Ricardo Villalobos/Max Loderbauer: Re: ECM (ECM 2211/12)

Re: ECM

Ricardo Villalobos electronics
Max Loderbauer electronics
Soundstructures by Ricardo Villalobos and Max Loderbauer
Developed and produced at Laika Studio, Berlin, September-December 2009
Pre-mastering: Rashad Becker
Mastering: Manfred Eicher and Christoph Stickel
Original recordings produced by Manfred Eicher

The term “acousmatic” was first used in reference to the philosopher Pythagoras, who delivered his lectures from behind a screen while his students sat mutely on the other side. Many centuries later saw the introduction of European closed-eye listening practices, blindfolding audiences to ensure a musical experience devoid of visual bias or distraction. Yet it would take musique concrète pioneer Pierre Schaeffer to realize the deeper potential of such a situation when he replaced screen with loudspeakers, from which issued sound collages of indeterminable origin. Now the ears wore the blindfold. According to Schaeffer, imaginary sounds are ontologically distinct from the objects that produce them. They begin with an effect and work back to cause. The acousmatic experience, then, fundamentally separates sound from source.

This equation is never foolproof. Once the sound in question has been activated it takes on a familiarity of its own. Where Schaeffer perhaps shortchanged his own convictions was in never turning the mirror around, for the mise-en-abyme of his sonic philosophy indicates not only an external distinction, but also an internal one—namely, that in their solicitation found sounds morph into experiences in and of themselves. The severance is a divided cell, an audible illusion whereby infinity speaks.

Another possibility: that, even in the intimate knowledge of a source, the acousmatic experience may thrive. Acousmaticity depends on spacing of source, case, and effect; on reversibility between inner and outer. At its heart is an aporia. It can never be more than an interpretive effect of the listener. In such a context, our instinct pushes us toward treating sound as material, especially when we can hold recorded art in our hands and manipulate its realization at will. The moment we press PLAY, two temporal realities—that of the recording and that of the listening—share a space. Time collapses.

With this in mind, I turn to minimal techno wunderkind Ricardo Villalobos and experimentalist Max Loderbauer, who were given permission by Manfred Eicher to dip their hands into his label’s unfathomable catalogue and finger-paint a fresh compositional framework of suggestion and inner-space. As a self-styled “synthesis of two musical worlds,” Re: ECM does, in fact, create a third, acousmatic one. Without access to individual tracks, the Berlin-based DJs looked to separable bits for sampling, and to the gaps therein. In so doing, they went beyond effect to aftereffect, charting the ghosts of these pristinely recorded sounds (which, no matter how you splice them, betray their source). Yet in the hands of this artful duo, even the obsessive ECM listener (points to self) will find there is still an enigma to be had. Much of this feeling derives from the fact that Villalobos and Loderbauer took an improvisational approach to layering these loops and elements in the studio. Their acousmaticity goes from the outside in.

At the risk of oversimplifying, I am tempted to separate this recording’s mesh into its classical and jazz streams. Though the genres are not so distant, their approach manifests differently throughout. Looking to the latter first, we find a marked balance of organic and electronic. More than balance, even, is the unity of these two categories—again, not so distant. Said unity comes mostly from the Christian Wallumrød Ensemble, specifically the Fabula Suite Lugano (ECM 2118), making adroit use of Giovanna Pessi’s baroque harp in “Reblop” and its counterpart, “Replob.” Both are sparkling odes. Pianos unravel chains of icicles, swaying hand in hand with satellite interruptions and wave distortions. The inevitable nod to Jon Hassell comes in “Requote,” for which a cunning horn winds its way in a bowed expanse of intimate measure. “Redetach” ends the album on a snare- and cymbal-driven journey into the center of a vast digital biome. Gloopy and viscous, this bubbling drone touches feet to ground, its back to sunset. The remaining Wallumrød refraction comes in “Recat,” this time from The Zoo Is Far (ECM 2005), for a groovy, if subdued, drum ‘n’ bass vibe. Gut strings wince in self-reflective heartbeats as the ghosts of drums flip from open to shut. With its scattered rhythms, rusty veneer, and granola crunch, this track takes due cue from Boards of Canada. Out of this shadowy enclave we are dropped like buckshot into water for “Retimeless.” Penning its tale from the ink of Timeless (ECM 1047), its windblown beats and vocal blips dance their gavotte in moonlight. Miroslav Vitous’s Emergence (ECM 1312) affords another fond look back at some of the label’s classics, as does “Rensenada,” drawn from Bennie Maupin’s The Jewel In The Lotus (ECM 1043). Whereas “Reemergence” lives on the underside of a snare drum, the other lumbers across its top surface before liftoff. Louis Sclavis makes a knotted cameo in “Reannounce.” The raw material this time is his L’imparfait des langues (ECM 1954). Metals and reeds flick their throats away like the cigarettes that have destroyed them, leaving a pile of dreams for ashes. Clay percussion trades places with outer contacts, devolving into a contest of morals for the sample-addicted. The Wolfert Brederode Quartet’s Currents (ECM 2004) finds new life in “Recurrence.” As much a mantra as a challenge to silence, it finds itself flanged for want of a sharper blade. Enrico Rava’s Tati feathers the wings of “Rebird,” a distorted pathway of grace.

From Russian composer Alexander Knaifel comes the bulk of the album’s classical skeleton. As the dark side of this moon, it puts the emotional back into the rhythm-formula of the club, seeking in its body-to-body connections something akin to the heart-to-heart. Much of this pulse comes from Svete Tikhiy (ECM New Series 1763) and Amicta Sole (New Series 1731), giving us soprano Tatiana Melentieva’s otherworldly rise above all in “Resvete.” In such primordial surroundings, she sounds for all like Cathy Berberian reborn, radiant still through a tintinnabulation of brushes and cymbals. Distant sirens splash through smoke and cloud, each indistinguishable from the other against the Ligeti-like whispers of “Retikhiy.” Where in this ritual passage rhythm remains paramount, sandy and free, in “Resole” it recedes for a spacy vibe reminiscent of Vesptertine-era Björk. BLAZHENSTVA (New Series 1957) yields its embryonic “Reblazhenstva,” laying choral strains on a bedding of digital beats while a cello spasms and swoons from its own melancholy residue. Swiss violinist Paul Giger’s Ignis (New Series 1681) makes a morose appearance in “Reshadub.” Its drums tremble before an oncoming train of opaque intentions, crumbling into radio dial anxieties at the moment of death. This leaves only Arvo Pärt, whose Kanon pokajanen (New Series 1654/55) inspires the throat-sung drones and sacred curtain of “Rekondakion.”

All of this shares a border with a glitch aesthetic, by which the crust of representation cracks open to reveal something intrepid and uncompromising. Its skin hosts as many nests of reality as there are humans, each a node of anxiety. Whether or not this anxiety yields pleasure has much to do with personal preference, but also with the fact that all sounds are phenomena. Only our allegiance determines their marketability. And so, if we instead let the organic experiments of Villalobos and Loderbauer breathe as they will, if we avoid weighing down their pockets with texts such as this, then the soundness of their message will grow of its own accord, rampant and unbridled in the photosynthesis of blind appreciation.

(My thanks to Brian Kane, whose discussion of acousmatics gave me context for the present review. To hear samples of Re: ECM, click here.)

Nils Petter Molvær: Khmer (ECM 1560)

Nils Petter Molvær
Khmer

Nils Petter Molvær trumpet, electric guitar, bass guitar, percussion, samples
Eivind Aarset electric guitar, effects, ambient treatments
Ulf W. Ø. Holand samples
Morten Mølster electric guitar
Roger Ludvigsen acoustic guitar, percussion, dulcimer
Rune Arnesen drums
Reidar Skår samples, keyboards
Recorded 1996/97 at Lydlab A/S, Oslo
Engineer: Ulf W. Ø. Holand
Produced by Manfred Eicher and Ulf W. Ø. Holand

Khmer marks a monumental occasion: namely, the debut leader date of Nils Petter Molvær. Fresh off the boat of Small Labyrinths, the Norwegian trumpet player came out of left field with one of those rare albums that becomes second nature after only one listen. NPM, as he is also known, epitomizes ECM’s transcendental spirit with a collage of unbridled passion and integrity. Combining influences as diverse, if not also as intimately connected, as rock, ambient, dub, techno, and jazz, he deploys his mercurial fleet in a sea of samples, breakbeats, and smooth dives. Also carrying over from the Small Labyrinths session is hard rocker Eivind Aarset, who bookends the album with his e-bow guitar treatments and foils the delicate additions of free improviser Morten Mølster along the way. Mari Boine band regular Roger Ludvigsen adds six strings and more, playing prepared guitar and dulcimer, and along with drummer Rune Arnesen fleshes out the band’s acoustic signature. Yet it is keyboardist Reidar Skår and co-producer Ulf W. Ø. Holand who give the music just the kick it needs to hit the ground running. Holand, whose Lydlab is two floors above Oslo’s hallowed Rainbow Studio, provided samples and enough studio time to help shape the album into what it has become, while Skår brought his magic touch to said samples and others, manipulating them into an organic whole. The result is a classic that fits snugly alongside ECM’s all-time best.

Despite what from the above may seem like a grandiose experiment, the flow of Khmer is built around cells of rhythmic and melodic delicacy. It is only through the skill of the musicians, producers, and engineer that over a modest 43 minutes these cells build into fully fledged organisms. We hear this in the berimbau taps and snaking guitar lines that open the title track, giving plenty of net for Molvær’s distinct lobs. This feeling of pulse, sere and crystalline, burgeons in “Tløn,” which gives our first taste of the album’s electronic spread. A descending trumpet line hooks on to one of the catchiest samples you’ll ever hear (courtesy of Coldcut’s cult dance sampler, Kleptomania!). The mounting drums and talk-boxed vocals send this brew into active fermentation. NPM’s presence is intermittent, offering the occasional fluid monologue (enhanced to an electric guitar’s sheen), thereby allowing the group’s emergence to swing forth. Shawm-like cries throw up their hands to the rhythm of windblown leaves, ending on that same solo line, recycled and returned. The sediment-rich waterway of “Access” chains us to the digital ablution of “Song Of Sand I.” Funk reigns supreme, meshing with orchestral swells suggestive of Cypher 7’s “Message Important,” while also bearing Manfred Eicher’s stamp of focused communication. “On Stream” allows NPM to stretch his muscles more humbly. We hear the preparatory rhythms of his breathing against a subliminal caravan beat. “Platonic Years” continues down this percussive road. If the Bill Laswell influences were already felt in the low-end execution, here they blossom in a sample from his classic Axiom double album, Lost In The Translation, melding with breath and drum. “Phum” gives us a bubble of air to suck on in the rising waters before “Song Of Sand II” unleashes the selfsame track’s grittier side. Thus do we “Exit,” shifting, dreaming of doing it all over again.

Khmer was, for its time, a culmination of everything ECM had striven for in bridging styles, times, and places. An album with a sound, if there ever was one…

Khmer: The Remixes (ECM 1560/M)

…but the journey didn’t end there, for Eicher and company went a step farther when the following year they released ECM’s first remix albums, allowing for even greater expansion into fresh idiomatic territories. The Remixes offers up three re-interpretations, starting with The Herbaliser’s DJ Fjørd Mix of “Platonic Years,” which against heavy beats and filtered pizzicato touches stretches its trip-hop legs. Another twist of the prism gives us Mental Overdrive’s Dance Mix of “Tløn.” What seems like a meditative introduction washes into half the remix before the promised dance begins, rendered all the more cathartic for coming out of such a viscous carriage. “Song Of Sand” also goes under the knife, appearing in a “Single Edit” but finding greater traction in Rockers Hi-Fi’s Coastal Warning Mix. All of this makes for some head-nodding goodness.


Ligotage (ECM 1560/L)

Ligotage is a single in the truest sense, its cloudy title track straight off NPM’s follow-up, Solid Ether. This thought-provoking track is couched by an unedited version of “On Stream” and Mother Nature’s Cloud & Shower Show Mix of “Song Of Sand,” which sounds for all like Boards of Canada doing funk (this cut also appeared on a special promo remix edition, ECM 1560/S).

When I first bought this album in college, I played it for anyone who would listen. I brought it with me wherever I went and fed it into every stereo I encountered. On one such occasion, a friend smiled when I asked what he thought and said, “Groovy.”

Right on.

Heiner Goebbels: Hörstücke (ECM 1452-54)

Heiner Goebbels
Hörstücke
based on texts by Heiner Müller and featuring the talents of:
David Bennent
Peter Brötzmann
Peter Hollinger
Kammerchor Horbach
Alexander Kluge
René Lussier
Megalomaniax
Heiner Müller
Walter Raffeiner
Otto Sander
Ernst Stötzner
We Wear The Crown
Die Befreiung des Prometheus recorded and edited by Walter Brüssow, Heiner Goebbels, Peter Jochum, Gisbert Lackner, Gerlind Raue, Rainer Schulz, and Martha Seeberger
Produced 1985 by Hessischer Rundfunk and Südwestfunk
Verkommenes Ufer edited by Peter Jochum, Martha Seeberger, and Heiner Goebbels
MAeLSTROMSÜDPOL recorded 1987/88 at F.T.F. and Unicorn Studios, Frankfurt/Main
Engineers: Peter Fey and Jürgen Hiller
Mixed at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced 1984 by Hessischer Rundfunk
Wolokolamsker Chaussee recorded at Unicorn Studio, Frankfurt/Main and Südwestfunk Baden-Baden
Engineers: Thomas Krause and Alfred Habelitz
Mixing engineer: Alfred Habelitz
Produced 1989/90 by Südwestfunk, Hessischer Rundfunk and Bayerischer Rundfunk
Album produced by ECM

My respect for Heiner Goebbels only increases with each work I encounter. Yet while his art, not least through frequent collaborations with linguistic wizard Heiner Müller, has always had its heart in drama, from this collection of radio plays that drama emerges—in the wake of German reunification, no less—with a fresh, genuine voice.

The first of this massive collection’s four plays, Die Befreiung des Prometheus (The Liberation of Prometheus), will sound familiar to those who’ve followed Goebbels in chronological order, for its themes had already made an appearance on Herakles 2 two years before. Both are based on a chunk of text from Müller’s Cement, only here we actually come to know that text amid a filmic montage of others. This process of splicing places, spaces, and times for new mythology will be familiar to any Goebbels listener, but it rings more intensely than ever. From the opening nod to Laurie Andersen we feel right at home. Like her Superman, Müller’s Prometheus is deconstructed from the inside out. Rather than carrying the flame of knowledge, he roasts over that flame his own sustenance at the gods’ table, where he is doomed to eat himself in an eternal circle of hunger and release. Though freed by Heracles, he is plagued by a waning remembrance of godliness, chewed and spat by the rock of the earth. Where Goebbels excels is that, in setting all of this, he manages to evoke a wealth of environmental details that his mosaic of voices can only hint at. Through the bubbling crude of his electronic interventions, he unpacks intimations of the zeitgeist with enviable intelligibility. Incidental sounds turn and tumble, grasping at the enamel-hidden scraps of mastication in hopes of picking off a morsel, ending up instead with a fist full of weeds, and it is these we must weave into a basket if we are ever to catch a sense of things. Metallic edges, heavily serrated and rusted over with time, melt in our gaze. Goebbels marks these rhythms with clips and starts. Snatches of the everyday butt up against unpredictable and sometimes-confrontational turns, but always with a uniquely organic energy.

Verkommenes Ufer (Despoiled Shore) takes its seed from an early (1955) play by Müller. For this project, Thorsten Becker asked fifty strangers in Berlin to read the text in question, thus yielding the raw material for Goebbels’s subsequent mash-up. Because none of the readers were familiar with the text, their renderings bring out inner truths. What begins as a writhing and inarticulate being in the final product resolves itself into a landscape of hesitations, loops, and, above all, porous communication. The Argonaut’s promise kisses the face of chance too many times, leaving only the corpses of a onetime progeny swinging in the wind of manipulation. Poison seeps through the ground in reverse, seeking out those vials from which it was poured, but finding only the fullness of adolescent laughter wafting across the urban sprawl. A masterstroke in the Goebbels/Müller canon.

The album’s cover photo is taken from its third play, MAeLSTROMSÜDPOL (MAeLSTROMSOUTHPOLE). If its blood-red wash of solitude is any indication, we might easily know its fascination with reality and disconnect before a single word grabs us. The continuity of the text, inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym, is its own contradiction, carving out of those syllables a subterranean world. Speech stores hidden desires in its vowels, misted by white noise and the song of an open cataract: drones and queens, reeds and marshes, all blended into a smoothie only a ghost might drink. It is a photograph that grows blurrier the more it develops. The only way to discern it is to drink the vat of chemicals that brought it to visible life. Echoes turn into birds, the shimmering backdrop of an open mike emceed by the mistress of our deepest nightmares. “OH KEEP THE DOG,” she croons, as if to cut the running line that binds us to everything. She overwhelms us with the responsibilities of liberation.

Last is Wolokolamsker Chaussee (Volokolamsk Highway). Based largely on motives from writers Alexander Bek and Anna Seghers, this self-reflective look at social change in the DDR’s last gasps is vitriolic through and through. Part I, “Russian gambit,” introduces the voice of stage actor Ernst Stötzner and music by heavy metal band Megolomaniax. The combination is a fortuitous one, for the sheer theatricality of the language almost screams for these experienced thespians of two not-so-different stages (though, as Verkommenes shows, this needn’t be so across the board). Bloodshed and total recall dance with one another, spinning their way to “Forest near Moscow.” Stötzner continues his tirade, only now with gentler guitar accompaniment. Death still looms in every pregnant pause, given just enough room to spread a pair of wings which, though flightless, can at least move enough to remember flight. Some preparatory shuffling in Part III, “The Duel,” opens a 20-minute call and response between Stötzner and men’s choir, all of whom join lungs to blow the dust off the mood of German Arbeiterlieder. Behind the scenes, the musc underscores an important truth: namely, that no matter how robust we spin our sentiments regarding human existence on paper, they would all burst into ashen death at the touch of a match. Part IV, “Centaurs” (the title of which, a booklet note reminds us, comes from the Old Greek for “red tape”), recasts Kafka’s Gregor Samsa in a world ordered by totalitarianism, a theme finds blatant traction in a recycling of Shostakovich’s (in)famous Symphony No. 7. The narrative is even more localized in the mouth, which bites a desk in order to prevent its screams from tearing out the still-beating heart of resistance. The fifth and final part, “The Foundling” (after Kleist), is perhaps the most unusual, if only for being backed by hip-hop group We Wear The Crown. Stötzner’s “rapping” is a mélange of generic signatures that transcends its surroundings even as it relies wholly on them. In this prison of madmen speaking in “MARXANDENGELSTONGUES” there is only room for forgetting.

German speakers and/or those up on their German history (I can count myself among neither) will surely get the most out of this recording whose booklet forgoes translating every word (especially in Prometheus)—a real shame considering the parodic depths awaiting our swan dive of relish. The language is visceral in the deepest sense, at times vulgar but always self-aware. Completists wanting the most unfettered glimpse into the architecture of Goebbels’s craft would do well to track down this invaluable set. Though the sentiments throughout are as complex as their politics, certain common themes exploit the connections between songs and conflicts. Through songs we can hide in the foxholes of life and cover our heads against any aerial assault, but in the end all of their lyrics flow through us, be they of the enemy, of our mothers, or of ourselves.

Jon Hassell: Power Spot (ECM 1327)

Jon Hassell
Power Spot

Jon Hassell trumpet
J. A. Deane percussion, alto flute
Jean-Philippe Rykiel keyboards
Michael Brook guitar
Richard Horowitz keyboards
Brian Eno bass
Richard and Paul Armin RAAD electro-acoustic strings
Miguel Frasconi flute
Recorded October 1983 and December 1984, Grant Avenue Studio, Ontario
Assistant  engineering: David Bottrill and Roman Zack
Produced and engineered by Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois

American composer and trumpeter Jon Hassell is best known for his music of the Fourth World, which he describes as “coffee-colored classical.” The definition becomes clearer once you immerse yourself in the sounds of Power Spot. Hassell’s career is as varied as his education. A student of both Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pandit Pran Nath, he is known for overlooking idiomatic barriers in favor of something far broader. Nath left an indelible mark in Hassell, who turned to the master’s voice for guidance in his own playing. His unmistakable tones are achieved by singing into the instrument, thereby drawing clusters of sounds from a single exhalation. This recording is significant for a number of reasons, not least for indicating a moment in sonic history in which the electro-acoustic universe was beginning to spin some of its richer, more majestic galaxies. The music on Power Spot radiates like a supernova waiting patiently for the traction of celestial bodies to fan its clouds away, revealing softly spinning globes of breath and vapor. With such evocative titles as “Wing Melodies” and “The Elephant And The Orchid,” one feels almost overwhelmed by the range of possible imagery. And yet, like any question of mode or genre thereof, these words disappear behind the music’s waterfall.

At first listen the album may seem to blend into a broad wash of sound, but lean in closer and you begin to hear the details emerge. The title track is perhaps the most potent, opening this portal to a wellspring of beats and train whistles. Brian Eno’s amphibian bass slithers through a pond of liquid mercury, fading into the gaseous darkness from which it sprang. Otherworldly connotations are bound to reveal themselves, and nowhere more so than in “Passage D.E.,” which sounds for all like the soundtrack to a documentary of some undiscovered planet. Notable also is “Miracle Steps,” where live percussion provides marked contrast to the synthetic overlay, drawing in the process the album’s most beautiful cartography.

Power Spot is one protracted aerial view, a bubbling primordial soup of circuits and blips, funneled through such progressive sense of direction and atmosphere as only Hassell can activate. Unlike much of the knob-turning to grace the many electronic albums of the 80s, its sound is strikingly effusive and organic. In this ocean, one finds that the light of life shines brightest on the inside. It is a light that no clouds can obscure, a light that no darkness can close its eyes around. It is a journey of transience, of transport, of futurism and antiquity, of none of these things. Influential? More than words can say. Just listen to Paul Schütze’s Stateless, or the works of countless others who’ve clearly drunk from the Hassell font.

A perfect specimen.

Kurtágonals (ECM New Series 2097)

 

Kurtágonals

László Hortobágyi synthesizers, computers
György Kurtág Jr. synthesizers
Miklós Lengyelfi bass, effects
Recorded August 2008 at the Guo Manor, Budapest
Produced by Hortogonals

In the landscape of electronic music among European art circles, the name of Pierre Schaeffer (1910-1995) is a monumental landmark. A pioneer in musique concrète and its ancillary technologies, Schaeffer introduced a remarkable line-up of composers to new and exciting possibilities in audible media, not least among them Luc Ferarri, Iannis Xenakis, Jean Barraqué, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Pierre Boulez. Boulez is particularly important in the context of this album, for he would go on to found the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique, or IRCAM, where György Kurtág Jr. later studied. Boulez’s rocky association with Henry led to a schism between the former’s insistence on the integrity of electro-acoustic configurations over the latter’s “computer music.” I find this conflict to be a moot one, however, when considering that instrumental music immediately becomes “electronic” the moment it is recorded, and that electronic music becomes “acoustic” when played through speakers in any given environment. Also, much of Schaeffer’s pioneering work, such as his entrancing Symphonie pour un homme seul (1951), was fundamentally rooted in the acoustical properties of live instruments and the human voice. Whatever the argument may boil down to, this fiercely original album happily marries the two camps into a bustling commune of shared ideas. Kurtág is joined here by two fellow Hungarians: composer László Hortobágyi, who works much of his compatriot’s thematic material into the album’s infrastructure, and Miklós Lengyelfi, a musician of many stripes whose rock roots bring an edgier sensibility to the underlying aesthetic. The three are known collectively as Hortogonals, and through their triangular approach they create music that is undeniably spherical.

Intraga sets the tone for the album as a whole, its varied sounds barely discernible from the surrounding haze: a bass sings at our feet, a toy piano croaks into our ears, and a wordless voice flickers at the threshold of audibility. Kurtagamelan is appropriately riddled with its titular chimes. Their echoes are electronically transformed, seeming to inject a visible murmur into every struck note. A passing swarm of insects retreats into the background. And beneath it all, a muffled drum. The bass continues its subterranean journey, marking its passage through the earth with pitfalls and sinkholes. A brief chorus of voices swells, the wind blows. Interrogation is overlaid with a cicada-like drone and a distant wash of strings, contrasting effectively with the lovely rhythmic threads of Lux-abbysum, which put me in mind of Tomas Jirku’s early click-hop experiments on the Substractif label, though the “live” touches of triangle and other percussive samples add more variation to the music’s topography. Dronezone showcases some of Hortobágyi’s interest in North Indian music, and Kurtaganja a bit of Lengyelfi’s in the electric guitar. This and Twin PeaX form a whimsical pair, respectively characterized by less veiled beats and freer sampling. Necroga closes where the album began, its steady bass strummed like a large cosmic string boring into the center of our spines.

Although the music of Hortogonals is rich in implied silence, here it moves in a continuous stream of sound. The lack of gaps between tracks renders the titles almost arbitrary, even if they do provide the occasional clue into the goings on. The music is dark, but far from ominous, and when it is ominous it is never dark. The experienced electronic listener may not encounter much in the way of innovation in the album’s sound or construction, but will nevertheless find it bears a unique compositional stamp and that sort of haggard beauty only the collaborative object possesses.

Ambrose Field/John Potter: Being Dufay (ECM New Series 2071)

Being Dufay

Ambrose Field composer, live and studio electronics
John Potter tenor
Recorded 2007, Bishopthorpe, North Yorkshire, UK
Mixed 2008 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo by Manfred Eicher, Ambrose Field, and Jan Erik Kohngshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

As one of Renaissance music’s most beloved figures, Flemish composer Guillaume Dufay (1397-1474) has been represented through a slew of fine recordings from such groups as the Hilliard Ensemble, the Medieval Ensemble of London, and Pomerium. Though known more for his sacred works, Dufay’s secular chansons find new life here in English electronic composer and performer Ambrose Field’s awe-inspiring soundscapes, with the Hilliard Ensemble’s John Potter at their center. Potter recorded a mere eight minutes of actual singing for an album just shy of fifty, and from this throated nucleus Ambrose Field has cultivated a lush molecular accompaniment.

Potter sings an alluring chanson, bathed in a tender drone, in the introductory Ma belle dame souveraine. Both the melody and its nebulous aura seem to come from a distance. This is one of the more minimal arrangements on the album and as such carries us gently into its unique sound. Je me complains boasts a more pronounced electronic presence with its flanged vocal samples and extended metallic fades. It feels very digital, ending in a viscerally epic swell of synthesized chords amid a fine weave of heavily processed voices. Being Dufay begins with a highly processed and extended vowel, and from this Potter emerges with a more clearly articulated “live” form of the same, spinning from this massive jumble of threads a clearly discernible path for us to follow. Certain phrases become looped before being swept away in a tide of reverb. This density soon relaxes into an even deeper stretch of sound as Potter’s samples flit in and out of view until he reemerges from the cosmic static to gently hang his melody from the clouds. Je vous pri comes into being like a resuscitated lighthouse, not so much piercing as caressing the darkness with its fortuitous light. Along with Je me complains, this track is most effective at shifting between Potter’s solo passages and their ghostly afterlife. It’s also teeming with distinctly organic sounds, as hints of percussion, water, and wind are carefully placed throughout. This ends in a swirl of repeated motif, caught like a song fragment in the net of time before being hoisted out of earshot. Presque quelque chose is an electronic interlude, hovering just beyond the threshold of life and bringing with it the promise of a singer’s dream. Sanctus is built around a sacred chant, undergirded by a bass note that cuts out like a broken radio. Potter’s voice morphs into that of a woman (an effect achieved through Ambrose Field’s painstaking digital modeling), filling the space with a virtual choir. La dolce vista is very much like the first track, giving Potter’s voice full reign of its territory as it glides into finality.

In these settings, one can really appreciate the well-roundedness of the chosen melodies. This isn’t Dufay in outer space, for there is still something undoubtedly earthly about all of this. Even so, the album may not be for everyone. Avid listeners of electronic music may feel more at home, while Renaissance purists may find the electronics outrageously intrusive and might prefer an ensemble of carefully chosen instruments. Yet I believe this album strikes a happy medium between two forms of musical expression that are not so entirely different from one another, and I would encourage even the most reluctant to immerse themselves in its wonders.

This is a conceptually stunning project, one founded on the melodic strength of its source material. In a day and age filled with debates over authenticity and scholarship, and in which so much of the music we have from the early Renaissance survives only in fragments or without clear indication of tempo or arrangement, how refreshing it is to see two musicians taking a strikingly different approach that is no less attuned to the spirit of the music, allowing it to freely wander its own contours without having to fit into those of another. Ambrose Field’s electronics are not “supportive.” Rather, they are an audible extension of something in the music itself and in Potter’s exquisite voice. Regarding his compositional process, Ambrose Field says:

“Whilst being important for my work, I have a general dislike of computers, preferring to find the right sounds first instead of undertaking extensive processing later. This can be a lengthy activity, but has the result that the electronics here highlight the contributions of humans, rather than machines.”

This isn’t just humility, for his statements are clearly evident in his respect for the tactile feel of analog equipment. The combination of digital and analog sounds strikes a fine balance between the former’s “cooler” tendencies and the latter’s heavy warmth, making for an overall effect that is, well, ambrosial.

These pieces are the exact opposite of timeless, beautifully enmeshed in their contemporary technology, be it a band of minstrels, a church choir, or, in this case, an ocean of electronic information. In Dufay’s time, these songs were the supreme form of sound manipulation. They worked in real time, pulsed with an immediacy that required only a willing ear. And in today’s audio landscape, electronics have become equally ubiquitous. We are therefore privileged to hear Potter’s voice unmasked in such unobtrusive company. Even in the longest stretches of synthesized sound, Potter’s presence haunts and provides the foundation for much of the synthetic drive, so that we are never too far from the vulnerable pulchritude of the human voice.

For the sake of live performance, filmmaker Michael Lynch created seven short subjects, one for each of these pieces, from which we are given only a few screen shots on the official site, and which one can sample below. Perhaps a DVD is in order?