Fifteen Questions Interview with Esther Venrooy - Phenomenal Sound

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THE WIRE 293/July 2008; p60
by Dan Waburton

Those fortunate enough to be familiar with the thrilling sensory overload of Esther Venrooy's To Shape Volumes, Repeat from 2003 might have a hard time believing that the leisurely drones of The Spiral Staircase are the work of the same person. But careful listening reveals the same meticulous ear at work. the Gent based Dutch composer's fondness for subtly shifting warm tones sourced from a vintage EMS analogue synthesizer inevitably recalls Eliane Radigue, but there are surprises in store in exquisitly worked found sounds, sprinkled over where you'd least expect them. There' s a compositional maturity and sureness of touch here worthy of Feldman, the sense that each sound is exactly what and where it should be. Entr'acte's sober packaging might lead you to expect grey austerity, but the music is as luminous and richly hued as a Vermeer. In the same way that he achieved transparency by applying granular layers of paint, Venrooy's seemingly simple sonorities are masterly assemblages of different timbres and tones.

Mock Interiors finds her in the company of fellow composer and improviser Heleen Van Haegenborgh. The pair concentrate on shorter forms ‹ the CD contains 11 tracks ‹ but the prevailing heartbeat remains slow, and the music is no less intense and thoroughly worked. Pianist Van Haegenborgh has studied with, amongst others, John Tilbury, and it shows in her timing and touch. But there's dark Romanticism to her playing too, best exemplified in the sombre minor harmonies of Impromptu Dhalia, which Venrooy extends and explores with the breathtaking precision and sensitivity of a brain surgeon.

Review by Jos Smolders / Earlabs - 10/10

Electronic composer Esther Venrooy and pianist Heleen Van Haegenborgh’s collaboration explores the synergy of acoustic piano with electronics and digital sound processing. Their compositions aim to draw the listener into the inner workings of the piano. Employing a battery of microphones, resonating elements and tiny inaudible mechanical sounds are captured, manipulated and magnified through electronic means, resulting in fragile textures where the boundaries between electronic and acoustic sound become blurred." I have heard many examples of people combining electronics with acoustic sources. But there are many ways to fuck that up and much less ways to do it right. This time it has been done very well. (...) Very well done. Recommended!!

Review by Massimo Ricci / Touching Extremes

This record — the second from Esther Venrooy heard on these shores — is so carefully constructed, its components splendidly deployed in a half-asleep, half-awake trip of sorts, that one shouldn’t hesitate in defining it as a milestone of today’s electronica. The Spiral Staircase develops its intelligent charm through various phases: the first part starts with the marine ebb and flow of an electronic wave, followed after a few minutes by a Radigue-like segment of ear-catching low-frequency radiation. Things get a little more agitated when the contrast of differently shaped emissions causes a series of intersections mixing spacey ambiences and slightly harsher quanta of oscillating action. The impact on the auricular membranes is seriously effective, our attention instantly captured by the continuous shifts of weight in the mix. At one point, towards the end of the side, some measure of vocal interference blemishes a fantastic undulating drone, a memorable moment indeed. In the second part a semi-distorted ringing tone introduces shades similar to the sound of a very distant jet, then we’re back to the underworld of throb, a constantly morphing luminescence alternated with a billowing rumble, the whole slowly fading to a gradually increasing mass of plumbeous strata. We remain in the company of a constant note, a repeated pulse whose resonance pervades the room and surrounds the brain, then a brilliant section with something akin to a modified cuckoo clock leads to the conclusion, floating bodies swimming around black stars, yet everything sounds rather present, almost there to put the fingers on, until a final loop indicates that our time is over. Too bad. This is a major statement needing an immediate re-edition, on compact disc.

Review by Brian Olewnick / Bagatellen

“The Spiral Staircase” is quite different, comprised largely of modulated drones amidst other electronic detritus but no disembodied voices. As with the melodic segment that began “Brussel”, the impression is less one of detecting something “new”—indeed, many of the sounds have a familiar aspect—but more with the grace and thoughtfulness with which the sounds are aligned and juxtaposed. The ringing throb that begins side one here, waxing every four or five seconds, is, in a sense, a recognizable enough element but Venrooy manages to invest it with something, some combination of frequencies, that endows it with a unique and weighty presence that focuses one’s attention sharply and immediately. Various other sounds are gradually layered in, “above” and “below” the initial pulse, generally possessing a harsher, more granular character, each enhancing the disquiet. It wells to a climax then subsides into a growling, steadier drone which, in turn, is encased in a multitude of others, fashioning a complex matrix wherein the listener can discern at his or her will a vast number of patterns, reflections and relationships. Gears are shifted several times throughout the piece, though it remains drone-centered for the duration and the changes straddle that giddy territory between initial awkwardness and retrospective naturalness. Side Two (it seems to be an entirely different piece, though no titles are supplied) remains in the general area of dronage but over in the part of the yard with all the crackling and static. Again, Venrooy weaves together countless strands, each clear enough to focus on individually if one desires but better to hear in a relational manner, something that will doubtless vary upon each listen. I was often reminded of the “standard” result of Cageian listening in a given environment: at first you might think there’s only two or three sound sources in play; listening more attentively inevitably serves to uncover many more. This construction includes a mélange of massively deep tolling with wonderfully quirky, almost cuckoo-y chittering and blooping atop, sending the piece momentarily reeling off into the middle distance. The disc fades out in a series of ringing tones not too far from those that opened it, a bit icier but less foreboding. Both albums are fine recordings from a composer previously unfamiliar to me but one from whom I anticipate hearing a great deal more. so if you have a working turntable, I strongly advise checking ‘em out. Very good work. 

Review by Frans De Waard / Vital Weekly

About nine years ago, Irdial Records released a four CD 'The Conet Project', collecting sounds from number stations, or spy stations: transmissions found on radio waves of various secret services. A great and no doubt worrying work, if you understand the consequences of it, but also a wealth of great sound. I believe it is not allowed to use these sounds at will (I forget what the fuzz was all about, but somebody got sued for sampling some of it), but Esther Venrooy asked and got permission to use the material to create a sound piece for Belgium radio, which existed seventy-five years. If one is familiar with the original 'Conet Project' recordings, then it's easy to spot all the original voices ('five - three - two - zero - five'), but Venrooy knows her classics in music, especially that of musique concrete: the sudden shifts in sounds, the gentle gliding electronic tones, but also incorporating a little melody at the beginning of the second side. There is nothing really frightening about these voices anymore, they are isolated from the original context, and placed in this new, abstract picture, where they become voices of the unknown. They no longer have their original meaning, but rather a new one. This is a more than excellent record, and by far the best work by Venrooy to date.