By Joel Elliott | 16 May 2008
The fourth and most recent of Gavin Bryar’s attempts to record his minimalist classic The Sinking of the Titanic (1975, 1990, 1994, 2008) featured the help of Alter Ego and Philip Jeck; the project seems to have given Jeck some newfound inspiration. It’s hard not to hear echoes of Bryars or the analog tape loops of William Basinski in Jeck’s “Fanfares,” and trio of tracks interspersed throughout Sand, and perhaps the most “melodic” thing Jeck has done. The first part of “Fanfares” starts with a simple four-note motif by a small string ensemble that Jeck proceeds to layer in clouds of ambient dust and various acoustic samples, including the sound of galloping horses. Like Bryars or Basinski, Jeck has an excellent understanding of the emotional effect of decay and disintegration. For Basinski, The Disintegration Loops (2004) equated the natural decay of his decades-old analog tapes with the collapse of the Twin Towers; for Bryars, the The Sinking of the Titanic chronicled the true story of a string ensemble that insisted on playing while everyone else tried to escape with their lives. Though Sand doesn’t have an overarching concept like these records it similarly seems concerned with the way we emotionally perceive heavily-damaged source material.
There’s an obvious sense of decay and memory here, both in the way Jeck uses the bi-products of cracked vinyl but also in the sense that record-playing is still more physical than digital music. Thus he goes beyond most glitch artists—who likewise employ “mistakes” as the substance of their music—resulting in something that really feels like an artifact. Something stumbled upon. Interestingly, Sand is relatively stripped back in comparison to some of Jeck’s noisier records. On opener “Unveiled” the skipping of the record needle is all that maintains the rhythm, and it becomes more and more haunting as Jeck layers it with deeper aquatic pops and spurts. Creaking along at a zero-gravity pace, the track comes across like the perfect flip-side to Oval’s CD-scratch percussion which, even on their more ambient pieces, seems jittery and frantic.
Jeck works within the whole range of vinyl, from the physical movements of the record player to the actual samples themselves. The latter often sound ancient even when they’re relatively unmanipulated, like something from a dance song from the ’20s or ’30s. While the samples he uses give the tracks some melodic depth it often seems incidental; often they seem to just ride the crest of the continuous drone made of pops, echoes, and static. It’s an effect which goes a long way in proving just how finely-woven together these sounds are. Most of the time it’s impossible to parse the original material from its treatment: it sounds like there are original instruments behind the melodies in “Fanfares Forward,” but it’s nearly impossible to tell what exactly they are. Where they are discernible they rarely stick around for very long, like the xylophone that marks a sudden transition halfway through “Unveiled” but then quickly fades into the ether again. As the title suggests, Jeck seems more interested in continually uncovering minute details of the sounds; any recognizable instruments or melodies are simply transient.
Yet through all the seismic shifts that the tracks go through, there always seems to be a single, slow measured pulse. Call it the album’s beating heart if you will, but whether it’s distant galloping horses, the spinning record needle, the feint bells of “Chime Again,” or the octave leaps of “Fanfares Over” Sand‘s only constant is the passage of time. It’s hopeful, perhaps: like the string ensemble who kept playing while the Titanic sank, it’s a reminder of the presence of order in chaos. It’s also a reminder that, musically speaking, Jeck rarely sheds the discipline of drone or minimalist music like so many ambient artists who unwittingly lose themselves in an overabundance of gorgeous sounds.