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Richard Youngs - CXXI Music Album Reviews

Richard Youngs - CXXI Music Album Reviews
Structured around a grid of 121 minor chords, the English experimental musician’s 121st release injects process music with a welcome dose of beauty, chaos, and emotion.

On the surface, CXXI seems like English experimental musician Richard Youngs’ tongue-in-cheek parody of computerized, algorithm-aided process music. The album’s stark title is simply “121” in Roman numerals, reflecting the fact that this is his 121st release, and the album is structured around a grid of exactly 121 minor chords. However, contra appearances, the music itself—consisting primarily of sine waves, tape-echoed trombone, ear-tickling field recordings and electronics, and Youngs’ plaintive voice—flows with a spontaneous, meandering logic, and Youngs’ chosen chords, far from being robotic, carry a deep melancholy reminiscent of Robert Wyatt’s most intimate work. This tension between structure and sprawl, control and feeling, drives CXXI: While his sound recalls the ramshackle experiments of computer music pioneers like David Behrman, Youngs’ unique emphasis on tonality and emotion results in simultaneously rigorous and accessible music that not only dissolves into the fabric of its immediate physical environment, like the most immersive ambient, but also distills and heightens the overwhelming beauty, chaos, and complexity of life in the way that only the most devastating pop can.

“Tokyo Photograph” lays the groundwork for the album, with Youngs’ voice and guest Sophie Cooper’s trombone tactically darting above and below a thrumming bed of randomly cycling sine-wave chords. Youngs limits himself to wordless utterances, the first line of a verse constantly interrupted: It’s as if he’s repeatedly trying to force meaning onto the music, but the music simply swallows his words whole. Cooper’s trombone steps in to finish Youngs’ sentences, while a wavering tape echo smudges her chiming, crystalline notes across time and soundstage. The decision to feature a delay effect so prominently is far from incidental: Delay is simultaneously mathematical—a certain number of repeats in a certain amount of time—and intuitive, unpredictable, prone to chaotic feedback loops that quickly spin out of the player’s control. It is the perfect embodiment of the tension between structure and sprawl that animates CXXI as a whole.

“The Unlearning” takes the formula laid down in “Tokyo Photograph” and stretches it even further, diving deeper into the fabric of chords that structures the music and eliminating the comforting, if still cryptic, human presence of Youngs and Cooper entirely. In this more abstract sound world, Youngs’ sine waves come to the foreground. The sine wave, like the tape delay that propels much of CXXI, is a perfect unity of structure and fluidity: a building block with which to build more complex sonic architectures, but also a limitless oscillation—the endless, ever-present hum of everyday life embodied in a signal. While the intense, meditative focus of “The Unlearning” highlights the unexpected emotion hidden in Youngs’ algorithmic process, it ultimately strips away too much of the human element that makes “Tokyo Photograph” so compelling—most notably the latter’s manipulated field recordings, which grant it that key, delightful sense of spontaneity.

Adam Butcher’s video for “Tokyo Photograph” explicitly links CXXI to the physical world, rapidly superimposing fragments of Youngs’ grid of chords onto images of abandoned structures made of concrete, brick, and corrugated iron—including a striking sound mirror located at Abbott’s Cliff, near Kent in the UK. Sound mirrors are able to pick up sound from great distances, and were even used as experimental defense systems against air raids before the invention of radar. In a sense, CXXI is a sound mirror in musical form: on the one hand a rigid, fixed object with clearly defined, almost hermetic rules; on the other, a mysterious, oddly beautiful monument to humanity that is inseparable from the physical world around it and the particular, peculiar social relations that both called it into being and grant it power and significance. CXXI’s 121 chords not only dissolve into Youngs’ 121 works—a kind of abstract, algorithmic autobiography—but also, as seen in Butcher’s video, into the world itself, the world outside the music. CXXI’s physical release is packaged with a “chord chart” for each piece; Youngs is inviting the listener to play along.
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Richard Youngs - CXXI Music Album Reviews Richard Youngs - CXXI Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Thursday, October 14, 2021 Rating: 5

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