There are very few musicians that can craft a genuinely compelling album from just a few sustained tones or chords and most of them (Catherine Christer Hennix and Eliane Radigue, for example) seem to have records on Important. With the eerie and evocative Secret Photographs, Rutger Zuydervelt has decisively earned his place in that highly exclusive clique.
Notably, Secret Photographs is a soundtrack to a Mike Hoolboom film that has not yet been completed. I say "notably" because I generally avoid soundtracks, as by their very nature they are not meant to stand on their own–they exist to provide coloration for a visual component. It is very rare for one component of a multimedia work to dazzle me when decontextualized from its intended whole. The infrequent exceptions tend to occur with experimental cinema where music tends to either drive or share supremacy with the images. Hoolboom's unfinished film certainly seems to fall within that category, but it probably does not hurt that the music was completed before the film.
It probably also helps that the film sounds quite fascinating, which no doubt played a role in inspiring Rutger to compose some of the most beautiful music of his career. Essentially, the completed film will be an unfolding series of still photographs by Alvin "Creepy" Karpis slowly dissolving into one another. Karpis was a key member of Ma Barker's infamous gang in the '30s and a former Public Enemy #1 to boot (no small accomplishment). After a long incarceration and some time exiled in Canada, he spent his final years living in Spain where he developed an intense obsession with photography. He never showed these photographs to anyone, but they eventually surfaced on eBay and Hoolboom wisely pounced on them, thus beginning the chain of events that led to this album.
Each of the three pieces here spans roughly twenty minutes and maintains an overarching aesthetic of fragile, lonely shimmer and near-static, glacial pace. The degree of Zuydervelt's ultra-minimalism varies quite a bit from piece to piece, however. The most minimal of all is the opening "Part One (Black and White)," which is based entirely upon the shifting harmonies of a few artfully blurred and slowly changing tones. Notably, I cannot tell which instrument they may have originated from, which imbues them with a rare beauty and purity. Normally, that also comes with a loss of character, but that does not occur here, as the evocatively drifting and forlorn atmosphere is perfect just the way it is. Also, Rutger deftly employs quiet field recordings of ambient outdoor life and distant cars to provide a very real sense of (lonely) place.
The second piece, "Part Two (Colour)," is a bit closer to what I normally expect from Machinefabriek: a slowly unfolding and melancholy guitar figure that ultimately coheres into a swelling drone. As such, it is not nearly as revelatory as the other pieces on the album, but it provides a very necessary contrast and is quite good for what it is. Also, if I listen extremely closely near the beginning, I can hear something that sounds like a very menacing pack of barking dogs, which changes the whole mood of the piece for me. It is so buried, however, that it could easily be any number of other things, ranging from a distorted, distant television to simply a processed loop of Rutger's fingers sliding over his guitar strings. I like mysteries and hidden nuances, especially if they can be construed as somewhat disturbing.
Zuydervelt saves his most inspired piece for last, as "Part Three (Black and White)" is essentially a reprise of the opening piece, but arguably more brilliant and definitely more disquieting. The changes are quite small in scope, but have a dramatic cumulative effect on the overall mood, which decisively drifts into rather hallucinatory and nightmarish territory. As near as I can tell, the various tones simply cohere into uglier harmonies, giving rise to subtle pulses and oscillations. Also, the tones are slightly more harsh and distorted and the natural sounds of "Part One" are replaced by undulating swells of hiss and crackle. It is quite a mesmerizing and haunting piece in its own right, but works even better within the context of the album, ending the dreamlike drift of Secret Photographs in impressively uneasy and disturbed fashion. I especially enjoyed the soft "pop" at the end, which seems like Rutger breaking his surreal spell by simply and matter-of-factly turning off his amp.
Within the context of Zuydervelt's sprawling discography, Secret Photographs is probably not the best place to start, as several other Machinefabriek albums offer much more in the way of immediate gratification. Artistically, however, this album is an unquestionable highlight and absolutely essential for existing fans of Rutger's work (or of innovative sound art, in general). Very few albums reward attentive listening as richly as this one.