“Ballad of the External Life”, Rrill Bell’s debut LP for Elevator Bath, takes its inspiration from the Hugo von Hofmannsthal poem of the same title (“Ballade des äußeren Lebens” in the original German), and features hybrid treatments of tuned percussion source material, swarm-like passages of next-level (cassette) tape manipulation, immersive micro-sound environments, delicate drone, embedded field recordings (ad-hoc dictaphone installations captured in various outdoor settings) and stolen moments from family events both heavy and casual.
Born and raised in the US-American Rust Belt, and a resident of Germany for over two decades after an extended interim period of youthful wanderlust, the composer explains: “‘Ballade des äußeren Lebens’ was the first poem I managed to read in German in my early years here. I translated it roughly into English when I was first learning German. That last line, ‘like heavy honey from the hollow comb’ (‘wie schwerer Honig aus den hohlen Waben’) has haunted me for over twenty years. Just one of those things that hits you in the gut. Life, love, multiplicity of meaning from emptiness. ‘Makeup on empty space’, as Anne Waldman so aptly put it. I guess I was always waiting for the right moment to build a record around it, waiting for the music to mature in order to do it justice. I tried to capture the themes, imagery and movement of the poem in an open way. I don’t know what Hugo would say! He was really young when he wrote it and I connected with it at about the same age.”
The hours of obsessive experimentation with raw sound that Rrill Bell has dubbed to countless compact cassette tapes over the course of nearly two decades serve as the underlying otherworld behind the contingent worldly manifestations of his performances, installations, and recorded artifacts. On stage, his freeform, improvised sets combine chance practices and new skillz in a deep, essentially duo-like dialogue with the tightly-wound material as continually re-examined from different angles. Using a custom-made kit composed of cast-off relics of the Tape Age (foremost among them his trusty modified Fostex analogue multi-tracker) and surrounded by piles of said cassettes, he assembles complex abstract emotive tone poems on the fly, one re-contextualised fragment at a time, drawing from the formative inspirations of radical scratch culture, Cagean thought, Ornette’s harmolodics, musique concrete, and various other strains of free music practice. Over the past decade, his work has also expanded to include various hybrid approaches to location recording, augmented reality, composition, and audio narrative.
The material heard on “Ballad of the External Life” has frequently undergone many multiple stages of increasing abstraction during the composition process. For instance, a fragmentary passage may consist in part of a field recording that became the object of home dubbing experimentation, a recording of which was then used in an ad hoc installation in nature along with other materials, the results of which were then dubbed onto tape again and taken up in the exigency of the moment on stage as material to be further abstracted or re-examined through tape “scratching” and manipulation, before finally being incorporated as one element in a complex audio assemblage. Rrill Bell likens this approach to a composting process, or a tilling and re-tilling, a continuous re-embedding of times and spaces within other times and spaces, until the combined layers form a sort of existential chorus, a vivid sound morphology of living memory. It is also worth noting that the music of Rrill Bell often exhibits a preoccupation with melodic lines and novel techniques for generating them that is fairly uncommon in free improvised electronic music today.
Rrill Bell’s work has previously been released by the Gertrude Tapes, Weird Forest, and Denovali labels, among others.