to one A (“which sounds like a three-inch long guitar”). By “pitching up” or “pitching down” each of the eighty-eight keys one can imagine a “virtual” grand piano that can grow from its initial length of just ten inches to a monster of over one hundred feet. Not only does Oswald tune the sine, piano, and cello tones to the basic pitch (or its multiples) of the piece, but he does the same with the sounds of thunder, birds, foghorns, and cattle. But it is not just the choice of the sounds — synthetic, instrumental, and of nature — that makes listening to the two Aparanthesi such a special experience; it is also John Oswald’s ability to handle the fadings in and out, the blendings and unblendings, and the spacings and timings of the various materials and their combinations with exquisite taste and acoustic sensitivity. In other words, it is the supreme artistry of John Oswald that gives Aparanthesi its uniquely special quality. I suggested earlier that listening to this CD is thoroughly enjoyable even without reading any of the texts included in the package. (By the way, the package is bilingual: An Aparathentic Bio is in French, the interview in English. Nevertheless, much is to be gained by taking time and with O’s formative years and his personality through his own words. It is not an autobiography like most. It is not about “Look what I have achieved”; it is about “Look — everything, even the smallest, the simplest, is interesting.” And the three-meters-long transcript of the descriptive interview provides a wonderful guide to the listener on how to become an informed partner of a musical process from its genesis in the researcher’s mind to the final consummation in the listener’s ear. Every serious music student should spend hours (and days) with Aparanthesi. Elsewhere in this issue of Musicworks I suggest that we are at the end of an era of musical development in Western culture, and that a new era is in the primal stage of its making. If the clarity of mind, intellectual discipline, and aural sensitivity that went into the process of the production of Aparanthesi is an indication of the direction music of the twenty-first century will take, the future is bright.

blogue@press-808 press@808
10 January 2004
By Carl Wilson in Zoilus (Canada), January 10, 2004


“… two time-stopping compositions…”

Count on Toronto-based Plunderphonics creator Oswald to toss a conceptual grenade through the picture window, with two time-stopping compositions (each one note for a half-hour’s duration) that have John Cage grinning in his grave. As Chris Cutler puts it in his superb review, “a meditation on hearing”—much the way that a lot of the best abstract art has been a meditation on seeing.

blogue@press-678 press@678
1 January 2004
By Julian Cowley in The Wire #239 (UK), January 1, 2004


“… a philosophical investigation of identity and correspondence… a meticulously crafted guide to the intricacies of listening.”

In the notes he supplies to shed light on these two versions of Aparanthesi, Canadian sound alchemist John Oswald enthuses over A, the single pitch used to make the piece, and he talks excitedly of the relevant frequencies measured in Hertz. Yet there’s nothing abstract about this remarkable music. On the contrary it engages with some of the countless potential incarnations of that pitch, from a thunderstorm rumbling across a prairie to Joan Jeanrenaud’s Intensely focused sounding of a cello.

The opening A is a monolithic chord, an Ayers Rock (aka Uluru) of an A. Like that Australian landmark, it then appears to change colour in response to changing light and atmospheric conditions. Oswald’s material undergoes more extensive and fundamental change however. Mass, texture, shape, dynamics alter too as one embodiment morphs into another. A piano tuner at work melts into the weather, a foghorn bellows, rain falls, a mosquito whirrs, sine tones drone, an aviary of birds emerges from a low hum, and miraculously flocks to A. Oswald recalls how, as he morphed the sound of wind instruments, he imagined “the physicality of the instrument transforming, so a conical clarinet would curl into a French horn for instance, and then straighten out into a didgeridoo.”

Aparanthesi could be approached as a philosophical investigation of identity and correspondence, or as a meticulously crafted guide to the intricacies of listening. But those options might be unnecessarily arid. High levels of technical skill and fine judgment are invariably accompanied in Oswald’s music by a clearcut sense of dramatic possibilities, and an awareness of tensions that give form to sonic events and radiate from them to involve his audience in active relationships with evolving structures of sound. Even in a piece that gravitates continually and predictably to a single pitch, strange things happen that spark unexpected images and open up unfamiliar spaces. His generous commentary elucidates but doesn’t even begin to exhaust the fascinating metamorphic drama Oswald has discovered in A.

blogue@press-676_7 press@676_7
1 January 2004
By Chris Cutler in Rer Megacorp (UK), January 1, 2004


“… an indispensable work. Not merely a piece of music… but a meditation on listening.”

(Excuse the length of the review. Summary: Buy it.)

As in his short piece Klangfarbenprobe for the Re Records quarterly many years ago, John here explores in two 30 minute pieces how much variety and structure is obtainable from a single pitch. Western ears are indoctrinated to listen through pitch, to find binding narratives in melody, harmony and their variations, the rest at best is secondary, at worst just colour. The reason so much Baroque music translates so easily to different instruments, including heavy metal guitar, is because it’s the notes that really count. The notes and their ratios and their relationships. Harmony was considered part of a scared mathematics and the relations between pitches expressed absolute, fundamental cosmic realities. Pure music, the music of the spheres related directly to the Platonic forms, the unchanging verities that we can approach but never grasp. That’s why it is the form that matters, the pattern behind the notes, and not the temporary body in which these are clothed. In the age of the Manufacturer and the Usurer - the age of Beethoven and after - while holding to the spiritual in theory, music was progressively seduced by the material. Orchestration came to matter more and more. And once sound recording was invented, the materiality of sound itself became an unegotiable fact. Varese, pre-eminently, relegated notes to a secondary position in his work, pursuing timbre, dynamic, mass, spatiality and contrast, but generally, all the way through to the late 1950s, especially under the sway of post serialism, notes continued to hold their own, even though their grip was slipping. That decade, however, saw two radical responses that recognised and between them reified the dilemma: In the left corner, John Cage shifted his attention to rhythm - which is the organisation of time and which, significantly, is made equally of sound and silence - for him pitch was just material to be poured into structured time; it could be anything - let the sounds be themselves; while, for La Monte Young, in the right corner, pitch became absolutely supreme. John Oswald follows neither route but approaches the problem from a completely different perspective. His work, initially closer to Schönberg’s famous short orchestra piece and Varese’s explorations into dynamic, timbre and spatiality goes beyond these to an exploration of what happens when pitch becomes informationally redundant - or transparent - forcing other qualities of sound to be heard through it, and making thereby what is always missing or suppressed significant. By this simple device - the most original things are always this obvious and one wonders how come it took so long to reach them - the answer is, as always, that it takes a different kind of thinking to see the obvious. By this simple device of removing tonal data by levelling it, John is able to accentuate and make essential parts of hearing we take for granted and, when in art mode, largely ignore. He takes acoustic space, natural and un-natural sound, the outside world and the discourse of music - and by merging and flattening them arrives at strikingly unfamiliar listening aesthetic.

Of course, John’s work with recordings has always been about listening - as well as to a certain extent about perspective, and both concerns are strongly represented here. His method of work involves gradually tuning every sound to a single pitch (an A). There are 10 audible octaves and so 10 degrees of this pitch with which to work. Two human performers are featured, a piano tuner and a cellist, the rest of the material is derived from a library of recorded sounds built up over time - pure sine tones, orchestral instruments playing A’s, voices, environmental sounds: birds, weather, animals, insects, spaces - and so on. It is all - naturally or un-naturally - pitched to an A. This is the material. The second crucial technique employed throughout this piece is morphing: that is, gradually blending one thing into another. A note becomes a storm becomes a flock of birds - think of some of Trevor Wishart’s extraordinary work in this area, except that here the pitch is uniform and the blend can, if desired, be almost imperceptible. A change of object or event becomes simply one of timbres and detail; to morph is effectively to crossfade very slowly. Sounds may gradually turn into one another, or be sunk inside one another like harmonics, to create shifting banks of timbres. An entire aviary of birds winds up at A and A becomes the aether in which they, and everything else, moves.

Because of the variety of sources and the individual recording of them, spatiality moves to the fore; there is much work here with soundscape, interior and exteriority, distance and shape. Such work with scale and reflection and with the sounds of weather and nature inevitably invokes a visual response, and John often speaks in narrative and visual terms in his interview, “it’s raining in the piano,” “a conical clarinet curls into a french horn and then straightens out into a didgeridoo,” “like a giant hummingbird” &c. But because the pitch is constant, our hearing is focused in an entirely unfamiliar way. He quotes Stockhausen’s comparison between the filmic model of seeing a variety of things under a constant light as opposed to seeing the same thing continually under differing lights. Perspective, space and scale permeate this work, in a way I can not refer to any other work. In one section all 88 notes of the piano sound as an A. And how are we to hear this? John in his excellent and comprehensive accompanying interview points out that this could usefully be described as a shift in scale: the piano notes do not change, but the size of the piano does; the lowest note on the keyboard sounding the A would be strung in a 10-inch concert grand, the highest in one over 100 feet long. This is in some ways analogous to the effect of light speeds on length and time: the light is moving at a constant speed while objects shrink and elongate and time stretches and expands.

There are two versions of the piece on this CD, which is an indispensable work. Not merely a piece of music - or a parade of organised sounds - but a meditation on listening.

blogue@press-677_5 press@677_5
24 December 2003
By Christopher DeLaurenti in The Stranger (USA), December 24, 2003


“An eloquently quiet disc…”

[…] Earlier this year, I singled out Wobbly’s Wild Why (Tigerbeat6), a plunderphonic sound collage of hip-hop recordings pinched from the radio, as essential for anyone interested in avant electronics. One of Wobbly’s forebears, plunderphonic progenitor John Oswald, has an intriguing must-hear new release, Aparanthesi (empreintes DIGITALes), which blends delicate sine tones, field recordings, and subtle prepared piano textures. An eloquently quiet disc, savor Aparanthesi on a lonely moonless night.[…]

blogue@press-786 press@786
18 December 2003
By Robert Everett-Green in The Globe and Mail (Canada), December 18, 2003


Aparanthesi is a profound and surprisingly dramatic work.”

Ad Reinhardt used to claim that his all black canvases were the last paintings anyone could make. By the same serious/playful reasoning, you could say that John Oswald’s 65-minute Aparanthesi marks the end of the line for recorded composition, because it contains only one note.

But what exactly is one note? Apart from pure sine tones, every sound we hear is a messy conglomerate of vibrations that determine not only the fundamental pitch but also the density and flavour of the sound. They are the reason a mosquito sounds different from a violin, though a recording of either can be tuned electronically to one pitch, or subtly altered until the bug seems to be morphing into the fiddle. Apply that kind of manœuvre over a range of 10 octaves, and throw open the studio door to any and all sounds that can be recorded, and you begin to understand why it took Oswald three years to edit his one-note composition down to two versions of roughly half an hour each.

Aparanthesi is a profound and surprisingly dramatic work. Its open octaves claim a kind of cosmic scale, though many of the constituent sounds are minute, or deliberately camouflaged by other sounds. Each transition remains tethered to the core pitch, which in time takes on the grounding quality of a monotone chant. Even before a group of monks made a cameo appearance in aparanthesi B, the piece has enacted the unity of motion and stillness, and hearing it can be a mystical experience.

The two versions cleave to two slightly different pitches: 440 kHz (the A used by orchestras and piano tuners) for aparanthesi A, and 480 kHz (the undertone emitted by electrical equipment) for aparanthesi B. The second version, originally developed for a live performance, is the more theatrical, and the more revealing about its source materials. Both exploit the ear’s tendency to preserve a fuzzy zone of acceptability around a given pitch. The relationship between “in tune” and “out of tune” fascinates Oswald, who has made several tuning pieces for live and recorded sounds, and whose music celebrates perfection and deviance with equal fervour.

Aparanthesi is ultimately about paying attention, to sounds and their qualities, and to the mysterious interrelation of unity and difference. It’s the practical realization of a metaphor coined years ago by R Murray Schafer: the tuning of the world.

More information about Aparanthesi can be found at www.electrocd.com.

blogue@press-675 press@675