I’ve always listened to a lot of what might be termed electronic music, but I haven’t always felt especially comfortable writing about it. Evaluating music in print can be challenging under the best of circumstances, given the intrinsic subjectivity of listening. But when writing about music made with tools and methods unfamiliar to the average listener, finding a useful approach can be daunting. It’s easy to lapse into merely compiling a chronological tally of onomatopoeic descriptions – “dull bang, gushing sound, human shriek,” to co-opt the title of a 1987 Bobby Previte solo album – or, alternately, to engage in impressionistic navel-gazing with no practical rigor.
Still, a lot of exceptional electronic music is being made now by vital artists working in synthesis, collage, live improvisation, field recording, and still other techniques and approaches. If covering this music can be a challenge, not covering it is critical malpractice.
Input/Output, a new series on National Sawdust Log, is meant to address music produced largely or wholly with electronics and/or computers in a new way: by going to the source, enlisting the creators themselves to share insights about the music they make, the tools and processes they employ, and the goals they have in mind. That’s the “input” portion; the “output” is my questions, comments, and other interventions.
The inaugural column features the newest release by Joda Clément, a Canadian sound artist whose work I’ve found consistently fascinating and deeply moving. Sea Songs, released in 2016 on the Caduc. label, was among my favorite albums that year, a record I listened to repeatedly and near-obsessively some days. Its follow-up, TIME + PLACE, was issued recently on Glistening Examples, a busy imprint impeccably curated by another sound artist, Jason Lescalleet (who just this week reissued his own essential 2002 solo disc, mattresslessness, on the label).
Clément – born in 1981 and the son of renowned Canadian composer and sound artist Tim Clément – describes himself succinctly on his SoundCloud page:
Raised in Toronto and based in Vancouver, Joda Clément has been performing and composing experimental music in Canada for over 15 years. His work utilizes analog and acoustic instruments, field recordings and feedback to carefully construct listening environments that transcend the distinction between sound, site, and source.
Across the span of five solo albums and numerous collaborations, Clément has created a body of work diverse in tone and technique, yet consistent in its elegant organization and allusive potency. His music is rich with evocative sounds, some more recognizable than others. Yet he leaves his conjured soundscapes open to a listener’s personal interpretation.
“Coincidentally, this is also something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and struggled with myself: how to explain what’s going on in my music without imposing specifics on the listener’s experience,” Clément wrote in his initial response to my proposal for this column. Our exchanges were conducted via email and Facebook Messenger, and edited lightly for clarity and flow.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: Might you reveal some of the tools and techniques you used to create the pieces on TIME + PLACE? JODA CLÉMENT: Typically on albums I’ve just listed the sound sources that could be described as “instruments” (for example: MS20 synthesizer or harmonium) and then “field recordings,” usually with a reference to the location where it took place but no specific description of what I was recording or “how.” I chose not to do this for Time + Place, largely because at this point, a lot of the material that ends up in my compositions could be defined as some kind of “field recording,” but that definition falls short of what’s really going on.
This album is very much an amalgamation of sound experiments that reach deep into my archives (more so than my previous efforts). I suppose you could say that I’ve arrived at a sort of “lifestyle music,” through what’s become a very non-linear working method. It’s an effort to maintain an ongoing activity of recording, listening, and living that all inform each other in such a way that there’s a harmony, and then music becomes effortless, like a lifestyle.
Is there a central idea or theme running through these pieces?
A lot of the music on this particular album (and Sea Songs, actually) was created as a personal “antidote” or escape from my experiences as a front line Mental Health Worker in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, which is famous for its high concentration of drug addicts, mental illness, and HIV. We’ve been experiencing an epidemic of opioid overdose deaths in British Columbia, number one cause of death in the province.
Once you’ve compiled your sounds, how do you assemble your pieces? Is your sequencing intuitive – what sounds or feels “right” – or is it more rigorously structured, like a musical score or a film storyboard?
Everything is eventually mixed on my laptop, in what they call a “digital audio workstation” or DAW. I use Reaper, which is a great alternative to Logic or ProTools and it’s much more affordable (it was recommended to me by Bhob Rainey in 2008). I point this out to make the distinction that nothing is “sequenced,” and I’m not deliberately using any kind of rhythmic structures, which is a common practice for sound artists using a program like Ableton Live, which is more or less loop-based.
My arrangements are assembled intuitively, yes: what sounds right. Some people might work from a fully realized idea, but I rarely do. I obsess over every second of music. This process can take hundreds of hours. But, worth noting, the sounds I’m mixing on the computer are sometimes “composed” moments or situations that were captured in a studio or fully realized setting in itself. I then distill these moments, from years, into what becomes the final pieces you hear.
What I’ve done here is break down each track on the album in a kind of stream-of-consciousness, point-form, literal description of what sound events occur in each piece. It is not a linear description of what’s happening, necessarily, and these lists are not comprehensive. It also does not really describe anything about how I arrange things. I’ve simply narrowed in on the most important sound elements (I’ve left out certain less significant details).
1. aim of blue (11:42)
– Korg PS-3200 synthesizer (with broken F-sharp key that triggered some kind of unpredictable pink noise) (2002)
– Recordio 1930s record cutter making feedback generated by “glass tubes” a.k.a. crack pipes (which we provide as part of our harm reduction initiative at my job in the Downtown Eastside). Recordio found in the neighbourhood (2017)
– my refrigerator (2016)
– homemade record loops, radio experiments (recorded to Minidisc at home in Chinatown, Toronto, 2002)
– harmonium + piano board played with electromagnetic feedback with Tomasz Krakowiak (percussive gestures), recorded at Somewhere There, Toronto (Dec. 2012)
– a “one-take” bathroom recording from Montreal, 2004/5: harmonium, LP of Moon River pitched down on portable turntable, Casio SK-1, and noisy taps (slowed down)
– field recordings/activities (at home, 2017)
– unknown neighbour practicing cello, recorded in the hallway of my apartment (mixed w/ harmonium fragments) (2017)
– modified Neil Young sample, from live bootleg version of “A Man Needs a Maid”
– “various field recordings” (dense mix)
– acoustic turntable experiments (at home, 2017)
– malfunctioning Korg Polysix “drone” [cassette transfer] (1996) + amplified electromagnetic resonance of Polysix drone (2015)
Glassy sounds, buzzing irritants, and whining feedback establish an initial impression of free-floating unease, though the focus is soft and slightly distant—which makes the mundane rustling sounds that commence just over a minute into the piece register with unsettling clarity and proximity. Continual similar shifts in perspective, along with the frequent presence of analog tape hiss, hold the listener at arm’s length, even when recognizable sound sources emerge.
A brief shift from busy tactility to spacious resonance just before the five-minute mark provides a clear demarcation before the next referential episode, when a snippet of Bach played by an unknown cellist prefaces what might be rippling water, crickets, and a radio with only the most tenuous grasp on a signal. A sweet, distorted melody can’t quite sugar-coat nagging echoes and distorting scrapes in the waning minutes of the piece, which ends in a place not unlike the beginning.
One note of clarification: “taps,” identified here and in “light thread burning,” refers not to the military bugle call, but to bathroom pipes and faucets. “If you rotated the hot water tap beyond a certain point the pipes vibrated excessively,” Clément explained, “creating a violent noise that one could control with the subtle variation on the hot/cold taps.”
2. unhoused vacuity (8:59)
– Field recording (not sure origin) (2017)
– mysterious drone from outside apartment, recorded while eating dinner (2017)
– another mysterious drone of unknown origin, from outside, recorded inside apartment (2017)
– Field recording from inside the Stanley Hotel, an SRO in the Downtown Eastside (where I worked) after it had been vacated and declared uninhabitable in April 2017
– Judith Hamann: non-pitched cello sounds (outtakes from the “Taking Tiger Mountain” sessions, 2017)
– excerpt from Eugene, OR live show w/ Mathieu Ruhlmann from tour (March 2015)
– close mic’d harmonium recording at home (2017)
– various field recordings (dense mix)
The simultaneity of sensory input that constitutes our day-to-day life is always present in Clément’s music, the chief difference being that where in real life we try to filter out peripheral and extraneous noises, one point in listening to tracks like “unhoused vacuity” is to perceive their multiple aural strata all at once, and (perhaps) to contemplate what their juxtaposition might mean. Reading that one of Clément’s sound sources is a “mysterious drone… recorded while eating dinner” suggests an equality between those sounds—yet from an anthropomorphic perspective, it’s hard not to prioritize mundane mouth noises, and to assign to more fascinating unknown sounds the role of accompaniment.
Here again, closeness becomes expansiveness becomes closeness again; faraway sounds of engines and car horns register with clarity even as noises seemingly closer might be muffled and indistinct.
3. light thread burning (5:04)
– Blank tape sound from cassette found in defunct tape machine purchased at Oakland flea market while on tour 2015
– phone crackle from DAT tape (2002)
– “bathroom drones” recorded in various establishments in downtown Toronto (1999-2000)
– “one take bathroom recording from Montréal 2004/5”: pitched-down Moon River LP, harmonium, Casio SK-1 and taps (at regular speed)
– Distant trains recorded in North Vancouver (2017)
– Judith Hamann: non-pitched cello sounds (outtakes from the “Taking Tiger Mountain” sessions, 2017)
– field recording near train tracks in Toronto, throwing rocks, waiting for train that never came, listening to Shostakovich from cell-phone speaker (July 2017)
One thing that sets TIME + PLACE apart from Sea Songs, for me at least, is a stronger sense of personal sounds on the newer album—personal in the sense human presence, as in the fragments of speech here, and corporeal noises such as the previous track’s dining sounds. Sea Songs, by contrast, somehow felt more spacious and environmental, more natural and less human-adjacent. TIME + PLACE might well incorporate as many outdoor field recordings as its predecessor, but the scale of these pieces feels considerably more proximate and intimate.
One more noteworthy feature of TIME + PLACE is a sensation of closure and wholeness that results from Clément’s use of common elements in multiple pieces. Brief as this piece is, it recalls elements from those that came before it—the Moon River LP and “taps” from “aim of blue,” the recording of cellist Judith Hamann from “unhoused vacuity” (and the cello itself, recalled from “aim of blue”). Likewise, the Oakland “blank tape” used here recurs in “you will dissolve before me,” as does the “glass tube feedback” from the opening track. These subtle repetitions give TIME + PLACE a satisfying holistic integrity that suits the album’s title.
4. you will dissolve before me (14:09)
– Blank tape sound from the same “blank” cassette from Oakland flea market, 2015
– various textural field recordings, throughout
– Recordio + glass tube feedback (2017)
– PS3200 synthesizer drone (2009)
– GO Train microcassette recording (Ontario, 2007)
– ‘laundry room’ (2017)
– “Satta Massagana” by the Abyssinians re-recorded/degraded 8x in jar from cell phone, re-recorded in open air on top of the Stawamus Chief, Squamish, BC, microphone 30 feet from source (from outdoor site specific installation in 2013)
– Computer “dub” feedback (2006)
– Field recording from Stanley Park, factory activity across the water, in the rain (2016)
– Fog horns, field recordings (2014-16)
– recording from concave rock formation, Stanley Park sea wall, 2016
– tape crackle + bleed through of Adagio in G minor by Albinoni, from the same ‘blank’ cassette from Oakland flea market, 2015
– Field recording of Adagio in G minor by Albinoni played by mysterious busker on saxophone w/ pre-recorded distorted organ blasting from a shitty amp in Montreal subway tunnel circa 2005 + body-manipulated “lake feedback” from a mic taped to a canoe running through a portable military radio taken in Perth, Ontario (2006) + Recordio glass tube + feedback (2017)
– “unknown” sounds outside window (2017)
– harmonium fragments (2016)
This gracefully sequenced piece is, for me, closer in spirit to Sea Songs than are the other tracks on TIME + PLACE. As on much of that previous disc, “you will dissolve before me” feels broad, spacious, and unhurried, with sensations of tidal sweep and salt-air tang enhanced and underscored by referential buoy bells and sea spray.
If the overall sensation linking this to the other pieces on TIME + PLACE is one of isolation, and of pensiveness bordering on melancholy, here – amid distanced voices and disembodied music (the opportune and brilliantly evocative use of Albinoni’s Adagio in G minor especially) – those sensations register as loneliness in public rather than in private.
There remain in this album things I cannot explain or put into words easily. The passage that begins around 9:15 and extends through the helicopter’s entrance just before 12:27 is among the most powerful, gripping musical sequences I’ve encountered this year. The “input” checklist Clément provided reveals at least some of the constituent elements involved. But the process by which he distributed, balanced, and blended those selected sounds to elicit an emotional impact exceeding the sum of its disparate parts resists easy explication.
Therein resides the clearest definition of Clément’s music: an art whose specific parts and their references are personal and oblique, but whose aggregate impact is universal, inclusive—and open to interpretation.