The medium is what we obsess over today, with little regard to our message. Since his earliest recorded work, Saarbrücken’s Stephan Mathieu has shown a particular talent for freighting his investigations of the media with which sound is recorded, stored and received with meaning. At the turn of the millennium, as Full Swing, he made a definitive statement with a mix survey of lower-case glitch techniques on Edits (Orthlong Musork), featuring artists both familiar and surprising in context – Kit Clayton, Ekkehard Ehlers and Monolake, Yo Lo Tengo and Akira Rabelais – “based on tiny snippets of the original sound material”, Mathieu recalls, “which were blown up massively”. Whatever the means, the method always results in the most subtle but thought-provoking ambient home listening.
Radioland (Panorámica) is one, long exhale commissioned for Espacio Fundación Telefónice Buenos Aires, with Caro Mikalef on the Columbia Phonoharp (a kind of zither introduced to the market in the 1890s) and eBow and Mathieu processing all the sounds on his computer and manning a radio broadcasting in real time. Argentinian Mikalef is usually more involved in the place where literature and design meet, but has been working on sound art with Mathieu for some time now. As a performing and recording artist, Mathieu has been evolving in many and all directions at once. His most recent work has revolved around hundred-year-old sound technology, including 78 rpm records, wax cylindars and early audio recording and playback machines, saying simply “I love the way they transport sound”. Having been run through his computer, you can only just picture that any of these sources ever come close to a Victrola stylus, but the airy, unbroken drone is so rich in layers and space between layers, it does succeed in mediating an analogue analogy. I dare say that Mathieu is one experimental ambient artist whose every release – whether solo or in collaboration with the likes and breadth of Hans-Joachim Roedelius, David Sylvian, Main, Taylor Deupree or lutanist Josef van Wissem – is worth becoming immersed in. Such high-concept projects have rarely sounded so sweet.
The perfect complement to this release is Mathieu’s latest album Un Cœur Simple (Baskaru), composed for a theatrical production based on Gustave Flaubert´s story of the same name, intended as both a modern interpretation and a ”character study” of the writer’s modernist contemporaries, the dissectors of mid-nineteenth century social convention. As mentioned, Mathieu has featured obsolete sound technology at the centre of his very contemporary soundworld for some time now and here the drag of needle across wax, shellac and/or vinyl is much more palpable. From these Mathieu both coaxes textures and peeks into the mindset of the novelist’s heroine Felicity, a woman both comforted and oppressed by her religious faith. For his score, Mathieu has also dragged out a Columbia Phonoharp, along wiith portable record players, analogue synthesizer, a viola da gamba and sampled early-twentieth century recordings, including one by Renaissance master Guillaume Dufay, gazing deeply both into the cobwebbed music and patinated machinery. More varied than Radioland, as befits a stage drama in contrast to an art installation, Mathieu’s bittersweet score has the same gaseous elegance while assuming and executing the burden of storytelling. Brilliantly.