Between the tremendous volume of recordings released and the ease of obtaining them, perhaps it’s only natural to expect that we tend to have such short attention spans these days. The Eskdalemuir Harmonium came out late in 2012, a beautiful LP published by Komino records, yet to some this review may already seem much too late to be relevant. And yet, in the context of the recording’s subject matter, one might find that my slow digestion and processing is rather fitting.
Field-recordings and harmonium sounds are recomposed into a lovely homage, and though this is a collaborative project between Chris Dooks & Rutger Zuydervelt (aka Machinefabriek), the concept surely belongs to Chris Dooks as much as the subject belongs to history. Dooks used to produce television documentaries on musicians and artists, including this great little feature short on Scanner back in the ‘90s. Due to a condition known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, or myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), Dooks left that industry, and later began releasing music and sound art projects of his own. Symptoms can include be an intense sense of malaise that accompanies fatigue after great exhaustion. In part to overcome his condition, he began a doctorate at the University of West Scotland, researching creative strategies for dealing with illness. While exploring a site in Scotland near a Buddhist Temple and an ancient rock outcropping, Dooks discovered a decaying harmonium in a barn at a Bed & Breakfast, and interviewed the proprietor about her father’s collection of harmoniums and his artistic practice.
Dooks describes his relationship to the “dying” harmonium as a kind of “sonic palliative care,” likening it to visiting a terminally ill relative in the hospital. (This record almost calls to mind a poetic documentary interview with your grandfather, if your grandfather was a musical instrument.) He continued to visit the site for an entire year, thinking about the decay of these instruments (and perhaps a man’s dreams) as well as his own chronic illness.
At this point, as he began to compose a work based on his recordings and experiences and began to arrange the pieces contained on this record, his nearness to the material brought him to an impasse. He brought in Rutger to provide a distance from the site, and the resulting layers of distance effectively resonates with the core subject.
Machinefabriek, of course, releases more music than most of us can keep up with. His recent release for Entra’acte, for instance, might only appeal to those really interested in modular synthesizers, but might not compel those who were moved by Rural Colours. Dooks is less well-known and one must assume that the association with Machinefabriek has brought this LP attention it might not have otherwise attracted, but working with Rutger can be a double-edged sword. The benefit of association with a critically acclaimed artists but also drowned out by the flood of releases. That said, this is a release that deserves a long shelf life and one that will continue benefit from frequent revisits. The Eskdalemuir Harmonium seems likely to resonate with a wider audience as well, in part because of the documentary nature shaped by Dooks. What sets it apart, even above an already remarkable body of work, is the harmony between the sonic material and the concept itself.
Listening to the record, the radio play puts the proceeding in context. Dooks film, while adding to that context, doesn’t for me detract from listening to the track without images afterwards.
The real subject of this recording is the site; its history, its soundscape, its former owner and his harmonium. But this man is always absent. He’s no longer living, he’s not represented, neither his words nor music appear, and yet his energy and influence is clearly felt. We’re not given his name, we don’t hear any of his works. He’s almost akin to a fictional poet or composer that might appear in a novel, except we’re not even given any appraisal of the quality of his work, only of his character. This is enough, this picture of a man straddling several cultures, a wanderer from Texas who found himself is rural Scotland, a man who “did what he could” with what he had, who kept current but was just slightly out of step with his times, enough to see it with greater clarity and enough to know that somewhere, across the world or even across time, there was a community to which we belonged. A true contemporary, that is, and Dooks (and Zuydervelt) have played a key role as the conduit that brings this forward. But again, his presence is felt as an absence. The work is not about making him present, but rather seems to revolve around a sense of the uncanny.
We learn about the setting of this record through the material traces of the recordings, but also through the documentary-style second track, “Betamax and Dictaphones,” which pairs various recordings with descriptions and recollections from the man’s daughter. She describes the eccentric figure of her father, who passed away just before the internet took off. Remember those days? I can’t help but think of outsider artists like the painter Charles Burchfield, or the composer and instrument-maker Harry Partch, who intentionally lived away from cosmopolitan areas in order to focus on the unique qualities of their work. Hermetic artists, travelers, carrying on in relative isolation, perhaps aware of distant others, an imagined but real community that the internet has made easier to comprehend, perhaps making isolation easier to endure. In many ways we’re not so different today, even with the loss of mystique that comes from immaterial circulation and ease of discovery. Certain art forms depend on frequent circulation and social presentation and in essence evolve collectively, for instance the hyper-specific sub-genres of metal, or club music, or popular music in general. These are explicitly social art forms that rely on not only formal but social norms that impact their reception and direction. Outsider artists rather work in isolation and leave us deeply idiosyncratic bodies of work. This distance, one might argue, allows for work that is able to transcend its moment and in the end say more about it than that which is intimately embedded in the present, because this distance allows one to see what others cannot. Whether it is one’s medical condition or a spiritual inclination, such individuals produce a unique kind of art that tends to find its place only among its descendents.
In describing the eccentricities of her father, she explains that “the reason you fall in love with someone is the reason you can often fall out of love with someone. So to begin with maybe it’s very endearing that he collected beautiful things and then it starts to drive you mad, after a while, I can imagine.” In addition to his instruments, her father also collected every sort of junk you can imagine. He was, basically, a hoarder. Using the simple means of recording available to him in the time before the internet and cheap digital recordings (Betamax, Dictaphones, etc) he “did what he could,” which suggests that his bricolage produced some sort of body of work. Though we know nothing of the form or quality of these works, this was someone who clearly resonates with Dooks and Rutger, like discovering a contemporary out of the past. This record, to me, feels like a letter to the past, welcoming him into a like-minded community, creating this lovely recording out of loops made out of recordings of the site and instruments left behind.
It is a bit strange to suggest that such an artist is in fact the most contemporary, but here I agree with the Italian political theorists Giorgio Agamben, who writes, in What is the Contemporary? that “those who are truly contemporary… are those who neither perfectly coincide with it nor adjust themselves to its demands.” He in turn follows Nietzsche in a belief that this type of ‘untimely’ thinking, an out-of-jointness with one’s age, that reveals aspects of their time that those who fit comfortably cannot see, the contemporary is “working within chronological time, urges, presses, and transforms it.” I couldn’t help but think of this while coming to discover this album and the various timescales and contexts being interwoven. Agamben’s contemporary confounds our notion of linear time, harassing the living power of the past in the present, in effect transforming the past in the process.
A Texan Buddhist settled in Scotland conjures its own mythology, and the harmonium is just one small part of what is hinted at. We can imagine his recordings not being too dissimiliar from the haromonium loops we are presented with, though of course this is a factor of the listeners imagination.
It’d be hard to argue that the harmonium is not an outdated instrument. Reaching it’s peak popularity a century ago, this fact gives this record all the more mystique.The harmonium is a pump organ, driven by a bellows that is pumped by either foot or hand. In some sense the harmonium is not too distantly related to the accordion, and cherished for it’s warm tone. It is a mechanical instrument, and can be thought of as a step towards a synthesizer, the 19th century equivalent. Sustained tones are difficult to create ‘naturally,’ so aside from circular breathing, mechanical or pneumatic devices were a first step towards the denaturalization of instruments, the severing of the direct link between a physical, human action and the sound being created. That said, such instruments were from the start created for wider use, and thus are embedded in a more complicated social practice. They are, for instance, often used along kirtans (Hindu religious chants) as it’s produces a suitable drone.
Harmoniums were very common household instruments in the 19th century, in the time before recorded music and the phonograph. In Iceland, they were the only formal instrument for a long time, a fact which Sigur Ros pay homage to in their film Heima. You might remember the lovely opening of “Heysátan” shot outside an empty cottage. I expect the instrument holds similar cultural capital in Scotland, where this record was conceived. In Punch Drunk Love the protagonist, played by Adam Sandler, finds a harmonium and his exploration of the instrument mirrors his own emotional development as a character. Directed by Magnolia’s Philip Thomas Anderson and with a score by Jon Brion, this is the only film starring Adam Sandler that I could unapologetically recommend, and even more compare an artist too. I can’t help but imagine Dooks experiencing a similar revelations in his own year-long relationship with the Eskdalemuir haromonium.
How do can we tell if an instrument is broken? Heidegger’s hammer is broken when it can no longer do its work, but as long as sound still comes forth from these broken machines, they still have a story to tell. Dooks (and later Machinefabriek) are able to coax music from this harmonium yet. To use something in a way other than it was intended. Is it truly “broken” if something beautiful can be coaxed out of it, is aesthetic alchemy can transform it into something new and fresh?
The LP begins with a field-recording of something rustling, evoking a sense of being outside. The harmonium enters, warbling and sustained, and gradually the layers build up, introducing slowly looped melodies, slight rumbling on the low end, the sounds of harmonium being worked, clicking and clacking, eventually building to a relatively driving pace, a kind of minimal techno without the pounding beat.
The piece quietly deconstructs, though rhythmic loops, of shifting duration, emerges from the sound of the harmonium being worked, an almost machinic noise yet with a clear human trace. The ebb and flow continues, eventually the rhythm dropping out to reveal the sound of a man singing, perhaps through a radio, only to vanish altogether. The harmonium bellows repeatedly, slowly asserting itself, sounding like a boar sluggishly walking away. At almost 13 minutes, this piece is clearly a lynch pin track. Followed by the aforementioned radio-style piece combining similar musical elements as a backdrop to an interview, side A is geared towards establishing a sense of place and purpose.
The second side enters with a soothing harmonium chord and descending melody, but a high pitched drone gradually builds up, just off in pitch enough to create a dissonant fluttering. Then the lumbering beast returns, crackling noise abounds, until we find ourselves in a lull, a slow rhythmic loop and a quietly shrinking melody. The LP hasn’t ended, however, The final track is upbeat from the first bar, a kind of glitch pulse not out of place on Mille Plateaux, but one which gradually accumulates a somber undertone as it grows. This repetition begins with the faint sound of air being pumped and the slightly more present click of the apparatus. The mid and low drop out, and against the rumbling and rustling of the field-recordings the high pitches of the harmonium overlap until a passage of beautiful dissonance washes it out. A warbling low bass begins to emerge. The high pitch flees, and we’re again left to the idyllic countryside of Scotland, complete with stone monoliths and a Tibetan temple. As opposed to the narrative setting of the first, this side takes more formal risks, exploring the potential of the sounds in themselves. What makes the Eskdalemuir harmonium different than any other is it’s uniqueness as an object, and this impacts its sound, even if it is in ways that we can’t easily perceive. Though with instruments, this is often the case, that we come to value the quarks. The object itself is as much an actor in this record as Dooks & Machinefabriek, and rightly takes center-stage, but side B show how important the vision of the producers shaping the material can be.
The Eskdalemuir Harmonium‘s variety of soothing drones, ambient soundscapes, and minimal rhythms are mapped onto the internal narrative just enough to become more than they may appear at first listen. This work functions on various registers of separation; the man settling in Scotland, a Texan with Nepali clothes, playing music, collecting all manners of junk, of Dooks exploring the site years after his death, photographing the collections and interviewing his daughter. And of course the compositions themselves. Dooks presents a narrative, one that is subsequently deconstructed and re-imagined by Machinefabriek, working virtually from the Netherlands, encountering the space Dooks explored physically already through the lens of narrative. This to me isn’t at all problematic. Everything is mediated already, and the contrast ingrained in the process, the result of which is experienced by us in the final form of the record. (Joseph Sannicandro)