Joseph Nechvatal Selected Sound Works (1981-2021) Pentiments
Reviewed by Dave Mandl in The Wire November 2021 (Issue 453), pp. 70-72
Selected Sound Works brings together 40 years of the sound art recordings of noise composer and conceptual artist Joseph Nechvatal. Arguably a pioneer in the field, Nechvatal was cofounder, in 1983, of the seminal experimental cassette series Tellus; collaborated with such Downtown avant garde mainstays as Glenn Branca, Rhys Chatham and Barbara Ess in the early 1980s; and produced work at Harvestworks’ Public Access Synthesizer Studio (PASS) in its formative years, around the same time.
Nechvatal’s early sound collages and musique concrète pieces evoke a grittier and more hyperactive Pierre Schaeffer, with the occasional more recognisably musical stretch along the lines of the hybrid music/tape work of early 70s Franco Battiato. Field recordings and snippets of decontexualised dialogue from films and television, often contorted beyond recognition, crop up in random spots and at blinding speed, alongside samples of Nechvatal’s own guitar and synthesizer playing, and other sources we can only guess at. While Nechvatal seems to use the term plunderphonics rather loosely, “How To Kill”, a frenetic assault on Janet Jackson’s “Nasty”, is unmistakably John Oswald-esque, as is “Excerpt I From Reckless”, a wildly stuttering James Brown cut-up. “Excerpt II From Reckless”, presumably an anti-war piece, includes an extended audio blitzkrieg via gunfire and whizzing missiles, striking me as a kind of contemporary sonic counterpart to Picasso’s Guernica.
Most of Nechvatal’s more recent work, like the visual art he has been producing in the last couple of decades, employs custom written computer software and viral techniques – for example, using algorithms to control the replication and decay of various sonic elements in his compositions. Not to denigrate the early work, but the 2000s pieces, which are more obviously electronic and world fit comfortably in the category of computer music, seem more mature in their clearly advanced use of technology as well as their more laconic pace and less jagged, digital sound. But Nechvatal’s thumbprint can be detected just as clearly in these, and the two broad periods of his work complement each other nicely.