Bernhard Guenter - un peu de neige salie
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
dans ma main –
un peu de neige salie
(it would melt
in my hand –
a bit of soiled snow)
There is something indefinable lost in the English translation of the haiku from which electronic composer Bernhard Günter drew the title of his first collection of pieces. The translation, though accurate on a language level, lacks the intangible essence of the original text – the delicate softness of the feminine, the languid speech rhythms, the hidden mystery beyond the literal surface. Thus it is not surprising that description of Günter’s music through the printed word and in the language of previous musical experience fails to capture its stunning effect on the listener. It is music unlike any other, as cold and natural as the snowflake in the haiku and every bit as fragile – forever teetering on the verge of dissolution and nearly broken by even the slightest touch.
Quiet is the wrong word for it; it is something beyond quiet. Breathe too loudly and the sounds flee from audibility. Become distracted and the music evaporates entirely. As such, un peu de neige salie involves the listener in a way that no other music can – without his or her attention, the music simply vanishes. It demands its own time and space apart from distraction and pleads for your utmost attention. In their absolute humility, the sounds call for a profound resistance to the unending noise of everyday life; they will crumble beneath the sound of traffic, the hum of your computer, or even the ticking of a clock. Those environmental sounds that inevitably leak through intermingle with the recorded sounds to create fascinating illusions in perception. The background buzz of electricity from your speakers merges with the music’s faint hums and clicks and the slight whine of the nervous system fills the silences. Thus un peu de neige salie becomes more than a collection of “music” to be listened to – it becomes an invitation to a sort of “ritual of perception” in which the listener must sacrifice the world’s competing distractions in order heighten his or her sensitivities to the slightest of sonic phenomena.
With the proper listening environment established, the listener is treated to a spectacular range of perceptual occurrences born of the unique interplay between listener and composition. Framed in lengthy silences, islands of dry hiss and crackle flicker and recede from the edges of audibility with something bordering on trepidation, with the sounds lurking in the safety of the shadows instead of the coverless foreground. The quietness of the music imbues it with a feeling of being absolutely sourceless, as if each stratospheric whistle hovered near the ceiling or each static-laden crunch hung effortlessly in different corners of the room. Every grainy blur and pitch-shifted pulse emits a palpable urgency that invites the listener to scour its almost tactile surface for each detail. The sounds – derived mostly from unspecified samples treated beyond recognition – are cold, dry, and artificial clicks and drones devoid of warmth or affectation. And yet they exude the same soft femininity of Günter’s haiku snowflake, their sharp edges muted by the quiet’s illusion of distance. The impression of delicacy is further heightened by their isolated, fragmentary presentation. The soft crunches, hazy-edged hums, and pinprick whistles peek from the speakers in seemingly haphazard bundles until, through imperceptible shuffling and reordering, they weave an intuitive, organic web of sound held together by long strands of silence.
The psychological effect of un peu de neige salie upon the listener, however, is of equal if not greater importance than the album’s musical purely sonic components. To listen to Bernhard Günter’s procession of tiny, elusive sounds – especially at the low volume at which it is intended – is to engage in a uniquely submissive act, a complete sacrifice to a microscopic universe that would otherwise go unnoticed. As the mind and the ear gradually acclimate themselves to such an unfamiliar sound world they become acutely aware of the faintest detail and the subtlest changes in presentation. Sounds that once seemed uniform blossom into curiously complex entities and events that once seemed random map themselves onto some secret, unconscious rhythmic grid. The tiniest click becomes a monument in delicate individuality. Laid bare by the silence, Günter’s peculiarly stark noises take on a nearly erotic quality, like the listener’s ear must first caress them before they fully reveal themselves. It is this sort of seduction that creates the music’s most stunning effect: one gains not only an awareness of the music, but a privileged awareness of the act of listening itself . The quality of submissiveness dissipates from the listening experience, replaced by an impression of communing with the nature of sound itself; it’s an awareness so stirring that it justifies the practical impossibilities of listening to un peu de neige salie .
Bernhard Günter’s music, and in particular this debut collection of pieces, demands a level of commitment beyond that of casual listening or the desire for entertainment. un peu de neige salie is among the canon of rare works that cannot simply be “listened to” in any conventional sense of the word. Instead, it must be directly and thoroughly experienced – submitted to, meditated upon, examined, and contemplated. For those willing to accept its demands, the music offers rich rewards – a world of infinite complexity in which all things delicate becomes resilient and vice versa. The rewards, however, extend beyond an appreciation of the music itself. Günter’s static-laden microcosms are an invitation to reclaim the powers of perception, to become intensely aware of the capacity of ones senses, and to search out the hidden sounds in one’s daily life. Description renders this secret knowledge hollow – only experience can unfurl the universe contained in un peu de neige salie . An amazing work in every sense.
By: Joe Panzner
Published on: 2003-09-01