The history of recording industry is long and storied – filled with highs and lows. What remains largely unacknowledged, is that we are witnessing one of its most fascinating and complex moments. The accepted paradigms of creativity, commerce, temporality, and the object, have almost entirely broken down. The outside is in, and in is out – paving the way for new voices to rise. While independent efforts have existed within the industry since its earliest days, there has never been a period where they have held such sway. The landscape of recorded sound has become one of logical paradox, where building a business on creative integrity, rather than a hope for financial gain, may offer the greatest success. As the majors scramble after a hold on streaming and digital downloads, the forward thinking young cast their gaze to great art and the format of LP.
This isn’t new. The slow burn has been creeping for years. We’ve come to take it for granted – the availability of incredible records, in tiny independent runs, and the desperate irrelevance of the major label industry in its death throws. What we rarely stop to consider, is the mindset that it takes to begin a record label today – the absurd, ambitious beauty of it all – especially those dedicated to music outside of mainstream interest, produced on vinyl and tape. This action alone, however it is undertaken, makes me bow my head in respect.
I’m always overjoyed to catch news of a new label venturing into the world. I try to highlight every one I can, but there are a rare few whose emerging programs strike a special chord – those who issue albums which only the most adventurous and passionate would embrace, and those who cast their eye to future as much as the past. Both components sculpt the vision of Mana records, whose first two releases rest before us now.
Mana is London based, and was founded by Matthew Kent and Andrea Zarza, working in close collaboration with Honest Jon’s – among of the most esteemed records store / imprints on the planet, to bring the label to realization. Andrea works in the British Library’s sound archive, a curator of world and traditional music, acquiring and cataloguing ethnographic field recordings, while Matthew runs Blowing Up The Workshop (B.U.T.W.), an online platform for new music and mixes. While an undeniably distinguished pedigree, the character of these efforts offer important insights into the label’s inception. Within the brief conversations we’ve had, a beautiful spirit has emerged – one of deep dedication to, and love for, the art of others, nesting within a hope to challenge and broaden existing contexts of organized sound.
The fact that Zarza works within a diverse range of archival material, and Kent is dedicated to newer emerging sounds, lays a crucial foundation at the label’s heart. While the reissue market is filled with noble pursuits – reappraising and resurrecting recordings that have never gotten their due, it’s a slippery slope, and at times, an easier path – embedded with an existing audience or demand. This seduction can risk luring the eye away from the present day. Historical reassessment and justice are profoundly important work, but I’m more drawn to efforts which take a slightly more challenging route – those which tie the threads of the past to the present day, who frame a context of discourse outside of the linearity of time. It’s why I’ve been so taken by Mana’s first steps. Though each of their debut LPs stands on its own – Pierre Mariétan’s long overlooked masterpiece Rose Des Vents from 1987, and Benedict Drew’s Crawling Through Tory Slime – recorded this year, the fact that they have emerged together, speaks volumes of the imprint’s noble intents.
Pierre Mariétan – Rose Des Vents (1987 / 2017)
I’ve been looking for a copy of Pierre Mariétan’s Rose Des Vents for years – knowing little about it, nor anything of the sounds it contained. It was a pursuit of blind faith, based on my love for one of its artist’s few recorded artifacts – a record released in the BYG Actuel series in 1970, presenting a collaboration between Terry Riley and Groupe d’étude et réalisation musicales – an ensemble Mariétan founded in 1966. Mariétan began his creative life as a serialist composer, having studied with Pierre Boulez, Henri Pousseur, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and a number of others. During the middle 60’s he established GERM, in large part to help realize the works of other avant-garde composers, while pushing his own compositions toward more open guidelines and sketches, drawing heavily on the practice of improvisation. During the 1970’s he began working with hybrid forms – combining composed music, with everyday environmental sounds and noise pollution. It is this body of work, from which Rose Des Vents springs. Originally released in 1987, the album is a lost marvel – a masterpiece in the ordering of disorganized sound.
By the time Mariétan’s album appeared in 1987, the idea of framing and presenting the musicality of environmental sound was nothing new. The concept occupies a central theme within the history of musique concrète, a practice established during the late 1940s by Pierre Schaeffer, as well as the ideas advocated by John Cage during the 50’s and 60’s. The discipline of environmental field recording had established a vast canon of work, and it wasn’t uncommon to encounter these kind of sounds within the recorded output of Rock & Roll. What lies within Rose Des Vents is different – as radical as it is beautiful.
A slightly undermentioned aspect of avant-garde music, is the confrontation bubbling at its core. These are organizations of sounds which, with everything else they strive to achieve, set out to shift the paradigms established within a listener’s ear. They attempt to make us hear sound anew. This principle, which underscore the very idea of being avant-garde, despite its optimism, has, at least to a certain extent, split the history of music in two. There are those listeners who willingly approach this challenge and its many sounds – almost taking them for granted, and those who simply wont – who find encounters with many ideas, structures, and tones from a century ago, too progressive and jarring to endure. It is a paradox which lays the foundation of avant-garde music’s perpetual conversation with itself, something which has never been its intent.
When Pierre Schaeffer, John Cage, and all the others, set their ideas into the world, they did not position them for an abstract, separate elite. They were founded on a hope that everyone could find a way to appreciate and celebrate the sounds of the everyday – to hear the music of the world, and through it, shift the very idea of what music was understood to be. I’m of the belief that their idealism was well founded – that the realization of such a dream is possible, but, for one reason or another, it has yet to come to pass. Because these early seeds did not fully bear fruit with broad audiences, radicalism became a defining feature, pushing the avant-garde ever forward, in conversation with itself. It is worth imaging a different, hypothetical reality, one where they had been accepted, celebrated, and approached as these artists had hoped – that they had formed the foundations of a new popular music. Imagine, had been Cage and Schaeffer, rather that Elvis and Beetles, what our sonic landscape would look like now.
There is no easy way to evaluate what is, against what might have been. It’s also irresponsible to speak in broad generalities, but it’s important to recognize the consequences of avant-garde music’s isolation and cyclical conversations. This isn’t the world it set out to make. When the avant-garde was rejected by broad listening publics, the consequence was far more reaching that most of us actively recognize. It denied its ability to lower its guard – to use its materials without confrontation, as accepted, approachable, and mater of fact. It severed the possibility of ease, nuance, and further access, from this world of sound.
This is what makes Pierre Mariétan’s Rose Des Vents so remarkable and stunningly beautiful. It takes its materials as a mater of fact, without the confrontation which underscores so much of the avant-garde. It reaches outward into the world. Its sounds handled with such elegance and grace, that it seems possible that no one could resit being seduced by what they construct. Rose Des Vents is composed from the delicate airy interplay of environmental sound captured by field recording, and instrumentation, the sonic image of a vast and expansive realm, which, by shedding dogma, achieves what it seems Cage never could – a true musical materiality, drawn from everyday.
While I had been hunting for a copy of Rose Des Vents for years, I had never allowed myself to imagine that it might be as good as it is – among the most astounding achievements I’ve heard in years. It is a startling and stunning piece of work, so beautiful, that at times I had to choke back tears. It is the realization of a possibility, which the avant-garde is most often denied. Across its four sides, a new hybrid form of Minimalism emerges – the trickle if discrete ambient sounds, threaded by instrumentation which shifts between the seductive repetitive structures and harmonic resonance present within the well known canon of that music – Riley, Reich, Young, etc, and the more complex relationships of serialism and its successors. While each element is stunning in its own right, and could easily be cleaved to exist within a series of free standing works, together they rise as a towering piece of work – a marvel of chance, structure, and interplay which reforms our understanding of the world.
Rose Des Vents is among the most surprising and rewarding records I’ve heard all year. In further testament to the object’s integrity and conceptualism, the reissue took form as attempt to reproduce Mariétan original intent, as it is activated by the format of the LP. The composition is cut outside of a traditional sequential layout, employing a structure which allows the composition to be continuously mixed without breaks on two turntables – from side A to C, to B and then D, purposefully engaging the listener actively in the process of playback. It’s an album I can’t possibly recommend enough. An absolute marvel. My head is bowed to its artist, and the label who brings it back to our ears.
Pierre Mariétan – Rose Des Vents (1987 / 2017)
Benedict Drew – Crawling Through Tory Slime (2017)
Benedict Drew is an artist based in the UK, who makes work within both a musical context and those of fine art, where he works in installation, video, performance, and a number of other media. As far as memory serves, we’ve never met, but his orbit is slightly connected to my own, having spent years in London’s experimental music and art worlds, and putting a tape out on patten’s Kaleidoscope imprint, a band which I played in for a couple of years. He was also a long time producer for the London Musician’s Collective, has contributed to Cranc, a trio made up of Angharad Davies, Rhodri Davies and Nikos Veliotis, and is a member of Decentred, a quartet also featuring Angharad Davies, Tom Chant, and John Edwards. Crawling Through Tory Slime, Drew’s third full length solo outing – emboldened with a title that emotes a great deal in me, occupies one of the more ambitious territories of hybridity within electronic music – the incongruous realm where popular music meets the experimental and abstract.
Britain houses one of the more interesting contexts electronic music, particularly within the cultures of dance music. Seeds planted in the US, which rarely ventured beyond niche subcultures, bore greater fruit, broad relevance, and lasting power in the UK. They’ve been a defining component of the cultural landscape for decades, establishing a unique bridge. These sounds are approached and familiar, fostering a willing appreciation for, and acceptance of, experimentation and creative ambition within them – perhaps most visible in dubstep, a dance music which often ventures toward pure abstraction and the arrhythmic.
In the case of Crawling Through Tory Slime, context is important. While its two sides are comprised of sounds and structures which appear far more connected to processed tape music, Noise, and efforts in synthesis which have long emerged from electronic music studios like Groupe de Recherches Musicales, below its surface bubble hints of popular culture. Though Drew has deep connections to the British improvising scene, within the album he sculpts an experimental music which attempts to smash its sometimes insular loop. Across its sprawling landscape, textures and tones collide and abrade, establishing a kind of sonic realization of cultural dissonance and disquiet, to which its title eludes. This in an image of a broken Britain, built from its own materially – the disturbing consequences of brutal austerity and right-wing attach. It is electronics as producer of topical sound. A strange hypothetical image of what the folk music of future might be, and a must for anyone engaged with these territories of sound.
Both albums represent brilliant start to what is sure to become an incredible label of note. You can pick up the LPs via Honest John’s, or any number of local record shops. Learn more about Mana on their website, and check out a sample of Crawling Through Tory Slime below.