Pecking at Borders with Corvo Records
by Todd B. Gruel
Founded in Berlin, Germany, during 2010, Corvo Records nourishes a small but potent catalogue of contemporary music. Committed to vinyl records merging visual art with sound art, each gatefold bristles with tactile appeal, thoughtfully revealing the music within. Singular as its customized graphics, the Corvo sound defies authority, preferring a medley of homespun noise over factory-bred consonance.
The Corvo mission is best expressed by the label’s logo: a black vinyl disc blinking beside a record player’s arm. As Corvo’s owner Wendelin Büchler explains, the animated icon shares the profile of a black-faced bird (in Italian, corvo means crow): “I love the crow as it is a very ambiguous bird which is often connected with death and the dark side of life. But also a very curious, funny and intelligent animal which misuses objects, transforms them into something new, just like the artists on our label.”
Proving that nostalgia is contagious, and that it’s never too late to revive the dead, cassette sales boomed nearly 75 percent during 2016. And yet, untouched by the latest market craze, Wendelin appreciates the participation unique to the vinyl medium, “Flipping a record becomes a kind of a performative aspect while listening to an LP. I love the idea that you are forced to activate yourself in order to gain the music.”
Much of Corvo’s cover artwork is handled by Wendelin, who has a background in art and design. In addition to managing a label, designing records, creating music, and curating art exhibits, Wendelin practices art as a hobby. His drawings often take the form of quick sketches in public environments, “My ‘documentation drawings’ are a result of dealing with the dichotomy between executing a quick drawing to freeze a moment and the ongoing time while doing so.” Wendelin calls the abstract version of his improvised drawings ‘seismographic drawings’ (as seen below), involving “visualizing vibrations, e.g. in public transport, by letting the vibrations guide the pencil on the paper and thus creating a kind of a ‘map’ of my moving through a certain territory.”
Wendelin also co-curates the Corvo sublabel Global Pop First Wave (GPFW) with art historian Holger Lund. GPFW focuses on overlooked pop music mixing Western and Eastern influences—especially Turkish rock, psychedelic, and beat music from the 1960s and 1970s. People often question Wendelin about the connection between the two extremely different music types. “First, I really love the music. And second, both labels are trying to find out what music can be,” Wendelin says. “In the case of GPFW, what kind of hybrids appear when mixing local and traditional with global music elements. In the case of Corvo Records, what are the borders to cross between sound poetry, turntablism, free improv, plunderphonics. . . So, what is music in general?”
When pressed to summarize Corvo’s creative agenda, Wendelin stresses the importance of supporting, what he calls, “risky music.” There is no refuge in Corvo’s roster. Process generated compositions share center stage with electroacoustic improvisations, which, in turn, share a back room with desolate covers of rural folk standards. Like its winged mascot, rummaging through rubble for signs of life, Corvo forages for sound art in a city which resists “the rules and streams of a global art market.” In short, Corvo Records is an ebony alchemist transforming what others discard, misusing conventions for the brave ears among us.
Beam Splitter — Rough Tongue
Beam Splitter is a curious duo for trombone and voice which blooms like an experiment in a petri dish. Complete with lab technicians ogling from a distance, carefully monitoring the spectacle, this is a study best led with smock and visor. Captured from live performances, Rough Tongue’s 11 tracks use only extended techniques to amplify tone and timbre. No melodies are repeated; all harmonies are skewed. Henrik Munkeby Nørstebø’s trombone often percolates in place, conjuring purring power lines, growling lions on the prowl, or yard tools on the fritz (don’t worry, they’re warrantied). Both fibrous and pliable, Audrey Chen’s wordless vocals wrap around Nørstebø’s mouthpiece, climb deep inside, then sprout tendrils out the horn; wobbly moans collide with clicks and chirps, gasping for air between piercing howls. Slow in motion, yet quick in phrasing, Beam Splitter swings precariously from trapeze bars, spinning wingless above the ground, taunting Mother Earth to claim gravity’s fugitives.
Reidemeister Move — Borromean Rings
The rings referenced in the title of Reidemeister Move’s album are found neither in a jewelry store, nor in the center of a redwood. Instead, Borromean Rings are native to knot theory, a mathematical branch of topology studying closed, looped curves in three dimensions. Comprised of two long tracks, both compositions are guided by a graphical score setting parameters for harmonic modulations. Moving slowly through the loosely structured framework, microtonal tubist Robin Hayward and contrabassist Christopher Williams secrete sedated moods between chest and solar plexus, leaving chakras tingling in puzzlement. In homage to the circle, nature’s simplest knot, it’s unclear who is leading whom, both players pacing the other, sinking slowly into fog. Each ragged ebbing teases partial pitches; each phrase resonates long as breath or bow allows, approaching, yet evading, harmonic resolution. Vibrating with a perilous mantra, Reidemeister Move explores a lugubrious prudence congealing in stoic repose.
Gilles Aubry — And Who Sees The Mystery
The credit list for And Who Sees The Mystery reads like a freak folk caravan mid ayahuasca retreat. Over a dozen musicians contributed, playing a variety of traditional Amazigh instruments. Chanted vocals drone behind blown reeds and clattering hand drums. Recorded in Morocco during sound checks and warm up sessions, Gilles Aubry challenges ethnography’s objectivity, preferring a messy expressionism. Credited with “performative feedback techniques,” Aubry conjures lashing razor wire throughout both sides of And Who Sees The Mystery. Stitching snippets of recordings using fishing line and rusty needles, Aubry’s collages soundtrack a universe birthing itself. The surreal montage peaks on side two: metallic overtones feverishly buzz, then suddenly expire, replaced with bird calls and throbbing feedback; soon, hand claps punctuate blasts from a zamar—a 12-holed, double clarinet used in war dances—snarling at passing cars. If this is the way the world began, humming in a dusty din, then we should return to it with open ears.
Ingrid Schmoliner / Elena Kakaliagou — Nabelóse
With vocals and instruments mic’d so closely that the speakers bead with sweat, the duo of Ingrid Schmoliner, responsible for prepared piano and yodeling, and French horn player Elena Kaliagou, repurpose traditional folk music from their native countries—Austria and Greece, respectively. The tone is solemn; a rosy hue spots the ghostlike pallor of its improvised dirges. Frigid, funerary, dank, Nabelóse trails kelp and lichen, weaving elements of earth and water, blanched for winter cellars. Whispered moans cloud with every breath, soaked with loamy snow. While the French horn bleats in fallow fields, the piano plinks or bows in dull quivers. Schmoliner and Kakaliagou make pastoral music dusted with cold ash from old fires, tickled beneath the chin with woolen blankets.
Nicolas Wiese — Living Theory Without Anecdotes
Nicholas Wiese’s Living Theory Without Anecdotes defies brief narrative. Across four compositions, Wiese strategically layers samples from acoustic instruments (such as zither, cello, clarinet, and flute). The sweeping sounds float within an ambiguous space, emerging by night when the curtains are drawn. A gelatinous layer swells—constantly accelerating, but never gaining speed—while samples of tinkling percussion and plucked strings skip across tonal rows. Each of the four tracks are governed by a different creative process. The most ambitious track, “Der Elefant im Porzellankäfig,” borrows samples from Thorsten Soltau which Wiese replays through speakers covered with sound-blocking materials—filtering sound through foreign membranes. The longest track, El Jardín Revisitado, is sourced from a 2-hour video project from which Wiese molds melodies defying laws of motion. Living Theory Without Anecdotes is a musique concrète stroboscope flickering in a basement: creeping hallucinations without destination.
Gino Robair, Ezramo, David French, Wendelin Büchler, Argo Ulva — PopeWAFFEN
Improvised for maximum delirium, PopeWAFFEN is delicious in small doses, yet dangerous if swallowed. Featuring Gino Robair’s Blippo Box (a sound generator which operates according to principles of chaos theory), Ezramo’s mutant vocals, David French’s musical toys, Wendelin Büchler’s prepared guitar, and blasts of trumpet from Argo Ulva, PopeWAFFEN is a poltergeist quintet of rambling calamity. Short phrases unspool, playfully tangling with neighboring melodies. The collective’s collusions resemble an art brut line drawing: a ferocious, flatulent tribute to dragon baby’s first bar crawl. It’s ragged, jagged, acid-washed magic. Like the finest tooth ache throbbing on this side of the Atlantic, PopeWAFFEN is unmediated, and unmedicated—it hurts so good it just might be transcendent.
Thorsten Soltau — Grün wie Milch / Preslav Literary School — Alamut
Hailed as a “beautifully compiled mix of gaudy plunderphonics,” Thorsten Soltau’s Grün wie Milch, harvests craggy sounds from forgotten vinyl records. Groaning against the turntable, Soltau’s samples scorn audio fidelity—sounding dirtier than a rumor in a high school locker room. With each rotation, the stylus slips deeper into sinkholes of floundering, flailing loops, smacking of sibilant crackles. Through Grün wie Milch’s murk emerges snippets of percussion, hypnotic piano, and pitched-shifted voices, all clawing for traction in the sweltering madness.
Preslav Literary School’s Alamut creates phantom symphonies from tape loops. Opening with a Ronald Reagan speech, the prologue fades into a Bach fugue dipped and dragged through molasses. A ternary bass line slowly repeats, sustained while smears of organ swirl overhead. The melody eventually expires; but returns more granulated, billowing through cathedrals of reverb. The outro pixelates the organ further, distorted loops rocking beside wobbling bass. Both homely and ethereal, Alamut dozes in a thread-bare rocking chair fit for urban angels.