Like the seminal Swans album, this column contains an eclectic collection of experimental music recommendations, all of which provide sonic landscapes for the listener to lose themselves within. Expect offerings from the genres of ambient, drone, electroacoustic, free improvisation, post-minimalism and more.
There’s nothing quite like being surprised by a surprise. First, you’re surprised by the unexpected surprise, then you’re surprised by what you didn’t expect to expect. Or something like that. Anyway…
Not a week after I first listened to Jan Jelinek‘s seminal debut Loop-Finding-Jazz-Records, my friend happened to see the album playing on my Spotify page and asked if I was excited about his latest project. Considering Loop‘s excellent synthesis of glitch, ambient techno and microhouse, I was definitely interested in what Zwischen would have to offer. The album is one of those classics that reveals to listeners why it became an essential listen; nearly two decades after its releases, Loop still sound as forward-thinking as it likely did back in 2001, and it’s clear how influential the album was an continues to be.
Of course, as my intro hinted toward, Zwischen doesn’t continue this style; not in the slightest. Having never heard any of Jelinek’s other albums, I can’t speak to how the album fits into the evolution of his career as a producer. But analyzed solely as an individual collection of songs, Zwischen is an extraordinarily interesting collection of soundscapes that’s unlike anything I’ve heard before. Sure, there are shades of genres I’ve become accustomed to over the years, and the general concept of the album is simple enough to grasp even before pressing play. But the actual listening experience is a remarkable foray into the neverending question facing experimental music: what are music’s limits, and does it even have any? At just under a half-hour and enthralling from front to back, it’s well worth your time to listen to Zwischen and answer that question for yourself.
In German, “zwischen” can either mean “between” or “among” (or betwixt, if you’re into Medieval verbiage). It’s a fitting title, as these dozen tracks crafted by Jelinek fall somewhere between ambient glitch (music) and sound collage by way of spoken word (art – depending on your definition). Just a glance at the track listing will surely cause the first rise of the eyebrow among listeners, what with long, winding sentences bearing the names of celebrities like John Cage, Slavoj Žižek, Lady Gaga, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Yoko Ono. Though potentially the setup for a game of Party Quirks, the actual method behind Jelinek’s madness is far more intriguing. Produced for German public broadcaster SWR2, each of the tracks on Zwischen is a unique sound poetry collage composed with interview answers from the public figures mentioned in each track. Sound weird? It certainly is, and much more.
Frankly, none of the tracks on Zwischen are particularly complex. Amid whirrs and pops of ambient glitch pop out chopped and screwed vocal snippets, obviously varying from track to track depending on the current speaker. Yet, there’s so much more to the album that lies in the journey present not just within each track, but the album as a whole. To be honest, Zwischen is surprisingly unsettling and often downright creepy. It sounds like a malfunctioning radio suddenly sprung to life while the listener made their way through an abandoned chateau somewhere far removed from civilization. The listener vaguely recognizes some of the voices from pop culture and modern society, but in the current context, it feels oddly inhuman and possessed, as if remnants of the world are slowly flashing by in the final moments of life. And of course, as with any lowercase-adjacent release, the use of space and pacing is crucial to the album success. Elongated pauses and the irregular movement on sound make for a listen that feels constantly suspenseful without any relief in sight.
Again, with such an intriguing concept and a short runtime, there isn’t much needed to invest in the journey offered by Zwischen. If nothing else, it’s pretty neat to think that you’ll leave the album being able to reference Lady Gaga and glitch music in the same sentence, something I personally never expected to do. In all seriousness, Jelinek proves to me just how versatile and creative he is as a computer. And to think, all I’ve heard are the bookends to a robust career of experimental electronic music. I guess there’s a third surprise at play here – the upcoming surprises of what else can be discovered in Jelinek’s discovery. If you’re a Jelinek-noob like myself, I highly recommend diving into his career headfirst. He’s clearly a fountain of innovation that will continue to prove essential to the evolution of electronic music for years to come.