Released 1976 on Syntonic Research, Inc.
Reviewed by Lord Lucan, 14/04/2002ce
The ‘Environments’ series of records emerged in the mid-70s and most of them have yet to get a CD release. They occupy an ambiguous position between these two types of ambient soundworld. However, they should not be mistaken for those cringe-worthy CDs that are beige woodchip New Age twaddle mixed with whalesong. ‘Environments’ are recordings of natural phenomena, seamlessly electronically manipulated and processed to increase their psycho-acoustic impact. So, we don’t have a real-time ‘sound effect’ type recording, but neither is there much evidence of a composed musical recording with an artistic intent at its core. In fact the record label’s name, Syntonic Research Inc, begs the listener to conjure up images of a team of white-coated, clipboard-carrying analytical Doctors of Psycho-acoustics. No-one is credited for production, engineering, recording, writing, inspiration, arranging, artwork, typography or tea-making on the album sleeve. This is meant to be seen as an anonymous product of collective scientific research. Amongst the copious sleevenotes which accompany each Syntonic Research Inc record can be found a corporate mission statement of sorts:
“People often think Environments are sound effects, at least until they experience them. They then realise what we are up to. We are trying to change your circumstances.” (They ram the point of the last sentence home by printing it in bold.)
Ah, so it’s about manipulating us listeners into some sort of aurally controlled state of mind. Their stated goal is to bypass the artist and to use sound to electronically plug straight into our primal instincts. The emphasis is very much on Science 'improving' Nature. The more specific goal for this particular record (Number 7 in the series) is explicitly stated in the album’s title. It’s all curiously egocentric for a virtually anonymous record.
Well, all of this (and believe me, one of the white-coats loves to keep going with the sleevenotes just to make sure we get the point) is all very well, but what does it sound like and what happens when you listen to it?
That bit earlier about these records not being sound effects is instantly apparent once the low rumble of the lead-in groove of side one has pulled the stylus into the recording. ‘Intonation’ fades in from the place it has always existed, as a chorus of disembodied male and female voices chant in a huge hum. The attack and decay of each note that each voice sings has been skilfully planed away to leave a constantly shifting collective augmn. There are no recognisable syllables chanted apart from an ebbing and flowing suggestion of vowel sounds. It does connect me to other places music has taken me before: Ligeti’s ‘Lux Aeterna’, Tangerene Dream’s ‘Zeit’ (the three images on the gatefold cover could be T.D. or Klaus Schulze sleeveart), Cope’s ‘Odin’. Anyway, back to the sounds which have been constantly shifting as I write, but still suggesting the same place. The voices are singing in several pitches relative to each other and have been electronically processed. The electronic processing occasionally becomes apparent as a surge in dynamics pushes it to its limits and a sympathetic electronic drone emerges. Or maybe it’s a psycho-acoustic magic trick performed by the lab technicians looking over the tops of their bifocals. Whatever, it does turn you to mush and goo. If you’re listening at medium to high volume activity becomes difficult, and goddamn the meditation is being induced… OOOOHHHHMMMMY… caught in the rapids of psychomathacoustics. The only way out is where the whole thing starts to subside and random vinyl clicks and a tell-tale rumble begin to come into view as the voices slowly disappear over the horizon. You then start to come round as the stylus clicks on the lock-groove leaving the feeling of a half-hour connection with a universal vibration. Woah! Fucking A, you mad professors!
Compared to ‘Intonation’, side two’s ‘Summer Cornfield’ does initially sound like a field recording of the constant buzz and hiss of millions of crickets ebbing and flowing and the odd fly zooming into focus as it buzzes directly past an ear. There is another dimension to the sound though, which is given away in the sleevenotes:
‘Due to the special nature of the sounds normal editing techniques could not be used; a splice would easily be audible. As a result, an EML synthesiser was used to recreate certain insect sounds where flaws existed and the fly, added four years later, completes the illusion.’
So, there’s synthesised enoid insect menace in there too. That’s not all, though: ‘(…) a sound has been added to the recording which only becomes apparent when played loudly, to indicate that the volume should be reduced.’ It’s subliminal, unsettling and can induce cold-sweat tremors. Played loud this record can be ear-piercing and head-splitting in a way Metal Merzbow Music can only dream of. Well, maybe not, but it feels like it’s doing physical damage to your ears. The safety-catch which has been engineered into the recording unwittingly provides opportunities for listening in noise mode. Taken mercifully down to the threshold of audibility it suddenly transforms an otherwise silent room into an imaginary cornfield, savannah, or midnight jungle. The high frequencies also become audible at the physical connection of the stylus to the vinyl, (cue brown-voiced continuity announcer): ‘The pressing in it’s present form contains nearly twice as much high frequency information per second than almost any other commercially released record’, effectively turning the record deck into the third ambient speaker. There’s a bit of a rap on the knuckles from the mad professors for anyone tempted to play this record on a knackered, dusty deck, ‘Proper reproduction will only be obtained with quality equipment operating at specified tolerances. No cactus needles please!’ Well, I like my copy’s occasional distant flaw. It makes it sound like there’s a silent vinyl album with clicks in its spiral scratch playing on the turntable, as the crickets menace outside through the wide open windows which are actually shut tight. Hmm, maybe just maybe the scientists’ protestations to the contrary hide a desire to create art. Besides, Syntonic Research Inc’s address, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10010 is just too cool-sounding to make this record anything other than very powerful electronic music to my mind. Mind you, Fifth Avenue NY could be the hub of NY’s meat-packing industry for all I know. Click, click, click, click, click. I have to get up to take the stylus off, thank the stars.
Maybe a CD reissue is a bad idea after all. Either of these tracks programmed to repeat play could dangerously remove a necessary exit sign from the induced trance. Apart from which you could also be missing out on the other possibilities of the vinyl version. Both tracks are great played on varispeed decks by the way. ‘Intonation’ sounds like an all-male voice choir when pitch-shifted down and like a female and children’s voice choir when pitched up. ‘Summer Cornfield’ pitched up sounds like purely electronic music, whilst rhythmic elements appear when pitched down. I’m sure Syntonic Research Inc would disapprove, purely on a scientific level, of course.