ALBUM REVIEW: Olivier Alary and Johannes Malfatti – ‘u,i’: beautifully humanist post-classicism, listening to the world talk to itself

ISDN, fibre-optics, the web. Sharing platforms, Skype, Facebook, Zoom; instantaneous transmission, the world shrunk to a pebble’s dimension. Our modern world, and especially the broader swathe of this fractured year 2020 would be unimaginable without it.

And the latest offering from FatCat’s ever-intriguing leftfield imprint, 130701, a collaboration between Montreal-based Toulousain Olivier Alary and Berlin’s Johannes Malfatti, owes its existence to this hyperconnectivity, not only on a level of basic communication – three thousand miles of the Atlantic between them – but also, vitally, both in terms of concept and sonic execution.

The fruits of these transatlantic dialogues and their first co-billing on a release, u,i, is set for release this Friday.

Friends of many years, Olivier and Johannes first began talking of the possibilities of the virtual studio space a decade and a half hence: could such a thing exist somewhere within the 3,700 miles between their respective home cities? The answer initially came in the form of voice over internet protocols (VOIPs) such as Skype.

Skype proved an ideal real-time discussion portal for the two, allowing a friendship of many years to grow; but it proved less useful in terms of sonic fidelity. It reduced shared musical ideas with distortion and imperfections. Almost as an in-joke they began to archive these failed sonic transmissions. Eventually, heard in detachment from their original intentions, the error-beauty of these files became clear: thus in the forge of the happy accident was u,i, born. 

Olivier explained: “The first recordings we made were so unrecognizable from the original sources that they seemed to spontaneously emerge … even instantly recognizable sounds such as piano, voice or organ had lost all original characteristics.

“We were using the VOIP applications like a plug-in, altering the sound by transmitting it across continents, through countless servers and undersea cables.” 

Further investigations of this transmissive flaw led to the creation of a feedback delay system between Montreal and Berlin, creating a cross-continental effects rig. Further explorations of rival messenger apps revealed different flaws generated in the sharing; they began to shift between them to give different acoustic coloration to a project gaining real vivacity.

But the resulting soundscape is both fragile and warm, and exceedingly human. To begin, “Somewhere” – (everywhere?) – a button is depressed, you can hear someone’s respiration; a six-note piano motif unfolds at the pace of a beating heart, strengthens. There is that indefinable, open ambience of … life, as a lower counterpoint gives a little muscle; as drone and electronic grain expand and give texture. Whoah. 

“I Can’t Even See Myself”, detachment and distance, a so-2020 trait, right there, titular: it begins with a captured voice, discorporeal, fragments of melody and song cracked like a mirror, the aural image imperfect but all the more affecting for its patination. Strings mark the movement of the piece. It’s too easy to pick out such detached voices and mention that music has a right to children; but here the obverse emotional effect is at play. It’s warm, it’s connected, we hear a world about its business rather than frozen in some eerie electronic cellar. 

I find “Alone, Singing” incredibly moving. There’s such depth to the drone sustain, which carries a human note chopped and fractured and yet still wholly flesh; as if heard on a long wave transmission, dial a fraction out. The music seems only to serve as a birth-swaddling for this lost soul. “My Night, My Day” has an almost subaquatic feel, as electronics burble and chatter and a mantric voice is ghosted beneath telecommunicative texture. “Interlaced” is all distant whispers and depth. You have to bathe in music this layered. Burrow down, at volume.

Although it nominally camps in post-classical, this album has much bigger reach and intention. I hear much in this album that reminds me of moments on Global Communications’ massively underrated 90s’ British ambient masterpiece 76:14, for instance. At yet others, the Rachel’s of Systems/Layers. Somewhere in those deep-sea optics, Olivier and Johannes discovered a new perspective on a humanity trying as ever, to talk with itself.

Think also Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth: life can be so hard. This year is almost certainly the hardest we’ve known. And yet: we endure. u, i, is a study of a world still about its business. We need to hear this. We’re all here

If, like me, you’re someone with a lifelong jones for music – and given you’ve accompanied me this far into this album’s words, you likely are – you’ll have had labels with which you can develop an almost symbiotic relationship. They have incredible streaks; they become imprints on which you know you can pick up a release on the trust of the name alone, knowing that they carry a quality and aesthetic and joy you’re wholly in step with. For me, at certain periods, I can number Creation, Ninja Tune and Kranky among that company. No doubt you’ll have your own. 

It would seem, with the recent album by Dmitry Efgrafov, Surrender, and the Yair Elazar Glotman and Mats Erlandsson collaboration, Emanate, 130701 is certainly among that number.

Olivier Alary and Johannes Malfatti’s u,i will be released by 130701 on September 25th, and will be available on digital and vinyl formats. Order yours here.

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