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CM Hausswolff - 800,000 Seconds in Harar

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Artist: CM Hausswolff

Album: 800,000 Seconds in Harar

Label: Touch

Review date: Apr. 22, 2011

The title is not quite as pithy as “30 Seconds Over Tokyo,” and the results are likewise elongated. Carl Michael von Hausswolff is a Swedish installation and sound artist whose interests encompass electricity, constructed spaces, and paranormal intrusions upon electronic activity; he is also co-monarch of the digital Kingdom of Elgaland-Vargaland, which has no physical territory but does have a gift shop.

Hausswolff’s work is distinguished by an economy of means. For many years, his compositions were based on sounds obtained from earlier work, which he boiled down to drones. In the aughts, he’s pared things back further by working mainly with electrical sounds. But on 800,000 Seconds in Harar, thrift joins hands with a certain extravagance. Playwright Ulrich Hillebrand commissioned Hausswolf to make the music for a play inspired by a letter written by Arthur Rimbaud. Best remembered as a symbolist poet, Rimbaud spent the last third of his life trading guns and coffee and hobnobbing with Haile Selassie’s dad, Ras Makonnen, in Harar, Ethiopia. Since Hillebrand had some connections there, he sent Hausswolff off on a 10-day junket to collect sounds and ideas. Hausswolf came back with three elements, which became the essential components of the album’s first piece “Day and Night” — a field recording of sounds that includes the dripping tap from Hausswolf’s hotel room, and an Ethiopian stringed instrument called a krar.

With the aid of a violin bow, Hausswolff got one usable note out of the krar and set about assembling a thoroughly persuasive 27-minute piece of minimalist drone so vivid that it suggests its own narrative in the absence of any information about how Hillebrand used it. It opens with the buzzing and chirping of bugs and the chatter of children, probably sounding just as they might have on the day that Rimbaud arrived in Harar. A low drone, perhaps signifying his arrival, looms through the outdoor sounds and ultimately overtakes them. As drones go, it’s a swell one, and also a familiar one if you’re a Mekons fan; it sounds so much like the synth underpinning their “This Sporting Life” that I kept waiting for Mark White to start hollering over it. But I doubt that Hausswolff knows that song, and even if he does, this drone goes in another direction, rising in pitch and density before going into a long fade. The point to any drone is the activity that teems inside of it, and if this represents Rimbaud in Harar, he was a busy boy.

There’s a second piece on 800,000 Seconds in Harar, and it’s as unprepossessing as the first one is impressive. “The Sleeper in the Valley” is constructed from several oscillators running without intervention and a filtered Morse code rendering of one of Rimbaud’s poems. Sullen and unremarkable, it may have served some point in the play, but here it only disperses the spell that “Day and Night” sustained. Completist sentiments might have dictated its inclusion, but it adds nothing but time to the record.

By Bill Meyer

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