Ludwig Berger | Cargo
Canti Magnetici (CS/DL)
Field-recording is a curious art. It is a discipline of many modes, many temperaments, and one marked by a fundamental dichotomy – it is when it flaunts its purest, most authentic form, that it is at its most amorphous. ‘Cargo’ is ostensibly a recording of nothing. The world it offers provides a few recognisable signifiers – here, some birds in the distance, there, the muted engine of some unidentified machinery – but these sounds are buried within a wider absence, a generality that is nothing if not the sound of space. Through each of its 20 minute pieces, we are orientated by the gentle hiss of the microphone, the hum of the field recorder that is so often carefully filtered out. Ludwig Berger demonstrates no such intention, however. His composer’s touch is delicate, fragile, as if the primary aesthetic decision is the choice of location rather than anything the artist might choose to do with it.
The soundscape proffered leans towards the dense, with rich drones populating a tableau otherwise consisting of scattered voices, vehicles, and wildlife. Berger excels in hiding his presence – these drones, added by a synthesizer, blend into the scenery, making it unclear when we are listening to ‘real’ life or a musical accompaniment. It is arguably the drone sections that are the most successful, adding a certain tension or colour that offsets the sparse and unadorned objects within the recorded world. As cautiously as it presents itself, however, Cargo displays a buried but defining structure. Though it appears, not much is happening at any given time, it becomes clear from repeated listens that the work has a definitive arc, rising and falling in density and complexity as it progresses. Though slight, this dynamic provides a level of interest not always present in the recordings themselves, and by the latter stages of the work we are able to audibly make out the critical decisions of its author. More obvious swoops of noise, rhythmic pulsations and a tonality that undermines the authenticity of the soundscape serve to forge a satisfying end to the album, though even this gesture remains wonderfully subtle.
Although occupying an interesting conceptual location – an obfuscation of the line between recording and composition – Berger seems to find unusual pleasure in fairly dull source material. There is nothing implicitly wrong with the locations and sounds he has chosen, and yet very few sounds appear that are particularly interesting in their own right. I imagine this points to a focus on the macro, rather than the micro, and to that end it is often successful. However, it is sometimes hard to listen to yet more chirping birds, wind noise and general hub-bub, without wondering quite what the point is. It is a shame, because Berger’s structural and conceptual approach is intriguing, yet arguably let down by the quality of the sounds with which he works. For that criticism, there are some lovely moments – the voices of (I presume) workers engaged in some form of manual labour and battling to entertain themselves, the habit of the latent hum of the site merging with the additional drones. It is perhaps a credit to the work that it can be criticised for not always being that interesting, whilst simultaneously finding its most beautiful moments in the acute capture of nothingness.
Cargo is the sort of album that, though I struggled to love, leaves me deeply intrigued as to how its author might apply his particular processes and methodologies in another context. It is clear that there is a conceptual depth at play that is both captivating and well rendered, and I have no doubt that further listen will unearth qualities hidden within Cargo that I am yet to appreciate. That many the sounds utilised are just a bit too safe, however, is perhaps the works defining flaw, and in some ways it is easiest to perceive of Cargo as two albums, rather than one. In the first instance, there is a collection of pleasant but not always engaging field recordings, and in the second a work of mesmerising and subtle drone composition. Though these two elements sit together well enough, it is the latter than provides the majority of the aesthetic interest, though no doubt the former contributes a certain conceptual weight.