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Gen Ken Montgomery - Pondfloorsample

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Artist: Gen Ken Montgomery

Album: Pondfloorsample

Label: XI

Review date: Jan. 21, 2003

The Magic of Ordinary Sounds

Gen Ken Montgomery is a name most familiar to those of us who were active during the so-called "cassette culture" of the 80s and early 90s. That was the heyday of bedroom musicians producing their own cassettes and trading them, and small mail-order distributors like RRRecords, Cause & Effect, and Sound of Pig were also prevalent. I encountered Montgomery's work on various tapes of his own as well as compilations. I liked his focus on noisy yet gentle soundscapes, which he often produced by starting with recordings of ordinary objects.

This retrospective collection is presented as two CDs, a studio disc and a live disc – although he cheats and puts a "live in the studio" recording on the studio disc, thereby breaking his own rules. The first disc, containing the studio recordings, is dominated by that studio-live track, the 31-minute "Father Demo Swears". Montgomery made it using violin, voice, and a microphone outside the window, processed live using feedback inventions created by David Lee Myers. The piece builds from a collection of chittering, metallic grinding sounds into a monstrous tornado that swells and falls amidst accented noises and sounds picked up by the window microphone. I particularly liked the happenstance dog barking amidst the clatter and clutter. “Father Demo Swears” is a uniquely dramatic recording which would serve as an excellent soundtrack to a silent film about decay. A voice insinuates itself halfway through as the other noises spread out to make way to particularly creepy effect. It reaches a horror-movie level of intensity towards the end, with echoing, cascading tones and amplified traffic sounds competing for space.

Following on from that epic piece we get a number of tracks sourced from environmental-type recordings of objects like radiators, refrigerators, a bath drain, and a film projector (without film). Some are processed to become walls of rumbling, buzzing sound, while others are left alone, becoming little sound windows into day-to-day life. As the artist says in the liner notes, "I am delighted when sounds familiar to me transform into other sonic realities for other ears," which is a fine explanation for those who might read about this and wonder why anyone would release recordings of, say, an egg slicer or a laminator. One of the best examples of this is "Fusebox-Contemplating Columbus," a recording of a wall-mounted fusebox in Hamburg. Even with the knowledge of what's been recorded, the sounds remain mysterious and rather compelling.

The second CD is the live disc, although again Montgomery breaks his rules by starting it with the thirty-second "Pondfloorsample and more," which is completely silent, representing as it does a conceptual component. During a short sabbatical from recording, Montgomery continued to correspond with other artists, and instead of sending them tapes, he sent them jewel cases or cassette cases filled with samples from the bottom of a pond near where he was staying. This short piece stands in for those silent samples.

The bulk of the second CD is the 52-minute "Droneskipclickloop," performed in 1998 using the sound of a film projector and prerecorded CDs mixed and moved throughout the speakers. The resulting soundscape mixes the clicks of the film projector, field recordings of birds and other sounds, and noises both mechanical and organic. It travels a number of different places, led by an ever-varying collection of sounds. At some points, it's quite natural-sounding, such as when led by sounds of birds or other field recordings; at others it's extremely synthetic, dominated by mechanistic clicks or electronic hums. "The Aquarium" is a twenty-minute performance from 1999 using an aquarium pump, toy sewing machine, and other implements, while "Knackerbrot Action" appropriately concludes the CD with just a couple of minutes from a live recording of Swedish crispbread (knackerbrot) being laminated.

This might be an ideal opportunity to discuss why these types of recordings qualify as music, and what role there is for recordings of this nature, but I'll keep this short. The magic here is Montgomery's ability to hone in on the microscopic details of a sound which would ordinarily be lost amidst the distractions of everyday life. By drawing attention to these noises, Montgomery lets us hear those details as the intriguing sounds that they are. When the sounds are left on their own, they're fascinating; when Montgomery mixes them with other noises, they're placed in a different context and end up occupying an entirely new place. Combining artificial and organic sounds is a common musique concrete approach, of course, which Montgomery approaches with great success. But oddly enough the simpler pieces are the most successful, because the individual sounds have enough personality to stand out on their own.

By Mason Jones

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