Melbourne sound artist and academic Phil Samartzis has built a career on his uncompromising approach to working with sound. In the main he utilises field recordings as the raw material to layer, shape, recontextualise and craft a whole new sonic world. Unheard Space is the second release on his own Microphonics label. His first Soft and Loud rigorously detailed the Japanese soundscape and arranged the disparate elements into a vivid and dynamic work. With Unheard Spaces Samartzis turns his attention to Venice, utilising field recordings first gathered over a three-week period in 2000. Here Samartzis attempts to portray the specific sonic characteristics of the city, the sounds and the spaces that make the city so unique. Whilst keeping their character Samartzis performs a unique form of alchemy in the arrangement, it’s quite subtle, very different to Soft and Loud, the tambour of the sounds, particularly the trickling of water sounds remarkably recorded, up close incredibly vivid. You feel like you can touch it – almost taste it before it delicately fades into clanging bells and the sounds of a paddle snaking through the water on a Gondola no doubt. Yet Samartzis doesn’ have an acoustic ecology bent, there are mechanics here, horns, possibly boats, passing trucks, yet it’s still firmly entrenched in the sounds of water, feeling like a sonic postcard that has been subtly tampered with. It’s hard to know how much has been layered and how much has been recorded faithfully on the one site. Human voices merge with bird calls, heels on pavement, a strange banging and a steady mechanical hum. The water is omnipresent. Everything just flows.
The beginning of this disc highlights a very different side to Samartzis’ approach to sound and improvisation. And it’s a strange fit. Titled Absence and Presence it stems from a live improvised performance (from What Is Music from memory) with Samartzis setting the parameters. With Samartzis utilising field recordings and electronics he “performs’ alongside Sean Baxter on percussion, Dave Brown electroacoustic guitar Anthea Caddy Cello and Thembi Soddell on field recordings and sampler Michael Vorfeld was involved later to improvise over certain sections. The results are strange, the music sounds coiled into a series of moments of bluster then restrained near silence. In fact silence is used repeatedly providing a dramatic tension that is often subtly punctuated by a gradually perceptible high-pitched sine tone. It’s edgy at times violent and (yep that word again) uncompromising stuff.