August 2017

On Senufo Editions

The Recording as Essay, or the Pleasure of Listening
By Matt Wuethrich

“Time is its own form of composition.”

—Giuseppe Ielasi

“If you like listening to those sounds, just let them be.”

—Jennifer Veillerobe

After a two-year hiatus, Senufo Editions has resumed activity. Giuseppe Ielasi, who curates Senufo alongside Jennifer Veillerobe, explains that the revived label will concentrate primarily on releasing his and Veillerobe’s own work. Ielasi’s 3 pauses, a three-disc set featuring liminal collages of loops from obscured sources, is the first of the rebooted catalog numbers, though a cassette from label stalwart Alessandro Brivio and a catalog of Takamitsu Ohta’s installations have followed. So now that Senufo has returned, with this refreshed but narrower approach, the arc of the label’s discography bears examination.

Each Senufo release, be it on CD, cassette, LP or 7″, seemingly performs a similar feat of transmutation. They break down a listener’s expectations for recordings and force one to question accepted ideas of form. Installations can be turned into albums, LPs can stop being albums and instead highlight their own nature as vehicles for electric current, field recordings erase their own locations, improvisations reveal their own absurdity in the recorded medium, whole compositions are replaced with verbal descriptions.

Yet this heterogeneity of approaches to sound and music-making makes classifying Senufo’s output a challenge. As I worked my way through the label’s fifty-odd releases in search of a commonality, the more difficult it became to find any single binding thread, at least in conventional musical terms. I sensed a unity but it was so diffuse I could not identify it. There were mostly slippery resonances and moments where, as suggested by nature writer Robert Macfarlane by way of poet and naturalist Edward Thomas, certain kinds of knowledge emerged that could only be glimpsed in passing. In Thomas’s words, “we are aware of…time in ways too difficult and strange for the explanation of historian and zoologist and philosopher.” So despite this difficulty and strangeness, the closest I have come to a unifying principle is that every Senufo release presents itself as a brief essay, as an idiosyncratic attempt to argue for a particular sonic reality. François Bonnet (aka Kassel Jaeger, who has three albums on the label), suggests that each Senufo release represents “the exploration of a singular concept.” Or as Ielasi himself says more plainly: “We just wanted every release to be different.”

And the array of concepts and methods is diverse: the properties of carbonated liquids (Jennifer Veillerobe’s Luftlöcher); the resonant qualities of a particular space (Gregg Kowalsky’s Battery Townsley); the entrancing microrhythms buried in the repetition of minute samples (Alessandro Brivio’s Associazoni Poro and 6pezzi2009+lagodelnulla); the use of framing to shoot the same field recordings from various perspectives (Attila Faravelli’s Stereo Recordings); contact mics on 78 rpm records (Bellows’ Handcut); graphic scores (Michael Pisaro and Miguel Prado’s realization of White Metal); open-ended synth loops (Rale’s Probability A: Three Studies for Compositions of Infinite Length); spacious, minimalist percussion hypnosis (Kunsu Shim’s LOVE, performed by Sarah Hennies and Greg Stuart).

Some releases explicitly address real-world topics and spaces, like eselshor’s 7″ of untouched recordings made at an automated dairy farm, Voluntary Milking System, or Renato Rinaldi’s two explorations of industrial environments, Dyed in the Grain and Planta. Others use acousmatic means to invoke questions in the listener. Adam Asnan’s three collections (Fancies • Forbearance, Inconsistent Images and Mixed Occasions/Stryam) coerce an examination of source, scale and form in sonic constructions for a heady mix of the material and the abstract. In contrast, Kassel Jaeger’s triptych (Aerae, Algae and Fernweh) moves towards the imaginary, using a mix of location recordings, instruments and studio synth creations to evoke teeming, surreal ecosystems for listeners to wander in.

But, we should ask, how can a recording be an essay? Perhaps a definition is necessary. Brian Dillon, in his book-length exploration of the written essayistic approach Essayism, avoids defining the form in any single manner, suggesting its very nature might be indefinable. Instead, he offers propositions, hints, metaphors and other sidelong descriptions. An essay should, he says, “perform a combination of exactitude and evasion that seems to me to define what writing ought to be. A form that would instruct, seduce and mystify in equal measure.” A little later: “To be at once the wound and a piercing act of precision.” Further on, he offers yet another definition: “I like the idea of an essay as a kind of conglomerate: an aggregate either of diverse materials or disparate ways of saying the same or similar things.”

The fifty-odd releases that comprise the Senufo catalog are definitely conglomerates: they are of various materials yet express some common ground. Yet in their expression, the recordings find ways to educate and insinuate, to mystify and confound. There is nothing easy about Senufo releases, but nor are they overly complex. They cut a path into some subterranean chamber of our intellect and manage to construct a kind of ephemeral grandeur, if only briefly. So, for our current purposes, let us call them essays, because such a label, although temporary, allows us to examine more deeply what William Carlos Williams (quoted in Dillon’s Essayism) called the multiplicity and infinite fracture of the essay. The inscrutable, alien sounds permeating the Senufo catalog deserve, require and even create, a wholly other frame of listening.

This is clearly a goal Ielasi and Veillerobe have in mind. Ielasi says that he hopes Senufo releases provoke something beyond reductive, good-or-bad judgments. With Senufo, they want to accentuate, and in some cases, expand, what he calls “the pleasure of listening.” This pleasure, however, comes in myriad forms, and it is rarely a purely sensual one. Individually and collectively, they do what recordings should do: haunt, confuse, inspire, challenge.

On complexity (Giuseppe Ielasi—15 Tapes, Jennifer Veillerobe—Zweifarbige Gesten): Oftentimes, composers do not need to attach their sounds to elaborate structures; the proper alignment of intriguing sonic events can be enough. This hands-off method of organizing is crystallized on two releases by the Senufo founders. Ielasi’s 15 Tapes consists of short studies that possess a tangible immediacy. With tape recorders as its only sound source, the record features a mix of entangling and untraceable rhythms, microstructures that crack and warp at impossible angles, and vibrant, liquid timbres hovering between the electronic and the acoustic. Ielasi says he struggled with the record’s raw materials for months. His initial vision was to build a larger work from improvisations on various tape recorders. But he couldn’t get the pieces to fit together, and that’s when Jennifer Veillerobe made a suggestion: “If you like listening to those sounds, just let them be.” Thus 15 Tapes became a collection of beguiling miniatures, each one proposing its own temporal and textural dimensions. This pared-down approach paradoxically opens up the pieces and helps them evoke complexity without actually creating it.

Though longer, Veillerobe’s debut recording more pithily expresses how time alone can provide form. Over the course of the CD’s thirty minutes, Veillerobe presents, one by one, a sequence of sound events. Once introduced, a sound is never repeated, so listeners must remember what has come previously and assemble their own logic. The transparent process masks how hard the kaleidoscope of sounds makes the listener work. Using a limited set of synth modules and some domestic recordings, Veillerobe radically plays with another central concern of many Senufo releases: the shift from one space or time to another. She achieves these shifts, however, purely through abrupt textural changes, moving between various electronic pulses to acoustically derived sounds and back again.

On inscrutability (Minoru Sato—Irregularity/Homogeneity: Emerging from the Perturbation Field, Allon Kaye—Tiny Fascinator, Takahiro Kawaguchi—s/t): These three releases could be called the label’s most difficult releases. When I suggested this to Ielasi, he laughed and replied how much he enjoys listening to them. The pleasure each offers is instead secreted away behind austere surfaces.

Based on a 2010 installation, Irregularity/Homogeneity transmutes the light of three fluorescent tubes, via solar panels, into subtle but audible pulses from a loudspeaker. The colorless, aperiodic buzz sounds more like a malfunctioning device than any sort of musical work. The key, though, (as suggested to me by Stephan Mathieu) is to sidestep the idea that the LP contains any music at all. After this realization, its pattern and purpose emerge. Instead of creating some structure, Sato draws our attention to this nearly imperceptible phenomenon, this repeating pulse that manages to be infinitely varied while appearing to change little. The illusion is not aural but conceptual: you think you need to crack the conundrum posed by the work, to detect its structure, but you cannot. It is an impossibility you can only accept.

Kaye’s Tiny Fascinator also deals in illusion, but of a different sort. At the forefront are a series of repeating sublingual vocal utterances. But with its continuous backdrop of a room recording (perhaps one with the windows open), the grunts and exhalations appear to occur in real time. What unfolds is a humble but hypnotic series of repetitive, mechanical clicks, far-off voices and the suggestion of a space, one perhaps much like the one you are sitting in now. Played just loud enough, it insinuates itself into your environment, and its nature as a recording dissipates, erasing its own existence as it plays.

Kawaguchi’s s/t might assume a more traditional album format, with six separate tracks, but its familiar form makes it all the more confounding. Kawaguchi proposed the work to Ielasi as an examination of various forms of collaboration, such as instructions given to another, a tuning presented to a guitarist, or a concept to be narrated. The irony is that all of the pieces are expressed as solo performances. This even includes the live collaboration between Kawaguchi and Ielasi, where a mix of glass-like glissandos, mechanical disturbances and tape-speed variations converge into a single mass of sound that seemingly plays itself. The collaboration Kawaguchi is examining then is never a basic one-to-one interaction. Instead, it continually exists on a figurative, contemplative plane, as if the real collaboration is the one he is having with you as the listener.

This figurative nature manifests most plainly on “Watching,” a piece which consists of nothing more than Cal Lyall verbalizing a concept of Kawaguchi’s. Through Lyall’s measured, articulate voice, one is transported in precise, intimate detail to a room in Japan. The passage of time is palpable. Each description seems more singular than the last, and Lyall pauses enough between each one to create an atmosphere of images being edited together. The piece is a s/t in miniature, namely, it is an acute representation of how sound recordings themselves work on a listener: they plant ideas – of a concept, a space, a situation – in a listener’s head, which then become actual, lived experiences upon playback. Recording and listener enter into their own collaboration, with the time and space of one moment infecting the time and space of another.

On improvisation (Takahiro Kawaguchi/ Aaron Zarzutzki / Nick Hoffman—So Sorry): What started as a mixing job for Ielasi became an official Senufo release once he had finished with it. As Ielasi points out, So Sorry is an outlier on Senufo’s roster because it is not a solo record. It is the recording of an ad hoc trio, made in what sounds like an apartment, but it transcends the usual strictures of an improv recording.

Ielasi hints that the mixing and editing process brought out special qualities and even suggested some new relationships between the rather rough-and-rugged sounds of the three performers. Even though the sounds overlap in a slow, deliberate manner, there is initially only a vague sense of people in a room, as the recording shifts its focus from event to event, and after a while the feeling that these sounds are being played evaporates. The approach is mechanical, almost incidental, invoking images of devices being wound up and allowed to play out and of metal objects buzzing and rattling from some invisible impulse. A weird disconnect takes hold, where nothing is intentional, but a sense of purpose still pervades. And that disconnect, which creates its own uneasy suspension, lasts until nearly the conclusion, when a woman abruptly walks into the space and, with surprise in her voice, apologizes for the interruption. With that simple gesture, you are snapped out of the acousmatic spell and the sense of separation between the listening space and the album space returns.

On recordings as fiction (Joshua Bonnetta—American Colour, Andrew Pekler—Cover Versions (co-production with Fantôme Verlag and Laura Mars Grp.), Andrew Pekler—The Prepaid Piano & Replayed (co-released by Entr’acte), Gregg Kowalsky—Batter Townsley): A number of Senufo releases are based on installations, exhibits and performances, but Ielasi emphasizes that these are not mere in situ recordings. Instead, they reframe the idea of an installation or exhibit using their raw material. The intent is to recreate and extend an event that occurred elsewhere into the listener’s own physical and mental space. It’s an explicit attempt to access what Ielasi calls “the fictional powers of recording.”

But the transference of an installation or performance from event space to recording to the listener’s space can occur in multiple ways, some more literally than others. American Colour is Joshua Bonnetta’s meditation on the unique color palette of Kodak’s iconic Kodachrome film stock. It consists of a short film on DVD, an LP of the film soundtrack and a monograph on the film’s theme. These pieces construct a multichannel pathway into Bonnetta’s idea.

Kodachrome has an instantly recognizable aura, one that alters our memories of the 1960s and 1970s to such an extent that we often imagine those periods actually occurred in its distinctive four-color palette. The monograph examines the film stock’s powerful effect on memory, but the film, which depicts Bonnetta’s journey from Kodachrome’s birthplace in upstate New York to the last place in the United States that could develop it in Kansas, is more than a nostalgia trip. Backed by the monograph’s historical and theoretical perspective, the film’s heavily saturated 16 mm hues and the thick, droning bands of violin, tape and shortwave captures on the soundtrack have an immediacy that makes one’s own surroundings more vibrant. Memory becomes a way of invigorating the present.

The Prepaid Piano & Replayed also reconstitutes the raw materials of an exhibit, but it goes a step further and transforms those materials into an entirely new work. Side A of the LP presents a series of location recordings of Andrew Pekler’s installation The Prepaid Piano. Mobile phones loaded with prepaid calling cards were placed on the strings of a piano and museumgoers were invited to call these phones, which then rang, vibrated and set off a series of random resonances and excitations inside the piano. These sounds were picked up by microphones and fed into a bank of synth modules, which altered the signals even more. The final output is a dense mass of percussive textures, marked by aperiodic rhythms, groaning vocal-like textures and shifting harmonic overtones.

But in keeping with Senufo’s goal to expand these installations through the recording medium, the B-side composition “Replayed” proposes another mutation of these signals. The output of the installation was transformed into MIDI notation, which then became a score for a new piece to be played on set of filters, oscillators, samplers and effects. The ambiguous tonal nature of the source material creates an unstable system of entirely new electronic timbres, this time woven together into a single, high-activity entity.

Pekler’s Cover Versions, by contrast, derives its conceptual heft entirely from the physical realm. Each copy of the record is an actual piece of a larger exhibit for which Pekler collected 300 used easy-listening LPs, covered the text on the covers with unique patterns of brightly colored tape and replaced the LP with one of his own featuring short loop-and-sample based pieces. On the surface they feel like fragments of breezy, woozy exotica. They are swirling concoctions of spectral, chopped-up samples and taut electronic filigree, but the borders are so blurred that what is original and what has been acquisitioned ceases to matter. Cover Versions is perhaps a sly comment on our cult of originality and rarity, while via copying and appropriating Pekler simultaneously creates a rarefied mix of the cast-off and forgotten. It is empowering, in a way, suggesting that no cultural flotsam is useless.

This idea that no composition is fixed and no piece is complete appears time and again in the Senufo catalog. Similar to the The Prepaid Piano & Replayed, the B-side of Gregg Kowalsky’s Battery Townsley features a studio reimagining by Ielasi of the original live performance from the A-side, which itself made use of pre-recorded tapes in cassette players shifted around a decommissioned armory for a real-time mix. Michael Pisaro’s score for White Metal also relies on a contradictory combination of precision and openness. This repeated nesting of recordings within recordings and the shape-shifting materials as well as concepts suggests, at times, Borgesian labyrinths of sounds layered upon themselves to the point that the idea of an original seems preposterous.

On fragmentation (Enrico Maltesta—Aliossi): Ielasi compares the construction of this record to how a film is created: short scenes were edited out of longer performances and then placed into a sequence to build up a more sophisticated whole. This process of fragmenting and rebuilding is one that Ielasi himself uses often (see Oreldigneur’s Alpi for his particularly effective recasting of rather straightforward field recordings), but its effects are subtler on Aliossi, which is based solely on recordings of prepared drums.

This method of fragmentation suits Maltesta’s unconventional, highly tactile approach to percussion. He more initiates unstable percussive phenomena than plays, so his processes create rhythmic constructions that seem sculptural rather than temporal. With no explicit development, narrative or performance, the listener becomes more attuned to the depth and detail of each discrete event. Minor shifts in texture, from metallic to wood to skin to air, are amplified, and the background noise, which suggests variously a large cavernous space or a claustrophobic interior, hang ambiguously until you start to question if it’s created or captured sound. In a structure reminiscent of Veillerobe’s Zweifarbige Gesten, the short passages on Aliossi are so rich that they need only to be juxtaposed, not developed, to reveal their intricacy.

Frequent collaborator Allon Kaye, whose Entr’acte has co-released a number of Senufo titles, calls Senufo “a true experimental label.” The term experimental has, of course, become tired and flabby with use, and it’s worth considering what Kaye means with it. He also calls Senufo releases “severe,” but instead of referring to their actual aural impact, he’s surely suggesting that they have a way of clearing barriers between recording and listener (something Kaye’s own label attempts as well). Alongside the ostensibly formless, abstract sonics, the ghostly, letter-pressed packaging, enigmatic black-and-white images and minimal approach to information compels listeners into an immersive interaction. What this severity promotes is an open-ended but personal approach to the creation, recording and presentation of soundworks: it is about, as Ielasi says, pleasure—but not the purely sensual, hedonistic kind. It’s about the pleasure found in stimulating thought and experience without any real foreknowledge of what form either might take. Senufo releases are essays, yet ones the listener must imagine into being. A unique mode of listening is continuously posited, the validity of each approach determined on an individual basis until it is not just the musician who is experimenting but the listener is as well.


all photos by Alessandro Brivio

About the Author

Matt Wuethrich writes for The Wire and Dusted Magazine. He lives in Jyväskylä, Finland and works for the University of Jyväskylä as an academic editor.