Having pursued his studies from his native Chile to Denmark and then to the UK (he currently teaches at the University of Lancaster), electro-acoustic musician Felipe Otondo has already made himself a world traveler. The cosmopolitan sourcing of his music ensures that he travels even further afield, even while sitting at his computer. The four pieces on his debut album ‘Tutuguri’ draw on concepts, patterns, sounds and language from India, Java and Mexico as well as from European and American sound-labs.
This reminds me that, like bats, human beings use sound to find where we are. We often remain unaware of this, or even dismiss it. In cities, for example, we tend to think in terms of filtering out the extraneous noise – the rumbling press of traffic, the too-close babble of our neighbours on public transport or through the thin walls of apartment blocks; the persistent layering of unwanted music as ambient features for shopping or working. In spite of this, we’ll still use sounds to judge our way and to establish our place in a shifting world. Recurring sounds in the subway tell us that the service is regular, or when we need to change direction. Changing accents in voices and even birdsong rachet our subliminal paranoia up or down. Subtle switches in the quality of sound moving through the air tell us about weather, and about the places we move through. Some newly-blind people even report developing an echo-location sense, measuring the presence of oncoming pedestrians, lamp-posts and corners by the minute changes in echo and sound positioning.
Most importantly, we associate the places we know with an arrangement of sound. Wind will be shaped around a building in a particular way, the patterns of dialogue and intonation spoken in and around particular shops and café. Traffic lights and contraflows generate their own rhythms and exchanges. Blindfolded, I’d still be able to recognise the back-street where I currently live from its specific sound patterns: cars nudging the speed-bumps with a particular speed and duration, the toss and bend of the trees in the wind paths, the pitches of children’s voices in the school half-way along, the frequency of slow buses creeping to the nearby bus garage. These recognitions surprise us, often in ways which we don’t even consider until the connections occur to us.
To me (being less of a traveler than many) Felipe’s sound sources are more exotic, initially implying spatial journeys or international visits. The complex and beautifully-packaged CD sleeve for ‘Tutuguri’ enhances this, opening up like an origami flower (or like the jaws of a concealed alligator). The four intent and deceptively challenging pieces within the album are designed to shuffle the consciousness rather than soothe it. They divert the listener along other paths: associative, temporal, historical; hallucinatory or sacramental. When Felipe cites them as being “meditative”, he doesn’t mean relaxing, or lazy. Listening care is required. At a distance – at a point of detachment or reduction to background – Felipe’s pieces will sound like a fluttery wallpaper of treated sound effects. Up close, turned up, or simply heard on headphones, the craft is evident: Felipe’s years studying spatial sound and timbral perception have been well spent. He’ll set you down in the middle of a set of beautifully recorded instruments or noises – or as an offset, slightly distanced observer – and then gradually alter that sound-world in increments, or in sudden dartings.
The oldest piece on offer here, Ciguri, takes Native Mexican bell and gong sounds and cuts them loose from root time. This isn’t as straightforwardly surgical, or as uninvolved, as it might read. Felipe is open about the inspiration he’s drawn from the Mexican peyote ceremony (and from Antonin Artaud’s writings on it). In particular, he’s interested in the time-distortion effect experienced when ingesting mescaline (which he recreates here via digital editing). On the way, he also explores inharmonicity – the additional non-harmonic tones created within a sound, via variations in the source material’s state of rigidity and elasticity. Strictly speaking, this is a physical exploration, but if you’re talking ritual – if you’re talking metaphysics – the same idea might be extended to the participants in the ceremony. As in any sacrament, each of their experiences will be shaped by their willingness, and by how their own histories and attitudes impact on how their brain works and how their world is conceived.
On Ciguri, Felipe doesn’t make matters quite that explicit, but he does his very best to remind us of how subjective an experience this can be. Sound-wise, he places us in the heart of a slow heat of hanging metals, and we listen (over nine minutes) as they alter. During this time, different parts of the surrounding structure take turns to transmute while others remain still. Gently struck tones blur from a simple ping to a fluttering hummingbird drill: the substance of the metals themselves seem to move restlessly between solid resonant bronze, a whispering foil, or a mere shining hiss of elements. The reasons behind this may be all in the math, but it doesn’t feel that way. As the numbers race through their patterns, the world around us changes and we’re hypnotized by what feels like the universe breathing.
Another piece, Irama, draws directly on Javanese gamelan orchestra music (using manipulated recordings of the Sekar Petak ensemble at the University of York). Irama’s title comes from a flexible gamelan term – one that can be used to define the time between two notes, or the time between two actions; or the rhythmic relationships between parts of the composition; or tempo in general. Drawing all of these meanings together under one conceptual net suggests a substantial and integral connection between all of them, much as each of the Indonesian gongs, flutes, pots and zithers in a specific gamelan orchestra is honed and tuned to fit only with instruments from the same orchestra. Of course, digital electro-acoustic processing means that any relationship between notes, pitches or rhythms which didn’t already exist can be first conceived and then molded into shape: and Felipe flexes and reshapes the gamelan sounds according to his own design.
Irama’s gong sounds range from the familiar bronze boom to the kind of light dry patterings and tight-hide raps which you’d expect to hear bounding from frame drums. Over a particularly deep gong sound, a metallophone texture is stretched into a soft drone: when the broader percussion section returns, it’s joined by soft struck pings and an oceanic flutter. At crucial points, particular gong chimes cut through to suggest changes of intent and mood. Apart from these, all of the sounds which lope through Irama reinforce themselves, subtly adding to an arrangement which becomes denser and denser, shifting to a jazzier pulses before (nearly four minutes in) rising to flood-rate and then dispelling into nothing. A second section begins – sterilized pings and rings, more German laboratory than Javanese ritual. Drilling echoes are buried inside it, ringing edge-tones place themselves above it. At six minutes, the frame-drums return; at seven, the pulse has multiplied again to the point of flooding; at eight, softened rings are the dominant sound as the piece diminishes into calmness. As with Ciguri, there seems to be more than the mathematics at work here; but beyond the calculations, all of Irama could itself be an illustration of time as human experience – its repetitions, its bewildering multiplicity of voices; its moments of collective intensity and its sudden rapid lulls.
As a listener, attempting to put narratives (however clumsy) onto more elusive or abstract pieces of music is a common strategy. Thankfully, the mixed instrumental/vocal piece Teocalli already comes with a narrative. It’s based on ‘The Night Face Up’, a short story by the Argentine writer Julio Cortázar, whose surreal-modernist approach (creatively disrupting his plots and chances of resolution via a shifting, subjective consciousness and by the restless straw-shuffling of jazz) is well suited to the cut/paste/reshuffle of Felipe’s compositional tools.
The original tale is about an injured, hospitalized motorcyclist: delirious, and dreaming that he’s a man hunted by the ancient Aztecs and targeted for sacrifice. Location and context come adrift in the dreamer’s mind, but are carefully deployed by the writer – here, Felipe steps carefully into the latter role, guiding his strips and layers of sound into place. Hunters’ drums roll in the background, sometimes scooping up in an enormous glottal curl of extreme echo, swooped by fierce panning and sound-fielding. At times, they run backwards, creating great ominous bowls of sound-space. In a recurring cut-up, a little choir of men sing what sounds like a Mexican popular tune. This moves in and out of Teocalli like a radio which can’t stay fixed on the station, just as the injured man in the story can’t stay fixed within his own time or his own experience. Watchful silences bead within the piece, within the drum-slides; filled with tiny arrested hangs of reverberation.
Through these silences (but also often in the midst of great surging wrenches of drums, as they wrestle for our attention) women’s voices speak. Zapotec women, from a pre-Spanish civilization that lives alongside and intertwined with modern Mexico. They converse and chat, presumably about ordinary human matters – these are interview snippets, not field recordings. But as these women are separated from listeners like us by their language (and by our own crude knowledge, and cruder guesses, about their culture), they innocently become part of the sinister hallucinatory sound environment which Felipe creates. As drums sweep and skirl around our heads, so too does a whole jungle of suggestions – brief clusters of crickets, digitally squeezed and timeslid; bird calls, as of hunters hidden in the undergrowth. When one of the women speaks again, her unconcerned and easy voice is shaded into callousness. When, at one point, she suddenly laughs, easy and confident, the dense paranoia and wilderness swirling around her conspires to render her cruel.
There’s no final outcome to Teocalli – no cathartic slaughter, no rescue. Eventually Felipe’s piece just blows away into the shadows, like the memory of ugly wings pressed around you. The fever dream is over. With the passing sweat those eerie vicious terrors go with them. The deep-rooted fear (part-humble, part-racist) of an ancient, incipient otherness. The fear of comfort and security crumpling and allowing the past to pluck you away; a raw, helpless morsel.
In its way, the final ‘Tutuguri’ piece – Sarnath – is as ritualistic as the others, yet it doesn’t rely so much on recreating states of mind. Instead, it attempts to sculpt suggestions of place, history and connections. It’s based on Francis Booth’s Indian location recordings of places associated with the story of the Buddah (and is named after the deer park in which Buddhist Dharma was first taught). In a sense, Sarnath is both site-specific and displaced, bringing the noises of Buddah-touched locations to wherever its soundfiles are played. Concert venue. Boom box. Perhaps even a trekker’s smartphone, being carried on a pilgrimage of its own.
As Felipe switches between recordings (clicking up one-by-one the sonic capturess of different geographical stops on the Buddah journey), Sarnath itself seems to be moving from place to place in search of something. Literally, a footprint? Literally, an echo? Felipe toys with the field recordings: folding them on themselves, stretching them over time. A bell might sound, swell hugely, then drop away. Chants may be heard. On a half-distant road, a procession of ecstatically banging drums may wind its way to a shrine. Behind these, birds and animals twitter. Away from the devotions, there are the soft chips and scrapes of human work being carried on regardless. Here, Felipe’s notes most obviously cite the intense, subtle states of mind connected with meditation: here, with whispers of Buddha making their presence felt, it’s a traditional part of the tale. Here, too, are the tiny sounds to focus meditation; the small sonic flakes of the natural world around which attention can be wound.
‘Tutuguri’ is four pieces; four stories. None of them conclusive; and despite the sleevenotes and the substantial clues, at least part of the stories I’ve recounted here have been dreamed up by me. The solo listener – the sound moulded by careful hands around my ears, yes; some of the intimations perhaps patted into place. But in other cases this music is just process doing what process does: forming channels for their own sake, numbers making shapes and illusions as part of the pattern comes into view, and only part of that’s actually recognized. Much of the purely technical side of Felipe Otondo’s music escapes me: instead, I experience much of it as the psychological backwash, like the vapour trails after the plane has passed. Still, if I’m creating my own ideas for what Felipe’s music might entail or might intimate, there’s clearly enough extra substance there for me to build on. That’s what humans do: we use sound to find out where we are. Finding places we know: judging our way through what’s being presented to us; sometimes, the recognitions surprise us.
Working blind, but guided by sound, I travel too.
Felipe Otondo: ‘Tutuguri’
Sargasso Records, SCD28070 (5065001338700)
Released: 25th March 2013