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Julian Sartorius, "Hidden Tracks: Domodossola – Weissmies"

Hidden Tracks: Domodossola – WeissmiesThis Swiss percussionist has been quietly carving out a very cool and unique niche for himself over the last decade, as he continually finds unusual conceptual scenarios to combine with his virtuosic playing. I greatly enjoyed 2021's aptly titled Locked Grooves, but had not yet delved too deeply into his earlier work, so I had missed the first installment of Hidden Tracks: 2017's Basel – Gen​è​ve. For that album, Sartorius brought his drumsticks along for a 10-day, 270km hike along Switzerland's Jura Ridgeway Trail and recorded improvised beats on whatever intriguing sound sources he encountered (trees, empty silos, corn stalks, etc.). On this latest installment, his journey is now vertical, as Sartorius kept a similar beat diary as he climbed from the Italian village of Domodossola "to the peak of Weissmies (4017m above sea level) in the Swiss Valais." In theory, that upped the game considerably constraint-wise, as Sartorius gradually leaves behind both humanity and trees in his ascent, but that comparative dearth of available sound sources was no match for his resourceful inventiveness.

Everest Records

The album is presented as a series of eight pieces that mirror Sartorius's ascent in 500 meter intervals, so the first piece (272m_↗_500m) is built from sounds recorded in Domodossola and the last piece is assembled entirely from sounds collected near the mountain summit. Notably, Sartorius was joined by videographer Stephan Hermann and his footage makes for a wonderfully illustrative guide to the shifting terrain that the duo encountered. It also helpfully illuminates how Sartorius was able to make these recordings, which is something that initially baffled me, as some of these pieces seemed impossibly complex to perform in real-time and Julian made a point of stating that "no electronic effects or sound processing were used." That claim is indeed factual, but there was some post-recording assembly involved: Sartorius recorded multiple tracks (usually played one-handed while the other hand wielded a microphone), then assembled layered beatscapes from the sounds collected at each elevation. That essentially means that a kick drum pattern might have been recorded with one pile of rocks, but the rest of the beat may have been recorded using a completely different pile of rocks. That said, that finished recordings make for a very impressive audio illusion, as it often sounds like Julian's drumming is taking place in real-time and intuitively interacting with non-percussive field recordings of cars, birds, planes, radios, cows, and sprinklers.

The array of seemingly unpromising sound sources that Sartorius employs is similarly impressive: the sounds of human civilization only last for the first three pieces. After that, there is only forest...then only grass and stones…then only stones…and finally just snow and ice. As a result, the sounds are much more varied at the beginning of the album, as Sartorius was surrounded by benches, railings, sculptures, and buildings with pleasing acoustic properties. As the range of available sound sources narrows, however, Julian's inventiveness necessarily increases to fill the void: drum sticks scythe through tall grass and snow banks, wobbly rocks are stepped on, rhythmic splashes are made in ponds, sturdy icicles become ersatz cymbals or snares, etc. All of those improvised drum components became even more fascinating when I learned that another one of Julian's self-constraints was that he would not move things around or visibly disturb his surroundings, which precluded the assembly of any kind of makeshift kit.

With the tracks combined, however, these pieces do convincingly sound like the work of a virtuosic drummer on an unconventional minimalist kit, yet the pleasures of this album are far more unique than that: on pieces like "500m_↗_1000m," Sartorius's achievement feels like he has evolved John Cage's "4'33"" into a duet for percussion and field recordings. Elsewhere, I especially loved how "2000m_↗_2500m" evolved from clacking stones and mooing cows to a twinkling finale of layered bells borrowed from Sartorius's new ovine and bovine friends. There are also a few pieces that inventively incorporate gurgling water or make rolling pebbles sound like some kind of rhythmic prehistoric Rube Goldberg contraption. Obviously, that is admittedly niche terrain, but I personally love listening to talented percussionists with inspired ideas indulging themselves, so I could listen to Julian Sartorius jam with a cow or a sprinkler all day. Moreover, this is a genuinely rewarding headphone album, as the pieces fluidly segue into one another and the ambient environmental sounds add an evocative sense of place.

Listen here.