'Archive 2007-2008' represents the activities of the Seoul-based Relay collective, a small but extremely focused group of improvisers active between 2005 and 2008. Initially performing to a very select audience on an entirely DIY, unsupported basis, the liner notes acknowledge Relay member Ryu Hankil's efforts to secure funding from the then South Korean government, after which the collective was able to shift away from its seemingly insular focus towards forging links with kindred spirits from Japan and Europe, including big-hitters such as Otomo Yoshihide and John Butcher. Since disbanding, key members of Relay have broadened their audience further through performances in mainland Europe, New York and London.
Relay’s modus operandi was to create new instruments by modifying old pieces of technology – Choi Joonyong’s deconstructed playback devices (old tape players, radios, mobile phones and the like), Jin Sangtae’s manipulated computer hard drives, Ryu Hankil’s clockwork parts and speakers and Hong Chulki’s cartridge-less turntables (along with expat Seoul resident Joe Foster’s trumpet with delay pedal) typify the approach, and are the most prolific contributors here. While the new technology of which South Korea is a renowned hub is also put to some use – obsolete junk sharing the stage with state-of-the-art laptops – the emphasis is more on the analogue sounds rather than their digital treatments.
The resulting music has an ostensibly austere aesthetic which could superficially be placed within the ‘minimalist’ or ‘noise’ genres, but on closer listening neither label is adequate. The Relay players have developed an impressive array of improvisational strategies which sets their music apart from any one particular improv camp: significant buildups of layered noise abruptly cut to silence before more spacious material is introduced; soft, sustained tones are juxtaposed against the oscillating whirrs and clicks generated by the hardware; repeated or completely static ideas are allowed to cohabit with irrational gestures; forensic attention to the most minute of sonic detail is off-set by an extreme appreciation of space; there are glitchy, aggressive and highly interactive exchanges here too.
Alongside the Relay improvisers there are several guest appearances, from the local through neighbouring Japan to mainland Europe and Scandinavia. Seoul resident Bonnie Jones forms the duo English with Joe Foster, while Iida Katsuaki adds spoken word to the end of one piece with regular collaborator Hankil (check out their ‘Selected Poems with Clockwork’ on the Manual label). Toshimaru Nakamura contributes his ‘no-input mixing board’, a way of producing and manipulating feedback, to a stunning duo with Park Seungjun, one of the most impressive tracks on show. Berlin-based clarinettist Kai Fagaschinski makes a visit, pitting his harsh altissimo squeals and soft multiphonics against the white noise of Joonyong and Chulki’s hardware. Laptopists Dieb13, Klaus Filip and Noid of Vienna-based collective Klingt (www.klingt.org) also appear, fitting so neatly into the Relay aesthetic that their contributions aren’t easily separable from those of the regulars. By contrast, Mats Gustafsson’s appearance on baritone saxophone begins with a 5-minute blast of his trademark overblowing, way on top of the group sound; Sangtae and Joonyong respond in kind, building up the most dense accumulation of noise in the entire set with little assistance from their guest, before the three arrive at a sustained, breathy consensus.
While the various duos and trios that constitute the majority of ‘Archive 2007-2008’ demonstrate the full range of Relay’s collective vocabulary, in the two larger ensemble tracks which bookend the collection (a quintet and a 10-piece respectively) reduction is key. The opening quintet piece results in significantly less sound than any of the duos or trios; the concept is then taken to extremes in the large ensemble closer: several minutes pass before any of the 10 participants even make a sound, and even then the interventions last only a few seconds, presumably the outcome of some pre-performance discussion.
Aside from the variety of improvisational approaches on show here and the interest generated by how the sounds are actually produced, these recordings are simply really refreshing. They have at least as much to do with the joy of exploring sound as they do with more cerebral concerns, and add up to a fascinating document of a completely unique scene, the key artists of which continue to plough their respective furrows.