Album reviews – Jocelyn Pook: ‘Deluge’ (“a suite of stunning invention and sheer beauty”)

1 Mar

Jocelyn Pook: 'Deluge'

Jocelyn Pook: ‘Deluge’

The elegant grace of tragedy is often linked with the splat of farce. This album’s major selling point (on some copies of the CD, it’s trumpeted by a sticker ‑ I kid you not) is that it features the music from last year’s TV ads for Orange mobile phones, namely Jocelyn Pook’s setting of “Blow The Wind Southerly” sung by Kathleen Ferrier.

Sigh. It’s sad but true that increasingly weird and wonderful music is getting picked up and co‑opted by advertising agencies for their campaigns. Your average ‘Coronation Street’ ad‑break may currently play to a soundtrack of Michael Nyman, Gavin Bryars, Aphex Twin, U‑Ziq, Cocteau Twins… and Pook. They’re selling their souls for the filthy lucre from red‑braced ad execs. Of course they are: rampant fucking capitalism is bringing us the best that post‑modern music has to offer. It’s art selling out!

But… Mr or Ms Normal Music Fan are going into Our Price and humming this music over the counter to Shop Assistant. Consequently, they’re getting turned on to (at least relatively) experimental music, er, man… And as Jocelyn Pook joins the hideous capitalist gravy train (look, I’m not being cruel: my tongue is in my cheek) from obscurity to the CD racks, the musos among us will smugly tell that Pook is widely known as the leader of the Electra Strings (along with Caroline Lavelle, Sonia Slaney and others), who have no doubt been rushed off their feet in the past couple of years as every British pop act decided they must show their serious side by having at least one strings‑based track in their repertoire (I think we call it “hiring in a touch of class”).

But here ‑ ably backed by the Electras, knife‑edged art‑scene soprano Melanie Pappenheim and a pocketful of exotic musicians and sounds ‑ Jocelyn Pook shows herself as being beyond simply a viola player. She’s a composer of emotion and invention and, in the best traditions of post‑modernism, introduces classical and traditional musics to the brave new world of samples and electronics. OK, so it has to be admitted that Dead Can Dance are an immediate and convenient comparison, but ‘Deluge’ is warmer, more emotional: less monumentally impressive, perhaps, but also nowhere near as harsh and Wagnerian.


 
The twelve tracks of ‘Deluge’ (germinating from a clutch of “post‑modern hymns” written for a Canadian dance‑theatre project) are best appreciated as one pre‑millennial suite with recurring themes (the emotions drawn from the year 1000, the methodology from 2000). Requiem Aeternam, like many elements of the other tracks, opens the album with solo and multitracked singing of a traditional requiem over one sustained root note. Post‑modern chamber plainsong, in other words, founded upon a sense of inevitability that’s unchanged by the impact of technology.


 
Technology, in fact, might even be hastening that grand inevitable. Oppenheimer is undoubtedly one of the central parts of ‘Deluge’. It opens with a disturbing sample of Robert Oppenheimer talking (he seems heavy with emotion, a man with the weight of his discovery of nuclear destruction bearing down upon him) surrounded by a foreboding nuclear wind: this merges into the poignant but more hopeful sound of the Jewish call to prayer and a dawn chorus of birds. As the central sung theme from the first track returns with a supporting string section, a haunting, heartbreaking elegy is created.

For Oppenheimer himself, this could be the emotions created by his dread and foresight at what he had created. More powerfully, however, this piece stands as a requiem for a world forever changed by the knowledge of possible nuclear annihilation. A post‑Cold War planet we may now be, but his music took me right back to the nervousness of the mid‑’80s and its accompanying, tangible dread of nuclear war.


 
Lightening the mood and returning to the music, Blow The Wind (subtitled Pie Jesu) does indeed feature that Orange ad music again. Heard without those connotations, however, this is a brilliant interweaving of samples and live sound, as Kathleen Ferrier’s familiar rendition of the traditional vocal is interspersed with Pappenheim and Pook’s plangent vocal counterpoint, the echoing sounds of children playing, and more soaring strings. As in hip‑hop, the form that originally used sampling to such great effect and historic importance, the sample of Ferrier is used as a basis to build other musical sequences, instrumentation and vocals. It’s humble, beautiful, and ends far too soon.


 
The lessons in the new technology of music Jocelyn Pook has gained will undoubtedly further influence the writing and performance of her music for her own instrument ‑ strings. The penultimate piece, La Blanche Traversée, appears to be a fairly standard chamber‑piece setting of words by Racine, but more remarkable is the subtle instrumental backing. Pook and the Electra Strings play a slightly off‑rhythm pattern of oscillating notes that, to any DJ or mixer who knows his decks, would be regarded as a loop. I feel that it is safe to assume that the original hip‑hop DJs never had this development in mind when they crafted scratching and looping. ‘Deluge’ is a long way from being electronica, but the ’90s cross‑pollination continues.


 
While music has broken all the boundaries of genre in the ’90s, the end products have resulted in albums of naked emotion or sonic inventiveness. But rarely both together. ‘Deluge’ is a suite of stunning invention and sheer beauty in its music, but with all the necessary emotion of a requiem for the post‑nuclear age. The wind blows cold, with the sound of ravens on the air, but it tugs your whole life right to the surface of your skin.

Never mind the politics of how you got to hear of Jocelyn Pook or ‘Deluge’. Open your mind to it.

(review by Vaughan Simons)

Jocelyn Pook: ‘Deluge’
Virgin Records, CDVE 933 7243 (7 24384 29632 2)
CD-only album
Released: 24th February 1997

Get it from:
(2018 update) long out-of-print, so best picked up second-hand. Most of the tracks on ‘Deluge’ were remixed and reissued on the ‘Flood’ album in 1999.

Jocelyn Pook online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Tumblr Last FM YouTube Vimeo

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