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Luigi ARCHETTI (b. 1955)
Lava
rec. 2021
KARLUK 001 CD 2021 [2 CDs: 89:00]

Sometimes reviewing new music I come across recordings which cross over from being enjoyable or impressive to really getting under my skin. This is one of those recordings. The more I have listened to it, the more I have found to captivate me and yet it still leaves me with a sense I have only barely scratched the surface of it.

One of the joys of music is the way it gets us to listen. I don’t mean listen in the everyday sense of listening for an announcement at a railway station or to the phone ringing. I have in mind proper attentive listening. Think of the way great music grips us so that we find ourselves properly engaged. Personally, I have in mind key moments in my musical experience like the first time I heard a Mozart piano concerto or a Beethoven symphony or a Wagner orchestra in full cry. All of these required me to listen in ways I had never previously imagined.

Western classical music tends to teach us to listen to music as a narrative. Sonata form is a kind of musical story which sets out in a home key, loses it and then rediscovers it. Famously, Beethoven’s 5th makes archetypal drama of the resolution of a minor key to a major key. But narrative isn’t the only way to structure music. A huge amount of music written since the middle of the last century has sought to disrupt the assumption of musical narrative.

What is loosely termed Ambient Music – and it is a very broad church indeed! – seeks to replace narrative with mood. The attitude it asks of the listener tends to be contemplative. Ambient music’s reputation has been rather tarnished by the rather dreary panpipe and wind chimes fodder played at health spas. That type of music is designed not to be listened to but to function as wallpaper rather in the manner of lift music. (Whatever happened to that egregious debasement of music?)

I would include the music on this wonderful new disc from Luigi Archetti under the heading of the best sort of ambient music. It is, however, the very opposite of musical wallpaper. For it to make its proper impact, it requires the listener to properly listen. It resists the consumerist approach to music which spoon-feeds its audience with music that makes no demands upon them. Those demands are that we pay proper attention.

A point of comparison, though their styles are very different, is the music of Morton Feldman. Like Feldman, Archetti builds his music with extreme patience, even at the risk of testing the impatience of the listener. To begin with, Archetti strips the music back to handfuls of plucked acoustic guitar notes playing bare intervals. The attentive listener is forced to listen to elements that might otherwise go unnoticed, such as the resonance of the strings as the notes fade away. It is out of these overlooked aspects of music that Archetti builds the magic of his music and I certainly found it magical.

One of the incidental pleasures of listening to this piece is trying to hear what Archetti hears in these recurrent guitar passages. It is as if the music that follows the guitar interludes is a response to what he heard there. This can be an overtone or an echo or amplification, or just a flight of fancy, but the responses are invariably marvellous. At one point on track 9 of the second CD, the texture of the plucked nylon strings of the acoustic guitar becomes the subject of a “variation” surrounded by all manner of similar or directly derived sounds.

The opening track gives a good feel of how the whole piece goes. It starts with the twanging acoustic guitar, which after a short while appears to be going nowhere. It is just at that moment that eerily beautiful electronic music blooms out of the acoustic notes and the whole thing is transformed. This music drifts past us before we are back to the twanging acoustic guitar, initially frustrated at the loss of the electronic music but, as the piece proceeds, we learn to anticipate the next place Archetti’s extraordinary imagination will take us.

The whole piece uses lava as a metaphor for Archetti’s approach to music. A hefty lump of cooled lava features prominently on the cover. The CD comes without notes and the press release that accompanied it is rather more poetic than musicological. It talks of silence and slowness being important components of the music. To my ears, they, together with the acoustic guitar passages, evoke the solid, inert aspect of the piece. But just as appearances can be deceptive in terms of lava just seeming like a lump of rock, these basic components are full of musical potential if attended to closely enough or, to use the lava metaphor, if put under the magnifying glass.

I will be honest: I initially struggled with the lava metaphor but as I got to know the music it began to make more sense. The press release talks of the composer penetrating “the acoustic nano-area”. By this I take him to mean breaking sound down into its elements and recombining those elements in new ways. This is music at the level of quantum mechanics, or, rather astrophysics, to use another metaphor. This is one of the surprising aspects of the music – even though it is preoccupied with the smallest components of sound, its scope as music is enormous and breathtaking. Indeed, the entire lava metaphor could be taken to mean how much can be derived from so little.

I have been lucky enough to review quite a lot of new contemporary music this year and one of the things that sets Archetti apart is his flair for presentation. I suspect this partly derives from his dual career as a both a musician and a visual artist. His music, particularly on this recording, seems to occupy the sweet spot between the radical end of progressive rock and contemporary classical. It has the rigour of the latter but the ability to communicate with the listener of the former. I am put in mind of Ian MacDonald’s comment that John Lennon’s Revolution 9 on the Beatles’ White Album was superior to the Stockhausen collages which inspired it because the Beatles really knew how to put their music across to their audience, however avant garde it became. I feel Archetti’s music has a similar quality.

Archetti has an ability to create striking and original soundscapes that at the same time connect with something deeply human. This is not a grimly impersonal listen, for all that it unsettles and is intended to unsettle.

The composer plays all the instruments as well as producing the recording, and this shows in the confidence with which he handles his material. There is an element of risk in allowing music like this to unfold organically and Archetti always seems a secure hand on the tiller. Apart from the acoustic guitar mentioned already, the rest of the music is produced by either electric or electronic instruments. A lot of these sounds will be familiar to fans of progressive rock. Archetti is interested in industrial sounds and electronic feedback which sounds like it has been manipulated digitally. If all of this sounds horribly off-putting, the end product has a gaunt beauty that is not off-putting in the way that a lot of contemporary music for traditional ensembles can be.

This is not music that is structured in any conventional sense. The music evolves through echoes and memories and chance inspirations but is essentially static and meditative in nature. Even the relationship between the acoustic guitar music and the rest is not fixed and is changed over the duration of the piece.

I have been greatly taken with Archetti’s previous recordings that I have heard such as There and Transient Places and this new one is just as good and even more ambitious in its vision. This is a brave, audacious and yet not esoteric piece. If it requires patience of the listener, then so does Wagner. Supply that patience and the listener will be rewarded with a journey into a weird and absolutely wonderful place.

David McDade



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