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Heroine Pauline Kim HARRIS & Spencer TOPEL Ambient Chaconne (after J.S.Bach) [42:11] Deo (after Johannes Ockeghem) [29:32]
Pauline Kim Harris (violin)
Spencer Topel (electronics, sound design)
rec. 2018, Sono Luminus Studios, Boyce, USA SONO LUMINUS DSL-92235 [71:43]
I have never seen so many stars in the sky as I did one Easter midnight eight years ago somewhere on Midland Hill on Orkney’s Mainland. There was no artificial light, and we lay in the field behind our rented cottage and looked straight up. I could easily identify some of the more obvious constellations (I’m no expert astronomer) more clearly than ever before. I sensed a tiny creepy-crawly moving slowly across my nose and removed my spectacles to dab it away. I looked up before replacing them and was astonished to see that the stars had suddenly multiplied; squared, cubed, whatever (I’m no expert mathematician either).
This piece Deo almost defies verbal description – frankly the above account of encountering the Orcadian night sky without glasses is as close as I can get to an experiential simile. Deo is introduced in the booklet as a ‘reimagining’ of a little-known 36 part canonic motet Deo Gratias, attributed to Johannes Ockeghem, a composer perhaps more associated with austerity and asceticism than polyphonic spectaculars. In its original form it has only been recorded three times as far as I can make out, most notably by Paul van Nevel and the Huelgas Consort on their 1996 Sony album Utopia Triumphans, an impressive compilation of opulent polychoral works both famous and unknown. I happily admit to a liking for Ockeghem’s masses, but I confess I had never heard of Deo Gratias until I received this new Sono Luminus disc, the fourth issue from this superb audiophile label that I have been privileged to review this year. While I find it difficult to reconcile its magniloquence to the Ockeghem with which I’m familiar, I would really like to believe he did write this extraordinary piece which is simultaneously simple and complex, not least because it pre-dates the likes of Tallis and Striggio by roughly half a century. This sonic exploration of the work has been created by violinist Pauline Kim Harris and her collaborator, the sound artist Spencer Topel. It’s a canon, yes; but its cycles, repetitions and intersections seem to mirror the endless re-configuration and expansion of space in general (or in microcosmic terms the Orcadian night sky). The original music is always central to the piece’s conceit, and the jaw-dropping beauty of emergent sound seems anchored in a perfect tension between surprise and inevitability. For me at least, Deo hovers, breathes and twinkles, and quite apart from the fact that it’s drawn my attention to a pre-Renaissance gem (of whoever’s original inspiration), its half-hour duration is not a second too long. The ambient soundspace that Topel has designed for Harris’s beauteous violin musings is by turn awesome (in the original sense of the word) and intimate.
I was slightly less convinced by the Ambient Chaconne which opens the disc. This may well be because its source, J.S.Bach’s immortal Chaconne (from the D minor Partita BWV 1004) is so much more of a known entity. That is not for a minute to say that Harris and Topel’s reimagining of Bach isn’t worth hearing – it’s frequently haunting, the musicianship is breathtaking and the Sono Luminus sonics are inevitably stunning. Here the sentences and phrases of Bach’s original are separated, sometimes reduced to individual notes or chords, the spaces in between populated with manicured layers of electroacoustic sheen. This is essentially deconstruction and reconstruction, and while Topel’s undoubted wizardry produces textures of dignity and taste for the most part, I find some of the sounds too doodle-like and odd in this context. Pauline Kim Harris explains the piece in the booklet, and after namechecking such famous ‘transcribers’ of the Chaconne as Brahms and Busoni, concludes that her work “…extends the notion of transcription metaphysical, framing the Chaconne both as a musical composition and as a collective-subconscious memory.” There is no doubt that with her partner she has succeeded at least partially in this objective – many of the sounds that emerge electronically evoke atmospheres, times, and places, such as organs or sepulchral spaces, and while they imbue the Chaconne with a spectral preciousness which may or may not be to listeners’ taste, occasionally I was distracted from the meditative nature of the work by slightly modish electronic sounds more redolent of electronic combos like Autechre or Boards of Canada. But I am happy to concede that these ‘distractions’ become less of an issue the more one gets to know the Ambient Chaconne. By the time the familiar tune recurs at its conclusion the listener might convince themselves they have been participating in some probing, self-analytical trek, and might even feel rather cleansed or renewed by the experience.
If I could link these contemporary realisations of ancient music to another recording in an attempt to orientate readers, it would be John Potter and Ambrose Field’s Being Dufay project for ECM (review). The objectives of the respective artists involved certainly overlap even if the means and ends vary. Both concepts seem utterly sincere rather than arty or contrived, both discs involve musicianship and rearrangement of the highest order and involve artists of unimpeachable integrity. Most importantly they each contain music of exceptional beauty which creates a lasting impact.
For the record, Pauline Kim Harris has been involved with the New York experimental music scene for many years. She is half of the avant-punk duo String Noise and has worked with many renowned American groups including Alarm will Sound and Sono Luminus regulars ICE. If this disc is typical of her work, her playing is indubitably a force of nature. She is another musician who seems deeply motivated to smash down the artificial barriers that separate one ‘genre’ from another. Her collaborator here, Spencer Topel is a ‘sound artist’ whose collaborations extend beyond the realms of sonics and veer into the spheres of science and architecture. The note reveals that he is partially responsible for the creation of the world’s first ‘quantum musical synthesiser’, whatever this may be. I have repeatedly waxed lyrical in these pages about the Sono Luminus label, and this is yet another intriguing release, in exemplary sound, of music that will by turn enchant, challenge, move and gratify.