Incident at Ras Oumlil (revised 2016) (10:01)
For Rudy Carrera (revised 2016) (08:06)
Song for Maya Deren (12:03)
Up. Up and Back to 1982 (17:00)
During his preparation, setting up the paper, wetting the brush and grinding the ink stone, the calligrapher is in deep concentration. Then, when he is ready, he performs the drawing in a few swift strokes.
My works have always been precise, meticulously edited. In the last decade or so I have left the idea of a preconceived/designed composition. There is only a vague idea before I start recording. Through my Zen practice I have become interested in the approach described above. I translated the calligrapher’s method to my sessions with the modular synthesizer. I concentrate while connecting the patch and setting the parameters at the start of a session. Then I start the various sonic movements, letting things flow and interfering only when necessary. Afterwards I leave the original sounds intact as much as possible, trying to limit overdubs and extensive editing. The flow of the ‘here’ and the ‘now’ guides me.
Playing with sound and music for 30 years, co-editing Vital Magazine and founding THU20, a supergroup of the Dutch experimental underground, Smolders has been a significant contributor to the electronic music community. In addition to his work as a sound artist, he founded EARLabs.org in 1998, eventually turning it into a website dedicated to the fledgling netaudio scene, which combined aspects of online magazine, online label, mastering services and social media functionalities in a revolutionary way. A writer, editor, sound designer, composer, producer and pioneer, Jos Smolders uses his broad experience to perfect and polish the sound of artists including Pierre Henry, Jim Jarmusch, Jozef van Wissem, Merzbow and Scanner.
The first track from Jos Smolders’s Nowhere is a good example of music generating images of somewhere, even if it is an unstable, ungraspable locale.
Smolders’s modular synthesis works are surprisingly cinematic for music of a kind that is often labeled clinical, academic or heavy. The work has a ‘materiality’ that is nimble and strong, like a kind of sonic carbon-fibre.
Incident is not without traces of life in the most literal sense either; clicks and pops that may be as loose and dry as fragments of old bones cluster together to reanimate in unpredictable phases of excitation. Geigercounter sonics seem to infer that a radioactive anomaly has passed some time ago, and has left a strong audible signature as we speculate what the incident of the title was.
What results is something taut, tense and controlled. Images of post-meltdown Fukushima or Chernobyl come to mind, as we pick over the bones of these sites and survey the ecosystem. Maybe my language here is a little dramatic, but I’m going with a Zen-like ‘first thought, best thought’ instinct, inspired by the front cover calligraphy on the CD.
The work develops into more expansive terrain; plate reverbs imply a kind of tubular, metallic container, aluminum perhaps, maybe the inside of a large empty petrol tanker or a modern agricultural grain silo. Here the piece changes significantly; granular particles coalesce into phantasms of human voices before unpredictable tectonic drones permeate the soundscape.
The work takes on the direction of a radiophonic experience, one where the swells of unstable transmissions pass through thin walls. The tic of the Geigercounter remains but it is now picking up more than radioactivity.
There is an urgent orchestration at play, and the drone work is focused and fragile – you get the sense that something could pop or snap at any moment and the movement dies away into the terrain it began with – a vertebrae of attraction that passes.
Those who have seriously attempted to operate a synthesizer know from experience how easy getting lost in the meanders of programming is. In a plurality of parameters and wave shapes, finding a way to produce a decent result – let alone a beautiful one – is not exactly a walk in the park when the necessary practicality is missing. Moreover, in order to achieve that goal a whole life of intense listening and, in turn, a thorough understanding of the constitutional particles of sound are required. Unsurprisingly, the large part of synth-based contemporary wallpaper exploits presets, either in “as is” mode or with the slightest modification. It’s an ever-expanding blob of mediocre homogeneity with a risible percentage of artistic meaningfulness.
The decision of leaving intuition primarily in charge of a process of creation – thus putting the mind temporarily out of business – can be problematic. The border between dignity and irrelevance is a dangerous place: chaos is acceptable if a regulating entity is ready to break in. In the work of Jos Smolders, the awareness of the so-called “inside structure” defining every intelligent human being represents a decisive factor. His music is “free” in the widest acceptation of the adjective, but still characterized by a high degree of compatibility: not only with a hypothetical audience, but also with surrounding environments that may range from utterly silent to heavily vociferous. Smolders’s choice of combining synthetic emanations with vague apparitions of reality certifies a truth: what we really hear – be it from an instrument, a recording, or the outside world – is often determined by our interior extensions rather than the actual source.
In that regard, Nowhere straightens up the wrong tendencies of the psyche which, given man’s self-damaging nature, would reject anything not organized according to individual preferences. Some of these textures bring instant comfort, captivating as they are in their glowing warmth. Elsewhere, a quantity of unconscious analysis is needed to capture the vibrational impact of the intrinsic pulses; rarely intricacy and naturalness look so entwined. Smolders extracts luminousness from blackness; delineates cosmic implausibility with considerate gestures; reinforces with radiant tones what was born inconsistent. After silence falls, what remains is an almost tactile integrity: something that can neither be taught, nor described in mere words.
Nowhere marries brutalism to beautalism. Smolders knows the tools of his trade, inside and out. Movements are trained, skilled and well honed. The performance and the product it delivers open up to the moments of making and of reproduction. The controls handed over to aesthetics, again: moving swiftly. Gently also, like an inked brush gliding across the surface of prepared rice paper.
A brutal mark made, ever so softly, creating a work of fragile beauty. Smolders’s brutalism can be found in his daring approach to let the story tell itself. Let the lines flow. Contemplate only the now. Be the created instance. With or without what goes on around, switching on and shutting off. Hearing is thus turned into probing, into hard won, intense listening. Smolders delivers the concrète béton for our time and age, this very instance.
Nowhere does away with rigid structures. The album accepts whatever aurally happens as a musical given, at all times, against all odds. Smolders therewith presents us with a Cageian narrative ‘holos’; a Gesamtkunstwerk of the human and the mechanical, of the found and constructed, of art, artifice and the natural. That’s just as brutal as it is beautiful – here and now.