Bernhard Gal: Hinaus:: In den, Wald.

Bernhard Gal’s fourth album is a journey inside the mind of a disturbed, solipsistic individual. Adolf Woelfli (1864-1930) was a Swiss who spent a deprived childhood as a farmhand. He was imprisoned for sexual attacks on young girls before being transferred to the mental hospital where he spent the last 35 years of his life. While there he created a 25,000-page opus of detailed texts and illustrations. It is Woelfli’s status as an outsider artist that forms the basis for Gal’s enquiry into his life and work.

The disc consists of recordings of Woelfli’s texts, which he wrote in German and in an invented language, recited by Gal and by a young Taiwanese girl. (Some of the texts are reproduced in the CD booklet.) Interspersed with these are field recordings of a man making his way through a forest. The sleevenotes say that the latter are intended to express Woelfli’s ‘permanent creative urge’. The overall effect is disturbing, for several reasons. The girl has an uninflected, naturally pure voice, while Gal’s own often whispered voice ranges in timbre from the idle to the threatening. Together, the voices uneasily register the presence of victim and assailant. The forest sounds, whatever the intention, strongly evoke Woelfli’s estranged status.

Gal is primarily a sound artist, and Hinaus:: In den, Wald was originally the soundtrack of an installation – a dark, immersive sonic environment. It is easy to imagine how disorientating these recordings must have been in this context, and the sleevenotes recommend listening on headphones in darkness to approximate the effect. Without the full spatial awareness given by the installation, listening to the CD is a necessarily incomplete, yet still powerful experience.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 13, 2005)

Bernhard Gal: Defragmentation/Blue

Defragmentation/Blue is a conceptual piece by a German sound artist who goes under the ridiculous lower-case name of ‘gal’. It was originally designed to accompany a light installation by the Japanese architect Yumi Kori. In the useful sleevenotes, Kori explains how the piece evolved in response to her spending five weeks in a hospital watching a close relative dying. The modern hospital is a place of artifice and routine, where natural rhythms are substituted by new temporal experiences like the serving of meals and daily medical check-ups. Kori was severely disorientated by the experience: ‘after some weeks it turned out to be impossible to tell how much time had passed and even whether time had passed at all’. The installation, together with Gal’s music, was designed to replicate this phenomenon of ‘defragmented time’.

The booklet has a couple of photographs of the installation, which was held in New York in 1999 – a crepuscular affair of the kind most often associated with the American artist James Turrell. I’m a big fan of Turrell’s work, and this looks to have been an excellent piece in similar vein: fine shards of light faintly illuminating a carpeted chamber suffused in the deepest blue.

Although designed for the express purpose of soundtracking the installation, Gal’s music nevertheless retains its impact when listened to as a piece of work in its own right. It’s indexed into five tracks, but is really one continuous piece: a very long and slow unfolding of liquid frequencies and low rumbles. Soft, intermittent bleeps evoke the deathly pulse of the life support machine, while occasional intakes of breath conjure a distinctly Beckettian mood.

Confronted by such a stark piece of conceptualisation, there really is nothing for the listener to do but surrender to its embrace. Listening to this music, time ceases to function as a linear sequence of events and is reconfigured as an endless, painful present, always on the brink of slipping into nothingness but never quite relinquishing its grip.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 9, 2001)