Sunday, 10 February 2013

The Ambiguous Arctic: Thomas Köner

It was a while back now, but in late November last year I went along to an event in Glasgow celebrating thirty years of the Touch record label. The event showcased the work of three Touch artists: Philip Jeck, BJ Nilsen and Thomas Köner, who just released his first record for the label, 'Novaya Zemlya', last year (though he's been releasing his work elsewhere for over twenty years now). Köner was actually the artist I had heard the least of before the gig, and I was curious as to what he would be like.
The set-up on stage had the three artists' workstations arranged in a row, with Köner at the far left. This worked to his advantage, as he seemed to want to focus our visual attention not on him, sitting in front of a laptop and a mixing board, but on the projections on the wall behind him. These included various photographs of vast, desolate, Arctic-looking landscapes, all seemingly altered to appear faded, with their colour, brightness and contrast then adjusted over time so that the darker and lighter inks seemed to seep out of their original confines, shifting ground between one another. Köner has uploaded a short example of this visual method combined with some of the music from 'Novaya Zemlya' (see below). At this Touch.30 event, as in the video, these photos slowly faded into one another as Köner performed, taking us on a journey through this untamed, unfamiliar environment.
To my mind, both the music and the visuals evoked an ambiguity about the nature of landscape. Köner's work matches deep, expansive drones, far-off white noise and echoing rattles of unknown objects. The first two elements give an impression both of space and of depth, as if one were straining to hear the sounds at the bottom of a glacial chasm. The relatively few found sound and field recording parts often appear isolated and alone in the mix save for these more distant drones and noise, adding to the image of a near-empty landscape. Aside from these elements, however, there's nothing in the music to give you any details about the sonic landscape you're meant to be experiencing. Köner's cover art and live visuals place you in an Arctic environment, but any specific content or features of that environment are difficult to discern. There's no obvious attempt to create a fully-fledged figurative landscape á la Eno, nor is a more literal environment portrayed through the use of explicit field recordings (those recordings which are used aren't easy to decipher). The music demonstrates landscape as being something more than the geographical; landscape here is about emotional awareness of an atmosphere. The elements of the music play a metonymic role, standing both for an environment in space-time and for an emotional state experienced when in that environment. In this way, emotion and environment are fused. This purpose is similar to what Eno was aiming for with 'On Land', but here the landscape is not clearly demarcated – we cannot 'see' clearly what's in front of us – and the matching emotions evoked are of uncertainty, isolation and sometimes dread.
This understanding of the music is echoed in an essay by Thierry Charollais that accompanies 'Novaya Zemlya'. Charollais speaks of a “strong metaphysical dimension” to the album, whereby our experience of Köner's landscape leads us to focus on “one's own inner landscape”. This is achieved through the music's ambiguity: “for the listener temporal and spatial orientation seem to be suspended”, and that lack of space-time specificity leads to “a permeation between the sonorous and the metaphysical” – ie. environment and emotional state represent one another.
Both the music and the visuals also create a sense of detachment from this ambiguous landscape. The isolated nature of the found sounds in the mix make them seem more like snapshots of an environment than an unmediated experience of them by us; that they are surrounded by more voluminous non-found-sounds almost makes them feel out-of-place, such that we're not certain what element of a landscape they represent. The processed nature of the photographs added to this feeling of detachment during the gig, since the photos were made to look old, worn and unclear, making us focus on their production rather than the real environments they were meant to present to us. In effect, this juxtaposition of long low drones and undefined found sounds, added to the slowly-altering photography, mediates against the feeling that we're really experiencing a landscape directly when listening to the music. We feel removed from the landscape somehow, as if we're not actually present in the environment in real-time as a listener. Instead, it's as if we're having some feverish dream of the environment, where snapshot elements of the landscape emerge, out of context, out of a fog of emotional states. As in a dream, everything seems to have some relation to 'reality' (ie. a real landscape somewhere) but it's jumbled up, both amongst itself and with our own emotions.

Köner himself has written briefly on the detached nature of his music. In the text accompanying the video posted above, Köner writes that the photographs he uses are “found footage material from photo archives”, and that by using them his own work becomes “a travelogue of other people's memories”. Here, then, is an expression of the idea of detachment; we can't experience the landscape directly because we're viewing somebody else's experience of it. I'm extending Köner's point to argue that this detachment is present in the music itself as well.

Reflecting on the gig now, and having picked up his work since, I think Köner shows an interesting and innovative approach to representing landscape in aural art. The perception of space and depth, combined with the long unchanging nature of the musical passages, is enough to create a sense of physical environment – indeed, the sheer emptiness of some of the passages pinpoint us in an Arctic environment, with cover art and live photos acting as further cues. The harmonic and timbrel nature of the sounds making up that space reveals the metonymic process at work, of landscape and emotional state representing one another. But beyond this process, Köner is doing something unique by playing with ambiguity and detachment. Both in music and in visuals, we are presented with a landscape that we can neither 'see' clearly nor claim to be directly experiencing. Specificities and direct perception are negated, made nonsensical by our dreamlike experience of the landscape, and instead we are left with atmosphere as the marker of an environment. Of course atmosphere, however, relies on someone to experience it as such. In this way, Köner's work equates listener with landscape; in an important sense, one cannot exist without the other, and since then landscape resides as much in our own heads as 'out there', lack of an evoked 'direct experience' is no barrier to portraying landscape in music.
It's with this in mind that I recall one other interesting thing about Köner's performance (also in the video above): after a while I started noticing that in some of the projected photographs you could just make out human figures in the distance. These figures would appear only for a few seconds, before the seeping of inks would wash them out. Human and landscape merge, in visuals and in musical experience.

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