Esther Venrooy
The Spiral Staircase
LP (E50)

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.

Cut by Rashad Becker at D&M, Berlin
Thanks to Eric Olson at Process Type Foundry

See also
Esther Venrooy
Blueprint #1

Edition of 300 copies

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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.

Widespread 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 overlapping 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 changeovers 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 throughout, 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 Gent based 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 intersections
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

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