THE LABYRINTH UNDERSTANDS ITSELF
Jaromír Typlt – Michal Rataj: Škrábanice/Scribbles
Polí5, Prague 2014
For quite some time now, the work of Jaromír Typlt has been shifting from “traditional” forms of written poetry towards more abstract forms such as performance art or other multidisciplinary projects. For “Scribbles”, he has teamed up with leading Czech composer and multifaceted electronic experimenter Michal Rataj. Rather than setting poetry to music – which has a long tradition in Czech classical and popular music – their joint project represents an original contribution to the experimental search for new forms of art outside of classical branches or genres, and unbound by the principles of the self-contained work of art.
Scribbles originated in 2009, originally as an improvised performance concept. Since then, the project has been performed at numerous noteworthy events. Its basic theme is poetry in the stages of birth. In addition to the image evoked by the project’s name – hands floating over paper filled with notes and scribbles, random doodles, diverse markings or marginal notes – we also encounter poetic fragments of overheard texts, various inspirational slips of the tongue, the act of rewriting, or the author’s artistic struggle, the wages of the keyboard and blinking cursor, perhaps with automatic correction in the text editor. The various textual and audio approaches used to express these situations are complemented by the duo’s playing on acoustic instruments (Rataj: guitar, mbira; Typlt: acoustic bass guitar) and amplified manipulation with non-musical objects. Rataj’s laptop live processing transforms all this information into the final quadraphonic sound. Various recordings of these performances can be easily found online, of course without the quadrophonics. For this, you still have to be at the performance.
The three-dimensional sound was also reduced into regular stereo for the duo’s eponymous CD, which was recorded at Rataj’s studio last November 13 using the same performance concept. With a stylish cover by Viktor Kopasz, it was released on the Polí5 independent label, whose range of genres continues to grow, although experimental art has always been part of its domain.
A cursory listening to the album may give the impression that it is primarily a combination of abstract electronic music with spoken word in search of the intersection between these two layers. Repeated listening, however, reveals a fundamentally broader palette of elements, moods, and approaches. Immediately following the juicily beeping and bubbling introduction on the second track, “Replace or Erase”, we can enjoy a vaguely tribal, interestingly composed groove as well as a more intimate passage in which the electronica deformatively takes control of the spoken word in such a way that we fully understand the meaning of the verse “I’m going to climb across the bushes and play it myself”.
There then follow several minute-long miniatures – all of them something like delicate haikus – that mix together just a few sounds and words, as on the track entitled “Later Rewrite” with its enjoyable, clean guitar playing.
The first longer piece is the fifth track, “Handed Back”, which plays symbolically and absurdly with motifs related to the increasingly confused nature of postal (and online) communication. Using mini-samples of vocals, at certain moments it engages in the audio reification of digital errors, and the collapse of meaning and form via incomprehensible (and thus apparently superhuman) processes. But there are also passages of silence or nearly inaudible audio sequences that are capable of unexpectedly growing into subtle ambient white-noise structures.
The longest track is the more than 11-minute “Pressed Through”, which presents additional meticulously designed audio stories, including a pulsating passage. At the same time, however, its formal division does nothing to indicate that it might be the album’s central element, since it could just as easily be divided into several smaller, independent pieces. Put simply, you cannot judge the tracks’ relevance based on their length. Rather, the album’s key elements are identified by their repetition (on the instrumental as well as textual level) at various points througout the CD’s roughly 40-minute running time. With this type of art one cannot expect a longer piece to offer greater catharsis than what we might find in less expected places. Powerful verses emerge at unexpected places, just as in real life. As a result, the simple “And Exclamation Marks” may strike us as far more intense in terms of musical expression than the even simpler last track, “Immediately Struck Through”, which repeats the mantra “I’m going to climb across the bushes…” At the same time, we must not forget that the entire album should be understood as just another version of an ever-evolving project.
During live performances of Scribbles, the quadraphonic audio can easily overpower the entire concert venue. On the CD, the same pieces live a significantly more reserved life, but this shouldn’t prevent listeners from immersing themselves into the act of listening in order to discover a very intense experience. Without the proper attention, the album may easily fade into being “merely” pleasant and interesting background music. Still, instead of a more vocally expressive, colorful or perhaps even catchy approach, this is the approach the authors have chosen – and in my opinion, that is good. As a result, the album is more open about its aristocratic nature; in the words of Typlt’s poetic imagery from one of his texts on the CD, the labyrinth truly does understand itself. Precisely in this way, it is fully engaged in support of similarly cross-disciplinary and progressive forms of art as opposed to those forms that serve their message on platters decorated with colorful ribbons and intended for immediate and thus mindless consumption. Similarly demanding poetic content, combined with a suitably demanding musical element, does not appear quite as often on our scene as I would like.
Translation: Stephan von Pohl