HISTORIO: Folke Rabe | What?? (1970)

I remember the wonderful Derek Bailey discussing the idea of recorded music. Imagine buying an album that was in a format that allowed you to hear it only once. You’d make time for the experience, switch off your phone, have the kettle boiled or your glass full … you’d make yourself comfortable and press play.

That amazing section at the end of the second track, or that weird bit at the end, would feel all the more significant. This would be your one chance at a fully immersive engagement with what the musician was playing, synchronised with what your brain is being filled with. Like a bottled performance.

What we have today is an avalanche of recorded music, physically and digitally gathered within various sleeves and hard drives in our homes, pockets, and workplaces.

A few nights ago, enjoying a relaxing evening at home, I found the time to stop. I decided to play something and treat it like a bottled performance. The project was to pick something I’d not listened to for a while, and being alone that night, felt free to explore anything I wanted without risk of boring my wife, or more likely, driving her insane.

I’m aware that I seem to have a smaller and smaller attention span. I’ll listen to a track and be reminded that a bit sounds like another track. So often, I tend to surf over vast swathes of music, never really properly settling on one thing for too long. I’m skateboarding through the gallery rather than standing, mouth open, in front of any one painting.

So, what do I want to listen to, given all the options? Do I enter the weird zone of a seldom-visited Ya Ho Wha disc from the God and Hair box set? Something, clanking, vast, and monstrous from Fushitsusha?

Instead, it was the inspirationally cool graphic of What?? that dropped into my mind. I was heading into what I consider to be the finest drone recording I own… the CD I have is the one that Jim O’Rourke released his Dexter’s Cigars label in 1997. I’m sure I managed to track it down in ‘98 or ‘99 as an excited art student. I had no real awareness of who Folke Rabe was, but I was systematically hoovering up anything on that label.

Arnold Dreyblatt’s Nodal Excitation and the first Voice Crack album had both been total winners on my newly acquired Discman… despite the fact I had to modify my walking speed to prevent the disc from skipping. I was game for 75 minutes and two versions of What??.

I’m pretty sure it was one of the first proper “drone” recordings I’d heard. What?? deals in sound itself rather than a more standardized musical forms. It’s built from the genetic blocks that become music.

Despite loving electronic music, I was aware that the style risked being just a tiny bit colder and more remote than something with traditional instrumentation. There was also a whiff of the academic about having two tracks presented on the album, one as a 25-minute version, and another version of the same piece at half the speed stretching out to a vast 50 minutes.

However, built from nothing more than clouds of electronically produced sound that slowly mesh, overlap and ultimately evolve, it quickly becomes clear that this is anything but a static form. Episodes in layers of microscopic and infinite mesh, the elements shifting over time to reveal layer after layer. A soundtrack to the birth of a universe or a single atom. In the sleeve notes, Rabe explains:

“What?? is constructed from harmonic sounds. These sounds move into one another by means of enharmonic melding of the partials. I chose harmonic sounds because a pleasing richness results from them, but more particularly because the partials reinforce one another through their inner hierarchy, and can thereby produce certain illusions.”

As a focused listening experience, it’s hard not to be completely sucked into this sound world. Long droning strands morph into gradually pulsing waves. That the sound is made up of purely artificial, What?? is also surprising in that it’s not in any way cold. In fact, over its duration, a sense of moving towards some kind of cosmic climax seems a real possibility. In the last few minutes, every element seems to align itself perfectly.

I remember feeling highly emotional as the stunning piece of music blossomed into the final few minutes. Hard, abstract material skillfully handled in such a way that it tickles your brain and soul. I was flattened by it in my kitchen that night.

Listening today as a small tribute to a departed Folke Rabe, that same singular warmth shines through. By way of proving this formula works, the second half-speed version only illustrates the same broad results. Whatever What?? is, it straddles the golden section, some divine equation. A sunflower seed-head in sound. It remains one of the very best listening experiences I’ve ever had.

Folke Rabe 1935 ~ 2017


Article orginally appeared in Brown Noise Unit September 2017

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