Sounds Heard: Ingram Marshall and Jim Bengston—Alcatraz and Eberbach

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Perhaps it’s a symptom of our sensory-overloaded lives, but I have a special appreciation for musical works that also offer a visual focus point. Like a mandala, such pairings, when done well, can be more of an attention enhancer than a distraction.

In both Alcatraz and Eberbach, the two audio/visual compositions by Ingram Marshall (composer) and Jim Bengston (photographer) included on a recent surround-sound DVD release from Starkland, the artists offer an especially effective marriage of these two realms. The visual poetry of the architectural images provides a rich compliment to the aural landscape. Taken together, they arrive like a series of postcards relaying vivid, complex impressions of places—perhaps sent by residents now long gone.

Alcatraz opens with a long display of the infamous California prison island positioned off in the inky darkness, the light from its tower beckoning while brooding piano lines rock us rapidly forward with a liquid rush and flow. From here, images of the grounds of the penitentiary dissolve in and out of the frame, in compliment with the audio scoring but without either party reduced to a slavish game of follow the leader. Delineated by brief audio pauses between the eight movements, the work takes the listener deeper and deeper into the prison, the piano lines leaving to make way for a music built of foot falls and cell doors slamming. Processed vocals intoning about regulations and the clanking of harbor bells further put us in this place, haunted moans and decaying cells cinching the experiential noose even tighter. Towards the end of the piece, the piano returns again, and when we are let outside, the vibrant green of the grass is a shocking relief. Electronic sounds seem to suggest a certain joy and optimism as we are invited to gaze across the Bay towards urban civilization and take a deep breath.

Moving on to the second piece on the disc, Eberbach, do not adjust your volume. This time we are visiting a German monastery, and Marshall allows the sounds of the countryside and ringing church bells to patiently creep in, later accompanied by delicate, wind-like (though seemingly human) vocalizations. These voices that are not quite voices color the start and end of the work, mixed with other drones and chirping birds. The music at the center of the piece is more obviously instrumental, with Bengston apparently stepping in to play some of the material that Marshall recorded on-site and later processed. The images move from detail to detail, the dissolve transitions often making a geometric commentary of their own.

Alcatraz was by no means in your face with its narrative, but Eberbach seems to be an even more subtle and nuanced presentation. No people appear in the landscapes of either piece, but perhaps it’s possible to read both as haunted spaces in a sense, echoing still with the experiences and activities of different ghosts.

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