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Shock of the Natural: Astor Interviewed

In 2012, Graham Lambkin’s Kye label has compiled two exceptional records relevant to the Australian music enthusiast. The first was The Bowles 7 inch, previously reviewed here, a sedate and elegiac set of collaged song constructs; broken and immeasurably beautiful. The second was Alcor, a record which arrived with a surprising lack of background or description beyond it being by an artist called Astor – “a new voice from the Australian wilderness”, whose previous output had been “appreciated only via a string of barely-distributed CDRs”.

The LP itself was as strange and intriguing as the understated story that accompanied it. I was immediately struck by the gathering of field recorded and processed sounds, combined with unexpected voices mined from the full spectrum of the world’s density. Some of these sounds seemed to arrive organically by the sheer selective inquisitiveness of the microphone itself, while other found fragments had undergone nuanced electronic processing and concrète obfuscations. Its overall composition – from the oblique micro-actions of creaks, rustlings and groans, to the more dramatic ‘movements’ of horses, foghorns and pianos – actively defied intuitive (or accepted) associations of sound, or pushed their ordinary understanding to the brink of indeterminacy. The result has kept me in a constant state of sonic dislocation since first listen, a sensation that alongside the themes of mystery and fantasy, runs deep throughout Alcor.

This is a mystery not only in regards to what is being heard, but also with how the mind threads together the record’s seemingly disparate elements, letting unexpected connections forge impulsively and spontaneously. You can walk around Alcor’s abstracted but detailed terrain many times, and through many different paths, and still not exhaust the secret links between its aural objects. If ‘nature’ is being represented on Alcor, it does not attempt to cater to the listener’s desire to comprehend it. Instead, the stretching of all recognisable and distant sounds places the record in a space where one listens to all of its sounds without preliminary judgment, expectation or determination, and therefore, with a certain kind of real honesty. The oddly unfamiliar act of just Listening to a world presented.

My interest piqued, I sought out interview with Astor. Initially, I was given a contact by the name of Troy Appleton. A quick Google of his music credentials turned up nothing beyond a couple of lawyers, a scientist and a Pfizer employee. The fact that I couldn’t seem to find anything about its creator only added to the feeling of listening to an album that hovered in a world completely of its own becoming. I sent off questions about the record including the probing question of  whether Troy was in fact real. I subsequently received answers, including the assurances of his 100% authenticity.

Only then in preparation for a series of follow up questions did I receive a breakthrough, when Mark Harwood contacted me from another email to reveal himself as Astor. Finally, I had some concrete link to the fantasy of Alcor. The former owner of the Synaesthesia label and shop in Melbourne, he’s no longer based in the “Australian wilderness” but instead the UK, where he publishes books as well as releasing and distributing records through his Penultimate Press publishing house. Alongside adapting the initial questions asked of Troy, Mark gave me a thorough and illuminating insight into his creation of the album, its underlying concepts, and his idiosyncratic studies into sound.

How long have you been working as Astor now? Alcor seems to have come relatively out of the blue – were the early CD-Rs which made up Alcor given much distribution?
I have been making music for many moons, however the Astor moniker came out somewhere in the process of assembling this LP. I guess the ‘out of the blue’ aspect comes from little media exposure – distributors or otherwise. I assume there are endless folks like me who play around with music in this day and age. I often wonder what lurks out there beyond the repeatedly referenced ‘superstars of experimental music’. The early CD-Rs were sent to friends with no distribution.

When it came to compiling the music for Alcor, how did you go about selecting what would end up on record from those earlier releases, and what didn’t?
Once Graham [Lambkin] had proposed the idea of an LP release I started to think about how to pull various recordings together as a whole. I had enough material and I selected what I thought was the stronger material of this lot. There was a clear idea of how I wanted to approach the LP so all that followed was some minor reworking and re-editing of various pieces to make it all fit together. I like listening to albums at home which I think differs greatly from the live experience, so I wanted to tackle it very much from the home listening experience. I wanted to make something that had enough mystery and appeal to warrant repeated listens. In some ways it was an attempt to construct a journey for the listener via the comfort of their chosen listening environment.

It sounds like a number of different recording techniques, as well as the processing of found sounds, went into the making of this album. How and from where did you compile the basic source material for Alcor? What attracts your interest when it comes to finding sound sources for your music?
The sounds on the record were collected from a variety of sources and via a number of different recording techniques. Some of it was straightforward recording of sounds on my phone, while other methods explored different ways to approach the recording process. I slept with my microphone in bed, or left him swinging from a tree. In this respect the source sound is immediately altered so no pure sound is captured. As you can tell from the record I am interested in more obtuse sounds where the source is not easily discernible, but also grafting that on to something which is immediately definable, a galloping horse for example. In this sense it focuses on the blur between fantasy and reality while playing with the ‘surprise’ that can occur when certain disparate elements are juxtaposed.

To my ears, the record has a rather bucolic or ‘naturalistic’ feel. Was this something that you consciously had in mind? At the same time – and I could be wildly off course here – the record sounds like the ‘remembrance’ of a distant environment.
I guess there was a conscious decision to make something which had tangible links to nature and the human. At the same time I wanted to play with the perception of reality and representation, knowing that all media can only result in a distortion of matter.  So the bucolic aspect is superficial in a way. It is a representation but is in no way a documentation of the world per se. It was simply a pleasant enough bridge in which to step into a greater unknown.  From my perspective there is no familiarity with the environment. It is a fiction based on certain facts.

I’m interested in what you mean by the blur between fantasy and reality, especially in the sense of the record being “a bridge to step into a greater unknown”? Do you mean in the sense of imbuing reality with a fantastical quality?
The act of capturing a sound on an electronic device distorts the original source, so when played back it automatically exists in a non-representational realm. This accounts for the somewhat ‘spooked’ sensation one gets in earlier years when one first hears themselves played back after recording their own voice. You know that it is your voice, but it also contains an unidentifiable element which makes it seem detached from the ‘you’ that you are familiar with. I have always loved whatever this sensation is. This sensation is what I like in music. It does exist, but it is not common. This disembodiment in recorded sound is what I wanted to play with. Taking elements of more naturalistic sounds, musical sounds, and moving these to a point where the spirit of such sounds is more pronounced and then juggling between these two spheres, the representational and artificial if you will. The instrument as a field recording – a field recording as an instrument.

The idea of juxtaposing discernible sound sources with the indeterminable, as you mention, gives the record a  “mysterious” quality. But rather than conjuring up feelings of ‘awe’ or the ‘sublime’ etc., I get the sense that the mystery created is a mystery that is complete in itself. Was this a sensation you were going for?
Mystery is open ended and intangible. I wanted to make a record which was not immediately easy to decipher, where repeated listens would provide unique angles. I like the complexity of human emotion, the spaces in between the obvious light and dark.  There was an effort to juggle elements between abstract sounds and more obvious sound sources.  On a number of occasions I invited various techniques to avoid too much of my own thought into the process. Yes, that old chestnut.

Who were some of the reference points as far as other musicians or styles that informed the making of the album?
Small Cruel Party was mentioned in the press release. I always liked the mystery of Key’s music; the indiscernible sound sources and subtle narrative of his work was certainly an inspiration. Idea’s for music come from a variety of sources, mostly conversations with friends that often have nothing to do with actual music. I had an argument with a friend in a bar once where she told me that the role of the artist is to reflect the current age. We all know this is all that one can do, no matter how they present their wares. By reflecting on the current age I did not feel it is necessary to make things overtly digital, shiny and pristine. This seems too obvious in an age where we still have every opportunity at hand. There are many sounds which I find fascinating but we live in an age dominated by electronic music. Ironically, the more natural sounds out there hold more mystery whereas electronic music, no matter how it’s constructed seems more familiar and quantifiable. Electronic music once had an ‘alien’ quality. However, the overwhelming dominance of the form in our contemporary sound world has dissipated this effect to the point where any combination of electronic frequencies is a familiar and palatable arena whereas the sound of a swan may strike the listener as unusual.

You mention Small Cruel Party’s subtle narratives – were you attempting to create a focused narrative when it came to Alcor?
There was no conscious attempt to create a particular narrative, although there were certain themes at play. A movement from indoors to outdoors, from the mental world to the physical world and back again. Any kind of narrative can only be the listener’s perception. If the listener chooses to implant a particular story or construction around the whole then I think that is a fascinating result and I would be more than curious to hear some of the suggestions. With Small Cruel Party there is a world laid forth in every track but he generally spirals around each individual take. I wanted to make something using this idea of alternate worlds but somehow make them fit together as a whole, creating an alternative larger sum from the individual components.

Having said that, there are certain themes at play. The title ‘Alcor’ is a star in the galaxy very close to another called Mizar. Alcor and Mizar are also known as the Horse and Rider. Alcor is also the name of a company in America that deals in cryogenics – the preservation of humans in liquid nitrogen after death in order to restore the person to ‘life’ at some point in the future. There are certain sounds, particularly on the b-side which correlate with these issues: locusts, horses, oceans etc.

The album art is beautiful. Was this your own work, and how does it link to the record?
I made the cover, I am glad to hear you like it. I wanted it to reflect both the process I used when making the recording as well as touch upon the themes of the LP itself. The picture was found on the opening day celebrations at a local charity shop. It cost £4 and has a beautiful broken gold frame around it. This was then scanned and put through a process of decay for a couple of months. The results were then assembled so that the front was more figurative and the reverse more abstracted.

Finally, is Astor a project you’re keen to see develop, or was it a halcyon moment for you, or simply just a convenient alias to use?
I imagine I will stick with it. I was happy with the result. Alcor ended up being along the lines of something I would enjoy listening to, if only it was not me. I tarnished that experience for myself by making it. The lesson learnt here will be hard to avoid next time.

***

Astor’s Alcor is available through Kye. You can also purchase records and books through Mark’s own Penultimate Press. If you haven’t done so yet, I also highly recommend checking out Mark’s amazing Secret Thirteen mix. In fact, check all of the Secret Thirteen mixes, including mixes from Lawrence English and Pimmon as well.

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One thought on “Shock of the Natural: Astor Interviewed

  1. Nic says:

    Yesssssss, I was right in my guess it was Mark Harwood. Really great, unique record. Got one, maybe two copies left at Repressed Records in Sydney plus a bunch of other KYE stuff.

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