The Dramaturgy of Decay

Futura Resistenza / RESLP031 LP/DL (2024)

Recalling early fears of recording technology, The Dramaturgy of Decay by Mark Vernon explores ghostly voices, distorted and intangible. Vernon’s aural cinema reflects decay in ruined films, echoing the sonic texture of vanished places and voices. Amidst matters of death and environmental degradation, the album still holds tones of humour and familiarity. Through fragments of reworked audio letters, it unfolds a sonic journey through forgotten moments, wresting life from the ephemeral. The Dramaturgy of Decay is a deeply haunting but beautiful reflection on time in the form of sound—an otherworldly musical experience resonating between past and present.

Released by Futura Resistenza as limited edition LP in full colour sleeve featuring artwork by the artist. Accompanying text written by Elodie A. Roy.

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“When the first cameras were introduced, some people were terrified the machine would steal their soul and refused to be photographed. A similar fear appeared when early sound recording technologies came about. To record the human voice meant: to split it from the living, breathing body, making a phantom out of it. Mark Vernon’s new LP reminds me of the ancient fear and attraction of recording. There is something wonderfully ghostly about The Dramaturgy of Decay. It contains many distorted voices, close yet infinitely impalpable, out of reach.

The voices appear and disappear. They merge with other elements. Sometimes they get submerged, erased. They infinitely become something else. And I wonder: Am I now hearing the sound of the sea, of the wind in the trees? Is this the sound of a haunted house – or the haunted house of sound itself?

Vernon composes a cinema for the ears. Something uniquely textured and immediately present. I think of The Dramaturgy of Decay as a sonic equivalent to the ruined films of Bill Morrison (Decasia, 2002) or Peter Delpeut (Lyrical Nitrate, 1991). I hear the tape, the sound of the medium – and I hear it disappearing – I see the end coming. And yet the disappearance is not tragic. There is a vein of humour gently running throughout the album. For all their eeriness, Vernon’s soundscapes carry with them something comfortingly familiar – something delicate and tender like the Super 8 films of Jonas Mekas.

Vernon has long been fascinated with home-recordings and the urgent poetry of the everyday. On The Dramaturgy of Decay we hear snippets of audio letters, messages left on answering machines (“Pouring From Hollow to Empty”, “The Years Simply Dissolved”). The messages get reworked and rearranged, slowed down and taken apart. Somewhere people are forever clapping, laughing. Tentatively playing the piano. Singing uncertainly. Vernon patiently excavates the real, revealing a soundscape of the forgotten, the buried, the invisible.

Everything in The Dramaturgy of Decay speaks of death – of the irreversible passing of time, of vanishing places and voices – of that which will not return. His work captures the infinitely slow yet resolute movement of erasure, the empty place where something used to be. It also reflects the wider destruction of our environment.

Yet there is no necrophilic impulse here. As Vernon converses with the lost, the transient and the dead, it seems to me he is tirelessly extracting life from them. And he reveals not their deadness but rather the quick, living eternity of instants. The Dramaturgy of Decay is a reflection on time through sound. But, most importantly, it is extremely beautiful music. Not quite of this world and, yet, not of any other world. It is music for the here and now.”

Elodie A. Roy, January 2024


“Listen closely to The Dramaturgy of Decay, and we hear traces of lives left behind. Mark Vernon crafts elaborate sonic vestiges, as though voices adrift in the howls of the wind are caught in an imperceptible net and assembled into narrative soundforms. We search for messages in the static and dust, the textural shapes Vernon weaves into these pieces.”

Brad Rose, Foxy Digitalis (April, 2024)

“…the collage of these sounds coming together, the resulting artistry of the bricklayer’s hands at work, inspires us to remember our own past, and recall our own fragmented memories.”

Jeremy Young, The Royal Editoryal (May, 2024)


Reviews in Full

“Listen closely to The Dramaturgy of Decay, and we hear traces of lives left behind. Mark Vernon crafts elaborate sonic vestiges, as though voices adrift in the howls of the wind are caught in an imperceptible net and assembled into narrative soundforms. Hollow tones echo against burnished metallic surfaces, feeling empty and resonant. We search for messages in the static and dust, the textural shapes Vernon weaves into these pieces. The way these sounds sit in their haunted essence and soak up the microscopic movements rotting in the margins heightens this feeling of impermanence at their core. Even the voice samples are surreal remnants, simultaneously familiar and strange. The Dramaturgy of Decay may seem fleeting, but its aural language stays around long after the last whisper.”

Brad Rose, Foxy Digitalis, The Capsule Garden Vol 3.11, April 24, 2024

“Mark Vernon is a sound artist’s sound artist. He thinks about sound, he thinks about sounds, how they feel, their effect on human perception and their inherent storytelling capabilities, and he thinks very deeply about how he wants to organize sounds for us.

I will get descriptive about this new record in just a moment but, for the first time, I’d like to make sure you know a little bit more about Vernon before I do. This is unusual for me because it’s not that I don’t appreciate the “how” and “why” (the press release bits) of music, in general, in fact I do tremendously. It’s just that my thinking with this blog is that you can usually find that info elsewhere so mostly I want to try to describe an artist’s album in a way that does justice to the creativity in the music.

All that said, there are artists out there who have earned so much of my respect over the years, who have paid their dues a thousand times over, who work so passionately hard, and who give back to their community of creative practitioners 10x what they themselves reap.

And one of those, unequivocally, is Mark Vernon. At least for just this once, I’d like to introduce you to just some of Vernon’s incredible work.

For one thing, he co-runs and operates Glasgow’s art radio station Radiophrenia, which culminates once a year as a listening festival. He was also a founding member of Glasgow’s Radio Tuesday collective, has set up several other art radio projects in the UK like Hair Waves, Efford FM, and Nowhere Island Radio. He’s created tons of sonic projects and albums both solo and with an extreme variety of collaborators. And since 2011, he has co-run the Lights Out Listening Group, a bi-monthly event focused on creative listening in complete darkness.

He’s also a fervent tape collector. I’m a tape collector, and as a tape enthusiast myself, yes I am totally jealous of Vernon’s archives.

I didn’t mention this biographical data because it should tell you how to listen to Vernon’s work, it doesn’t need that explanation, but rather as an invitation into a sound world that is already so densely packed with meaning, sometimes it’s okay to feel like a guest in someone else’s home when it comes to music.

And on this note, one of the central feelings I get when I listen to his work, and The Dramaturgy of Decay specifically, is like we’re looking through old photograph albums in an elderly couple’s living room over a pot of tea. We’re being told tiny fragments of stories, stories plucked from lives well lived that are not our own, moments and memories that we can claim no ownership of but are allowed to borrow for make believe, and come around to visit from time to time.

And there’s a magic alchemy when that happens in sound. We hear voices from the past, the tape recorder gives us access to that person’s story in a brief, privileged slice of time, and yet the collage of these sounds coming together, the resulting artistry of the bricklayer’s hands at work, inspires us to remember our own past, and recall our own fragmented memories.

Why is that?

What is that effect?

There’s something about how we cognitively allow individual stories to remain distant, but when they compound and compile, we begin to see ourselves in the accumulation or combination of sounds and stories. And I’d venture to hypothesize that this derives from our human need to make links between the collective and our individual experiences in life, perhaps for the survival of our clans.

Around a campfire, we share, and we make sense of the world communally to be better prepared for its obstacles and mysteries. Sharing is connecting.

Such would’ve been very much the case in England’s mid-century Tape Recording Clubs, which is another of Vernon’s research obsessions. Here’s a quote from Vernon explaining this hidden history briefly:

“At one time there were tape recording clubs dotted all around the country – dedicated amateurs would meet and swap tips, exchange recordings, enter competitions and arrange activities such as field recording trips. Eager members would lug heavy reel-to-reel recorders around the countryside, to church concerts, fire stations, airports and carnivals to capture the sounds around them. Many experimented with their recording techniques, putting together their own documentaries, plays, quizzes or pre-recorded slide-show commentaries.”

A source of sound material that Vernon has tapped into occasionally, it’s clear that these tape recording clubs would’ve featured a bright variety of personalities and a ton of social informality and amateur-borne whimsy. But at the heart of it is the act of sharing amongst members of a non-judgmental community, and connecting with one another.

But I haven’t even talked about the main theme of this record according to Vernon as it’s referenced in the title. A lot of this record concerns “decay,” the beautiful, strange, ephemeral, and silly at times phenomenon of things leaving us here on planet Earth.

Whether that means things actually decomposing over time, or our memory of those things, or our ability to comprehend things, whether decay is actually just as if to say that things fade into each other, or even perhaps to suggest decay as the first stage of regrowth and regeneration, Vernon definitely uses this as a conceptual jumping off point. It touches everything here, and is a central focal point when listening to this music.

Some pieces on The Dramaturgy of Decay sound like we’re sifting through a pile of old dusty objects we excavated from a dirt hole in the yard, and examining them one by one. Nothing’s quite clear, nothing sounds as good as it did when it was first recorded, but there’s just enough signal in the noise to get a glimpse of that original moment, and we can happily let our minds wander to fill out the rest of the picture ourselves.

And that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?”

Jeremy Young, The Royal Editoryal May, 2024