John Duncan, Jim O’Rourke: all sounds, voice, composition; Oren Ambarchi, Joe Talia: additional sounds in “Stay Alive”
The genesis of this LP links yours truly with a temporal frame where the joy of discovery was the foremost drive throughout his beginnings as a music writer. When good-natured Jim O’Rourke kindly accepted to answer to a series of questions I had sent him (via snail mail) for a long-distance interview to be published in the Italian quarterly Deep Listenings – circa 1993 – one of the things that instantly hit my attention was his casual hinting at some recordings he had just made with John Duncan. After many years of hopeless waiting I had totally given up the eventuality of seeing those tapes released. However, it ain’t over until it’s over, and – lo and behold – last year Joachim Nordwall’s label finally turned this scribbler’s wish into a tangible experience.
Duncan’s unrelenting quest for anything which is deeply disturbing – in opposition to the emblematic superficiality of the average being – represents the core of both sides. Each track embodies a significant trait of his research, and their consecutiveness might be regarded as a continuum. The co-action with O’Rourke – originally born in Christoph Heemann’s studio in Aachen, later reworked by the Chicagoan – starts with closely miked emissions from Duncan’s oral cavities: quiet salivation, guttural snippets, a slightly uneasy respiration. All of this gets immediately encompassed by a sinewy subsonic pulsation; think of the snare-like muffled pressure of the auricular membranes when we perceive our heartbeat from the inside in particularly stressful circumstances. The subsequent phases throw the implicit mechanisms of life into a maelstrom of shortwave droning and low-frequency modulations, nevertheless distant from a concept of stasis in the abundance of constitutional sequences and “organically mechanized” patterns. The inevitably momentous wholeness constitutes a high point in both artists’ discographies, sounding as modern as yesterday. Friendly advice: let this piece resonate loudly from the speakers.
If the first half symbolizes a journey through the darkest aspects of the subconscious, “Stay Alive” is an out-and-out cathartic ritual. The incitement is barely whispered at the outset; then, as Talia and Ambarchi increase their contribution via metaphysical sonorities and irregular drumming, the man from Wichita enters a condition of preternatural despair. The progressively louder screaming literally strips him of his normal vocal tone, gradually replaced by a hoarsely yelping reiteration. In the concluding instants after the burnout, near-inaudible instrumental touches escort us to silence. A parallel with Duncan’s earlier experiments with Reichian hyperventilation applies, as far as balance between anguished transmittance and individual purification is concerned. Let me end this on an ironic note: if we’re staying alive to this date we certainly owe more to human specimens like these than Bee Gees.
A must for the unafraid adventurer, these sonic outbursts could jeopardize the false composure of those who smile constrainedly while telling around that “everything is alright”. They still don’t know shit about the real meaning of the word “survival”.