JUNK & THE BEAST: PETR VRBA & VERONIKA MAYERTrailer
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Petr Vrba explores non-idiomatic improvisation using trumpets, clarinets, vibrating speakers and other electronics which made him one of the most active experimental musicians in Prague. He works with a lot of projects like Prague Improvisation Orchestra, Poisonous Frequencies, NOIZ, Doppeltrio, Rouilleux and Junk & The Beast.
Veronika Mayer is a composer, musician and sound artist from Vienna. Pure sounds, natural given phenomena and material are the basis for her work, always emphasizing hardly perceptible elements, giving it a reduced but essential form and very clear structures, following the characteristics and inner behaviour of the sound itself. In her electronic performances and instrumental works she explores the continuous evolvement and expansion of single grains of sound. Focusing on the striking results of very smooth and minimal changes in sound manipulation, she observes the slightest differences and variations during these processes of manipulation.
“Trailer” researches the combination of textural materials crossing them with vibrations of objects on the speakers, pure sound waves, feedbacks, tones coming from trumpet, accordion, electronics, and laptop culminating in creation of a muscular frenetic soup and tense energy fields.
So for the next one I decided to pick one that looked a bit puzzling. Is the artist Junk & The Beast, or is Petr Vrba and Veronika Mayer; or perhaps both? Very vaguely, somewhere in the back of my head it said that I heard these names before. Vrba hails from Prague is a trumpet player, clarinet player and he also uses vibrating speakers and in one piece thermos flasks, whereas Mayer is from Vienna and plays electronics and accordion. They are both active as composers, improvisers and sound artists. On ‘Trailer’ they explore the “combination of textural materials crossing them with vibrations of objects on the speakers, pure sound waves, feedbacks, tones coming from trumpet, accordion, electronics and laptop, culminating in creation of muscular frenetic soup and tense energy fields”. As much as the Lehn/Schmickler release is a burst of energy, this is the all-silent approach, the Zen listening experience. The music here, spread out over four pieces is all about controlling a few sounds, carefully balancing them, letting them hang around and then slowly playing them out. Scratching the surface sounds perhaps negative, but that’s what they do. They touch, lightly upon a surface, whether this is the surface of their instrument(s) or tables, floors or whatever, being made audible by speakers emitting low-end frequencies, and adding very sparse sounds produced by hands and mouths. This is not music one can put on for some pleasant background sound, but something for your full and unlimited concentration, so that it can unfold all that is hidden in here. Very beautiful, and one feels very tired yet rewarded afterwards.
In JUNK & THE BEAST begegnen mir die Wiener Klanggranulatorin Veronika Mayer (an Electronics & Akkordeon) und der in BA mit "Esox Lucius" eingeführte tschechische Impro-Hecht Petr Vrba (an Trompete, Klarinette & Vibrating Speakers). Trailer (mikroton cd 58) zeigt die beiden bei der Wahrnehmung absoluter Redefreiheit, allerdings im Ameisenmaßstab einer unglaublich geschrumpften Welt. So dass man sich dem Luftzug und Spuckefluss von Vrbas Tröten ausgesetzt sieht wie mit zwei Extrembergsteigern, die ein Wetterumschwung zwingt, sich an der Wand festzuzurren, von Eis umschiefert und umknarzt und mit Sauerstoffmangel als der falschen Droge. Vrba, der in Poisonous Frequencies weit heftigere Seiten zeigt, beeindruckt hier mit wie maßstabsverschoben aufgeblasenen Schmauchspuren, die hautnah ans Existenzielle heranführen. Bei 'A.I.R. Pressure' reichen die beiden Thermoskannen rum, aber da ist einem, bibbernd ausgesetzt auf den Bergen des Wahnsinns, auch schon das halbe Hirn abgefroren und die Sinne darauf fixiert, dass einfach nur das Blut im Ohr weiter tuckert und der Lebensmotor surrt, dass meinetwegen der ganze Berg mitzittert. Aber final zirpt es doch schon arg überirdisch.
Junk & The Beast would make a good name for a crime-fighting duo of superheroes, like Angel And The Ape 1. In reality they are Veronika Mayer and Petr Vrba and their album Trailer (MIKROTON CD 58) is decorated with photographs by Andrea Buettner. At first glance I thought these solid photos were an attempt to update Led Zeppelin’s Presence with images of a mysterious “object” appearing in unlikely places. But then, I think that exact same thing about every album cover I look at. In fact Andrea has photographed plastic ramps which help wheelchairs go up stairs. But she does it with such conviction that she deserves the Hipgnosis plaudits. Trailer itself is a pretty minimal bag of matchsticks, performed with electronics and accordion (VM) and trumpet, clarinet, and vibrating speakers (PV). These instruments are used sparingly, and haltingly. Do we have anything to say, or are we just finding that out? Veronika Mayer in particular is outdoing Jonas Kocher in the minimal-accordion approach, and you can barely hear a wheeze from her restrained bellows. My favourite piece so far is ‘Ant Thriller (Mystery-monger)’ which wins a short story prize for its title alone, and does indeed seem to be telling a detective yarn from the point of view of the ant. Needless to say not much happens in the tale, but our insect chum spends a lot of time trying to unravel the enigma. Humming, rattling, whispers, and peculiar subdued drones are used to concoct this meta-narrative. There’s also ‘A.I.R. Pressure’, memorable for featuring Petr performing with Thermos flasks, a hitherto overlooked item in the improviser’s arsenal. He totally wails on those flasks. While this doesn’t carry the same charge as the Ant track, its slow creaks and burblings will sharpen your eardrums to a fine point, particularly as it gathers momentum and turns into an orchestra of rattling teacups. Vrba comes to us from Prague where he’s a member of the Prague Improvisation Orchestra, while Mayer is from Vienna and appeared in the 2016 Sonic Interventions event at the Kulturdrogerie. These two are all about soundwaves and vibrations, making use of them in whatever way possible – letting these waves of energy redound on speaker cones or on the instruments themselves, pushing out physical blocks of acoustic energy into th’ room.
Mikroton is on a roll. Though, to be fair, Kurt Liedwart’s experimental music label has since its inception maintained an extraordinarily high level of quality control, one that has never wavered in its commitment to documenting the renegades operating within both established genre and along the shifting fringe. But Mikroton’s artists are a prickly bunch: they resist pigeonholing and eke out sometimes (deliberately) uncomfortable listening experiences that insist on sharp focus and intense concentration from the listener. You want your art safe & predictable? Look elsewhere.
Take Junk & the Beast. A duo comprised of Veronika Mayer (electronics, accordion) and Petr Vrba (trumpet, clarinet, electronics), no explanation exists that satisfactorily answers how they arrived at that particular moniker, but, much like the environments they augur, pursuing those answers is meaningless, modus operandis remain obscure, and the entirety smacks of abject mystery, the better to propagate its intentional obfuscation. In this case, Trailer is literally reductionism in extremis. The four tracks present don’t feel composed or even improvised so much as simply exist, as if the sounds are always there, awaiting the attendant media player to just be turned on to allow it all to enter your space. “Ant Thriller (Mystery-monger)” illustrates this with great finesse; it is music not as a collection of melodies or concepts but rather like natural phenomenon, like escaping gas or arcing, multivalent plasma. Objects rubbed, stroked, or made physical with almost mathematical precision suggest molecular disintegration trapped in some primordial cosmos of super-colliding happenstance. The electronic systems utilized can only be guessed at (laptop? emasculated circuit boxes?) Vrba is credited with trumpet, clarinet, and vibrating speakers, and even when the spastic resonances of his horns are discernible, their microcosmic properties become simply mulch in the overall mix.
Junk & the Beast (origins unknown, definitions elusive) seem to think that improvisation is a matter of organic/inorganic algebraic ratios. “The Wrong Drug”, though quasi-hallucinatory on face, artfully blends discrete, hand-forged patterns with literal ‘field’ recordings; the subsequent environment suggests a digi-folk outback where the two bend circuits and fauna alike as if trapped in a Frankensteinian laboratory. Improvisation as archaeology, sound dabbling the excavation of questionable sources; what appears tangible is merely the result of the duo’s knack for disturbing air, both what surrounds them and what passes between our ears in equal measure; like its cinematic counterpart, a grand illusion.