AMN Reviews:  Rubbish Music – Upcycling (2022; Flaming Pines); Iain Chambers – Secrets of Orford Ness (2020; Flaming Pines)

Rubbish Music is the duo of Kate Carr (who runs the label Flaming Pines) and Iain Chambers (who runs the label Persistence of Sound).  Both artists compose using field recordings as well as found objects, usually in a specific thematic context as it pertains to the audio picture they want to make or service to the idea they want to put across.

In the case of Upcycling, the duo’s first album…the listener is invited into an acoustic space that…

uses sound to investigate the journeys, transformations and impacts of our discarded objects. Using our worn-out treasures, empty vessels and broken devices as an orchestra of vivid musique concrète materials we examine the worlds we make and destroy via our rubbish.

The “upcycling” in this case refers to the inevitable degradation of humanity’s discarded items, eventually expressing a kind of “new” state that serves to benefit animals and other lifeforms in positive ways.  Now that’s a rather high concept, not to mention, an original idea for an audio recording!

The sounds on Upcycling are not field recordings, but rather made from…yes, real-life dumpster stock.  So, with the duo’s arsenal of “rusty bells, dirty oven grills, onion skins, toilet plungers, wine bottles, nasal spray and a squeaky chicken toy” (as you can see in the excellent video below), the act of upcycling begins.

Wow, this is new conceptual territory for me.  The embodied interaction between humans and their discarded waste to express a greater artistic truth is, to put it mildly…a road less traveled.  But I’ll be damned… (if the listener is conducive to accepting these synergies of sounds as potential to transcend themselves into something greater) if this doesn’t work! 

My initial reaction to the first track, “Bathroom Throwaways”, composed and performed by Kate Carr was:

ewwww,

followed by a smile,

which was soon followed by outright laughter

…which eventually led to a fascination not unlike gawking at a roadside accident while driving by.  Subsequent listens (once I surrendered myself to this high concept) increased my interest to the point of visually seeing some sort of mutational process happening.  (My bolding is very intentional; no olfactory senses were harmed.)

The piece is supported underneath by a continuously pitch-shifting drone that suggests a sterile, controlled environment while the constant, almost mechanistic cavalcade of squirts, drips, sputters, bubbles, and the rubbing/rotating of objects did indeed, first recall a morning ritual.  

But… a funny thing happened on the way to the bathroom.  This pageant of short, abruptly chopped (as in flipping an on/off switch) sound events started to adopt a factory-like sound.  An autopoietic, organic process of making an ecosphere rich with “stuff” that enables sustainability of other organic “stuff”.  Yep…upcycling, and very vividly rendered I might add!

The next piece gives Iain Chambers his turn examining the wide, wonderful world of waste.  Similar to his excellent Eccentric Press (written up here) album, Chambers eschews the organic (mostly) for more machine-like sound worlds. 

On “Re-use and Recycling Centre”, he deploys liberal usage of metal-on-metal sounds and the din of industrial machinery.  While the primary sounding bodies here evoke a robotic, factory setting, there are tiny easter eggs of organic life scattered about.  Thus, the occasional vocal exclamation…perhaps a “stand-by” or “stand clear” before the machines take over.  These are joined by the cheerful whistling from a lone worker bee as he prowls across the factory floor ensuring everything is in tip-top shape.

Like the Carr piece, there is that long wagon train of sound events with each one being cut before any kind of resolution or bleed-through into the next event.  This gives the piece a stagged and stuttered cadence.

I also hear more non-environmental, synthetic transformations occurring.  These tweaks allow the piece to escape a strictly “real world” portrait by allowing a portal into the fantastic.  Your perceptions may vary.

The final, 20-minute track, “Trash and Treasure” is the duo performing together in an edited live performance with the tools listed above.  The very well-shot and professional video below delivers a great view into their process.  I normally like to be left to my own devices and let the sounds do their own heavy lifting inside my head but sometimes, watching an actual performance can be interesting and revealing.  The duo is quite animated live, and I found that watching them perform, acts like an “alternative”, not a substitution to just simply listening.

Like “Bathroom Throwaways”, this piece also has an eerie, hollow-sounding drone on the bottom of its stack. Although, unlike the preceding two tracks…this one (even with the video) has a more ambiguous story to tell.

Knowing the overarching theme of the album, “Trash and Treasure” still has the ability to convey the “upcycling” message but, if a listener went in blind, or purposely chose to ignore the concept…this piece still delivers in spades!  The unusual arsenal of sound-making devices and the way the whole sound space has a close mic’ed feel contributes much to make this a compelling listen.  Everything becomes hyper-realized and, a feeling of “drilling down into the essence” of things is everywhere the listener chooses to go.

This hyper-realized sense is all over Upcycling, not just this one track.  It’s a fascinating listening experience and comes strongly recommended.

On Secrets of Orford Ness, Chambers allows the listener to join him on a 28-minute walkthrough of the:

former UK Ministry of Defence site Orford Ness on the East England Suffolk coast.  Since the Ministry of Defence left in 1993, the buildings have been overrun by nature.

There are more interesting album notes on the Bandcamp page but, hopefully, that quoted introduction above is enough to ignite listeners who share an interest in field recordings to pounce on this uncanny slice of sound art.  Orford Ness exudes a damp mistiness that seems more than willing to reveal and give up its wartime ghosts.  Chambers does an exemplary job of facilitating by coaxing out these hauntological specters of a past whose future was quickly and radically changed. 

There are no premature interruptions of audible events or the herky-jerky lurch forwards of a grand parade of acoustic detritus like Upcycling.  Instead, this soundwalk has smooth continuous segues that naturally flow, inevitably resulting in one long troubled dreamlike visit to the other side of the veil.

The listener is immediately placed in a desolate, decaying place. In keeping the Upcycling theme intact, what was once a bastion for the latest code-breaking tech during WWII, and even beyond that into the early days of nuclear weapon development… the decaying structure now provides the home for the shrieking gull and other avian creatures, humanity not invited.

Chambers employs a modest use of electronic transformations throughout the piece.  Is that the electronic sound of morse code being tapped out and sent across the airwaves?  Other primitive and subtle synthetic noises rear their heads but, in the end…it’s all subsumed by the steady decay of a future that was usurped by bigger and better (?) shiny objects.

Secrets of Orford Ness is a vivid sound walk into a past that was, and still is in constant technological flux.  Chambers has a unique, and very compelling ability to transport this past into the now…and it’s a walk worth taking!  My highest recommendation.

Mike Eisenberg
Meisenberg1@hotmail.com
Twitter: @bigaudio999

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