Mute Frequencies ~ Svalbard Soundtracks
Written by ELF Radio (Team) on 27.10.2023
Music criticism has historically under-valued the role context and framing play in influencing the space of listening— knowing a piece of music was composed in relationship to images inevitably colors how one interprets its sound.
The horn-like drone that enters in the second minute of “Further North There Is Only the North Pole,” the second track on Mute Frequencies Svalbard Soundtracks, for example, might be heard entirely differently if one knew that the composition in which it is embedded is meant to serve as the soundtrack for a 1976 Soviet film documenting the workers at a Soviet mine. Ditto the rhythmic beeping that follows. With that knowledge the horn might become that of a work-site or a mining ship, the beeps the sound of a signal.
Mute Frequencies is the sound art project of Ilia Rogatchevski and Laura Rogatchevskaia. The three pieces that comprise the duo’s latest album, Svalbard Soundtracks, were each “inspired” by a short, silent documentary about the remote Svalbard region of Northern Norway.
The compositions cover a lot of sonic ground, shifting abruptly between musical genres and styles, reference and abstraction. Guitar and synthesizer are prominent but drones and field recordings are also present. It’s hard to get one’s bearings but the surprising transitions do recall the equally rapid shifts between sequences in nature documentaries.
“Further North” is the most nostalgic of the pieces, much of its heavily synthetic palette easily evoking the sound of 1970s library music and public television. The second composition, “Spitsbergen,” aims to soundtrack a 1958 Polish documentary which instead of focusing on labor, documents the land and the animals and plants that inhabit it. It’s a sparser piece, more soundscape than music. Like in “Further North” the compositions shift abruptly between sounds, most themes lasting under a minute. Metallic scratching and beats, for example, give way to ethereal periods of lush, gentle synthesizer. It is also for the most part a darker piece, almost Lynchian at times in its deep, growl-like distortion, echoey reverb, and sustained tones.
In “Spitsbergen” as well as in the final work, “A Trip to Svalbard,” natural sounds and field recordings of water and perhaps animals also surface. In the final piece the minimalist instrumentation of the duo is augmented by another collaborator, Kitsuné Rogatchevskaia, who purportedly plays Coolicon lampshades, tubular bells, and other objects. The final film is described as depicting “stories of hostile weather, hunting, heroic men and mining detonations,” images evoked through rapid tonal shifts between harsh drones, melancholy synthesizers, the aforementioned tubular bells, and the record’s only sounds of the human voice— one looped in an endlessly interrupted melody, another joined by a chorus in a lovely song.
Short-form documentaries are an interesting form. Their brevity is often taken as a license to experiment. Often less oriented around narrative, they privilege instead the creation of a mood or an idea. The three compositions on the Svalbard Soundtracks may have been designed to accompany three films from very different times but just as the place they document remains the same, the Mute Frequencies own sonic style and the instruments they rely on allow the pieces too to obtain a sense of sameness even in their difference. (Jennifer Smart)
Music criticism often overlooks the influence of context and framing on how we interpret sound, as demonstrated by Mute Frequencies’ new album.