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Review

John Duncan and Graham Lewis

Presence

The spark for this collaboration ignited several years ago when John Duncan saw Graham perform with Carl Michael von Hausswolf in Vienna. Having been very keen on Dome, John suggested working together by using recordings of Graham's voice as a springboard. This continues his vocal manipulations with Elliot Sharp and Asmus Teitchens.

Originally from the USA, now based in Italy, John Duncan is a high-calibre sound artist. He's had a substantial catalogue of work published by Staalplaat, Streamline, Touch, Trente Oiseaux, Die Stadt, and his own label, All Questions, and has worked with Andrew MacKenzie (Contact) Fransisco Lopez (NAV), Bernhard Gunter (Home, unspeakable), and Max Springer (The Crackling). Mention of these names alone is a good indication of the radical sonic territory being mapped out.

Along with his trademark use of shortwave signals, Duncan's modus operandi is to considerably abstract source sounds, creating smeared masses of sonic granulation, like vapour trails. It is only on the opening and closing tracks that Graham's voice is recognisable, bookending the whole with typically intriguing texts. Elsewhere, it's completely ground through the mill.

Purpose Stimulated opens, like some kind of perverse prologue, with a rippling, buzzing, texture out of which emerges a slithering time-stretched text. Both liquid and brittle. The beheaded Ian Holm in Alien. A slippery soliloquy. Ventriloquised verbals—on valium.

This makes way for Fall, a gateway into the abyss. This substantial track (33‚ of the album's 46‚) evolves like a colossal wind, rushing the listener headlong into a vast open void, to arrive, about halfway through, in a more meditative space created by the warm crackle of shortwave signals that fluctuate in a strangely reassuring way, punctuated by various pops and cracks. A lively medium. A carrier. From virtual space to radio space. Ether. The invisible flux out there. An energy field. A space that Duncan has been navigating for many years, once described as using the tuning band like a divining rod. Duncan's digital dowsing locates resonant spaces, finely formed frequencies. The listener bobs like a cork in a pond. The source sound for a significant part of this was a minute-and-a-half recording of a controlled rant by Graham on foot of meeting a rather objectionable character. Not that you'd remotely recognize it as such though. Anger vented becomes vent (drone).

On Cycle, from a recording of a heavily hungover Graham wailing‚ in the bath, comes a frothing mumble of heavily processed signal; very visceral, the body is reduced to a gurgling essence. A gargling broth of digital garble. Slo-mo swallow. In reverse. A sonic spin cycle.

Step closes the album in a kind of exhausted epilogue. The background is a field recording of the Emmanuel Vigeland Mausoleum in Oslo: a deeply reverberant space, cathedral-like. Whispering voices heard in the background. Occasional footsteps. A door closing. In stark contrast, Graham's voice is a very close-miked—a confidential whisper, drawing the listener in to an almost confessional space, his words with us almost before they are uttered. "Take a step forward and tell the truth."

Conceptually, the album is like a series of rooms the listener is taken through—a narrative of sonic architecture and architectural space, vocal presence and human resonance. Occupancy. Absence. Trace. The shorter tracks orbit like satellites around the massive gravity pull of Fall, undoubtedly the piece de resistance of the album, to the extent that the shorter tracks seem underworked by comparison, more like sketches.

Rather than a collaboration in the strictest sense, this is more of a John Duncan album that Graham guests (or ghosts) on, his presence flitting in and out of the frame at the beginning and end, elsewhere stalking unrecognised like some undead condemned to wander, invoked as spirit presence—a haunting. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but there is the inescapable feeling, interesting as the fruits of this collaboration are, that there's more potential here, considering the pedigree of the protagonists—something which might benefit from working together more closely, over less protracted periods, rather than one largely being the source for the other's manipulation.

Fergus Kelly (September, 2004)

Cover artwork