Review – Flowers, (Dragons’ Eye Recordings) 2010 – by Tobias Fisher, tokafi

Flowers – Compilation ( on line DER) 2010

To some, this anniversary compilation may seem like something of a premature party. While most labels typically celebrate their fifth or tenth year in action, Dragon’s Eye have confidently decided that four are quite enough to count as a milestone. They may have a point, however. When Yann Novak took over the outfit from his father in 2005 after an extensive phase of hibernation, after all, he had nothing to show for it but a tiny back catalogue and a healthy dose of determination. The latter proved to be a key factor. Especially in the early phase, when the odd unfavorable review would trickle in and the exact stylistic direction for the project was still slightly opaque, less self-assured souls would have given up or given in.

Not Novak. Slowly but very surely, he gathered a circle of like-minded composers around him, established an immediately recognizable corporate design and kept churning out material as though there were no tomorrow. If print runs were sometimes bigger than what the market could absorbe, this was not misguided ambition but a statement of intent: Dragon’s Eye was not going to be just another boutique label happy to print a few friendly-looking copies for art’s sake. It was going to be a professionally run and widely respected company which could stand on its own two feet and inspire others instead of borrowing from stale third party ideas.

Three factors were decisive in this respect. For one, Novak has astutely understood that Sound Art has a promising future if it manages to return to the one relationship that has always served it well: The bond with the visual arts. It is by no means a coincidence that Morton Feldman and John Cage were heavily influenced by befriended painters. Nor is it a secret that Philip Glass and Steve Reich kick started their careers by performing their first pieces in museums. In several respects, the advancement of music in the late 20th century has been a constant attempt at equaling the compelling power of abstract arts. With their regular multimedial events and partnerships with art galleries, Dragon’s Eye have not only made a clever marketing decision, but also built a fertile basis for a fruitful dialogue across different disciplines.

Secondly, like few other record companies out there, the outfit has established its own family of artists. Wyndell Hunt, Marc Manning, Jamie Drouin and, of course, Novak himself were virtually unknown before 2005 and their profiles have organically grown in sync with the gradual rise of Dragon’s Eye. Unlike many of their colleagues, who enjoy collecting releases with different labels like trophies, they have also remained faithful to them for the better part of these four years. Admittedly, established underground heroes like Steve Peters were equally part of the program and recently, Novak has branched out into a couple of household names on the scene, with releases by Ian Hawgood and Celer among others. But these have been exceptions and always served to sharpen the outfit’s image and take it one step further. Today, Dragon’s Eye is not just known for its uncompromising stance, but also for a particular mindset which goes way beyond the usual questions of sonic aesthetics and genre-affiliations.

This remarkably coherent, yet multifaceted approach has been the third and possibly most important aspect. Over time, Dragon’s Eye have catered to Drones, Ambient, Dark Ambient, Installation Soundtracks, conceptual soundscapes, controlled noise and silent music at the edge of perception without a single choice ever seeming random. As the stylistic associations have grown, so has the sensation that the artist roster was guided by a shared approach, a common angle at composing and sound sculpting. Significantly, this angle is related to a notion of purity, of never using more elements than absolutely necessary. But even more essentially, it has to do with considering ideas as the driving force behind music. For Dragon’s Eye, terms like beauty, darkness or estrangement can never exist without context. They come into existence through amplification, exaggeration, projection and contrast, in short: As artifice. Novak’s „The Air blowing over us“ (on Dragon’s Eye sister-label Infrequency), as just one example among many, made this amply clear: What would have ended up as a corny depictation of „one of the hottest days Seattle experienced in 2008, as well as the first weekend Novak spent with his partner“, ended up a thoughtful meditation on change and a claustrophobic, slowly moving soundscape built on the noises of a fan in the apartment.

With this in mind, it should surprise no one, that „Flowers“ is anything but a mere presentation of references or a lazily assembled „Best Of“. Quite on the contrary, quite a few of the musicians „Dragon’s Eye“ have become associated with are missing from this collection, while a few new names have been added to the roster. Most incisively, the collection focuses almost obsessively on a genre Novak has held dear for years, but only recently discovered as a source of inspiration for his imprint’s cover designs: Microtonal Sound Art. And so this free-to-download sampler includes luminaries like Shinkei, i8u, Tomas Phillips as well as Pierre Gerard, who also runs the highly recommended et comme le feu netlabel – while excluding a couple of mainstays. Rather than playing it safe, Novak has therefore once again made use of the opportunity to push his project beyond its existing borders and opened up yet another musical pocket for him and his artist.

This is all the more apparent as „Flowers“ manages to naturally integrate this new cosmos into the label’s body of work. Shinkei’s „Wu (for Luigi)“ is an almost programmatic effort in this respect: Subtle and crystal-clear field recordings of water, conversations and scratching noises are contrasted with discretely metallic drones and fine sheets of crackle. Short episodes are separated from each other by soundings of a prayer bell – this is a space for concentrated listening, in which every single element is to be appreciated on its own terms and the careful placing of each microscopic click suggests a conscious narrative. Meanwhile, the work of Canada’s France Jobin (aka i8u) displays unexpected similarities with Novak’s own contribution „Shortwaves to Longwaves“: Both rely on a blend of ultrahigh and extremely low frequencies, a suspenseful delineation between a highly direct foreground and a deep, atmospheric backdrop as well as a controlled friction between surgically precise material and inexplicable emotional resonances. This holds true for the compilation as a whole, which takes a turn towards more ambient-oriented pieces in the finale. Celer’s „A Lifetime of Wasted Breaths“, an endearing sequence of warm, almost spiritual chords and Wyndel Hunt’s Power-drone „Rotation“ might seem misplaced here on paper, but both turn out to make complete sense, intensifying the silence inside the listener instead of insensitively rupturing it.

Again, it is the idea of contrasts which takes hold here. By juxtaposing seemingly uncombinable material, the album as a whole is elevated to a higher plane, where these differences no longer matter. If this is where Novak wants to take the label in the future, then we’re in for a hell of an 8th birthday party.

By Tobias Fischer

Dragon’s Eye Recording