Portuguese sound artist João Castro Pinto is said to “compose silence with sounds”, and this description is perfect for Ars Abscondita. The combination of field recording and sound sculpture allows artists to fill spaces with the most interesting sounds they can find, or to leave them empty for contrast. While this seems as if it might be easy, it’s not. On the one hand, such artists are freed from the constraints of common song composition (verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-chorus). On the other, they are expected to present a comprehensive framework for their art. Listeners need to hear intention and drive; otherwise, their attention will be lost. Pinto’s strength is that he seems to know exactly where each piece is headed and how to get there. While there’s no predicting what sounds will appear and where they will turn, nothing on Ars Abscondita seems random. The music reflects the title, which roughly translated means “hidden art”, or as Pinto puts it, “meta-soundscapes with secluded meaning”. In daily life, our minds attempt to make sense of auditory inputs, but in sound art, the guideposts are absent. The narratives we discern may not be the narratives that are intended or even available. And yet, interpretation becomes a public province once any artistic work is shared.
The sounds presented on these four tracks are not normally found together: gongs and strings, drain pipes and drones. Nor does their behavior match aural expectations. Some tones are allowed to fade naturally, while others are cut off in mid-echo; for example, a series of chimes struck in one second, followed by silence in the next. In the old days, this effect was created through a tedious process of reel-to-reel: rewind, erase, proceed. Never is this more apparent than on the final track, “Simulacra”, which also features a telephone and a calliope. The latter adds warmth to what might otherwise be considered a clinical work; it’s the rare mechanical sound that connotes the presence of people.
Ars Absondita includes versions of works initially presented in Leeds, Seoul, Vienna and New York, and includes sounds captured in Portugal, Austria, Slovakia and the U.K., as well as a wide variety of instruments, such as Hindu chimes and Tibetan bowls. It’s an international album in a very modern sense. And yet, despite its diversity, it speaks of sound and silence in a manner that all traditions can understand, challenging them to contemplate not what we hear, but how we hear. (Richard Allen)