Review: Paul Nataraj – You Sound Like A Broken Record

It’s an appropriate time to be writing this review. Recently I’ve been thinking about how the listener impresses themselves upon the listening experience and vice versa. I’m planning to include a new section in the ATTN:Newsletter this month, where an artist writes a few sentences on a particularly memorable listening experience from their past; a moment at which an album chimed perfectly with circumstance, or offered a glimmer of consolation in a moment of misery, or simply found itself loitering in the background of an unforgettable event. While the presence of music can reframe or galvanise the significance of experience (see also: almost every film ever made), our own experiences can also instigate a reframing of music. I have records in my collection whose melodies now carry various haunts on their backs; no longer mere configurations of vibrations and wavelengths, but instigators of vivid nostalgic re-living. William Basinski’s “d|p 4” now triggers the memory of stranded at Brighton train station after my first big break-up, while Automatic For The People by R.E.M. takes me back to long car journeys – the motorways, the Cotswold hillsides – on the way to seeing my dad every other Saturday.

You Sound Like A Broken Record is, in part, an exploration of this intrinsic link between listening and personal experience. Volunteers gifted some of their most treasured vinyls to Nataraj, who then inscribed the owner’s memories and anecdotes on the surface of the record. In doing so, he remarks on the vinyl as an outsourcing of memory, as much a sonic medium as a reservoir for nostalgia. The needle passes over the music written into the grooves, but also the pops and crackles of written subjective experience; those thoughts and images whose presence is as potent as the musical instruments themselves, forcing original artistic intention to feud with the interruptive dents of new meaning.

There’s a final step in the process. Nataraj has collated both the output of the vandalised records and the audio of his interviews with his volunteers, using this material as the raw fabric for an entirely fresh compositional work: slicing up beats and voices into new rhythms, sending split-second fragments into stuttering loops and new melodic motifs, blending the rustling recordings of one volunteer with the anecdotal retellings of another. I hear fragments of stories without beginnings – songs sung about roses and tulips, single words dislocated from grand narratives – strung through stumbling hip hop beats and the crackling residue of flutes and retro electronics, or welded to glitching fractions of anthemic choruses. A paradox emerges. In part, this audio is reverted back to its original state – a semantically vacant blotch of colour, ripped away from its source context and free to be used within a brand new patchwork. Yet once I know the process behind Nataraj’s work, it’s impossible to not hear the traces of haunt and love and intimacy within his collages.

You Sound Like A Broken Record resides at the two extremes of the spectrum. On one end, it perceives sound as a vessel for personal significance and a map through annuls of memory. On the other, it lays the semantics to waste, reducing sound to husks of source audio that can be ruthlessly chopped, delayed and reversed into new shapes. As such, the final product is both a homage to potency of subjective listening experiences, and the audio equivalent of coming home to find that someone has turned your childhood photo album into a cut-and-glue abstract collage, using the blues and reds of beloved toys and favourite clothing for their colour profile alone. It’s a sentimental work. It’s a nihilistic work. It’s a lot of fun to think about, and a lot of fun to listen to.