Esther Venrooy
The Spiral Staircase
LP (E50)

 

Belgium £16.50 (including postage)

Europe £18.50 (including postage)

Rest of world £23 (including postage)

 

Edition of 300 copies

Cut by Rashad Becker at Dubplates & Mastering, Berlin


The Spiral Staircase is a series of short electronic vignettes that constitute two vertical progressions. The pieces were
composed during 2006–7 and consist 

of layered bodies of sound. Some of the 

source material was created on the EMS Synthi 100 at the IPEM (Institute for 

Psycho-acoustics and Electronic Music) 

in Gent, Belgium. Thanks to Eric Olson 

at Process Type Foundry

See also

Out of print

Reviews

Success is subject to the laws of relativity. Sometimes, however, the small scale of the sound art scene is slightly saddening: are there really only 300 people out there with an interest in buying this album? Esther Venrooy has turned into one 
of the leading Dutch protagonists of experimental music and into an active and versatile figurehead

of its counterpart in Belgium, where she now lives. And yet her releases still

seem to be tied to the domain of the initiated few, to small arts galleries and specialised magazines published by obscure fans in small print runs. Wide-spread recognition has indeed, at least for the moment, sprung from a different corner than the CD market. Despite steadily amassing a discography for several years, Venrooy has built her reputation mainly by performing live and as a sculptor of sound installations — 

a status further confirmed in 2008 by engagements for, among others, the Diapason Gallery in New York. As The Spiral Staircase proves, this dual interest has been beneficial to both aspects of her work, her records encapsulating the listener in a dense, intangible cage of shifting sound conglomerates, recreating the sensation of a dedicated zone at home. There is, to put it differently, 

a strong physical aspect to The Spiral  

Staircase, a creepy tension, a spell-binding plasticity, an ephemeral spatiality. Majestic bass waves seem to spill over from the speakers into the far corners

of your room, while ringing, high-pitched 

frequencies rise like incense into the wheeling night. Venrooy shapes her atmospheres with great clarity and simple brush strokes, while allowing her musical elements to expand and evolve on their own accord. The result is a music of great outward calm and a starkly contrasting inner complexity, filled with regally over-lapping peaks and troughs, creating constantly changing patterns. Essentially, then, this is a drone album, but one which stretches the volubility  of the genre to its outer limits. Venrooy doesn’t just create ominously opaque tonal clouds, but displays a notable penchant for sounds with a personality: breathing ghost notes, glassy expanses of harmonics, sonorous bass steps, discreetly rasping cuckoo clock machineries, pointilistic digital

dots and sensually detuned bell chimes.

Presented against a backdrop of sustained ambiance, their characters 

are twisted into a surreal mirror image, which allows for close, but emotionally affected observations. Even more decidingly, the album never dwells in 

one space for very long. Cut like a burning path along transitory scenes 

of hallucinatory intensity, The Spiral Staircase is marked by quick change-overs from one musical room to the next. These segues can manifest themselves either through the gradual intrusion

of a new element, which subsequently

takes over or thanks to more abrupt juxtapositions. In any case, the general effect is one of seamless movement

and fluent motions, a veritable audio trip which conveys a notion of freedom and epic width, which sweeps the listener along and spits him out cleansed, confounded and curiously content at

the end.

 

This is not an observation that applies to Esther Venrooy, however, who exercises and maintains complete control through-out, treating her material in a very direct and yet unconventional way, keeping 

her moods tight but never shying away from ever so slight impurities, wobbles, dynamic distortions and dramatic swells. It is a music which requires a high 

degree of concentration on the part of its audience, but rewards it with an equally impressive degree of emotionality. Success is indeed relative: Even if only 300 people were to buy this album, 

they might well regard it as a treasure.

 

Tobias Fischer at Tokafi


Those fortunate enough to be familiar with the thrilling sensory overload of Esther Venrooy’s To Shape Volumes, Repeat from 2003 might have a hard 

time believing that the leisurely drones
of The Spiral Staircase are the work of the same person. But careful listening reveals the same meticulous ear at 

work. The Dutch composer’s fondness for subtly shifting warm tones sourced from

a vintage EMS analogue synthesizer inevitably recalls Eliane Radigue, but there are surprises in store in exquisitely worked found sounds, sprinkled over where you’d least expect them. There’s

a compositional maturity and sureness

of touch here worthy of Feldman, the sense that each sound is exactly what and where it should be. Entr’acte’s sober packaging might lead you to expect grey austerity, but the music is as luminous and richly hued as a Vermeer. In the same way that he achieved transparency by applying granular layers of paint, Venrooy’s seemingly simple sonorities are masterly assemblages of different timbres and tones.

 

Dan Warburton in The Wire


This record — the second from Esther Venrooy heard on these shores — is so carefully constructed, its components splendidly deployed in a half-asleep, 

half-awake trip of sorts, that one shouldn’t hesitate in defining it as 

a milestone of today’s electronica. The Spiral Staircase develops its intelligent charm through various phases: the first part starts with the marine ebb and flow of an electronic wave, followed after 

a few minutes by a Radigue-like segment of ear-catching low-frequency radiation. Things get a little more agitated when 

the contrast of differently shaped emissions causes a series of inter-sections mixing spacey ambiences and slightly harsher quanta of oscillating action. The impact on the auricular membranes is seriously effective, 

our attention instantly captured by the
continuous shifts of weight in the mix. 

At one point, towards the end of the side, some measure of vocal interference
blemishes a fantastic undulating drone, 

a memorable moment indeed. In the second part a semi-distorted ringing tone
introduces shades similar to the sound 

of a very distant jet, then we’re back to the underworld of throb, a constantly
morphing luminescence alternated with 

a billowing rumble, the whole slowly fading to a gradually increasing mass 

of plumbeous strata. We remain in the company of a constant note, a repeated pulse whose resonance pervades the room and surrounds the brain, then 

a brilliant section with something akin 

to a modified cuckoo clock leads to the conclusion, floating bodies swimming around black stars, yet everything
sounds rather present, almost there 

to put the fingers on, until a final loop indicates that our time is over. Too bad.

 

Massimo Ricci at Touching Extremes


The Spiral Staircase is […] comprised largely of modulated drones amidst other electronic detritus… [The] impression is less one of detecting something ‘new’ — indeed, many of the sounds have
a familiar aspect — but more with the grace and thoughtfulness with which 

the sounds are aligned and juxtaposed. 

The ringing throb that begins side one here, waxing every four or five seconds,
is, in a sense, a recognisable enough element but Venrooy manages to invest 

it with something, some combination of frequencies, that endows it with a unique and weighty presence that focuses

one’s attention sharply and immediately. Various other sounds are gradually layered in, ‘above’ and ‘below’ the initial pulse, generally possessing a harsher, more granular character, each enhancing
the disquiet. It wells to a climax then subsides into a growling, steadier drone which, in turn, is encased in a multitude of others, fashioning a complex matrix wherein the listener can discern at his
or her will a vast number of patterns, reflections and relationships. Gears are shifted several times throughout the piece, though it remains drone-centered for the duration and the changes straddle
that giddy territory between initial awkwardness and retrospective
naturalness.

 

Side Two (it seems to be an entirely different piece, though no titles are supplied) remains in the general area of dronage but over in the part of the yard with all the crackling and static. Again,
Venrooy weaves together countless strands, each clear enough to focus on individually if one desires but better to hear in a relational manner, something that will doubtless vary upon each listen.
I was often reminded of the ‘standard’ result of Cageian listening in a given environment: at first you might think there’s only two or three sound sources

in play; listening more attentively inevitably serves to uncover many more. This construction includes a mélange of massively deep tolling with wonderfully quirky, almost cuckoo-y chittering and blooping atop, sending the piece momentarily reeling off into the middle distance. The disc fades out in a series 

of ringing tones not too far from those that opened it, a bit icier but less
foreboding. Very good work.

 

Brian Olewnick at Bagatellen