The Elemental Abstractions of Thomas Köner’s Novaya Zemlya

After a long silence - the endless summer truce - we are coming back today with something quite unusual in these columns: an album review. Some recent musical works spectacularly arouse a profound idea of geographical desolation in the listener's mind, a music sometimes called 'isolationist' by music journalists. We've always been intrigued by this relationship between music and a precise representation of space. That's precisely on which Hisham Awada long-standing Peur Bleue's friend, wrote a first article analyzing the elemental abstractions stunningly reached by Thomas Köner in his last work Novaya Zemlya (2012).

Hisham is a writer based in Beirut. His work investigates the intersections between philosophy, film, and sound. He completed an MA in Aural and Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths College, London in 2011.

The Elemental Abstractions of Thomas Köner’s Novaya Zemlya 

 “If there is an actor in Too Early, Too Late, it’s the landscape. This actor has a text to recite: History (the peasants who resist, the land which remains), of which it is the living witness. The actor performs with a certain amount of talent: the cloud that passes, a breaking loose of birds, a bouquet of trees bent by the wind, a break in the clouds; this is what the landscape’s performance consists of. This kind of performing is meteorological. One hasn’t seen anything like it for quite some time. Since the silent period, to be precise.” 

 – Serge Daney on Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet's Too Early, Too Late 

Thomas Köner’s Novaya Zemlya, released in 2012, is in the manner of Straub and Huillet’s essay film Too Early, Too Late, an exhumation project. The album is a sonic triptych designed as a probe rather than as a document. A field recording project that taps into the topographies but also the history of an archipelago in the Arctic ocean known as Novaya Zemlya, the record summons specters of human intervention, namely the detonation of the largest nuclear device ever detonated, but the expanses of precarious stillness that fill the three tracks evokes a geography that precedes human activity altogether, an unpopulated vista governed by an elemental choreography of wind, water, and earth. 

Opening with a series of thunderous yet muffled detonations reverberating in vacuum, the first track delineates the auditory attention that the record demands from the listener: a swelling of the senses, a hypertrophic ear. A pointillist precision, and a simultaneously downcast and ominous mood characterize the three pieces that bring to mind the electronic soundtrack composed by Eduard Artemyev for Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972), a cold war fiction set against the nuclear horizon. Artemyev animates the ocean of the planet Solaris, which a scientist in the film describes as a “substance capable of thought processes”, with a demonic rumble and a gaseous flow of crystalline tones fabricated using the ANS synthesizer, giving the liquid that bubbles and oozes on the planet’s surface a kind of malevolent intelligence, an ambient horror that threatens to mutate into a deafening incursion at any moment. 

Novaya Zemyla is sculpted with an inorganic sonic matter similar to that of Artemyev. Köner abandons a naturalist or documentary approach to natural elements in favor of a synthetic aural translation, an aerial malady by which electricity taps into the wind and disfigures it. The album finds Köner composing for heat, humidity, temperature, and density, constructing an ecology of sound that does not proceed by a method of mimesis either, by which, for example, tempo mimics the movement of a river stream, or a situation whereby the intensity of the wind is indexed with the quantity of distortion. Instead, he draws what Gilles Deleuze calls, in reference to the effect of the panning shots in Too Early, Too Late, an “ abstract curve of what happened”. Köner lays out in sound a lacunary landscape in which changes in volume, washes of static, and melodic undercurrents interact to render a place mineral, quiet yet alive with the motion of a soft torrent.

A faint narrative, a dramatic arc, trails across the three tracks. If there’s a story lurking beneath the thick air of Novaya Zemlya, it is one that bypasses causality and chronology, constructing instead a geological drama punctuated by ephemeral human traces. The first track expands like a microscopic geological study. Aquatic movement, tectonic activity, and glacial wind smoothly splinter into an ethereal electronic howl before a stifled melancholy tone slips into the air. The second track plunges the listener even deeper into the earth. The detonations become almost indistinct, rippling like amorphous mental images. Köner intensifies his process of effacement by unleashing a slithering radiophonic static and an onslaught of metallic voices, uprooted from radio communications and synthesized into the cold. The third and final piece is the album’s most textural and cinematic piece. It is as if the elements of the first two tracks are stripped down into marks of pure presence. Weather becomes theorized as a gush of hiss, a melody is cloaked in an ocean of soft noise, made almost inaudible, and a voice cracks into nothing but a strenuous breath, concluding Köner‘s experiment in processed elementalism.

(This piece will be followed by an examination of Thomas Köner and Andy Melville’s Biokinetics and a study of biological imagery in Techno)

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