Enrico Coniglio is a Venetian sound artist, creating pieces out of washed-out drones and ambient guitar loops while integrating them into field recordings. With a background in urban planning, his work explores the aural identity of place in a very sophisticated, if subjective, manner. His latest work is Songs from Ruined Days, a long form recording that is part of the Spire Project. Songs from Ruined Days is the second in this series of records that give the organ special attention. Although it certainly is not the dominant instrument on this recording, the moments that feature recordings of a church organ do function as a sort of narrative climax. Climax isn’t really the point, however. Rather, Coniglio allows the spaces to unfold and blur together, creating a much richer listening experience than one might expect. Obviously field recordings won’t appeal to everyone, but the editing produces a composition that retains enough musicality and depth to pique the interest of less adventurous listeners as well. That, in turn, makes this album a fine example of how the mixing board is an instrument in its own right.
Coniglio’s academic background in urban planning informs his treatment of sonic space, and his composition should be heard in this context. His field recordings do indeed capture a sense of place, but place in a more poetic sense, often transcending a sense of a specific location. Just as photography is deeply subjective, Coniglio’s journey through place, mostly in the post-industrial locale of Porto Marghera (near the extraordinary city of Venice), are documents of a moment, capturing a mood more than some sort of objective data.
Coniglio acts as a driver and his music is his carriage, while you the listener are pulled along on a linear journey through a series of places, woven together yet discreet. These are not places in the physical sense, and not clearly delineated, a point driven home by the lack of tracks. Composed as one long piece of music (forty-five minutes and fourteen seconds long), Songs from Ruined Days is not as ominous sounding or as defeated as it may sound. Melancholic, perhaps, is a better word, though there are elements that can be found as uplifting, more so than maybe even the composer would admit. Because the release is one long piece and isn’t subdivided into tracks—although something like movements may be discernible—the listener is forced to listen straight through, and therefore the slow narrative is more effective. Like a surrealist painting, in which incongruent images are juxtaposed and the perspective may be slightly off, reality is skewed in this work. The mind perceives that something doesn’t quite fit, that these can’t be real audio environments, and Coniglio weaves them together in a dreamlike way, making use of this discomfort as part of the narrative of the track. The collage effect contributes to the setting of mood; it also conveys the reality of Porto Marghera, a city facing dire economic and environmental concerns, in a way that a straightforward description cannot.
The mood of the piece shifts gradually throughout by way of subtle changes in what little melody there is underlying the progression. Songs from Ruined Days can be a bit dingy, not unlike most Italian cities, but also magnificent at the same time, shabby and majestic, proud monuments covered in graffiti, indigent and absolutely free, shot through with rays of sunshine yet with a pervading sense of darkness. The mix of industrial noise and liturgical scenes creates an odd but compelling whole, a picture of life as it is, a moment in time that may soon just as effectively encapsulate an era as much as a location.
Because the recordings were made with binaural microphones, listening in stereo on a good pair of headphones is recommended. The recordings are so lifelike, that even despite being mixed into other sounds, creating new sonic environments, the listener will often have to ask whether the sounds being heard are from the recording or going on around them.
Though Ruined Days is one long work, there are more or less recognizable stops along the way. From [0:00] to [6:40] Coniglio basically lulls the listener with distortion and hissing, crackling noise with subtle melodic undercurrents, as well as a wave of low frequencies. A sudden shift at [6:43] begins a series of simultaneous organ melodies with various field recordings or ambient noise and possibly feet shuffling; this creates a sense of busied yet sacred space, a busyness that fades out into hissing white noise three minutes later, a calm lull in the song, an open meadow before being pulled through the old industrial center. Much of the noise cuts out here, and the attention becomes focused on the prominent reed-like melody, which slowly circles downward. A field recording comes into earshot, voices here and there, the sound of sneakers on a basketball court, the woosh of a net. The Spire Series (of which Ruined Days is a part) ascribes a position of honor to the organ, and this hierarchy goes beyond sonic properties to include the organ’s towering stature, spiritual significance, and novelty in the history of instruments. This short passage alone articulates that aim in a way that words cannot begin to do justice.
At [9:40] the hissing becomes the primary sound again, a spray-paint-like noise, or a fountain misting away. We’ve pulled into a new station. Ominous industrial sounds are barely perceptible, maybe the humming of a turbine, or a motor of some sort. Electricity hums with all the promises of modernity; broken promises, like most. Organ sustain starts to swell into the mix, gradually displacing the hissing noise, the static. A feeling of supreme peacefulness accompanies this new state, although it’s difficult to say where exactly this begins. At [13:54], the organ notes ring out discreetly, while mumbling, murmuring hymns stumble forth from worshippers lips. As this scene fades away at [16:00], a warm musical tone displaces it, the hissing returns, almost like a wind blowing through the square, a scene which now feels lonelier after the church, a loneliness that only makes the prior segment more poignant. Voices approach, perhaps of workers, while industrial noises in the background, loading and unloading, sweep into the picture. An audible knock on the door seems oddly significant. A brief, high pitched choir is revealed, only to be hidden again. A digital watch beeps, looping, while the sounds of work and play intermingle. A toy car? A squeaking noise oscillates, passing for rhythm, the rhythm of the factory or of modernity, perhaps, until several minutes later the sound of actual automobiles speeds by, a high pitch resonating glass, and slowly the scene morphs once again. Like the tide coming in, a low pitch melody creeps in underneath, the listener unaware of this until he finds his feet submerged. At this point, [32:38], the organ comes in, loud and clear and more mournful, yet purposeful, than before. Muttering, shifting, a game or a crowd in church? The choir singing, the organ comes back, people shift and then…
The earth quakes, we find ourselves suddenly disoriented, reality slowly falls apart for the final ten minutes. In keeping with the surreal, dreamlike quality of the experience, the music ends, winding down but finally ending unexpectedly, as if we’ve been forcibly awoken.
Much of the record has this sort of quality. But like a passenger on a carriage ride, what you see depends upon both where the carriage goes and where you choose to look. Coniglio has set the perimeters, and often the desolate landscape offers few sights, however at closer inspection there is much detail to uncover. Though one might mistake this record to contain, perhaps, a lack of memorable events, there is something distinctly modern here.
The writer Julio Cortazar asked a lot of his readers; for him, a lazy reader was one who expected the author to do all the work. This recalls his contemporary, the great composer and visionary John Cage, who taught us that listening is an act of composition in itself. Music such as Ruined Days reminds us of this fact, while also demonstrating the importance of a skilled driver.
Originally published by The Silent Ballet in 2010