Ezz-thetics

a column by
Stuart Broomer


Mercado 3: Wade recording fish                                                                                         Abdul Moimême

It’s June 2016. I’m on the sidewalk patio of Apeadeiro, a restaurant in Lisbon’s mid-town Entrecampos district that has terrific seafood, enjoying lunch with the Madrid-based electro-acoustic improviser and sound artist Wade Matthews and the guitarist Abdul Moimême, the nom de guitare of a Lisbon municipal architect. Wade has his enormous “zeppelin” mike on hand and he’s recording an air vent: a whisper of buried sounds from the kitchen are suddenly amplified at the table, a riot of crockery and cutlery percussion and a clamor of voices. Waiters come out to observe and look bemused, reporting back and sending out others.

Wade and Abdul are taking a break from a day of location recording: Abdul has picked locations around the city and Wade has been documenting them. In part, it’s about documenting the disappearing sounds of the old city; it’s also, ultimately, about interacting with them and transforming them on several levels. Wade and Abdul are as much alchemists as documentarians. At the Apeadeiro we’re almost in the shadow of change. Near us sits the Lisbon bullring. There are still bullfights there – you can catch them on Thursday nights in season, they’re also televised – but you’re just as likely to catch a pop concert. Any day, any season, you can wander the vast circular shopping mall that is now housed just beneath the bullring, escalators lead to street level, universal commercial culture burrowing up from under an institution of deeply traditioned bloodshed.

What Wade and Abdul are doing is closely linked to processes of preservation. They’re capturing sounds before they disappear, then playing with them, making them a dynamic part of something else. Wade’s most recent CD, ÍNSULAS: Seven sound portraits of the Canary Islands (Luscinia Records lus_60), includes an essay called “Eight reflections” that details both his methodology and his aesthetic. Abdul’s most recent CD, Exosphere: Abdul Moimême at the Pantheon (Creative Sources CS394CD), mates his amplified prepared guitars, “an ebow, a gyroscope, a couple of music boxes and a selection of large and small objects” with the physical and cultural resonance of a 16th century church that has become the permanent abode of many of Portugal’s most distinguished political and cultural figures.

What’s on their agenda? They’re off to the university’s apiculture centre to record bees. They’ll also record bridges and train stations, a water museum and a cathedral. As they do, people will talk to them, these voices becoming signifying points – an oral history of chance – in the ultimate project.

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Lisbon is a city of diverse sounds and a city made for exploring. The two have combined to make it a magnet for sound documentation. The German sound artist Michael Rüsenberg has released two CDs of auditory Lisbon. The first from 1994, with Hans Ulrich Werner, was Lisboa! A soundscape portrait (WDR: real ambient CD ZP 9401); the second, from 2005, Lisbon Reloaded is a DVD of more developed sound and video pieces, including works by Rüsenberg, Werner and others, including the Lisbon violinist Carlos “Zingaro” (both are available on real ambient). “Zingaro” has also recorded with saxophonist Joe Giardullo in the Museo de Agua, the water museum, matching their instruments with a continuous outpouring of water and a 20-second echo.

The idea of the flâneur, the wanderer in the city as an ideal of the artist, was first proposed by Baudelaire in the 1860s:

“The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd ... Thus the lover of universal life enters into the crowd as though it were an immense reservoir of electrical energy. Or we might liken him to a mirror as vast as the crowd itself; or to a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness, responding to each one of its movements and reproducing the multiplicity of life and the flickering grace of all the elements of life. From The Painter of Modern Life (New York: Da Capo Press, 1964).

In his essay “Charles Baudelaire: a lyric poet in the era of high capitalism,” Benjamin extends it: “The crowd was the veil from behind which the familiar city as phantasmagoria beckoned to the flâneur. In it, the city was now landscape, now a room.” (Harry Zohn, trans. [London, 1983], p. 54)

That image of the “flaneur” as transformative presence is at the heart of Matthews and Moimême’s project. As Moimême writes of the project in his liner note to the final product, Lisbon: 10 Sound Portraits (Creative Sources 421 CD):

In May 2016 Wade Matthews tempted me to earmark settings in my hometown Lisbon for a sound portrait project.

The prospect was enthralling, especially as I had been considering photographing the seemingly evanescing spirit of the city. I was aware my intentions exposed irrational undertones of inexplicable yearning, resonant at the core of the national sentiment, translatable into a single word: “saudosismo” [nostagia] An encompassing word, capable of inspiring an entire Portuguese aesthetic movement; an emotion strongly contrasting with a burgeoning tourist industry, that disembarked a throng of 5 million visitors, last year, in the city alone. In contrast, Lisbon’s population has shrunk to numbers comparable to those of the 1930s.

Wade and Abdul visited sites and ceremonies, touring iconic architecture and distinct neighborhoods, from reservoirs to bridges to beehives. The field recordings constituted a tour of some of Lisbon’s most distinctive sounds, incidentally capturing the particular voices and accents of those who wished to question what the two were doing. The sonic tour of the city begins in the harbor among the clanging metal piers and fishermen’s voices of the Cais do Sodré. It circles up to the twisting, narrow streets of the medieval Alfama to capture bird songs, then descends to the traffic noise of the Ponte 25 de Abril, the bridge that spans the Rio Tejo, as well as a passing train.


Wade at foot of stairs, Alfama                                                                                         Abdul Moimême

The materials become more complex at the Santa Apolónia train station, where a habitué stops to discuss the microphone. A lively presence among the elements, the sound of the voice is compelling enough, but Abdul offers a gloss and an explanation: “the old man is saying he’s looking for Macaco (Monkey) Adriano “who’s been stealing ... I want to stick a finger up his ass” (andou a roubar… quero-lhe enfiar um dedo no cú). He seemed to be a homeless person, probably living somewhere by the train tracks. He still has rural traits (and most probably also origin) in his manner and speech, a type which is unfortunately and steadily disappearing from our social landscape.

“He was curious about Wade’s mike cover and called it a “rapozinha”, ‘a little fox’. His emphasis of the letter ‘i’, in ‘rapoziiinha’, has a playful, even childish undercurrent. For me it’s a very moving moment because it brings to life some of the imagery of a generation and culture that are quickly dwindling into oblivion. For me, it sparks all the under and overtones of the word ‘saudosismo.’ 

“Curiously, ‘Macaco Adriano’ was a popular TV character who appeared in ‘Big Show SIC,’ a very popular program that played between 1995 and 2001. I have no idea why our train station character brings up the topic of ‘Macaco Adriano.’ Perhaps because, in his mind, Wade’s hairy zeppelin mike cover reminds him of the TV gorilla ... But, then again, it might be a fox!”

Then there are the sounds of a café and children playing in the Calçada de São Vicente; a visit to the Estrela district where we hear the reservoir and a choir singing in the cathedral. For Abdul, the next stop, “’The Day of Portugal, Camões and the Portuguese Communities,’ really stands out, as does its title, which embraces a country, a poet and a multi-ethnic community under the same banner.”

Then it’s on to a traffic jam; next, the bee hives at the Tapada da Ajuda, a botanical park belonging to the Instituto Superior de Agronomia; and an ultimate installment that takes in both the creaking of the harbor and a woman in the Alfama.


Wade at water with rigging                                                                                               Abdul Moimême

When Wade has recorded the sites, Abdul acting as guide, their other roles take over. Wade selects and edits the sounds, then the two improvise. Wade uses field recordings and digital synthesis, his computer a model of spatial economy. Abdul stands between two horizontal guitars of his own design in a rig that looks like something the Wright brothers might have tried to get off the ground at Kitty Hawk. A recent instrument looks like a directional arrow sign. The guitars are played with a variety of objects, including sheets of aluminum for shimmering oscillating sounds.

What we hear is a continuous exchange of meanings, layers of communication between traces of environmental identity, memory, response and exchange. Lisbon: Ten Sound Portraits brings us back to the idea of the flâneur, but it’s literally the texture of the world heard as well as a mix of times and different kinds of recording situations – from Wade’s “laboratory” processing to the real-time improvisatory dialogue of Wade and Abdul.

The work consistently blurs any line that one might try to draw between sound and music, with Abdul’s taut guitar strings, metallic scrapes and burbling pitches as likely to suggest the bridge cables and the water of the documentary portions. It’s the same with Wade’s subtle selection of sounds, chosen as much for their rhythms and pitches as their geographic evocation. On the opening scenes of the Cais de Sodré, the lapping waves act equally as foreground for industrial noise and improvisation. Wade’s sonic transformations blur documentation of the Alfama’s birds into pure abstraction. The “Ponte de 25 Abril” begins to suggest the space station ambiance of Moimême’s solo music, while the apparition at the Santa Apolónia train station is surrounded by a wild mist of sounds that seem to be rushing back in time rather than forwards, as if the music might meet the monkey’s hunter, only to rush past him entirely. Similarly, the children of the Brincadeira play in a soundscape that grows increasingly alien to them. It’s in part the distance between the “original” documentation and the character of the musical activity – apparently self-absorbed, responding to the field materials in ways that are at times seemingly disconnected – that makes this work as powerful, as multi-dimensional as it is, as if it has risen above any response to the material that is obvious, sentimental or even intelligible. It simultaneously insists on a relationship without ever simplifying it to the narrow possibility of description. However, there are times when a direct connection seems to arise: In “Arsenal,” the anthem-chanting young seem to be marching into a random, even dangerous, soundscape. The layering of bees and improvisation at the apiary sounds literally like a simultaneity, even a dance, of mind and world.

That sense of messages and landscapes just beyond cognition colors much of this work, which continuously creates new relationships for its material and suggests more will emerge on the next listen. It’s some of the most engaging work I’ve heard recently, a nest of fresh aesthetic principles that levels, then blurs notions of the documentary, the improvised, the composed; the architectural past, the cultural past, and the present.


Abdul playing, from behind                                                                                                     Nuno Martins

Stuart Broomer © 2017

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