Best of 2012 Lists: ATTN:Magazine, Lend Me Your Ears, & Terje Paulsen.
Yann Novak recently took time out from his Dragon’s Eye enterprise to explore more installation-based work. Through Japan’s Murmur we have a sample of one such here in Fata Morgana, a kind of reconstructed episodic travelogue mediated via video and audio field recordings using sound and multi-screen projection. Robert Crouch is roped in as fellow-traveller for what is described as a ‘digital take on traditional landscape painting’ that seeks ‘abstracted expressions of personal experiences.’ The title, for the uninitiated, refers to a phenomenon involving inversion of figure and ground boundaries over desert lands and seas effected by light refraction from a body of warm low-lying air reflecting images of distant objects the earth’s curvature would normally obscure.
First performed in 2011 at Steve Roden-curated AxS Festival, Novak and Crouch’s Fata Morgana is a remote wispy embodiment of the eponymous mirage—an audio version recomposed for home listening. It sets out with programmatic intent, developing a sonic articulation of the figure-ground inversion by means of a high-low to’n’fro. A concomitant perceptual ambiguity is felt in shifts between chthonic and aerial sounds and dessicated sunblind sand-trickle rattle early on. A nocturnal hum spreads over desolate wind-blown heat-hazed plains, seeping through the interstices between field recording resonances (captured from Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah and Lake Mead in the Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada). Against this backdrop Novak’s signature drone-wash presence (cf. Presence) gradually takes on more conventional melodic electronica shadings from Crouch’s end—modular synth motifs, pulsations and harmonic strokes, a constant organ-esque tone acting as a locus for protean billows. Sudden exits of low-end anchorage leave the listener adrift in synth-aetheric highs, former and latter ceding by turns one to another. Subtle transitions occur, notably halfway when elements fall away to leave only bass pulses and faint melodic intonations against a prominent insectoid thrum. Melodic spectres strain for audibility across the synth drone and heat-haze canvas—a sparse bass figure, mid-range chords—emerge then succumb again to Novak’s tinnitus-like leitmotif.
By the end the electronic glide in blue looming above the soft bass drops and field sounds suggests the horizon’s erstwhile illusion smear had metastatically effaced real environs. Depending on which side of a figurative vs. self-reflexive divide you dress, it may propose itself as semiotic of a binary interplay of anima v. natura. It’s a thematic keynote sounded initially by Fata Morgana’s cover visual, a wagon train apparition streaming signs of human life against oppositional flats of unblinking blank nature. It’s further compounded by veiled trails of life sonically channeled—cricket chirp and snake rattle, human voice wraiths—ghosting through the wrap-around sound/land-scape. Going with it, the narrative pay-off is then clinched by the entry of filmic synth-strings, knowingly poignant affective signifiers, tension moving to resolution as it makes itself comfy with more familiar ambient tropes, seeking total tonal settlement.
– Igloo Magazine
Using field recordings, a multiscreen projection and other rarefied sounds, Yann Novak & Robert Crouch have created a fascinating narration with multiple concatenations and measured minimal arrangements. Appropriately, the title “Fata Morgana” is a direct reference to the optical effect that can be seen in a narrow zone above the horizon, a mirage that viewed from different angles produces a compression or enlargement of vision (an effect the investigators appear turn into a technique, expanding and containing the drones in the unraveling of patterns and ambiance). The evocation of perceptive illusions goes together well with the sound continuum, unfolding fascinating abstractions in a constant dialog between frequencies, with added audio captures that were recorded mainly in the Bonneville Salt Flats and the Lake Mead area, America’s largest water reservoir. Just as ghostly images can appear in empty spaces surrounded by water and air, so can sounds emerge from equally intersected substrates, the result of a clear sense of bewitchment caused by “layered illusions” – upside-down lights that can create virtual images and sounds. There are no vibrations in the void and sounds can’t exist, but it just takes the slightest control over acoustic emissions on a surface to propagate a vibration that leaves us sweetly enchanted.
Yann Novak recently put his Dragon’s Eye Recordings, a landmark showcase for minimal ambient and textured electronics since 2005, on hold while he explores more site-based, gallery work. Fata Morgana is a “digital take on traditional landscape painting”, created for a performance commissioned by the Pasadena Arts Council for the AxS Festival of 2011 and curated by the like-minded, similarly-talented Steve Roden. In attempting “abstracted expressions of personal experiences”, Novak and Robert Crouch repurposed field recordings made at the Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah, and Lake Mead in the Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada, as an audio approximation on the phenomenon of the fata morgana, an optical illusion that inverts land and sky.
It’s a consummate study in the richness of stillness, the music of water evaporating off the surface of the Dead Sea. Stretched out beyond clear focus, in pace and colouration this forty-five minute piece captures all that invests the natural world with greater beauty through artificial means. It is bleached white slowly turning pastel, wispy white cloud constantly changing shape against sharp blue sky, white noise swallowed by the ears like a rainbow.
– Cyclic Defrost
The term “fata morgana” refers to a mirage effect that most strikingly presents itself on the horizon of grand expanses of land or sea. Boats are contorted into rippling strips of white clinging to the water’s surface, while mountains are squashed and blurred into the sky; where the contrast between the earth and the air is usually at its most prominent when the two meet on the edge of a vast, flat plain, fata morgana renders the boundaries indistinct, creating an illusionary in-between that feels far too vast and distant to be a mere figment of perception.
This piece by Novak and Crouch (initially an installation, reconstructed here for stereo listening) embodies this perceptual ambiguity beautifully. There is a constant duet taking place between the low and high frequencies, seemingly on a panoramic scale – the deep rumbles of drifting icebergs are placed a dizzying vertical see-saw with the chilly winds bustling through the upper registers, while later in the piece, glistening slithers of electronics hover over soft drops of bass. One will gradually recede to grant the other momentary dominance, and there are several moments during which I felt consumed by a tremendous sense of vertigo, as the low frequencies dropped out completely to leave me suspended within shimmering clouds of ethereal synthesiser.
Another engrossing juxtaposition occurs between the field recordings and the ever-expanding presence of the “musical”. The piece features audio taken from the Bonneville Salt Flats and Lake Mead in the Valley of Fire State Park, and initially it’s these desolate spaces that dominate the composition. Tonality first enters like a mirage in itself, creeping between the earthly resoundings of actual places as a hazy first glimpse of musical abstraction, materialising as soft drones hidden within the natural expanses. By the time the piece reaches its closing minutes, Novak and Crouch have fully emerged as a sliding mass of tonal feedback, as though the slither of fata morgana on the horizon has expanded to eclipse reality itself, turning a mere perceptual illusion into a wondrous dreamstate.
Yann Novak’s last artwork, the album Presence, was an impressive tableau of ambient noise, deeply evocative and intriguing, yet desperately missing a visual element.
A multimedia artist working in a single medium, sound, somewhat defeats the purpose. Significantly, the CD packaging for Presence was a thing of beauty, as if to make up for the lack of visuals elsewhere.
This time, Novak gives equal prominence to the visuals, and equal billing to his collaborator Robert Crouch. The Fata Morgana artworks come in diptychs, the left one painted by Novak, the right by Crouch. The soundtrack has many elements that are immediately recognisable from Presence, but has an electronica aspect, and musicality, that are Crouch’s.
Novak points out that the synth modulations on the soundtrack are mostly performed by Crouch, but beyond the specifics of who did what, there is a collaborative element to the music that suggests the less tangible aspects of teamwork. Throughout the album there is an interplay, a sonic narrative that is woven into the structure of the project, that is dualistic in nature.
That interplay is between the human and the inhuman, the living and the inert. Big concepts of course, but with a natural and unpretentious subject as medium. Fata Morgana refers to an optical illusion, an uber-mirage, in which light is refracted by a body of warm air in the lower atmosphere, and produces images of distant objects. The phenomenon occurs most often at sea or over deserts, and can reflect the image of buildings, ships or vehicles which would otherwise not be visible due to the curvature of the earth.
In Fata Morgana, the artwork, those ghostly images are at once human and inhuman (a reflected wagon train conveys the image of life and humanity, but is illusory nonetheless). Whilst the paintings evoke the sterility and vastness of the Utah salt flats, it is in the soundtrack that the ghostly, half-heard presence of life whispers in and out of the otherwise daunting and oppressive landscape.
Novak and Crouch work from field recordings taken at source (sound, photographs and video) then process them at their Los Angeles studio into the final artwork. In the case of the soundfiles, one of the most evocative points is the closing radio dialogue, distorted to incomprehensibility, but nonetheless bringing a contemporary edge to an artwork which, visually at least, seems until then to refer to a Romantic-era phenomenon.
Fata Morgana, the soundtrack, consists overwhelmingly of wind noise, and a treble ticking sound as if sand were trickling over pins. These stretch out into a hazy tinnitus effect, almost the chirrup of cicadas on a hot evening, but periodically overpowered by those wind noises. About seven minutes in, modular synth motifs become overt, moving from hinted, mirage-like suggestions, to tonal and harmonic extensions.
Ironically, for an artwork that examines such starkly inhuman, inhospitable and featureless a landscape as the Utah saltflats, there is more detail and development than you might expect. Crouch’s modular synth work is an earcatcher, bringing electronica pulsations and tonal toplines to Novak’s brooding, powerful sonic foundations (which can be recognised from Presence), which are, frankly, eery.
Some eighteen minutes in there is a development – rhythmic though sparse tenor motif in the upper range of a bass guitar and some augmented chords in the mid-range. It is an optimistic moment, heartening in the context, and soon eclipsed by the tinnitus glare of white noise that Fata Morgana uses to depict searing heat-haze. That narrative of human/animal presence ghosting in and out of the soundscape is sometimes melodic, sometimes a sound evoking a cricket’s chirrup, a rattlesnake clatter, modulated voices, synthesised drones, all subsumed by that overwhelming heat-haze/sandstorm effect.
In ways, the presence of lifeforms in the Fata Morgana soundscape is reminiscent of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake – in that rather than an overt description of a character, we are given hints to their presence, clustered into nodes in the text and linguistic suggestions. At times that life-element is portrayed in sounds that are near-orchestral. About half an hour into the soundtrack things are almost conventionally cinematic, with the modular synthesiser equivalents of violin/viola/cello sections pumping out atmospheric signifiers worthy of an art-house wistful contemplation scene.
Poignant yet hopeful, as is the wont of augmented chords, and with a conventional bassline, the section moves into the realms of more established ambient music tropes. By the time an Orb-esque jittering treble motif kicks in, it becomes obvious that a final phase has been reached. We are to imply a survival, a successful traverse – the narrative of desert versus human has consolidated in favour of human.
The daunting presence of sterile, hostile landscape remains, but has passed.
Novak and Crouch create a fascinating dialogue of sonic imagery and metaphor in Fata Morgana, the imagery more obviously in the visuals, the metaphor in the sonics. It is all the more accomplished for its compositional restraint – there is no bombastic drama here, as is fitting. There is no bombastic drama to deserts either. The matter-of-fact disdain for life that typifies human expressions of the desert is an anthropocentric creation, any hostility or contempt simply an attempt to apply human characteristics to an entity that is inert and alien.
Less acutely observed artworks have typically twisted that anthropocentrism into depictions of grandeur or majesty. Fata Morgana ends with just-heard human voices, modulated or simply in their original form to sound as if heard through crackling walkie-talkies.
They sound relieved, relieved to have survived.
– Trebuchet Magazine
Los Ángeles, ciudad cálida, con un clima mediterráneo refrescado por el océano pacífico es también una de las ciudades más pobladas de Estado Unidos, el futuro de un mundo contaminado, superpoblado, con personas avanzando por entre carreteras infinitas. Un futuro imperfecto que, pese a como pueda parecer, siempre me ha fascinado. Desde ese lugar, musicalmente hablando, han surgido multitud de sonidos, y particularmente, en lo que nos convoca ahora, dos músicos afines en su manera de tratar el silencio. Uno de ellos es Yann Novak, originalmente nacido en Madison, Wisconsin, quien “utiliza diferentes formas de documentación digital como punto de partida. A través de la manipulación digital de estos archivos de sonido e imagen, sus obras sirven como una traducción de los documentos de experiencias personales en un relato autobiográfico de composición abierta”. Muchos de sus trabajos han sido lanzados a través de Dragon’s Eye Recordings, el sello de su padre que el volvió a abrir, aunque sin embargo, el trabajo que me sirvió para conocerlo más profundamente fue “Relocation.Reconstruction” (Line, 2010), esa extensa pieza para el label de Richard Chartier en laque los colores pierden sus límites. El otro ciudadano en cuestión es Robert Crouch, no tan prolífico como el anterior, y que al igual que Novak, explora los bordes del sonido, pero haciéndolo colisionar con el ruido: una de esas experiencias es las que ocupaban el espacio de “An Occupied Space” (Dragon’s Eye Recordings, 2011), trabajo fascinante de masaje auditivo, muy especialmente “I Melt With You II”, track que cerraba ese disco. Juntos estos dos angelinos habían hecho algunas cosas, en estudio un par de piezas esparcidas en recopilatorios, y más que nada instalaciones, por lo que esto que tenemos entre manos es la primera gran obra conjunta, algo que tarde o temprano tenía que suceder.
Fata Morgana es un espejismo o ilusión óptica que se debe a una inversión de temperatura en el que objetos que se encuentran en el horizonte, como una isla o un barco, adquieren una apariencia alargada y elevada, similar a ‘castillos de cuentos de hadas’. La separación entre el aire caliente y el aire frío (más denso) actúa como una lente refractante, produciendo una imagen invertida, sobre la que la imagen distante parece flotar. Fata Morgana es el nombre de una presentación audiovisual comisionada por el Pasadena Arts Council para el AxS Festival en 2011, curado por Steve Roden. “Fata Morgana” es el nombre de ese primer trabajo largo que reúne a estos ilusionistas del sonido. Presentado aquí como una mezcla estéreo para escuchar en casa, el disco es en efecto una sola pieza de cuarenta y cinco minutos en los cuales se asiste a un verdadero espejismo. Nunca mejor puesto un título: tal y como en los dos discos mencionados, en especial el primero, el límite entre lo que uno cree oír y lo que suena es difuso. Como si se tratara de ondas de calor contra ondas de frío, los sonidos, o más bien el sonido, crea una línea divisoria indistinguible: de una nota se pasa a otra pero cuando eso sucede el truco ya ha pasado frente a nuestros oídos, sin saber realmente cuándo aquello ha sucedido. “‘Fata Morgana’es una especie de cuaderno de viaje fragmentada, reconstruida a través de grabaciones de campo de Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah y el lago Mead en el Valle del Fire State Park, Nevada”. Es en esos valles en donde preferentemente sucede este efecto, y es en la música de Novak donde también con más habitualidad acontecen estos fenómenos de luminosidad borrosa, en donde la imagen que genera el sonido es una gran mancha que desde la distancia parece una nebulosa, como las del cielo visto desde el espacio exterior, y que en el disco se enfrenta en ocasiones con la rugosidad de Crouch (minuto número doce, minuto número cuarenta y uno). Amparados en el ruido que no hiere, Novak + Crouch hacen de esto una experiencia absorbente, en el que el sonido viaja de forma elíptica desde los audífonos hasta rodear los oídos.
Cuaderno de viaje fragmentado, deconstruyendo la luz, difuminando el color, borrando la imagen, todo a la vez. “Fata Morgana” es un ruido de fondo que impide ver el fondo, ruido que borra los ejes por los que se conduce la música. Este espejismo suele apreciarse por las mañanas, luego de una noche fría, el momento ideal para dejarse acariciar por su aura de ruido confuso.
In reviews of ambient music I’ve described the impression made on me in terms of being a journey through a “soundscape.” In most of these I’ve gone on to say that the album in question gave me a sense of travel or progression though the said soundscape. Fata Morgana doesn’t strike me as a listener as that kind of project. It doesn’t seem to be about a journey or progression as much as a document of what I’d describe as a particular, and specific place.
In this case, we know the album is constructed with field recordings taken at the Bonneville Salt Flats and the Lake Mead Mead areas; the high desert. Even if we didn’t have that information, the sound contained on Fata Morgana reinforces the sense of, not confinement, but of specificity of location. This isn’t a journey in a narrative sense. Listening here, you could be making your way across a location, but you could just as easily remain in place, observing relative changes in your surroundings.
For me, Fata Morgana is a worthwhile departure. Given the relative ease in which any genre can slip in convention, it’s refreshing to hear what Yann Novak and Robert Crouch have made here.
– To Eleven
High-quality headphones are almost mandatory in order to fully appreciate the subtle charms of this collaborative effort from LA-based sound, video, and installation artists Yann Novak and Robert Crouch, especially when the recording has been presented as a stereo mix designed for home listening. The work first entered the world as an audiovisual performance for the AxS Festival 2011 that was curated by Steve Roden.
Emerging slowly out of silence, Fata Morgana initiates its forty-five-minute trip with deep rumbling and rattling textures, the sounds coming at the listener in slow-building waves and suggestive of desolate, wide-open spaces. The travelogue feel is well-earned, as the duo generated the piece from field recordings gathered at the Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah and at Lake Mead in the Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada. The title itself is apropos, too, in referring to a mirage phenomenon whereby a narrow band appears just above a desert or sea horizon that leads to perceptual inversions of figure and ground. Certainly the work itself is mirage-like in how it transforms the originating material into an abstract mass of at times vaporous and even industrial character. Throughout the piece, immense whorls of sound blow alongside an ongoing organ-like tone that acts as a pedal point of sorts for the mutating mass billowing around it. Digital processing and modular synthesis have been applied to the source materials, too, as a way of further transforming them and distancing them from their origins.
Subtle transitions occur throughout, most conspicuously halfway through when elements fall away, leaving only bass pulses and a faint series of melodic pitches to intone beneath a dominant insectoid thrum. A sense of melancholy begins to assert itself in the ghost-like traces of melody that struggle to be heard and in the more restful ambiance that characterizes the work’s second half. It’s at such moments, in fact, that Fata Morgana begins to more invite the term dreamscape than dronescape.