DAN O’CONNOR – IN/EX LP (TONE LIST)
There’s a new DIY record label for weird music in town, which is very good news, because they are pretty few and far between these days. This might be a reflection of the perceived dispensability of labels in the age of Bandcamp et al. But labels had already long since ceased to be a necessity when we had local leftfield music coming out on the likes of Grave New World, Meupe, Badminton Bandit. The beauty of small, artistic labels is that they foster a kind of sound-world; a curated trail of work (some familiar, some not) that you can follow or reliably return to. Though it’s early days, this is my expectation for TONE LIST – run by a small group of young composers and performers who’ve emerged from WAAPA’s experimental underbelly.
Notably, mind you, they omit that particular word – experimental – from their mission statement, instead professing a focus on “exploratory” music. It’s a subtle, but wise differentiation – the former term has all but ossified into a set of signifiers and brings to mind a particular aesthetic, which is self-defeating. Exploratory music could still be anything: and while any kind of arcane tinkering with uncertainty can pass as an experiment, exploration implies a wilful journey into the unknown, a concerted lunge at the blurry edges of the map.
I’ve been sent Tone List’s first ever release – Dan O’Connor’s “In/Ex” – to review. It’s the middle of the night, I’m eating some Cadbury Roses I was given yesterday, wondering how to appraise exploration. Is the traversal of unfamiliar territory an ends in itself? Novelty has its appeal, definitely, but it’s not a measure of success. A recording of my socks in a blender would be novel but so far I’ve had no bites from labels re: my Sock Destruction 3: Shredded Threads mixtape. So; here I am, sucking on a Hazelnut Whirl, feeling endlessly fascinated by music that flouts all convention – but wondering how assessment happens when that yardstick blows away in the wind. At the very least, it seems exploratory music works best when clarity of concept coincides with a genuinely interesting sonic outcome. Yeah, the “interest” can arise from formal novelty (against the backdrop of the musical canon) but also from the immanent aesthetics of the thing: the contours of timbre and pitch, the primal and/or cerebral attraction of rhythms, the eloquence of melody and harmony.
IN/EX boasts a magnificently simple, intriguing and clever unifying concept: each track is a trumpet improvisation performed with a single breath. As with most good concept-driven art, extraneous frills are forgone – so instead of titles per se, each track is just a number, “one” through “seventeen.” The scene is set – the tantalising question is, what will Dan do with his seventeen breaths?
“One” presents a rapid-fire collage of noise gossamer, air rushing at varying speeds and intensities through the brass, the occasional nip of tongue dampening the polychrome parade. “Two” begins with a pure, golden tone – a single note like a ray of sun – but eventually begins to crackle and splutter like a fading radio as you drive out past the hills. If you want you can read these tracks less as music and more as performance art, an intimate document of O’Connor’s strain as he desperately empties his lungs. But this would be to dismiss the qualities of the sounds in themselves, which I think would be a shame.
Listen closely and you begin to uncover an incredibly rich variation of tones, frequencies and, it seems, sentiments being exhaled from this one mouth into this one trumpet. That’s the bonzer thing about minimalism, I guess – and this is, at least, minimalistic in its orchestration – a chance to dig into the minutiae. I’m on my fourth listen through the 12-minute album and only now is it really starting to open up: pops, filtered sucks and blows, valve taps and slippery scales. Ghosts of tunes and the happy reclamation of performative detritus.
Most of these tracks are noise-oriented, eschewing melodic improvisation, and I’d like to hear more of the latter given that the note-oriented breaths – like “eleven” and “twelve” – are among the most fascinating. Mouth noise isn’t inherently more intriguing than notes, I don’t think, once you really get stuck in. Having said that, O’Connor is really good at creating compelling mouth noise, so – why not?
A few listens deep, and I feel remarkably connected to my senses. To my ears, and to the vibrations nearby. Am I going to crank Dan O’Connor’s “IN/EX” every morning while I cook my eggs? No; am I going to listen to it in the bath, or while jogging? You never know, but probably not. This is an album for dedicated listening, close attention, per an artwork in a gallery. Some people might suggest it’s not really music, mainly because there’s a tendency to romanticise the concept. “Music,” we’re told, is the soundtrack to our youth, our romances, our parties, that stuff we sing along to or that makes us want to do windmills with our hair. But music has also always been the close study of sound, an opportunity to get proximate with the raw materials that make up our heard landscape. It’s a chance to find out what our lungs and brain and fingers can do with a single breath, and to see what others may make of the irregular Rorscach blot that emerges. Here, seventeen unique and unrepeatable moments, crystal clear and bone-bare for your indefinite perusal.
IN/EX is coming out on June 14, 2016, in a limited edition of 100 CD-Rs with a 6-panel card gatefold sleeve with artwork by O’Connor.