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Jed Speare - Sound Works: 1982-1987

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Artist: Jed Speare

Album: Sound Works: 1982-1987

Label: Family Vineyard

Review date: Feb. 26, 2008

Did you know Jed Speare existed before reading about Sound Works: 1982-1987? I sure didn’t, though it doesn’t take much to get past this listener these days, given release schedules that cumulatively have gone far beyond saturation point. But if you’re anything like me, you’ll be glad to encounter Jed Speare’s compositions and musique concrète pieces, and the experience will both get you searching for his 1982 Smithsonian Folkways record, Cable Car Soundscapes, and have you glad that the liner notes mention there are more ‘sound works’ to be found where this wonderfully protean set springs from.

Born in 1954 in Boston, Speare’s trajectory takes in composition study, acoustic communication, ecology and design, hearing conservation, photography, film, historical research, alliances with text-sound poets, and writing, among others. He’s multimedia avant la letter, insofar as when listening to this disc, or reading the liner notes, Speare comes across as an artist who thinks first, acts second, and doesn’t necessarily give a damn about where his productions might be placed within any putative field. On Sound Works: 1982-1987, you primarily hear Speare the magnetic reel cadet, as it collects tape compositions from that most inauspicious of decades, some of which were constructed with collaborations and performances in mind.

Speare’s tape pieces are concrète in the most literal, tactile sense. He privileges dislocation from acoustic origin via analogue means and hand-cranked manipulation. This means his sounds carry the ghost presence of the familiar within their mutant genes. For 1982’s At the Falls, an attempt to create “an ambience like water” without using “any water sounds,” this means the displaced source material goes through a sequence of abstractions only to be called to attention as an imitation, or approximation, of nature at its least abstract.

While that’s an enjoyable figure eight of intention, it wouldn’t be quite so interesting if the resulting piece didn’t capture the imagination so vividly. Shuttling between “vocal interpolations…recorded at a psychiatric hospital in Mirecourt” and extended segments of muffled, subterranean tape blur, At the Falls is evocative not just of water, its intended projection, but in its attention to physical medium it acts almost as love poem to its genre. This is, indeed, classic concrète, and it sounds as though it could have slipped from a mid 20th century reel somewhere in France.

1983’s Sleep Tight, borne of collaboration with Barbara Duifjes and filmmaker David Geary, traverses similar terrain at first. There is a particularly startling sequence, however, where percussive rattling leaps from the speakers, jarring the listener. Sourced from the hammering of the pipes and the dry water faucet at the Franklin Furnace, it’s a particularly bracing moment that’s echoed in the following sharp, speedy edits of Duifjes’s voice. Indeed, throughout Sleep Tight, her words are spliced and shattered, apart from a quizzical “Did you hear that?” and a brief section of rhyming associations. Much like the speech in At the Falls, Speare’s manipulation of Duifjes removes syntax from the voice, replacing order with the richness and unlikely resonances created by pure semiotic gush. The structure of these voice-related segments broadly parallels the non-human concrète elements of Speare’s compositions, attesting to a holistic approach to sound arrangement.

In 1986, Speare was invited to Amsterdam’s So Und So Und So II Visual Music Days Festival, where he presented “a work that combined tape sound, live performance, and sound sculpture.” The piece moves through asphalt chunks of tape spew, providing an aural picture of the sounds of Amsterdam, but it really lifts off when the sound sculpture starts chiming in. With speakers on copper rods pouring out the chirruping, clicking sounds of tone generating oscillators, the result is sufficiently alien to have one questioning the intelligence of the speakers’ interactions, and there’s a brutish charm to the outcome that’s far away from the supplicating politeness of, say, Robin Minard. The live instrumentation finishes the piece, with Speare’s own guitar, shrouded in tremolo, particularly lonely and fragile.

To finish, 1987’s Wayside, a performance and video work with Wendelien Havemen that, according to Speare’s notes, “took as its point of departure the Baudrillardian notion that an airport is a mini-city with a transient yet stable population.” It’s sufficiently ‘industrial’ in tenor to fit one’s imagining of an airport symphony, yet the jumps that occur between plane noise, the hissing of both internal and external ambience, and piano and cello pieces acts to dislocate the listener’s expectations of what an airport piece would/should/could sound like.

Collecting two hours of Speare’s ’80s sound works in the one place, this compilation acts as a near-perfect primer. Admittedly, 1982’s brief Taboo Death doesn’t quite gel, as Brad Saunders’s percussion is too rhythmic and linear. With concrète, you want to hear the internal rhythms of the tape and, most importantly, of the edit; actual percussion feels like an indulgence. But that’s seven minutes long, which leaves a whole lot of other minutes to play with, minutes that feel as pregnant and open as they must have when the pieces were first heard. While they toy with the language of several genres (concrète, chamber music, electroacoustics), these recordings never quite settle down, so they still carry themselves as rather unfamiliar, sometimes disjointed, but always wonderfully so. Imagine how they must have felt, way back when.

By Jon Dale

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