Ryan Chartrand

The word “tectonic” is often used to describe items of high craft with attention to construction. The origins of the word come from many places, notably the Greek words tekton (builder) and tectum (roof and implying space).

Tectonics, no doubt, raises attention when mentioned around architects. The artists on Germany’s Raster-Noton imprint are architects, and they, too, know the meaning and importance of this word. Their materials are instruments and recording technology – rather than steel and concrete – but the methodology is the same. Through their materials they create space that is experienced through audio and visual media, while at the same time communicating their methods of construction. The label’s newest release, COH’s “Strings,” does just that.

COH is the recording name of Ivan Pavlov. Pavlov has released more than a dozen albums, and “Strings” will be his 19th and perhaps strongest statement. The songs composed for specific instruments shine light on the sonic properties of the complex mechanisms themselves.

The two discs that make up “Strings” are housed in what at first appears to be complex folded-paper casing. However, upon unfolding the object, its simplicity is beautifully exposed: a single piece of cardstock with slits cut into it to hold each disc. This is then folded over twice to make a package that is not only artful, but also efficient to mass produce and distribute.

Disc one is divided into three parts. Part one is composed for computers and piano, part two for guitar and part three for the oud. Part one begins slowly with minimal softly stroked keys, producing ripples in a thin air of computer ambience. The tempo picks up as the album moves into the second part.

In the second track, “Andante Facil,” the guitar is introduced into the mix. The guitar is treated with tremolo and gradually crescendos along with the slightest piano accents to add a more percussive quality to the pulses. As layers build, the song reaches a frantic pace, unable to support its own weight. The inevitable degradation of sound catches up until the song reaches its breaking point and the pounding thump that once pulled you in is gone, leaving you lost in a haze of digital detritus. As if recovering from a short circuit the guitar picks up again – but in vain, only to be swept away again by an even stronger wave of bit reduction.

To some extent, the episode feels like a battle between the instrument and the medium. The instrument starts out strong, liberated by the freedoms and versatility offered by the electronics. We can hear and, more importantly, feel the guitar and piano think. As the track progresses, though, it collapses under its own weight, eroding from the memory of the hard drive.

While part three and the single track on disc two lack the conflict-climax of parts one and two, they are effective in that they render the textual qualities of the oud into the ambience. The oud penetrates the same thin air as the piano did in part one, but this time creating a warmer and denser atmosphere. The rattling of the oud’s hollow body organizes itself around its rhythmic melodies. While it is certain that this is digitally organized, it is impossible to deny its organic nature.

The construction of “Strings” is an exercise in aural tectonics. As a whole, the album reads as a mechanized organism ruled by its own internal logic. The structure of each song is deeply rooted in the organization of the instrument used to play it as well as the media it is acted out in. When these things are out of sync, the piece’s weaknesses are revealed, adding more richness and depth through error. The moments when the songs break apart are the places we can begin to look and try to understand its nature.

What makes “Strings” and other Raster-Noton releases so significant is not only the talented musicianship but their understanding of music and media’s importance and place in society.

Paul Cambon is an architecture junior and music director for KCPR, San Luis Obispo, 91.3 FM.

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