Hymen Records (Y832), 2014
There exists a theory that the human body is a construct. As the body made of systems and specialized components working together in a highly efficient manner to fulfill a common goal, it can be easy to understand the logic behind this idea. Who (or what) designed and built the body – now, that’s a topic to be discussed elsewhere. It also may follow that humanity has spent its history building technology that parallels its own design. Taking it a step further, one might argue that the ultimate goal of technology, and therefore, of humanity, is to design and build artificial life; to create itself, in essence. Again, something to ponder for another day, perhaps.
Mare Nostrum is, to date, the ninth largest supercomputer in the world. It is located within an ornate building in Spain, housed inside an immense glass case. Fernando Cuchietti cares for this remarkable machine, and wished the world to become familiar with what he called the computer’s voice. To do that, he enlisted the composer Ben Lukas Boysen, better known to the experimental electronic scene as Hecq. The bulk of Boysen’s work is firmly entrenched in the glitch/IDM camp, but he occasionally ventures into the world of cinematic electronic ambient, notably with the phenomenal album Night Falls (2008).
For the Mare Nostrum project, Boysen was allowed access into the computer’s sanctum, and recorded the various sounds of it processing, calculating, and operating. He took these sounds and used them as the basis for the album. The result is a return to the glitch-free ambiance of Night Falls, but now with a heavy field-recording component replacing that album’s versatile scope.
The result is an album of careful intellect, philosophical pondering, and technical wizardry. Mare Nostrum (Latin for “our sea”) may sound similar in concept, but Hecq is not just following where others have already walked. While the sound of the supercomputer are somewhat easy to recognize – no doubt intentionally – Boysen surrounds the sampled whirs, clicks, and hums with a shell of originally produced emotive synthetics that has marked Hecq’s work since his 2003 debut, A Dried Youth. There’s zero percussion here, and precious few rhythmic elements – this is much more an ambient work than one of IDM – but Boysen’s trademark atmospheres are strongly apparent. Each of the four tracks run about nineteen minutes, allowing plenty of space for the network of samples and keyboards to play about each other like light reflecting off a surface of water to dance upon the walls, while we sit in awe and watch the random patterns that actually aren’t random at all. Mare Nostrum is a majestic gliding beast passing slowly before your eyes, in all its vast alien glory, but it is also a never-ending series of minute details that flow from one to the next like a tiny stream of multicolored gems….or lines of code firing through circuits at dizzying speeds. This is a singular album made up of billions of particles, all part of the same whole – much like the human body, some would say. “II” is quieter, with the samples reduced and the chords following a reverent path, while “III” slides further into the dark ambient spectrum, with an enthralling panorama studded with spitting sparks. Mare Nostrum is equal parts dark and light, one bleeding into the other until there’s little evident distinction.
And here’s what strikes me the most. Mare Nostrum is an album produced by computers about a computer, all created by what some would call organic computers (us). But we’re more than machines – or at least, I believe we are. We have a nature that separates us from unfeeling mechanisms. What Hecq has done is taken one of these soulless pieces of technology, and given it identity and voice through similar technology, driven by the natural and very human resource of creativity. We’re capable of building technological wonders, but these achievements mean nothing without the human spirit. That’s what this album represents: the enduring presence of the human, heard through our machines.
Mare Nostrum is, in my view, almost perfect. It’s a little bit too long, and as a result, a bit repetitive. I’m a little puzzled why Boysen didn’t include elements from the unreleased tracks “V” and “VI” (available on soundcloud as downloads), for these tracks are more experimental in structure, but perhaps he wanted to keep things grounded. In the end, these are minor quibbles, and besides, humanity is flawed by its nature. Boysen is at the peak of his composing and producing powers, and the concept of Mare Nostrum rivals Sleep_Research Facility’s magnificent album Stealth, a celebration of high-level technology which parallels Mare Nostrum on multiple levels. Whatever the origins, technology is man’s highest and most important achievement, and Hecq has fused the tech itself with the creative human spark to produce a work that moves beyond entertainment and even beyond expression. It makes us ponder, wonder, and think of things in a different way. Boysen is acting as translator, editor, and ghost writer for his supercomputer muse. Like SR_F’s Kevin Doherty did for the B-2 stealth aircraft, Boysen has given voice to the voiceless and an identity to the faceless. He has been deeply inspired, and the effect is obvious. For those who love experimental music, Mare Nostrum is an album you absolutely cannot miss.