It’s almost impossible to comprehend the initial reactions to Luc Ferrari’s Presque Rien n° 1, the piece that inspires Lawrence English‘s Approaching Nothing. A 2013 article in Brainwashed explains that Ferrari’s edited/juxtaposed field recording was once considered controversial, managing to offend the musique concrète community while confounding critics. Today we consider field recording and soundscape to be a valid musical category, but in 1967 this was far from the case. Now English returns to the scene of the “crime”: Croatia’s Vela Luka, which was in Yugoslavia at the time of the initial recording. Like Ferrari, English chooses for the most part to leave the source material alone, emphasizing its musical qualities. While he edits the sounds, he does not substantially manipulate them.
On the new recording, we may find the descendants of the original town folks, crickets and avian guard. There’s even an outside chance that some of the vehicles or machinery may be the same. The recording begins with a bell sounding out the hour: 6 a.m. But less than a minute later, it begins to ring uncontrollably, as if seized by a manic child. So much for ambience! But soon the birds begin to challenge the bells for sonic dominance, bringing to mind the question, “Does the loudest sound win, or the most intricate?” The local sonic ecology has changed over the decades, as have human-based boundary lines, but it’s also apparent that recording technology has changed as well, particularly when it comes to depth. The geese seem to attack from the speakers, while the construction stays in the back, a reversal of normal expectations. Conversation dominates the midsection, along with the sound of heels on pavement and what one might perceive to be a cellphone. But then nature fights back: flies and birds occupy a peaceful place, whose reverie is temporarily shattered (15:15, 17:00) by passing motors.
While human intrusion is a typical theme in field recording, English raises other questions as well, most importantly, “who owns the sonic field?” Nature carves out its own niches, a process imitated by humanity, especially in industrial areas civilized enough to allow noise complaints. For the most part, nature adapts to man, while man ignores nature. English implies that something has been lost in the last fifty years: a low rumble replaced by occasional cacophony. A motorbike and its ensuing honks (21:21+) are especially disturbing. What has happened to this place? Is it possible that the pounding of modern noise has killed the spirit of the community? Even the children sound angry as they play a game. One begins to wonder what Vela Luka will sound like in another fifty years: complete silence, eternal drone or something in-between? Are we really approaching nothing? In the closing minutes, English re-installs the missing peace (homonym intended): a quiet choir over the sound of soft water. A sliver of hope still exists. (Richard Allen)