Black Merlin

Between Worlds: How Field Recordings Can Challenge Our Perceptions of Electronic Music

We speak to Throwing Shade and Black Merlin about what happens when east meets west.

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Jan 19 2017, 11:55am

Black Merlin

Black Merlin

It turns out that translating sounds into words on a page is really difficult. That difficulty might explain the proliferation of phrases like "writing about music is like dancing about architecture," or better still, "writing about Burial is like imagining you're on a South London night bus, sitting at the back, and it's raining outside but you can still hear the sounds of sirens over the tinny two-step compilation playing from your Sony Discman."

So what we do, here in 2017, whether consciously or not, is skirt around direct dissection aiming instead for a kind of evocation. We distill things down to a kind of base level "electronic-ness," and work from there. This electronic-ness has a presumed relationship with urban space—typically western ones. We reflexively root electronic music and club culture in concrete grey world, furnished with the anxieties of alienation and disenfranchisement, punctuated by the release of hedonism.

Only, what happens to the music that doesn't fall into that formula quite so neatly? What happens when the electronic music you want to tell the world about doesn't adhere to the neat generic conventions we've created for the purpose of ease?

One of the records that got me through 2016 was Hipnotik Tradisi by London-based producer Black Merlin, real name George Thompson. Thompson's Island of the Gods released LP saw him working with field recordings captured on an expedition through Bali, Indonesia. I was similarly thrilled to see the second volume of Electronic Recordings From Maui Jungle by Anthony Child hit shelves over the festive period. Like Black Merlin, Child (who also works under the slightly more famous guise of Surgeon) replaced the spartan techno and rigorously worked analogue machinery of previous releases with an organic looseness.

To think of Thompson or Childs' work as revolutionary would be to ignore an already formidable history of electronic-focused musicians turning to found sounds and field recordings as a source of aesthetic inspiration. Dan Mitchell, Island of the Gods' label boss, acknowledges how influential the likes of Brian Eno collaborator Jon Hassell has been on the music coming out of his imprint, as well as nodding towards more obviously found-in-the-club material by the likes of Theo Parrish.

Speaking to Nabihah Iqbal, better know as the DJ and producer Throwing Shade, about the field recordings she made on a recent trip to Japan, she makes the point that, "the organic sound of field recordings, of someone actually playing an instrument in real life, is something which cannot be re-created in the same way through synthesised sounds. It's the same reason so many producers are attracted to sampling drum hooks from old funk or jazz tracks."

Throwing Shade

George Thompson seems to agree with Iqbal's idea that the field recording should be held in high esteem. "The great thing about field recordings is that they bring a special sonic atmosphere that no machine can replicate," he told me. The un-replicability of the real doesn't mean, however, that that the two can't work together in some kind of queasy harmony. "I found a whole new world of opportunities open up in my creative process," he added, referring to the moment he began his own process of synthesis.

Iqbal is keen to stress that frequently, in the past, the misplaced precedence afforded to the individual's "creative process" has seen entire traditions, crafts and rituals ignored, going largely uncredited and ultimately under-appreciated. "I think it's a good thing for people to look to each other's cultures and traditions for ideas and inspiration, but they need to acknowledge it," she reckons. "Did you know, for example, that contemporary American RnB has its roots in the vocal traditions of the Arab Middle East?"

Hipnotik Tradisi tackles this potential pitfall head on—it's impossible to experience it as a whole without seeing Bali. The sounds it uses, the artwork it arrives in, even the track titles themselves, are indelibly and inextricably linked to Balinese flora, fauna, and culture. From talking to both Thompson and Mitchell, it's apparent that they've treated their recordings with as much respect as possible—both in the rice fields and temples of Bali, and back in a London studio.

Mitchell himself actually lives in Bali, and outside of recording and releasing music, devotes much of his professional life to projects that help to preserve traditional Balinese culture. "The recordings," he tells me, "were made in a truly collaborative manner. The last thing you want to do is go about things in the colonial sense of 'We will take and we will leave'."

The most striking reminder of this ethos can be seen in the decision to use a painting by Ubudian gamelan master Pak Ketut on the cover. "Working with Ketut was the highlight of the recordings for me," says Thompson. Ketut sadly passed away a year after the recordings—the record cover is a tribute not only to someone who "dedicated his life to the gamelan sound," but who Thompson and Mitchell also came to know as a family man, beloved of his grandchildren. Speaking to Mitchell about the unexpectedly widespread and overwhelmingly positive reception that the record received, he sounds perhaps most proud when talking about the Facebook messages he still receives from the excited grandchildren of Ketut, who can't believe that a record bearing their grandfather's image and music is appearing on Best Of lists alongside the likes of Kanye West.

In this respectful exchange, the resultant music is able to forego the binary limitations of organic/electronic roots, and enter the realm of the extraordinary. Mitchell in particular is emphatic in his belief that the spiritual brand of Hinduism central to Balinese life is at the heart of what makes the music they're making so special. "They play to the gods," he says matter of factly. Thompson is not so overt—in our conversations at least—though does refer to qualities that captured the "magic" of the place. "Sometimes the things that interfere in the actual moment [...] turn out to be the most magic—the outtakes, the mistakes, the motorbikes, the chickens and the unnatural."

Kanye West and Ubudian gamelan masters; industrial electronics and the hissing throb of jungle life; karmic revelations and log-jammed traffic. Whether you attribute the allure of this music to spiritual qualities or not, the liminal spaces that it navigates are in themselves transcendent. We are living through a time in which the president of the free world is driven by an ego that allows him to see things only in terms of the 'terrific' and the 'terrible', all the while Europe is engulfed by false narratives of us and otherness. Music such as this bridges worlds and thrives in the in-betweens. It exists beyond the stale mechanism we've developed to talk about music. It is a reminder that differences are to be celebrated and embraced, and when they are the most unexpected and liberating outcomes emerge. Motorbikes, chickens and the unnatural included.

Hipnotik Tradisi by Black Merlin is out now on Island of the Gods Recordings.

James Darton is on Twitter