Many of us live in a state of near constant self-imposed sonic stimulation. We are forever talking on cellphones or listening to ipods, rushing from place to place with music and podcasts and satellite radio and videos streaming on our tablets. Meanwhile the world goes on around us. The irony of this is if one knows how to listen to the world - the real world - one can often find a soundtrack equally rich and stimulating and beautiful to anything we can think to cram onto our mp3 players. Ernst Karel - a sound artist and musician from Chicago - demonstrates this truth with jaw dropping aplomb on his latest release, "Swiss Mountain Transport System." The title of this album says it all. At close to 80 minutes in length, Karel offers his listeners a number of unprocessed field recordings taken on various gondolas, funiculars, and chairlifts in the mountains of Switzerland - from ancient, creaking gondolas to whirring, highspeed chairlifts. That's it. No instruments, no electronic processing, no synthesizers or oscillators or guitar feedback. And yet, despite that, Karel has created one of the most gorgeous, engaging, and fascinating albums of the year. It also happens to work almost perfectly as a drone or minimalist noise album. Through Karel's carefully positioned microphones, these means of mountain conveyance can be heard as accidental electro-mechanical music boxes, an entire world of sound contained in each car. They drone, they are percussive, they amplify and refract and echo and encase sound. Wires ring and reverberate, gears rumble and click, doors creak and whoosh. The mechanical and industrial intersects with other elements of the world - murmured voices across platforms, a peal of church bells off in the distance, a clang of cow bells, a clattering of helicopter rotors, frigid gusts of wind.
As Karel captures it, these unprocessed, unorchestrated sounds - largely mechanical and man-made but nonetheless "organic" in that they belong firmly to a lived environment, integrated in with the natural, and are not created as an end in themselves as with music or intentionally crafted sounds but rather exist as a part of the man/nature soundscape that is a byproduct of a world inhabited by living beings - are immensely affective and evocative. For an album that seems to be about movement, about traversing space, these recordings are incredibly successful not because they are beautiful - though they absolutely are - but because they evoke the mountains and they evoke transportation through that rugged terrain in a remarkably lucid way.
Recorded in stereo with multiple mics, this album truly comes to life when heard through a decent set of headphones. The sound envelopes the listener and we are whisked away through the Alps as Karel's recordings convey with remarkable clarity a sense of distance, of movement, of sound as it's really heard, in the real world. A collection of pure field recordings, it is perhaps ironic that in order to hear - as Karel has captured it - not only the utter beauty in the perpetual sonic landscape that surrounds us but also its incredible, inherent musicality that we must sit and listen closely, headphones firmly donned, without distraction. But one of the things that's so special about this album is that once you listen to it in this way, once you recognize the richness and depth of the world of sound that exists outside our headphones and in the most unexpected of places (we don't think of funiculars and gondolas as being all that interesting as such), it's possible to start discovering similar depth in places one experiences daily and simply never pauses to think about twice. As with all important and truly successful art, "Swiss Mountain Transport System" can radically alter the way one perceives the world.
Be warned: this album requires a good deal of patience. Many will find it boring but for those really willing to sit with it, its rewards continue to unfold listen after listen. It's refreshingly direct - a rarity in our world of ultra-processed music - and restrained, elegant and as simple as can be. At the same time, it's deeper and more nuanced than pretty much anything I've heard in a long while. A completely essential listen, one I cannot recommend highly enough.