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Jan Jelinek/Asuna - Signals Bulletin Music Album Reviews

The German experimental musician teams up with a Japanese organist prone to taping down the keys of his instrument; together, they conjure massive, buzzing slabs of drone.

Among the turn-of-the-century click + cuts crew, Berlin’s Jan Jelinek stood out against his low-key contemporaries. Flickering masterpieces like Loop-finding-jazz-records and Textstar—deeply listenable rather than dial-up noisy—outlasted the subgenre. But in the ensuing decades, Jelinek has gravitated towards more destabilizing terrain: glottal sound art, woozy vibraphone, avant-garde radio plays, and collages incorporating the voice of the future President of the United States.

A live performance by Naoyuki Arashi, the Japanese sound artist and organist also known as Asuna, enticed Jelinek with yet another topsy-turvy sound. Asuna’s method involves methodically taping down keys on his organ, generating dense cluster drones with an economy of movement Jelinek compares to “the calm gestures of an office worker.” Jelinek describes Asuna’s static, barely changing sounds as “a music without breaks.” Signals Bulletin captures their subsequent collaborations over the past three years; it is the densest, most opaque of Jelinek’s recent works.

“Relief,” the 13-minute opener, is at a slight remove from the warm, weird terrariums of sound Jelinek makes with vibraphonist Masayoshi Fujita. It’s dreamy and incremental, its drones built from hums and the slow swell of Asuna’s taped-down keys. But it’s also uneventful and bulky, tethered in one place rather than properly adrift. Its most visceral moment comes as it approaches the 12-minute mark, turning suddenly spare and dark, wherein unmentionable rustles become menacing. The near-growling noises that draw the piece to a close feel frustratingly incomplete.
Another epic excursion follows, but this one, the 11-minute “Pulsating Primary Structure,” teems with life, suggesting further possibilities the two might achieve in the future. The piece is built from gentle thrums that incrementally increase in pressure until they are relentless in their throb. The way Jelinek and Asuna stack tiny sounds can be deceptive: Tracking their movements is like studying a colony of ants piling up grains of sand and suddenly realizing that the heap is the size of the Taj Mahal.

In comparison, the four-minute “Fountain” feels like a musique-concrète bagatelle. It’s full of whooshes, bloops, R2-D2 whistles, and rubbed-crystal drones, but nothing really sticks together. The slightly longer “How a Spiral Works” features the same slab-like keyboard drones and some oscillations from Jelinek’s setup; the piece in another exercise in increasing the density of sound and then ever so slowly peeling back the layers. As it diminishes, you might catch Terry Riley-like arpeggios, shuffling footsteps, the clicks of a birthday-party noisemaker, and some whistles from the audience as they all shake out of the mix.

Despite the lengthy opening tracks, closer “Blinking of Countless Lines” weighs heaviest, topping 14 minutes. For the first half of it, the metallic drones the two conjure are the album’s most dizzying, about as serene as an alien abduction. By the midway point, Jelinek’s whirlpool loops and oscillations wash over the piece. Although busier on the surface, his contributions match Asuna’s in that their respective elements barely change across the tracks’ durations. But the music feels smothering rather than immersive; relief comes only when the two open up space within the sound. Signals Bulletin, a music without breaks, could use more breathing room.

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