John Cage once wrote that during a certain period in his life,
I was disturbed both in my private life and in my public life as a composer. I could not accept the academic idea that the purpose of music was communication, because I noticed that when I conscientiously wrote something sad, people and critics were often apt to laugh. I determined to give up composition unless I could find a better reason for doing it than communication. I found this answer from Gira Sarabhai, an Indian singer and tabla player: The purpose of music is to sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences.
I have long loved this definition of music, but caveat emptor: it says nothing about melody, harmony, or rhythm. The music of Cage and those who follow him posits that music is everywhere, if only we drop our preconceptions about what it should sound like long enough to listen.
That is the implicit contention of these two discs by Herbert Distel. Although the second disc bears titles that suggest a classical level of compositon, both discs operate on the level of "found sounds." One wonders if the elaborate titles on disc two are meant to mock the whole idea of composition, aimed at pointing out how tenuous indeed is the distinction between sounds made by human artifice and sounds made by other means.
To be sure, there is purposeful sound here: back in the mix (and sometimes in front), wafting in the background, one can hear voices, even singers occasionally, and much of the drifting machine and animal sounds may be produced purposefully for this occasion. The first disc was recorded during a 1984 train ride, and it partakes liberally of industrial noise. Still, the effect here and elsewhere is a dreamlike mist of sound, sobering and quieting the mind in a fashion that would make Cage proud. It establishes refrains that in almost any context a listener would regard as non-musical, but which here, and in conjunction with others, creates a hypnotic reverie. Act One of "La Stazione" works up some offbeat vocal rhythms toward the end of its 26-minute run. They are peculiarly affecting, somewhat like reading a page of Finnegan's Wake without knowing what is going on.
Railnotes is certainly not for everyone. As I was listening to it a friend came in to my office and said, "I thought there was water running, or that something was broken. . . " I trust Mr. Distel would not be insulted; rather, he might have taken the opportunity to point out that if you listen, there is music even in those things.
Personnel: Composed by Herbert Distel. Produced by Thomas Adank.