Tag Archives: eeriness

REVIEW – Felipe Otondo: ‘Tutuguri’ album, 2013 (“sound moulded by careful hands”)

9 Apr
Felipe Otondo: 'Tutuguri'

Felipe Otondo: ‘Tutuguri’

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)
CD/download album
Released: 25th March 2013

Get it from:
Sargasso Records (CD) or Amazon (download).

Felipe Otondo online:
Homepage Soundcloud LastFM

REVIEW – Komatsu: ‘Komatsu’ album, 2012 (“a cats-cradle of skittering percussion, controlled screech and speeding draglines”)

21 Mar

Komatsu: 'Komatsu'

Komatsu: ‘Komatsu’

This profusion of rock power duos – it must be viral. Surgically-reduced, punked-down, jazzed-up, math-rocking or swampy… they seem to be filling plenty of gaps. Pick one of them out, and it’s usually a drum-and-guitar pairing minus the bass, or otherwise a guitarless bass-and-drum coupling. What’s triggering this? The window-rattling scrunch championed by Death From Above 1979? The teasing-twosome model set up years ago by The White Stripes? Basic economics? The old Robert Fripp idea of smaller, mobile, more intelligent units, which in more austere times may exert more of a pull?

Anyway…

Komatu fit – very loosely and fiercely – the last of these options. A drums-and-guitar duo of Finnish rock improvisers, they’ve set themselves up to be as expansive as possible. They seem to use their lack of a bass guitar as a kind of invisible fulcrum: an absence which they can both pull away from and can curve back to compensate for. Having a bass would just pin them down, render them linear; when what they actually want to do is stretch themselves over every possible angle of orbit. In the absence of those root notes – those stolid map-pins of rhythms and root – both and neither of the two musician strive to offer something else, containing their wildness only by a teasing instinct for where the brinksmanship stops.

Komatsu are also unsentimental about naming their music. Most of the time, number placements will do instead, and you can bring your own interpretations to the party. Neither of the duo themselves are inclined to give away much in the way of meaning. The music itself, however, is anything but dispassionate. Even on those occasions when it turns mathematical, the numbers swarm like killer bees, waiting to plunge into brief resolutions and then dance away again.

Unusually, much of the time the lead instrument is Jussi Miettola’s drumkit. Hinting at and ducking around rhythms more often than simply holding them, his distinctive playing is busy, expansive and never less than exciting. It’s almost – but not quite – free jazz. It’s heavy on the sonic possibilities of the top kit with its dryness and its imperative rattle, sometimes bursting into vigorous splatters of bass drum and cymbal; coursing easily between Art Blakey, thrash metal and points in between.

Guitarist Juha-Pekka Linna plunges his guitar into a mass of loops, mechanisms and pulverizing crystallised distortion. The results run a broad gamut between a taut dry rattle (like spasming rockabilly) and a screeching cyclonic blizzard of rotating noise. In spite of this whipped-to-chaos approach, it’s often him who ends up holding Komatsu’s pieces in shape. His loops become binders – circumscribing the duo’s wilder flights, defining their narrow tones and furiously tight patterns.

On the Intro, fractured jazz chords on guitar wrestle with snare-scrabbling free drumming; an initial spideriness which is gradually bolstered and transformed by smudges of trippy, expectant backwards guitar. This in turn suddenly inflates and hunches up in a blur of warm overwhelming fuzz into jubilant, wing-whirring psychedelic noise. As Komatsu move directly on into First, it’s all swapped for a fold-over of psychedelic guitar echo; chattering in the teeth of an imagined gale, billowing itself out of shape. An expert roaming roll around Jussi’s toms adds another dimension of tension.

As Jussi and Juha-Pekka work away at the piece, it escalates into a panning tornado-swirl of layered guitars and rattling drums, brittle and yet overwhelming in its pent-up force. You imagine a man swinging rocks round and round in a bucket, waiting for that instinctive moment when he can open his grip and let everything fly. This never quite arrives, but Komatsu’s cats-cradle of skittering percussion, controlled screech and speeding draglines keeps you hanging in anticipation until that imaginary gale finally, rapidly, falters and dies.

For Second, Komatsu tone down the surge. A West African-inspired walking rhythm, played out on guttural post-punk guitar, tramps on against increasingly furious stick-and-tom rattles burst from the drums: Jussi’s decisive and pointed breaks make a one-sided musical conversation. There’s nearly two-and-a-half minutes of this dynamic sparseness, and then the faintest whisper of sound creeps in and gradually rears up in a veil-sweep of celestial noise guitar. As this grows and billows to hang above the tune, like a grand valance or a deathly Mellotron chord, the mood grows grimmer. Inexorably, the African stroll is overwhelmed by ever-increasing bass smudges. That Mellotronic chord eventually drives the music towards a waiting cliff. They have a certain taste for threat, then.

While much of hard improvisation sounds like a wrestling match (with cascades and grapples of angry notes) Komatsu’s version is more like a stalking, or an illustration of danger. Places once safe begin to flood. Confusing shadows blight the landscape. Situations turn uncomfortable.

Nothing For Money (the only Komatsu song with a name) broods like a dark Western, Juha-Pekka initially restricting himself to giant Morricone-esque guitar pluckings over Jussi’s uncharacteristically miserly, mathematical pick-out of drum parts. A second Jussi, jazzier and looser, plays against himself in the background, filtering dustily through a radio speaker like a memory of easier times. This, too, is gradually overwhelmed. The guitar begins to shucks out backward swells again. The drumming becomes more counterpointed, more belligerent.

With its uncomfortable, weirdly perpendicular funk-clank full of disassociated fragments (drum points, spacebar chinks), Third sounds like hip-hop might have sounded had it been invented and played by Can. It has an alienating quality: a kind of stern party music, pushing you into painful shapes. Juha-Pekka’s main guitar part is squashed flatter than wallpaper. Another of his lines drags a jangling siren motif up and down. With this spiraling in the foreground, a distant heavy-metal grind (colossal, but given quietness by distance) moves into place, by which time the drum parts have turned metallic too. The finale is an unexpected drop-away into fifteen gurgling seconds of distress call.

Fourth is split into two different and distinct parts. The first part draws on avant-garde ideas from contemporary classical ideas – vicious thunks of the lowest possible piano notes; groans and distracted orchestral growls from the guitar processes. These in turn are bled into chance noises: an airy temple-bell dings and chimes, and there’s the clear close-up sound of someone rolling coins or ball bearings around the studio. Some reflective menace is added by baleful post-rock guitar tinges and ear-filling fog-banks of sub-bass.

Suddenly, Jussi explodes into the second part with a tight lash of cymbals and a stream of West Coast power-punk drumming. There’s a scourge of rapid-strum guitar, at thrash-metal intensity, but without the rhythmic restlessness. Bar by bar, it rises up the chromatic scale while subliminal keyboard figures sketch moving arpeggios behind it, before the whole thing finally hits a crash-barrier of static.

On the final track (which, with typical Komatsu insouciance, is just called Last) the boys let their hair down. A skating buzz of static synthesizer serves as a continuo; Juha-Pekka’s wet and warbling science-guitar figures provide something like a melody. Halfway through, the emphasis shifts and the music morphs woozily elsewhere. The synth buzz become a deep bass drone; the guitar patterns become drips in the background, while the melodic role is taken by whooping varispeed notes.

From brood to fun-ride, sometimes two is all you need. There’s certainly not much missing from this fierce bout of inventiveness.

Komatsu: ‘Komatsu’
Komatsu (self released, no catalogue number or barcode)
CD/download album
Released: 24th April 2012

Get it from:
CD available directly from Komatsu; download available from iTunes.

Komatsu online:
Homepage Facebook SoundCloud

REVIEW – Meczûp: ‘Hanging From The Purgatory’s Pendulum’ album, 2010 (“intimations of strings, pipes and carefully torn air”)

21 Jun

History can catch at things and mess them around. Take the theremin – a serious instrument, reduced to a circus trick, with a story that reads like a map of twentieth-century aspirations and follies. Early days were heady: born from Russian security research, Léon Theremin’s electronic instrument was quickly diverted to more high-minded classical music uses: mostly summoning up the sounds of the ethereal spheres for mystically-minded intellectuals. Now? The gimmick tray. Its “woo-woo” glissandi are used to evoke gimcrack spookiness, or as a quick and flashy shorthand for psychedelic derangement.

Worse – on half of those occasions when you’re assured that you’re actually hearing a theremin (Good Vibrations, the original ‘Star Trek’ theme, early Portishead) what you’re actually hearing is a forgery. Based on motion detectors and on hands that aren’t allowed to touch anything, the genuine instrument is tougher to play than a greased fiddle. Hence (for those who want a quick route to the theremin sound without the sweat, physicality and sheer involvement of playing one) the slew of knock-off devices and plug-ins available for faking the flitter.

It’s all a little sad. Despite the efforts of a distinguished handful of composers (not least Shostakovich and Miklós Rózsa) the theremin passed quickly from being the sound-of-the-future to becoming a sonic trinket and a source of freaky icing – all via pop culture, counterfeitery and the Cold War. You could scarcely blame Léon Theremin if he were spinning in his grave (sounding a heavenly wavering burble of rage as he did so). Hearing a theremin played in a way that’s even slightly close to the original intent is something of a rarity these days. While he’s not exactly a purist, Cihan Gülbudak (better known as Meczûp) clearly takes his own theremin seriously enough to steer it back to roots-level.

On ‘Hanging From The Purgatory’s Pendulum’, Meczûp’s theremin is accompanied only by its own looped signals, and sometimes by a gauzy, delicate brushing of fuzz-noise shrouding the pure tone in a gentle, finely-milled distortion. Mostly, though, Meczûp suspends the instrument in wide space, sending its sliding, sustained tones out as a majestic keen. His control is exemplary, mastering the air-shaping swoops and pinches necessary to pull away from plain electronic tone and towards intimations of strings, pipes and carefully torn air. Where a little more flex is required there’s a whammy-pedal available, heaving the pitches up and down in tidal zooms, and giving the music the apocalyptic boom of a Messaien organ-blast.

Besides the skill of Meczûp’s fingertips, the other key ingredient in his work is locale. Based in Istanbul, he sits at the historic conceptual crossroads of East and West. Seemingly setting aside contemporary blendings of globalization and cyberculture, his music taps into older frictions and fertilizations. There’s an old-fashioned sense of discovery here. Geographies slide across each other and voices strain to mingle, from the earnestly mangled English of the song titles to the cross-sifting of the musical impulses. Throughout the album, echoes of the classical European yearn-to-order meet intimations of Eastern devotional. Despite Meczûp’s classic theremin technique his musical lines don’t have the chilly ethereality of the original approach. They sound more like ney flutes, duduks or zurnas – Middle Eastern wind instruments with their own connection to Sufi, shamanism and oral histories; to the angelic and diabolic aspects of spiritual experience; or the difficult memories of the region’s blood-mottled sway between the heights of civilization and the depths of brutality and pain. There are notes of beauty and agony here, calling up more than a few old ghosts.

Meczûp: 'Hanging From The Purgatory's Pendulum' (previous cover)

Meczûp: ‘Hanging From The Purgatory’s Pendulum’ (previous cover)

At its most basic, Meczûp’s music sounds predominantly Eastern (the brief Arabic piping of Shadow: A Parable) but the musical crossings-over are far more interesting. Beneath the long whining melodies that cap and guide A Tale For Lancinant Screws, a kind of slender and abbreviated suggestion of Renaissance counterpoint emerges. It’s less an outright structure than a kind of haunting, like the image of a face flattened out across an endless carpet. A similar device haunts The Ribald Genie, ghosting underneath a lonely melody which gradually alters from pure keen to distorted scream and finally to a melancholy sarangi moan. For the brief but wide-ranging Garoun A, more of these suggestions blur into whalesong glissandi: a succession of theremin voices from teetering soprano to slithering sub-bass chase each other before tailing off into echoes.

Meczûp’s sharp appreciation of lines of beauty dominates the record, although at points this is deliberately overstretch to the point of breakdown. On Puriest Morning of All Times, baroque intimation destroys its own bounds: a vaulting lead melody (first soprano, then alto) strides downwards into echo-space before more parts build into a looping, uneasy fugue. As it moves on, the theremin sound begins to rip and degrade, eventually becoming a mass of gargling sharp-edged rattles like a rockslide or a Geiger counter. Blossoming in Cemetery sits between Bach liturgy and Armenian lament, maintaining an ache and yearn for six minutes before the theremin’s translucent cloak of distortion cracks and dissolves, and the melody starts to reiterate as a scabrous insect buzz.

In spite of his austere tendencies, Meczûp allows a little fantasy into the mix for a couple of pieces, drawing on and transforming pinches of popular culture. The first of these is Kwaidan, rooted in Japanese ghost tales via Lafcadio Hearn and cinema. Relinquishing the counterpoint which informs the rest of the record, it brings out more of the Eastern melodies while walls of looped theremin churn in the background, fluttering and stuttering on a grand scale.

The second is The Bridge of Khazad-dûm – an etiolated isolationist drone which becomes perhaps the most powerful work on an album already full of grand-scale intimations. It takes its inspiration from Tolkien: specifically, that chasm-spanning subterranean stone bridge which (at a key point in ‘Lord of the Rings’) becomes a locus for death, despair and ruin. Meczûp interprets another aspect, capturing something of Tolkien usually drowned under torrents of merchandising: his valedictory quality, the way his stories shuffle and re-deal the racked old bones of history, romance and inevitable decay for one final mournful hurrah. Meczûp’s vision of the bridge is of an ancient, significant place deserted. Plangent teary layers of theremin fuse together, cold spaces emerge in the music, and entwined senses of antiquity and abandonment are caught in broad view.

In fact, this sense of stricken grandeur applies equally to the rest of the album. Meczûp’s eerie, assertive picking-over and teasing-out of elements within of his music feels like a week spent immersed in history. It has the same tasting of triumphs and fleeting beauty; the same dawning feeling that one somehow fits into something so much broader and complicated. Through it all, the theremin rises triumphant. Survival and vindication.

Meczûp: ‘Hanging From The Purgatory’s Pendulum’
BFW Recordings, BFW038 (no barcode)
Download-only album
Released: 1st March 2010

Buy it from:
BWF Recordings, Magyar Walltapper or Reverb Nation. 9-track version also available from Bandcamp

Meczûp online:
Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp

Philip Sheppard: ‘The Glass Cathedral’ mini-album (“a whole chamber of cellos swimming off in a new direction”)

12 Jul
Philip Sheppard: 'The Glass Cathedral'

Philip Sheppard: ‘The Glass Cathedral’

Reluctantly, as the music finally dissipates into quiet, I surface for facts – and here they are.

Philip Sheppard is cellist with the Composers’ Ensemble and with The Smith Quartet (a London answer to New Music ensembles like Kronos Quartet). He’s taken on the knotty work of Michael Tippett and Oliver Knussen: his list of close collaborators outside the classical world have included Abdullah Ibrahim and Jeff Buckley. Freed from the demands of repertoire and support roles, his own music for solo cello leads into meditative, overlapping multi-tracked soundscapes.

That’s the definition, the bare bones of it. A modern-classical musician, as composer-performer, looping or patterning processed sounds in the path followed by Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Gavin Bryars, and by Robert Fripp and Brian Eno.

This doesn’t convey how far beyond the plain facts of the process Philip Sheppard gets – how he’s boiled down the structure of classical expression to small and beautiful hints in a sustained electrophonic atmosphere. The captivating, wonderfully played music on ‘The Glass Cathedral’ is close, in its way, to the devotional reachings of Fripp’s ‘A Blessing Of Tears’: but it’s more abstract, a music of suggestions and amnesia. Philip manages to suggest vistas of embracing vastness with simple and delicately executed elements gradually mixed into an ever-expanding palette of cello textures, running from a discordant plumbing-scrape to an overwhelming snatch of piercing, striving melody. There are only two pieces on here, both vastly different, both extraordinary.

Harrison’s Chronometer uses Philip’s electric cello – a custom-built five-string cyborg which readily sinks itself into an evanescent minor-chord drone, gradually resolving and passing through moods; a Mahler trance in multi-track. The name’s taken from the 18th century timepiece designed to revolutionise navigation and safety at sea; providing a fixed, reliable timekeeping process, aiding judgement of distance, mapping and location. Inspired by this, the music sounds like a steady, resolute voyage through half- known climes, as Philip fills the air with the sounds of beasts and uncertainties. String snarls slide and slink away, high harmonics keen and shiver. Low, rumbling deep sea monsters scrape away in the bass registers.

Living but impersonal detail builds up, as gorgeously and inhumanly hostile as a crystal jungle; and into this comes tentative tracings of order. There’s a high pulse; a sawing Greek riff of chorused cellos; snap-and-lock ostinatos in the bass recalling the clipped Mediterranean funk of Mick Karn. A melody materialises in the alto range, cleanly distorted – to the point where it finds a rough perfection – but it tails out. Nothing is resolved; eventually the music fades away into the dark, although its recognisable touches are still isolated within the surrounding chaos. Expressive to the last, they sit like lonely markers; or like humans in a small, fragile boat on brutally indifferent seas that have hardly even begun to yield their perilous secrets.

Compared to Harrison’s Chronometer, the title track of The Glass Cathedral is sublimely peaceful: though in its own way it’s just as deliquescent, just as much part of that territory where post- classical meets post-rock and where both begin to blend with the subtle dissolutional anarchy that is drift. It’s played on a vintage cello with a history implied rather than certain: a mid- 8th century instrument possessed of a rich verdant tone and traced back to an anonymous London craftsman. Whether its ambiguous story is true or false, I’d like to think it informs the piece, which has hints of more intimate John Taverner compositions but links back to the past via a quote from Monteverdi’s ‘Orfeo’ which coalesces and dissolves throughout the composition.

Here, the music seems to wake itself in sensual, melodic stretches of cello, in exquisite glass-harmonica deviations of sound. It is like drowsing inside a translucent sacred building, allowing a whole day to become a time-exposure. Overdubbed drones and harmonies acting like light beams, branching off at odd angles, allowing the corners of the church to be lit gently and briefly before the source slides off somewhere else. A solo cello establishes itself in centre with a contemplative, yearning changing theme. It gives dominance over to the light angles and the Monteverdi fragment… then, as if shot through a prism, a whole chamber of cellos are swimming off in a new direction, embarking on a related theme, only to dissolve out gently in loosely woven trios.

I’d say more, but I’m already spewing too many abstractions. It’s enough to say that if it’s true that architecture is frozen music, then this is (just as equally) a beautiful, dissolving architecture.

Philip Sheppard: ‘The Glass Cathedral’
Blue Snow, BSNCD1 (no barcode)
CD/download mini-album
Released: 5th July 1999

Get it from:
CD version best obtained second-hand: download available via Bandcamp.

Philip Sheppard online:
Homepage Homepage Twitter Bandcamp

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