Disposofónicos is a massive project, the culmination of many years of work. This box set includes four CDs, one LP and a vinyl-sized, 120-page hardback book. There’s a lot to sort through, but it’s worth it; the discs have a high replay value and the set is one of the most fascinating releases of the past few years. Released last spring, the release initially fell through our cracks, but we’re happy to rectify the oversight in today’s column.
Whether playing everything they can get their hands on or creating instruments out of other used instruments or scrap, Portugal’s Sonoscopia collective demonstrates their love of sound, in particular texture and percussion. Their invented word disposophonia refers to the art of collecting sound and “gleaning” its utility. A far more complex philosophical argument is made in the text, but suffice it to say that the music speaks louder than the words. While listening, we experience many of the written points by osmosis: music as noise (wanted or unwanted); sonic associations (which differ across cultures); the relationship between sound, memory and thought. Perusing the photobook is another way to gain an understanding of sources: strings excised from their original moorings; an egg slicer and an egg; a drawer of Walkmans; erector sets, telephones, liquid-filled beakers, reel-to-reels. The members of the collective are eventually musicians, but first they are collectors, inventors and architects. The Dysfunctional Robot Orchestra puts the Marble Machine to shame:
Some of the music comes from installations; some is performed in concert. The timbres brush against drone, field recording and electronics, but are never content to stay in one place for long. The longest piece, opener “Phonopticon,” sounds like a multi-track take from Harry Bartoia’s Sonambient series. At first it’s all bell tones and chimes, but then something deeper comes along: bass notes, shufflings and light feedback. Ten minutes in, the piece enters a molasses phase yet continues to move. Then a section like an orchestra tuning ~ to some iconoclasts the best part of the concert, unconstrained by scores. Glissandos appear, seemingly unbidden; then a precipice, a crash. The finale is metal gone mad, akin to that of Matmos’ Ultimate Care II. The track ends up as a commentary on busyness and rest, fast-forward and pause, a reflection of Ivo Martins’ opening essay. The ensuing track, “Cinza Urbano,” incorporates the sounds of clocks, church chimes, and a moored boat, followed by circular conversation and transport noises. Cows and birds dominate the closing track of disc one, creating a pastoral contrast. Chronal references will continue throughout the set. Martins notes the destruction of linear time in the age of rampant technology, proposing that “new ways of listening and seeing” are essential to counter “the world being run like a Playstation game.”
Disc Two is anchored by the three-part “Control and Unpredictability,” which appears as “N.1, N.3 and N.5.” The irony is that the excisions of N.2 and N.4 seem unpredictable, but a pattern of odd numbers appears nevertheless. In like manner, the human brain seeks patterns, and often finds them even when none are intended. Sonoscopia picks up on these patterns and creates its own, but there’s a twist; the listener is never sure whether each pattern is played, programmed, or generated. Even when played, the listener suspects improvisation over composition. The unpredictable nature of conversation makes a great starting point for the triptych, which branches into unexpected areas: low tribal drums offset by high piercing tones. Is “N.1” mocking the sexes by exaggerating their perceived tonal extremes? The gong-like center of “N.3” (hearkening back to “Phonopticon”) seems to exhibit control, but control is in the striking, not in the duration. And here come those birds again …
Studies have shown that humans can tolerate a high volume of noise, as long as it’s their volume: for example, a college student concentrates by turning his music up to drown out the sound of outdoor construction. Sonoscopia temporarily tames sound, but cannot corral its wildness. Machines break; cars crash. We control only a fragment of our sonic environment; we create an illusion of control. As the cacophony of “N.3” grows, it seems as if the sound has gotten away from the artists, although we suspect this isn’t true; it’s a metaphor of noise and perception.
On Disc Three, the lines continue to blur. “Fauna” sounds a lot like flora as the two become entwined. Crickets evoke the great outdoors, gongs a oneness with nature. Midway into the piece, the ground shifts. Wooden creak meets laptop beep. Human groans meet animal grunts. One is reminded of the talent starlings have developed of mimicking cell phones, throwing our bird calls back in our faces. “Transarkiv” includes the clicks of a keyboard, a sound that recently inspired Mechanical Keyboard Sounds: Recordings of Bespoke and Customized Mechanical Keyboards. Our sonic nostalgia embraces outmoded items invented while many of us were alive. There’s a tactile difference between Grandpa’s missing the sound of the washboard in country music and our late-blooming fondness for a dial-up signal. The piece grows progressively more musical until it flips to the sound of a market, populated with its own characters and instrumentation.
The final disc and record are different animals, billed to arms of the Sonoscopia universe: Srosh Ensemble, Nova Orquestra Futurista Do Porto and Phobos, Dysfunctional Robotic Orchestra. The latter is the name of an EP rather than an artist; the full EP is present as Side B. Many of the tracks are shorter and more focused: Srosh Ensemble’s “Longa Part III” stays with chimes for its entire length, while NOFDP’s 49-second “Stropicciatori” sounds like the inside of a video game after being doused with Red Bull. Such tracks represent the inverse interpretation of “size matters;” sometimes smaller is better and less is more, especially if one is trying to introduce this four and a half hour project to a person with a short attention span. But at any length, one can feel the appeal of “Gorgolatori,” as participants pop the tops of bottles, gulp the contents, exhale and use the bottles as instruments. It’s an experiment one can do at home, without the burden of interpretation. The same is true of Srosh Ensemble’s “On Glass Part I,” reminiscent of Tarab. The accumulation of noises is its own joy, giving way to pure notes in the closing minute.
After a brief detour to obsolescent technologies, the album finally lands on the turntable. As seen in the video at the top of this article, the Dysfunctional Robot Orchestra is a visual treat. There may have been some discussion about whether to include this material in the box set, but it operates as a dessert after a four-course meal: sweetness and light, frosting and fun. At 37 minutes, the entire LP is shorter than the set’s opening track! The sequencing may be yet another reflection of temporal interpretation; after the other entries, this installment seems to fly by. The closing statement seems to be: collect the sounds that intrigue you. Play with them like jacks or blocks. Look in your kitchen drawer, garage or attic. Listen in a new way. Salvage the sound; these items are less disposable than we first believed. (Richard Allen)