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Novaya Zemlya

by Thomas Köner

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Artwork & Photography: Jon Wozencroft
Mastered by Denis Blackham

Track Listing:

1. Novaya Zemlya 1 11:15
2. Novaya Zemlya 2 12:46
3. Novaya Zemlya 3 12:20

The artwork, by Jon Wozencroft, includes an essay by Thierry Charollais, "Thomas Köner's Novaya Zemlya: towards a metaphysical geography"... "Of course we find the unique Koneresque glowing drones that we know from his previous works. But we will also be touched by an unrevealed, barely perceptible sense of melody and harmony that Köner gradually developed since Kaamos (1998) and Nuuk (2004)."

Novaya Zemlya (Russian: Но́вая Земля́; IPA: [ˈnovəjə zʲɪmˈlʲæ], lit. New Land), also known in Dutch as Nova Zembla and in Norwegian as Gåselandet(lit. the Goose Land), is an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean in the north of Russia and the extreme northeast of Europe, the easternmost point of Europe, lying at Cape Flissingsky on the northern island.

About Thomas Köner:

Thomas Köner (b. 1965) is a pioneering multimedia artist whose main interest lies in combining visual and auditory experiences. Over his long, much celebrated career, he has worked between installation works, sound art, minimal soundscapes, and as one half of Porter Ricks. He attended music college in Dortmund and studied electronic music at the CEM-Studio in Arnhem. Until 1994 he worked in the film industry as editor and sound engineer. Thomas has extended his concept of time and sound colour to images, resulting in video installations, photography and net art.

His point of departure was composition of sound in which aspects of a performance and visual language were gradually integrated. At first in the collaboration with film artist Jürgen Reble and the live performance Alchemie (1992). Following this, he started to compose film soundtracks and music to accompany historic silent films for the Louvre Museum and the Musée d'Orsay, Paris, who called him a major innovator in the contemporary music scene, as well as noted his collaborative practice which has led to his working with musicians, filmmakers and visual artists on installations and sound performances, and to his creation of six video works produced in two cycles, starting in 2003.

His extensive discography, including his four classic albums ("Drone/Isolationist Ambient")released on Barooni between 1990 and 1995, Nunatak Gongamur, Teimo, Permafrost and Aubrite, can be found here: www.koener.de/cd.htm


Touching Extremes (Italy):

Thomas Köner: unspecified instruments

When you wake up in a cold morning and the anticipated end of the world has not happened, but it’s still utter sadness wherever one looks at.

When the picture of a life spent dealing with worthless issues and unrequested responsibilities keeps smothering the flame of hope for a turnaround towards absolute lonesomeness in an inaccessible area.

When looking at the futile cheeriness of old classmates showing their adult desperation on a Facebook page makes you feel even more powerless than you were during the high school years.

When no words exist to convey the distress springing from the failure of all ways of authentic communication. Including the closest persons.

When you realize that many people keep believing in so-called explanations, clutching at the straws of a promised enlightenment. Another illusion in an endless chain.

When the real goal has been individuated and reached but in front of its door there’s no way to find the key. All that remains is just staring, and sighing at the thought of what could have been.

When the eyes are finally shut and the echo of a remote sloping drone becomes a presence so aching that the whole body would like to start shivering in soundless crying.

When something of harmful origin is turned into music of the highest order, capable of generating flashes of intense awareness.

When the cracks in the ice of isolation reveal rays of light that might revive an ailing heart.

A long-expected new masterwork by Köner.

Aquarius (USA):

Novaya Zemlya is a grand statement. But then again, Thomas Koner doesn't operate in any scale other than monumental. All of his albums (barring the somewhat lackluster La Barca from 2003) speak through the gasping drones of a bleak existentialism. For Koner, the human condition is mirrored in the environment around us, especially those rugged, barren locales at the poles, with his isolationist smears of grey sounds alluding to water, ice, permafrost, wind, radiation, and vast empty spaces above the Arctic Circle. The environmental site for this album is a suitably inhospitable Russian archipelago jutting far out into the Arctic Ocean toward the North Pole. During the arms race of the Cold War, the Soviet Union used Novaya Zemlya as a nuclear test site, dropping the Tsar Bomba in 1961 on the landmass, which was permanently scarred by the largest atomic detonation in the history of the world. The thin layer of nuclear fallout which has buried itself in the frozen tundra of Novaya Zemlya commingles with radioactive isotopes from poorly managed storage facilities, sunken reactors, and scuttled submarines.

Koner describes this landscape through its hazardous potential, which is so much worse than the current situation. With global warming, the methane gas spewed from a melted permafrost will lift all of that radioactive material into the atmosphere and send that along the prevailing winds across western Russian over Scandinavia and into continental Europe. Perhaps, a greater catastrophe than Chernobyl. In speaking to that potential, Koner manifests pockets of near silence throughout the album with his signature tectonic rumblings and stealth-bomber frequencies gliding beyond the event horizon into the realm of the audible. Darkened crumblings of earthen material pocks the beginning of the first in a trilogy of tracks, sounding almost like slabs of ice thunderously collapsing into the sea. Drones swell and collapse into pools of resonant emptiness, broken on the second track by a disembodied shortwave radio transmission of garbled voices. The album returns to those cold, contemplative sounds until the end of the album draws near, when Koner introduces a few elegant, melodic plucks from what might be a harp. For all of the foreboding that looms throughout, the end is almost hopeful that humanity might just sort out this global warming puzzle. But then again, we might not; and then, we're fucked.

An easy contender for 2012's album of the year.

Dalston Sounds (UK):

Novaya Zemlya represents a refinement of over 20 years of practice. Thomas Köner has learnt to process indeterminable source sounds until they attain an almost tactile texture, then layer and cross-pollinate them until they achieve a caliginous density that is virtually inhabitable. The resulting music, pitched at low volume but immersive thanks to deft modulation of extreme low-end frequencies, creates for the listener a liminal, atemporal headspace.

After three albums (Nunatak Gongamur, Teimo, and Permafrost) of minimalist, arctic-inspired ambience made between 1990 and 1993, Köner contributed a key track, “Kanon (Part 1)” to the landmark thematic compilation album, Isolationism (Virgin, 1994) which expanded his aesthetic into a movement. He later collaborated with producer Andy Mellwig of Berlin’s Dubplates & Mastering studios as one half of Porter Ricks, applying a similar textural reductionism to the implacable 4/4 time of Basic Channel-style dub techno.

But since recording the conceptual piece Unerforschtes Gebiet (‘uncharted territory’) in 2001, Köner has delved further into his psychogeographical obsessions, developing his practice well beyond the purely musical and into the reals of sound art. Novaya Zemlya, represents a distillation of his aesthetic in pure musical form.

The album, bears a subtitle: “Towards a metaphysical geography”, and takes its name from that of an archipelago in northern Russia, 10,000 square miles of which is given over to nuclear testing. It was the site in 1961 of the detonation of Tsar Bomba, the most powerful nuclear weapon ever detonated, and it’s impossible, knowing that, not to correlate the soundscape of Novaya Zemlya, the album, with the history of the land. But Köner is perhaps more psychologically drawn to the archipelago (he has said in interviews that he has never been there) by its mountainous landscape of tundra and glaciers, its severe climate, and its remote location at the extreme northeast of Europe.

The album presents a single piece of music, “Novaya Zemlya” in three movements, a tenebrific wasteland of low-end rumble and reverb that has as much in common with label mate Chris Watson’s time-lapse field recording of a melting icelandic glacier, ”Vatnajökull” (from Weather Report), than with Köner’s earlier audio mapping of the polar regions.

“Novaya Zemlya 1″ begins with a plosive detonation. Thereafter it’s a wind-scoured and glitch-pocked tundra of further muffled detonations and atmospheric static. Unsettling electronics ripple through the mix, before expanding warmly across the audio spectrum. It’s necessary to listen at some volume in order to catch the detail in the grain of each sound. The effect is vascular, like listening through thawing pipes.

“Novaya Zemlya 2″ is further dubbed-out, with submarinal echoes of the detonations heard on part 1 billowing in a cavernous, sedimental vacuum punctuated by human voices. These clipped radio communications sound procedural but remain tantalisingly, disconcertingly obscure; something to latch onto nonetheless.

I suspect that Köner captured many of the background sounds by recording gongs underwater, as he did to such remarkable effect on the ground-breaking Teimo, and the overall aesthetic is similar to that of Nuuk (1997), but here the recombination of source sounds is much more nuanced.

This throbbing low-end penumbra blossoms on ”Novaya Zemlya 3″, until haunting echoes of notes perhaps originally sounded on a piano rise from its depths, blossoming into an aureola of soft, diffuse melody. It’s a gorgeous payoff and a masterly resolution, which dissipates the album’s former nebulous pall in an unexpected luminescence.

The Quietus (UK):

Like the remote Russian archipelago from which it takes its name, from a safe distance Thomas Köner's Novaya Zemlya is beautiful and barren, its frozen wastes and jagged terrain seemingly populated by little other than snow, whipping wind and the rhythmic breaking of waves. Focus intently enough, though - like much of Köner's other work, this is a teasingly quiet album, demanding high volume and a distraction free environment - and faint stirrings of life begin to emerge, the sonic traces of an ecosystem largely imperceptible to the naked eye. They're dwarfed, though, by the main presence on this exquisitely detailed and contemplative record: the scars left by a particularly turbulent last century's worth of human activity in the region, which saw a sequence of Soviet underground and airborne nuclear weapons tests scatter the area with fallout, culminating in the detonation of the largest nuclear device ever detonated, the 50 megaton Tsar Bomba. That explosion's colossal reverberations pockmark the opening track, and the toxic residue of the event is hinted at across the album's length, with a snatch of military radio dialogue at one point screaming out of nowhere in a caustic rip of static.

Where Köner really excels here is in his imbuing of an ostensibly detached sound palette - consisting of field recordings, electronic interference and soft drones heard as if over great distance - with great emotional resonance, without resorting to tired cliche or obvious melodic manipulation. In this case, given the violence wreaked upon it, it's enough for him to simply describe the landscape and its inhabitants in the meticulous manner of a geographer or surveyor. There's nothing paranormal or psychogeographical about the sensations Novaya Zemlya stirs up: simply by placing the listener in the landscape it offers a searing critique of our species' casual disregard for the wellbeing of ourselves and our planet, and a reminder that when the damage is already this extensive, melodrama and hyperbole pale in comparison to harsh reality. [RG]

Boomkat (UK):

Thoms Köner makes a very welcome return with the bone-chilling soundscapes of 'Novaya Zemlya' - his eleventh album and first for Touch. The master sound sculptor takes the eponymous arctic archipelago situated in the sea north of Russia as his inspiration, deploying discreet field recordings to plot a sort of sonic geography of this desolate and mountainous region used by the Russian military. He connotes a feeling of near-unimaginable vastness through breathtaking manipulation of elemental sub-sonic frequencies and isolated tones whose quietude and magnitude at once enforce the feeling of being lost in an unforgiving wilderness with only the sound of your own heartbeat and the wind for company. However, in contrast to his earliest material - reissued recently on Type - we can detect that sliver of harmonic and melodic hope which has sustained his work since 1997's 'Kaamos' thru his stunning 2005 CD + DVD 'Nuuk'. It's barely perceptible, but possibly like the hallucinations of a stranded explorer, the winds and tectonic grumbles seem to harmonise, even crystallising a rare and unexpected moment of serene melodic beauty heard from below the ice, deep into the album's third movement. It hardly requires mentioning, but lovers of the most detached, seductively sensitive sonics will be in their element here. Highly recommended.

ambientblog.net (Netherlands):

It starts with a deep trembling sound. It's not thunder, but it does not exactly sound mechanical or man-made either. It may come from somewhere deep inside the earth...a strange kind of sound to break the vast silence.

With sounds like these, it's not difficult to imagine you are witnessing the birth of New Land - which is in fact the translation of "Novaya Zemlya " (or Nova Zembla in dutch, known for the famous Willem Barentsz expedition in 1594).

The name also refers to the archipelago in the north of Russia, extensively used for nuclear testing during the Cold War - which creates an entirely different context for the sounds on this album.

Compared to his 2009 release "La Barca", Thomas Köner returns to the form of his earlier albums like Nunatak, Teimo and Nuuk: slowly evolving, immersive soundscapes, able to make the listener lose all sense of time. In fact it's a surprise to find that "Novaya Zemlya " clocks in just about over 35 minutes, while it feels it could have easily lasted for over an hour or even longer.

To quote Thierry Charollais (from the liner notes): "Listening to his music, we escape the habitual notion of time and space, facing a sense of eternity or infinity that is both stunning and frightening." ...
"I remember exactly my feelings when I gradually discovered this music, its breathing that seemed so vast, almost infinite and glacial, while at the same time strangely heartwarming and calming my mind."

Starting with the enigmatic thunderous sounds, the album slowly evolves and gradually incorporates other elements - some field recordings, an occasional vocal fragment even.
But whatever the results of this (human) intrusion may be, this land will never lose its fundamental quiet, it's unchangeable emptiness.

With "Novaya Zemlya ", Thomas Köner has added another stunning masterpiece of Audio Art to his already impressive collection.


released May 30, 2012


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