Music Reviews

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Artist: Maggi Payne (@)
Title: Arctic Winds
Format: CD
Label: innova Recordings (@)
Distributor: Naxos of America, Inc
Rated: *****
Maggi Payne is a name that has popped up a few times on the Chain D.L.K. website but many readers/listeners may not be familiar with her and/or her music. I admit to being in the dark myself until I received this release. Ms. Payne has an extensive academic and professional technical music background - music degrees from Northwestern University, the University of Illinois, and Mills College. For ten years she was a recording engineer in the multi-track facilities at the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills, where she is currently Co-Director and teaches recording engineering, composition and electronic music. She was a production engineer at a major Bay Area Radio Station for ten years and now freelances as a digital recording engineer and editor. She has had performances of her works throughout the Americas, Europe, Japan, and Australasia. She received two Composer's Grants and an Interdisciplinary Arts Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and video grants from the Western States Regional Media Arts Fellowships Program and the Mellon Foundation. She received four honorary mentions from Bourges, and one from Prix Ars Electronica, and was an Artist in Residence at the Exploratorium in San Francisco and the Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga, CA. Perhaps one of the things that I found most curious about her was that she studied under Robert Ashley.

I am not familiar with Maggi's previous work or recordings, so this one stands on its own merit with nothing to bias me either way. Falling into the general category of ambient, perhaps minimal ambient, or isolationist soundscapes, 'Arctic Winds' is not a trip to the North Pole, but a set of discrete environments meant to evoke certain regions, landscapes or conditions. What is highly interesting on 'Arctic Winds' are the sound sources and how they were processed to evolve into what the artist envisioned, and the listener now hears. For those who have always been fascinated in the infinite possibilities and varieties of sound manipulation, 'Arctic Winds' should prove a revelatory experience.

The opening piece, 'Fluid Dynamics' sounds like a distant avalanche; washes and waves of rumbling low noise, along with wind. It later morphs into what I could only describe as an accelerated collapse. You would never guess the sound sources though- gas traveling through pipes, a water faucet, steel and brass ball bearing rolled across a wooden floor, a spare metal part rolling on a linotype machine, and the swaying of very thin brass sheeting, also a large steel ball rolling down tow strings of a small koto-like instrument. Of course you don't hear any of that because it was processed using phase vocoding, convolution, granular synthesis, equalization and extensive layering. As for me, I could grok the ball bearing rolling and maybe the gas pipes, but I find this astonishing, almost like magic.

And so it goes with other pieces as well. 'Distant Thunder' sounds similar to just that (well, maybe with some wet additives), but its sound sources are boiling tear water, resonant floor furnace and a little bit of adhesive tape unrolling. 'Apparent Horizon' initially sounds like a cruise across the stratosphere, but altitudes change from earthly to deep space to an environment that is just impossible to describe. It was incredible to discover that the sound sources in this piece were derived from Space Shuttle and Apollo transmissions, satellite transmissions and shortwave radio! (Oh, okay there was a brief span at the end of the piece where it sort of sounded like that, but not much.)

'Arctic Winds' utilizes dry ice and ball bearings rolling across drum heads to achieve its frigid environment. 'System Test (fire and ice)' is comprised of recordings of Jacob's ladders, ice melting and papers sliding against each other. (Tell me, what does melting ice sound like?) The result is a mélange of various waves of low frequency noise, sizzling and hissing sounds, deep rumblings, and ripping electronic zaps. There is a cyclical motion to this remarkably ominous piece. On 'Glassy Metals' Maggi explores the sounds of tungsten filaments in burned out incandescent bulbs, magnetic tape rushing across a head stack, small ball bearings, various sizes of ball chains, sheet metal tiny motor gears, bikes, the San Francisco subway, freight trains, and other metal objects. The sonic variety on this piece is amazing- it begins sounding like an insect typing pool, then a stuck alarm clock going off, a distant ringing, last gasps, a rotating lawn sprinkler on a summer night (that gets very loud and intense), and a wet and ringing wet wind with a rumbling rocket overhead. You just have to hear it. Final piece, 'FIZZ' makes use of the sound of a dysfunctional toilet and a recording of 'fizzing' provided by Ms. Payne's student, Alison Johnson. I suppose there is a certain element of fizzing to this soundscape, but there is certainly much more than that. It sounds quite vast and at times terrifying- like standing on the precipice of some ungodly high mountain while a hurricane swells on the horizon. The other half of the piece presents a calmer low frequency drone juxtaposed with the resonant zizzing of the fizzing. Wow!

I should mention that these pieces were conceived and created between 1996 and 2009, and I think there are, or have been, videos that accompany these pieces, but I haven't seen them. For fans of minimal ambient and isolationist soundscapes, this is almost as good as it gets, and that's quite good.



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