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MP3 Discussion Group: ‘Monochromes Vol. 1′ (Line) by Tu M’

For the next few days, some fellow ardent listeners will join me here for the latest edition of Disquiet.com’s “MP3 Discussion Group.” We’ll be comparing notes on the recent Tu M’ album, Monochromes Vol. 1, which consists of four lengthy, drone-like chamber compositions. The album was released in June 2009 on Line, a subsidiary of the 12k record label. Tu M’ is a duo, consisting of Rossano Polidoro and Emiliano Romanelli, who live in Pescara, Italy; they’re credited on the album as both having performed on “laptop, mixing board.” There are video works associated with the Monochromes‘s music, viewable at tu-m.com/monochromes. The videos are a kind of abstract geography that matches the subdued pace of the music.

Also at the tu-m.com site are two sample MP3s of the music heard on Monochromes:

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There are more details on the album at the label website, 12k.com/line.

The week’s discussion will occur in the comments section below, and participation is, certainly, open to anyone who would like to offer an opinion.

Thanks to the folk who have agreed in advance to join me this week:

Alan Lockett: “I write music reviews and commentary on ambient/drone, the more adventurous end of techno/house, post-dub, and IDM. Based in Bristol, epicentre of the Dub-zone in the Wild West of England, I can mainly be read on igloomag.com and furthernoise.org.”

Julian Lewis: “I write much of Lend Me Your Ears, a UK/Spain-based MP3 blog that appreciates less obvious music.”

By Marc Weidenbaum

Tag: / Comments: 11 ]

10 Comments

  1. Alan Lockett
    [ Posted October 12, 2009, at 1:34 pm ]

    There’s a Jean Cocteau fragment accompanying Monochromes Vol. 1 which, along with the obvious clue in the title, signals something of its orientation:

    “A poet always has too many words in his vocabulary, a painter too many colors on his palette, a musician too many notes on his keyboard.”

    The quote points to the deliberately reduced palette deployed by Tu M’, and a clearly minimalist flag flown over its aesthetic. On the linked video material, Tu M’ reduce the number of colours to one or two shades, and limit the quantity of notes in their improvisations, further underlined by the terse track titles.

    Anyway, despite the minimalist manifesto, and their ostensibly undeveloped nature, I find these Monochromes far from monochromatic. I enjoy their veiled enigmatic quality. One of the videos is of an imperceptibly shifting landscape that gradually changes as ridges rise and fall; it’s so subtle you hardly notice it in its instance of occurrence. It’s a nice illustration of the album’s dynamic: little seems to happen, yet your ears are on guard to pick up the minute microvariations as they come. To tweak an Eno reference, it’s music that can be ignored and remain interesting, but becomes more interesting the less you ignore it (and, incidentally, Tu M’ stake a strong claim here for inclusion among the ranks of Eno’s natural children). There are beautiful sounds here, but they’re deliberately obscured, emplaced with the most liminal of presences.

    Possible discussion point: ‘Monochrome #01′ has been identified by one commentator as a Basinski Disintegration Loops rip-off, and I can kind of see it, but subsequent pieces differ; and there are just as many echoes of other ambienteers – like recent Celer, or the collab by Yui Onodera & The Beautiful Schizophonic. To me, it’s like there’s a shared language (or variety of language) – one of gentle motion and diaphanous timbres – and it doesn’t belong to anyone.

  2. Julian Lewis
    [ Posted October 12, 2009, at 1:34 pm ]

    A few thoughts on ‘Monochromes':

    Tranquil, languid, subtle, Tu M’ exemplify — to these ears — a kind of gentle drone-ambient that is utterly likeable, but not very challenging. Long repeated waves of breathy sound at breathing pace, topped with very gradual accretions & embellishments, do what Eno dictated all those years ago ambient should do: provide an immersive music that works as well in the background as the foreground, & allows the listener to vary their stance to it as mood dictates. He put it infinitely more snappily: “as ignorable as it is interesting”! see http://music.hyperreal.org/artists/brian_eno/MFA-txt.html.

    Foregrounded, the pieces have of course to be accepted on their own terms. Inevitably, their elongation & repetition means that ‘development’ is near-glacial — & limited: more like time spent static than travelling. That feeling is clearly heightened by their being monochromes in the sense of a very restricted palette of tone & mood.

    Although far from revolutionary & strikingly narrow in range, they do reward the substantial investment of time (if not constant attention) they demand… But it’s a bit discomforting to ask what difference it would have made if ‘Monochrome 4′ had come in at 17 minutes, rather than 30?

    Submitting to that artistic call can be quite liberating, of course.

    I know nothing about the group (& am not even totally confident that it is a group…) bar having vaguely noted a traditionally enthusiastic review on Boomkat recently. I’d gladly hear more of ‘their’ music, but a little more colour & contrast would be welcome.

  3. [ Posted October 12, 2009, at 1:44 pm ]

    Tu M’s album is drone-like and monochromatic only out of context — in the broader realm of music, it is certainly monastic, hermetic, insular, and subdued. It certainly emphasizes placidity at the expense of melody or harmony, and sonic development is a matter of materiality not of note-by-note composition. And it certainly sounds singular and bereft of drama — well, maybe not drama, which can run deep, but of histrionics and dramatic contrast.

    But in the realm in which it exists, the rich realm of contemporary drone-craft, there is a source of contrast: Monochromes is downright ornate.

    Drones can be everything from minimalist feedback to warm hums to druidic mantras to ecstatic noise. These drones are pastoral, almost geographic in their intent (the latter an adjective that, admittedly, came to mind after I saw the Monochromes videos, which seem to show far-off vistas).

    Here, each track has a pulse, slow as it may be, that is immediately recognizable and distinguishable, along with a wide range of constituent sonic elements that bring to mind a small chamber ensemble working from a meticulous if demanding score.

    It may simply be that I listen to so many drones these days, that Tu M’s work here comes across — by sheer contrast — as actively, almost traditionally, “beautiful.”

  4. [ Posted October 12, 2009, at 2:13 pm ]

    First off, thanks for joining in. Like several of the records we’re tentatively planning to discuss in the coming weeks, this Tu M’ is one I’ve had on my iPod for some time, and listened to so much, that I’d almost forgotten to make mention of it. It had, almost ambient to a fault, become part of my background; I’d lost sight of it.

    I found it interesting that you both, Alan and Julian, referenced the same Brian Eno axiom about ambient music. I suppose this music is ambient, in that it’s very drone-like, and lacks the hallmarks of more melodic/harmonic music — rock and roll it is not, nor does it evidence the jazz influence of the two previous records we discussed in this group — but I wonder whether other rules or concerns apply more specifically to drones. And if so, what those rules might be.

    To wit, part of my ambivalence about Tu M’s album is that while it is both ignorable and interesting (in Eno’s forumlation), it doesn’t seem to actively promote any interesting tension between those two poles. This may because it is so beautiful, so pretty, that it proves largely absent of tension, even at a loud — i.e., foreground — volume level.

  5. [ Posted October 12, 2009, at 5:04 pm ]

    Interesting discussion so far – this is an album I’m not familiar with yet, but I’m just finishing my first listen after picking the mp3s up from amazon.

    I’d just like to offer a few unstructured comments on Julian’s observation that “it’s a bit discomforting to ask what difference it would have made if ‘Monochrome 4′ had come in at 17 minutes, rather than 30?”

    I agree it’s interesting to explore the role duration plays in the compositional voice of these pieces specifically – and whether the durations are due to the material internal to the pieces, or because of the superposition of an external system of structure, like Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes (and other pieces) where the bar lines and structure come before the notes inside of them…

    After working for a year recording 40 minute conversations for a documentary project, that specific duration started to become really palpable to me – and there was a distinct aesthetic weight that seemed to come from the repetition of that duration to the point that I could really feel the rhythm and cadence of it. This feeling took more than a year of continual practice to emerge, and a few years since I don’t have much more than an echo of that feeling when I sit down with a 40 minute record, or a 60 minute record… This is all to say that I think within the bounds of ‘normal’ listening it probably doesn’t matter if Monochrome 4 is 40 minutes, or 17 minutes – which is probably the uncomfortable element to Julian’s statement.

    It’s a little disconcerting to take any aspect of a focused and carefully composed piece of work and say that it probably doesn’t affect the real DNA of the piece. I’d argue that this is the case here – to a limit – though maybe on further listens the rhythm of these long durations will become more apparent. It seems to me that Monochrome 4 continues to be Monochrome 4 at 17 minutes or 25 minutes. The shorter and more palpable the durations get, or the longer and more unwieldy the duration, the more it seems to me it may affect the cadence of the piece.

    Why? In my case, my relationship to durations less than an hour but longer than say 10 minutes is really tenuous. Time blurs for me in that region (without immense repetition and study as I discovered during that documentary project) and I doubt I could feel out the difference in rhythm of a 20 or 25 minute cycle in a blind test without spending a long time preparing myself.

    What are your impressions of the role these long-but-not-immensely-long durations play? I think Julian is right in highlighting this as an interesting problematic for sure. Duration, especially in music that moves at such a glacial pace, seems to me to be strangely both completely elemental to these compositions and completely arbitrary and mutable.

  6. [ Posted October 13, 2009, at 2:26 pm ]

    There is much more melody in Monochromes Vol. 1 than might at first be apparent — at least than was at first apparent to me. With Julian’s comment, and then Erik’s welcome further reflection, on the issue of length in mind, I focused entirely on the album’s first track this morning.

    The track in question, “Monochrome 01,” is 15 minutes long, and I listened to it on repeat for the near-hour it takes me to get from home to work. This wasn’t a chore; it was a pleasure. Today is an especially rainy and windy day in San Francisco, by far the rainiest and windiest day of the year thus far, so despite my noise-cancelling earphones, and the fact that I was playing Monchromes at its highest volume, I could still very much hear the world through the lovely sonic-vellum scrim of Tu M’s music.

    At first this was distracting — the rough anarchic wind was a layer of noise that kept me from focusing on the music, as was the constant interruption of snatches of conversation as people on the bus jockeyed for a seat and cursed Mother Nature, their water-logged shoes, and their neighbors’s umbrellas.

    Not despite the interruptions, but because of them, I came to locate in “Monochromes 01″ something I’d been vaguely aware of, but hadn’t really thought about in depth, which is to say hadn’t really consciously considered. There’s a gentle, four-note pattern (what in the world of music beyond ambient drones might be called a “melody,” or at least a “riff”) that rocks back and forth throughout the piece. This four-note bit is what keeps the track from being buried in the day’s noise, and what cements concentration despite surrounding invasive conversation. I’ll never listen to “Monochrome 01″ again the same way as I had before this morning, even on a quiet day, when there isn’t the slightest breeze.

  7. [ Posted October 13, 2009, at 2:48 pm ]

    Erik, many thanks for responding on that idea of duration & arbitrariness. No doubt Tu M’s artistic judgement about how long each piece should go on was, precisely, based on their assessment of that “distinct aesthetic weight” & the piece’s cadence that you mention – but as artists like Scanner &, yes, Eno start to make use of the iPhone to offer loops that listeners can run for however long they like, it’s kind of interesting to imagine the Monochromes released in that endless format.

    I’d relish the opportunity that would give to take artistic control of the pieces. Of course, I can already achieve much of this ‘control’ just by forwarding to the next track, but that’s a different form of engagement with the music (most obviously, I can’t easily make it longer than Tu M’ originally determined).

    [By the way, if anyone’s not heard Scanner’s newly-released & currently free ‘Whisper’ for iPhone/iPod Touch (http://bit.ly/sP8oU), I recommend it highly – a haunting, moody loop that feels (to me, anyway) like an ultra-modern conception & delivery of music…]

    Another angle on this. For marketing reasons, I guess, Tu M’ put an 8:16 “excerpt” of the unreleased Monochromes 00 up online – Marc also made it part of this page. Since we don’t know how long the full version is intended to be, we can only take the excerpt on its merits (it’s as beguiling as the rest, with an occasional sliver of muffled echo that reminds me somewhat of Chris McNamara’s ‘Vague Cities’).

    To weigh the excerpt against an unavailable but by definition longer full version, I’d like to have it on an iPhone-type loop. Then I could feel my own way to its perfect, Platonic length – if one exists!

    Oh, & a final twist for anyone hardy enough to have hung on this long: although termed an excerpt by Tu M’, the online version of Monochromes 3 is the same length as the Line release (7:05).

    So perhaps the online 00 is the full version, after all? This matters, not for train-spotting [sorry if that’s only a UK term…] reasons but because the listener who knows that surely then reacts to the piece in a less provisional way – which surely counts for something in such an immersive, non-linear style of music?

  8. [ Posted October 14, 2009, at 4:02 pm ]

    Though I can appreciate Erik’s and Julian’s interest in durational aspects of Monochromes, it’s not something that occurred to me as particularly salient in relation to the work. I guess this could be indicative of differing focuses and interests. To declare an interest, I’m more interested in sound colour and perspective than other (let’s call them) ‘conceptual’ aspects of ambient/experimental music. In re: duration, I’m quite used to dealing with extended (distended?) tracks, like, off the top of my head, some of Steve Roach’s releases which have taken up the whole one disc with a single 70+ minute track, or, closer to home, Eno’s Thursday Afternoon, which lasts exactly an hour. It seems to me the duration is either, as in the aforementioned cases, a question of the limits imposed by how much can fit onto a CD, or by a seemingly arbitrary decision on the artist’s part.

    I suppose what I want to say is that whether the decision to make Monochrome #4 30 minutes rather than, say, 17, or indeed 67, was determined or arbitrary is, with all due respect, not something I find especially compelling. I’m more taken by things like Marc’s chance retrieval of buried melody on Monochrome #1, and the potential in such occluded music for the listener to create for him/herself a different track in each act of listening, as a result of differing contexts of listening.

    Personally, I’ve heard this album differently every time I’ve played it, and part of its considerable appeal has been that it didn’t give itself completely to me, but revealed parts of itself by degrees in different periods of access, allowing for each listening experience to be somehow unique. And I think this has something to do with the sound design sleight of hand on the part of Tu M’ – in their choice and deployment of certain timbres and effacement of what would otherwise be ‘figure’ below ‘ground’/’field’. I guess the reviewer in me would reach for the word ‘spectral’. It’s nothing new, but it’s done very well here, I think.

  9. [ Posted October 14, 2009, at 4:09 pm ]

    Suspect I’m still not quite as entranced by it as the others (perhaps, to invert that Eno quote Alan & I both reached for, it’s very slightly more ignorable than interesting for me….)

    But I also want to acknowledge how the lyricism in this discussion – especially in Marc’s discovery of 01’s four-note underpinning, but also in his earlier locating of the album at the ornate end of the drone spectrum & in Alan’s idea of a “shared language” – speaks to Monochromes’ unarguable loveliness when not “ignored”!

  10. [ Posted October 14, 2009, at 6:29 pm ]

    As I mentioned in one of our earlier MP3 Discussion Groups this year, it’s often the case for me that the more I focus on an album, the more I find interesting about it. Albums when probed tend to initiate questions — they provide not clues, because they’re not meant to be solved necessarily, but hints, hints at how pieces relate, what means led to the accomplishments at hand, what the musicians were aiming for in the first place, and whether the finished material is where they were headed or something else discovered while en route.

    The more I listen to Monochromes, the more I hear the melodies buried deep in the noise, and the melodies serving as a structure that contains the noise. I find that I have to choose between those readings, and then I find myself focusing on the album’s cover, which I read as a distant mountain obscured by haze — and I wonder if it isn’t the most simple, straightforward visual metaphor for what Tu M’ were after.

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