An insistent half-hour dirge rising from daytime living-room scratches to near sine-wave clarity, Stephan Mathieu’s On Tape is a digital performance piece that, despite its relative brevity, will appeal most to those with a developed patience for subtle shifts in tone that are accompanied by little else.
In the decade since establishing himself as a well-regarded improv drummer, Mathieu has increasingly turned to his laptop, releasing several collections of heavily manipulated audio fragments. The single-track on On Tape, a title that refers to the pastoral German folk group Tape, whose acoustic performances provided much of the source material for the album’s embryonic washes, marks a particular departure in method for Mathieu.
The album is a bit slow to start, its first hesitant tones preceded by five minutes of indeterminate hissing. Mathieu makes a point to avoid much of the processing and distortion he used on earlier efforts, emphasizing that most of this material is at the very least built upon traditional acoustics. To add to the album’s organic feel, Mathieu makes use of ordinary background clutter to accompany the focal drone, and these sound bites appear at low levels throughout the album in the form of birdsong, stray winds and shuffling papers that hint at human movement. Mathieu adds sporadic touches of his own light percussion throughout the piece but, save for Magnus Greenberg’s steadily drawling saxophone, most of the acoustics are difficult to place. The album contains no discernable change in pitch, and its central tone wavers indefinitely while joined by complementary countermelodies, each one weaving its way into a single sustained ebb.
The precise nature of Mathieu’s audio collage method never makes itself clear, and On Tape sounds more like a live performance than a carefully packaged ambient effort. But when the various compiled elements reach their simultaneous peak, the album exudes a placid beauty that will certainly reward further listens.