ALBUM REVIEW: Dale Berning – ‘Horse Stories’: spacious, minimal and delightful art soundtrack

IT HAS to be said, there’s been some rather excellent, deep-dive experimental soundtracks emerging over recent months; the place where ambient soundscaping and experimental music meet providing a deeply evocative meshing, which works so well for your own personal movie, it’s only natural that film-makers – well, at least ones with a taste for an aural strand outside the massed orchestral bombast of Hollywood – should be looking to marry their visuals with deeply evocative sound-forging.

In these pages in recent months we’ve enjoyed Aaron Cupples’ Island Of The Hungry Ghosts, the soundtrack for a documentary about a far-flung Australian island, for which the composer built a bespoke stringed drone instrument, the better to elucidate the thrill and the somnolence of the island, spliced with field recordings; Icelandic duo Hugar brought Scandi post-rock and ambient stylings to their soundtrack for The Vasulka Effect; both Clarice Jensen and Shida Shahabi have recently added soundtrack strings to their bows, with a digital EP apiece excerpting specific work on 130701, FatCat’s experimental modern compositional arm.

Which brings us to the rather delicious work of Dale Berning, who was asked to compose the soundtrack for Japanese artist Hiraki Sawa’s psychogeographical art installation film, Going Places Sitting Down, commissioned by the Hayward Gallery on London’s South Bank and exhibited in late 2004, initially.

You can find bits and bobs of Sawa’s piece on YouTube; it’s about the micro-journeying, the kind of worlds you delighted in as a child; the whole continents you could find in a bedspread or a rug or suchlike, the imagination running glorious and fierce. Make-believe journeys to far-away places at the tips of your fingers, between the cracks in the floor, right here where you are.

We’ve found one such excerpt, a mere snippet of a teaser trailer, which seems wholly congruent to this review; it focuses on a toy rocking horse. You’ll find it down at the end there, just beside the how-to-order details; and it dovetails so nicely, since her standalone soundtrack, at a remove from the film, is entitled The Horse Stories.

Dale Berning

With a cohesive approach to the brief, Dale used sounds belonging to the country house and garden in which Sawa filmed: water running in the upstairs bathroom; rain water dripping on the stones outside the kitchen door, sparkling water in a glass on the table, the wind-chime and the clock and the record player; an elaborate antique music-box with bells the shape of bees and a miniature hollow drum, and other simple music boxes, playing only one tune each, tiny naked metallic combs and drums and handles. She then took these tiny, quotidian sound sources away for further investigation, froze them in time, and let the ice of post-processing exploit their natural flaws and crack them open to reveal the interiority of the sound. And as with the film itself, the deep delight comes in imaginatively focusing in on the wonders to be found.

At the core of her work lies a deep interest in space and the awareness of time passing, of breathing and being so, so still. And you really get that from this delightful, delightful record.

Fourteen tracks in all, expressing simple adjectival and noun descriptors as a guide to where we are in the film and on our imaginary microworlds, it was originally issued on London’s Bo’Weavil imprint 16 years ago, with FLAU releasing the first CD of it two years on; and it falls to that Tokyo experimental soundworld label which, amongst others, can count Sylvain Chaveau and the wonderful The Boats among its back catalogue, to reprise this beautiful album once more. Land on it, while you can.

“Vase” is how we begin, contemplating the interior vastness of a simple household urn, and Dale brings beautiful glimmer, barely there at all, putting one in mind of Ryoji Ikeda; so gossamer delicate, so minimal is it. “Room” does share some ground with The Boats, drawing on a tradition of ASMR and the subtle re-engineering of an adept soundscaper to bring out the trembling beauty of a music box, remade for a glitchtronic ear. It ratchets forward on a not-quite-perfect pacing, pausing and clacking; drawing out these inherent qualities of the music box even more delightfully.

“Swimming” has all the tingling click and gleam of a worn record, playing off a childlike shimmer of synth and the glorious and faithfully captured rivulets and drippings and plashings of water; an aural magic that’s repeated a few minutes later on “Shadow Moving”. It’s humble, it has eagle-eyed focus; it’s absolutely beautiful. The two tracks are separated by the bar of “Carpet”, which has the faintest perfume of a jazz-funk summer shimmer in its looped organ riff, delicately broken apart and oozing atmosphere, becoming a much more contemplative microhouse essay, a yearning whimsy to the melody, snug inside tiny percussive textures.

“Another One” has an autumnal folky quality, enamouring rustles and chiming spiralling out from the central melody. There’s abradings, the rubbing of materials in contact, the shuffle of conscious movement. “Piano”, as you might expect, cleaves to the approximation of a keyboard tone, but one shuffled and buried in a chopping, warm intimacy of sound-sparkle; and it’s that glitchy fracture, staccato and pure and enough to make anyone from the ~Scape stable turn their heads, which powers “fireworks” forward.

“Beat” is the track on the album most proximate to a dancefloor, and that’s still a pretty long way, but there is the ethereal ghost of a Basic Channel dub odyssey in this darker patterning and throb. It gives way to “Jungle”, which is so rapt in quietude it almost doesn’t exist at all; like trying to catch a ghost with a butterfly net, it’s so microscopically delicate, windchimes far, far away; a little birdsong; it forces you to listen deeper and harder than you probably have for many a year (devotees of the aforementioned Ryoji Ikeda excepted). It has the unbelievable finery of kirigami. Where it begins and ends is absolute conjecture; the whole world can be this music, you understand.

“Central Heating” is maybe what a marriage of mechanical music inventor Pierre Bastien and his countrywoman Colleen might conceivably elicit, circa the latter’s Les Ondes Silencieuses; pingingly pretty, but also with the happy intrusion of the creak and wheeze of some imagined musical being, part sound, part wood and metal. “Oven” is a wet, wet organscape, that drip and bubble, so bell-clear. As with “Piano”, there’s something of a tidal Jan Jelinek at play here.

The final twin miniature essays are “Ship And Camera”, a placid and quiet journey across some tiny ocean world, joyous and sleepy; Dale’s entirely beguiling soundtrack concludes in “Keyhole”, a bright, cracking fanfare weathered with grain and rumble.

The Horse Stories is humble, in the very best way; it delights in the tiny and the everyday with a surreal wonder. It has eagle-eyed focus; it’s absolutely beautiful. It’s often as close as music can get to absolute quietude while still retaining a sense of melody and spatial wizardry. If you loved the Clicks + Cuts series of compilations, any of the artists mentioned above, such as Ryoji Ikeda, Colleen or Jan Jelinek; The Boats, Alva Noto, any of these artists who travel deep into the magical, miniaturised web of pure sound, then this record is so, so top of your shopping list. Bravo, FLAU, for making it available again.

Dale Berning’s The Horse Stories will be rereleased by FLAU digitally, on CD and LP on February 17th; you can order your copy direct from the label’s Bandcamp page, here.

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