AMN Reviews: Michael Vogt – Argonautika (2004; ReR Megacorp)

Although this record came out 17 years ago, it was completely new to me.  I used to follow the cadence of new releases on ReR much closer so this one slipped by me, although I definitely would have snagged it if I knew about it back then.

Well, lucky for me…a friend who I haven’t chatted with for a while but knew my great interest in the acousmatic and electro/acoustic space (in fact he was instrumental in mentoring me along about 20 odd years ago) strongly suggested I give this a listen. (Full disclosure, he used to work for ReR.) I’m paraphrasing here but he said something to the effect of, “Oh man, you have to hear this in its entirety. It’s like your ears are on ether man”. How can I refuse a testimony like that? I didn’t, and I’m eternally grateful!

Michael Vogt is (or was, not sure) the lead tuba player in the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.  Argonautika is an album that features the Tuba, either as a solo instrument or (and mostly) augmented and mod’ed by various electronic boxes, tapes, field recordings used for sound effects, a very well-placed drum machine (on one cut), and a vocoder for good measure.  There are also extended techniques scattered all about, like percussive beating on the instrument, the swapping out of mouthpieces from a tuba-specific one to a saxophone mouthpiece, and many close mic’ed breathing techniques.  (The latter being incredibly disturbing.)

Does any of this sound like your thing?  When I learned about this record I personally didn’t think so (after all, it’s a tuba album for Pete’s sake), but then I listened to it straight through. My tune changed about 2 minutes in. Argonautika lays out a soundscape which is built on a platform of originality that is extremely hard to find currently.  It’s truly a work that sits outside of the norms of, really anything I’ve heard before.

The album is a loosely based song cycle surrounding events in Homer’s Odyssey.  With that reference in mind, each piece completely makes sense.  The titles help with the mental image. On “Sirenen” (for electrified tuba, effect unit, tape, and one of the longer works at 9 minutes) Vogt paints a vivid sound portrait of those ghostly, keening voices with the help of some recognizable sounds like the sinister clanging of a ships bell. But for every recognizable sound, there are several unrecognizable events that your mind may be able to spin up as the splintering timber of a wrecked vessel, some sort of higher-pitched bow on metal, (the Sirens call perhaps), and several other electronic-based hauntings. This entire scene is supported by the exquisitely malevolent, drawn-out bass drones of a heavily modified tuba. The climax to this piece is jaw-dropping in its intensity and a masterclass in tension release once you realize its deathly finality.

Then there is the piece “Tombeau” (for electrified Tuba, effect unit, vocoder, tapes and is also a longer work at almost 7 minutes).  Here we have Vogt anchoring things with a solemn, and quite beautiful melody on the tuba that slowly unfolds and envelopes the listener in its lushness.  The piece inches forward in a measured, unhurried manner, and isolating this melody would be, (and is) enough for this particular strain to work extremely well.  But no…Vogt doesn’t have any of that, because lurking underneath are all manner of audio oddities that you would think are out of place but, in the grand scheme of his vision work perfectly.  Things that sound like dragging chains that are morphed into shrill, thin cries that aren’t exactly human, the half gasp, half incantation of voice into Tuba creating something truly alien, and the constant but disjointed rhythms of Shamanic shakers all coalesce into a soundscape of the absolute abnormal.

On “Mopsos’ Ende” (for electrified Tuba with Saxophone mouthpiece and another longer piece at 9 minutes), Vogt gives us a showcase for extreme Tuba.  In fact, you would be hard pressed to identify the instrument given all the outboard processing going on. Amazingly, it’s not just showboating with weird sounds. Yes, there are weird sounds, but they are evocative and emotional in their starkness.  In other words, and this is true over the entire album…Vogt works with the technology, not in service to the technology. It’s a fascinating study of human/brass instrument interlinkage and Vogt takes this connectivity to the very limits of imagination. This piece is yet another example of the sheer originality displayed throughout this album.

There are several other shorter pieces on this album that I didn’t get into, all of them continuing to show the extent of Vogt’s talents and imagination. As you can tell by now, this record gets my highest recommendation…if it was 2004 it would surely be my album of the year. I’m incredibly thankful for the discovery now though, and if you haven’t heard it, and if any of this write-up sounds interesting to you, by all means…pick it up.

Mike Eisenberg