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Scanner / Scanner+Tonne - Nemesis: Original Score for Random Dance Company / Sound Polaroids

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Artist: Scanner / Scanner+Tonne

Album: Nemesis: Original Score for Random Dance Company / Sound Polaroids

Label: Bette / Bip-Hop

Review date: Feb. 3, 2003

(Digital) Postcards from the (Cutting) Edge

Robin Rimbaud (Scanner) first attracted attention in the early '90s with electronic soundscapes featuring pilfered cell-phone conversations. While, for Rimbaud, this was a conceptual experiment concerned with the collapse of the public-private boundary and the issue of surveillance, certain sectors of the British media branded him a "telephone terrorist" for his voyeuristic sampling tendencies. Nevertheless, his sonic rendering of a few easily extracted sentences from postmodern critical theory piqued more favorable interest in other quarters and the high-culture establishment soon embraced the pop-culture information-superhighwayman.

You can see why Scanner was attractive to such a constituency. Pondering the role of ideas and art in relation to music, Noel Gallagher once opined, "I don't think music should be clever, or av...or avant-garde, or artistic. I hate art in music." Scanner, on the other hand, ponders chin-stroking conundra like "How does one define the spaces between music and sound?" He proclaims, "My work explores the relationship between sound and architectural space and the spaces in between information, places, history, and relationships," and he relishes the opportunity "to record experience and highlight the threads of desire and interior narrative that we weave into our everyday lives."

To say that Scanner has been prolific would be an understatement. These two recent CDs account for only a couple of the countless projects in which he's been engaged over the last few years. In addition to releasing his own records (which have become progressively less oriented around directly sampled language, moving toward more ambitious sonic collages), he's worked with everyone from DJ Spooky to Bryan Ferry and remixed the likes of Hovercraft, Oval, Bill Laswell, Immersion, and Scorn; he's written scores for dance companies and productions of plays by Shakespeare and Cocteau; he's been an Artist in Residence at the BBC and a Fellow at John Moores University in Liverpool; he's done lecture tours; and he's provided sound installations to museums and galleries – even to the bereavement suite at the Raymond Poincaré hospital in Garches, France.

Nemesis is the score for a production of the same name commissioned by Random Dance, the resident company at Sadler's Wells. If writing about music is as fruitless and pointless a task as dancing about architecture, then writing about music by Scanner that's the soundtrack to a dance performance you haven't seen is an especially challenging endeavor. Set in a futuristic dystopia, the performance itself apparently explores the intersections among body, machine, and image. Framed by CCTV, innovative lighting design, and projected still and video images, the dancers undergo a metamorphosis midway through, re-emerging as post-apocalyptic cockroach-like beings with giant prosthetic limbs (thanks to Jim Henson's Creature Workshop).

Scanner's score runs the gamut of rhythms: from deconstructed Afro-Latin grooves to harsher industrial/techno beats, punctuated with dark passages of moody, beatless ambiance and occasionally threaded with austere strings and piano melodies. This is reasonably compelling when taken on its own and listened to out of context, but you get the sense that it would be better appreciated in the context for which it was composed, as a part of a greater multimedia spectacle.

Sound Polaroids is more successful – which is surprising given its original incarnation as an interactive audiovisual installation, devised in collaboration with graphic artist Tonne (Paul Farrington). The initial installation was conceived for the Imaginaria '99 festival at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London and created using a unique methodology: Londoners were asked – online and via postcards – to suggest a sound they considered representative of the city. Scanner and Tonne visited those suggested "points of sound significance," digitally photographing and recording them, and then used computer software to manipulate the audio and visual data, creating layers of semi-musical texture around the distinct samples.

The pair recreated Sound Polaroids in various places around the world, sampling cities and then assembling the installation in such a way that visitors could interact with it, triggering a display of images by making noise. The material featured on this disc derives from the London installation and the Milan, New York City, Tokyo, and Montreal versions.

Taken out of their original environment and divorced from the accompanying visuals, these pieces "work" to the extent that the listener is able to put together a mental image based on the sonic clues. If you're familiar with London, for instance, Scanner's mapping of that city will be instantly recognizable, occasionally bordering on the stereotypical with "mind the gap" announcements and the noise of arriving and departing tube trains embedded in its electronic textures.

At the same time, however, other elements may produce minor epiphanies that re-familiarize listeners with their environments. On "London," for example, I heard sounds so deeply ingrained in my aural experience of the day-to-day life of the city that I hadn't consciously been aware of them: a taxi engine idling and the echoing footsteps of passengers in an Underground station. In this new aural context, these seemingly mundane sounds were striking and deeply evocative.

Of course, this CD doesn't necessarily rely on listeners picturing the city as it really is, in some closed signifier-equals-signified, photo-realist sense. If you haven't spent time in London, the sampled sounds aren't guaranteed to conjure up the same image that they might in the mind of a Londoner. Moreover, Scanner and Tonne were outsiders in Milan, New York, Tokyo, and Montreal, so their chosen points of sound significance could differ vastly from those selected by a resident. This might result in a defamiliarization of cities to their inhabitants (I wouldn't have recognized New York City, where I live) or perhaps a re-familiarization of individuals with their surroundings by activating buried sound memories.

Karlheinz Stockhausen once said that Scanner had "a good sense of atmosphere" and that's borne out here; whether you're imagining a city you've never seen (or don't recognize) or imaging a city you know based on your recognition of sounds, each of these tracks succeeds in conveying a unique ambiance.

In addition to praising Scanner, Stockhausen has criticized the structure of his works for being "too repetitive." That doesn't apply here. Encapsulating the dynamism and unpredictability of the urban space, these pieces are in a process of constant metamorphosis. Stockhausen also faulted Scanner for a reticence to transform his raw material and found sounds into something new and startling. It would be hard to level that criticism at Sound Polaroids: whether familiar cityscapes are being defamiliarized or we're being re-familiarized with forgotten elements of our surroundings, sounds and our relationships with those sounds (and their greater contexts) undergo transformation.

While Nemesis perhaps needs to be heard in conjunction with Random Dance's performance, Sound Polaroids makes for an engrossing experience. Although the interactive element of the original installation is lost, it finds a counterpart in the listener's active engagement with the pieces and his/her remembering, imagining, or imaging. Its playful character also extends to humor, something Scanner has unjustly been seen to lack. On "Montreal," he returns to his old ways, intercepting a phone conversation, which is momentarily interrupted by another sampled voice asking the profound question, "Où se cachent les Teletubbies?"

By Wilson Neate

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