Photo: Ivana Neimarevic
Thomas Köner is a German composer and audio engineer, born in 1965. He has made over a dozen CDs, some under his own name and some as Porter Ricks; the latter feature a sort of dubby techno, not unlike the singles on the Basic Channel label. He’s also collaborated with Techno Animal, the duo project of Kevin Martin and Justin Broadrick, and released scores of tracks on compilations and EPs. The three CDs included in this set, though, are what made his name and reputation; they set the parameters of his art early, and he’s never moved that far away from this sonic territory. (Buy it from Amazon.)
Nunatak, originally released in 1990 under the title Nunatak Gongamur, starts the trilogy with a blast of pure audio mystery. There’s no information in the Type Records three-CD reissue, no explanation of how this music was made, or what instruments were used. Consequently, it manifests as pure sound, and must be experienced as such. It features eleven tracks in 48 minutes, most of them in the three-minute range, though a few run more than six. They’re all of a piece, though, no matter their length. Köner “speaks” in hisses and hums. Slow drones, often low, rise slowly and fade with seemingly infinite patience. Whooshes and hisses like wind across a glacier offer the closest thing there is to melody. The cover image depicts a group of men and dogs ascending an ice floe; it’s a grainy, black-and-white photo, decontextualized and unexplained, yet the music seems to soundtrack it perfectly.
The second disc of the set, 1992’s Teimo, is shorter (eight pieces in just under 40 minutes), and more ominous. Though the tracks have titles this time, they’re as inscrutable as ever. A trilogy within a trilogy, “Nieve Penitentes” parts 1-3 are built on almost subsonic rumbles, with what sound like slowed-down recordings of groans or passing jets above them. (It won’t break the music’s spell to reveal that Köner’s actual methodology involves the extremely close miking of brushed and rubbed gongs, sometimes recorded underwater for extra reverberant effect.) The Arctic feeling is replaced with a sensation of even vaster emptiness, like floating in space millions of miles from the nearest star.
The trilogy concludes with 1993’s Permafrost, the shortest (under 37 minutes, six tracks) and perhaps most wintry of the discs. The opener, “Nival,” sounds like field recordings of winds blowing past an ice station’s Quonset huts; this could have made a superb alternate soundtrack to John Carpenter‘s 1982 reimagining of The Thing. But there’s melody present, an oscillating, throbbing figure that seems to rise organically out of the “wind”—it’s a fascinating effect, disorienting and mesmerizing at once. The title track is one of the longest on any of the three albums, running past the 10-minute mark, and the low-end rumbles and steady hisses achieve an almost industrial ominousness, like Alan Splet‘s sound design for David Lynch‘s Eraserhead.
Thomas Köner’s sound art—calling it music seems wrong somehow—is unsettling. He’s not going for cheap shock effects, or drama of any kind, in fact, but his rumbles and whooshes (particularly when heard on headphones) can create a mood of profound paranoia and nervousness in the listener. And yet, as disturbing as it can be, this material is, it must be said in no uncertain terms, essential listening. On these three albums, he created something utterly unique and permanently perception-altering; when listening to Thomas Köner’s work, time seems to stand still—to freeze, perhaps.