Thursday, May 29, 2014

Alio Die - Circo Divino

Alio Die & Parallel Worlds
Circo Divino2010

There's a ton of music out there in the world, and back in the day, being a musician meant making a financial investment in needing to rent out space at a studio.  If you were fortunate enough to own all of the highly-specialized gear for your own studio, then perhaps you could meddle freely, but in most cases, meddling and experimentalism among popular artists was not a large component of recordings.  Recent technological and social advancements have brought us to a world that, in terms of creating, recording, and sharing music, we are much more free to do as we please, when we please, and make it available across the whole world for all those that might appreciate it.  This de-homogenization and accessibility of the arts makes us aware of a whole new range of artists, as well as the messages and implications of their work.  Ambient works were seemingly less-produced and harder to come by way back when, but in the pathways of the electronic web, the issues isn't "if" you can find, so much as "what" you can find.  Ambient music may only have a following in certain circles of people thus far, but in assessing it's function and affect on a listener, I can't imagine that not changing -- especially since the start of albums based more on mood than on music in the 60's - 70's, and the booming of the movie soundtrack market in the 80's.

Occasionally, in any given musical style, there are what one might call "moments of sublimation."  These moments are the ones where the feeling of what is happening in sound really transcends words -- whether it's the unanimous swelling of a harmony in fiddles during a folk tune, or the interplay of different rhythms and timbres in an electronic dance composition.  The sad thing is, that moment is often short-lived.  Alio Die's (Stefano Musso) work continues to be impressive in ways that is hard to articulate, but you might say that he uses sounds of anything in any way he chooses in order to create a sustained moment of sublimation.  As a listener, whether you're focusing on the execution of a Bach prelude, the progression of a chain of melodies in a Greek syrto, or the words of a pop artist, you're being told a story.  Most of these forms of music are indicating a path of feeling through a progression of notes, or their musical forms, and (even more directly in singer/songwriters) their lyricism.  The work of Alio Die and other great ambient artists doesn't really follow that schema.  The best of ambient artists seem to concern themselves with the feeling that the sound itself creates, independent of its notational value -- its affect.  Consider the difference that a recording of water in a tidal pool is from that of the firing of a rocket.  In both of these examples, the "note value" of the sounds are largely irrelevant, yet the difference in psychological impact is remarkable.  This difference in focus might be considered analogous to this modified image of a Persian rug:

The notationalist's focus is largely the congruency of patterns and their definition, and the ambient artist's focus is the individual & combined affect of the colors, textures, and the mood they create.  Although the texture and ambiance of the sound itself seems to play the dominant role, Alio Die uses a bit of both worlds by incorporating modified recordings of organic instrumentation and manipulating it electronically.

The first track, "Lost Fractales," is a soundscape reminiscent of some of the environments that edgier electronic musicians, such as Future Sound of London, have alluded to, but only momentarily.  The slicing and manipulation of vocal samples atop chiming tones and a faint airy rhythmic element provides quite a wonderful domain:

"Sorinel," features some vocal lyricism, although it largely enveloped by the environmentals: 

"Electrostatic Forest" could be one of my favorite Alio Die tracks, and is exemplary of one of the traits that I found most enjoyable: a sense of mixed time.  The samples used (dulcimer work, water, some digital synth, perhaps a flute or whistle, perhaps some vocals) all seem to be played at different speeds and/or have a damper on set frequencies:

In "Slide of Grace" comes another great model of his work: electronically-coordinated drips of varying emphasis provide the rhythm in the foreground, and the background is held together by a deep and vaporous under-layment of slowed-down sustained notes by a solo vocalist -- very reminiscent of the Aura Seminalis album:

Alio Die's style seems to be in an amalgamation of *all* things: field recording of nature, his own organic instrumentation, electronic manipulation, and one of his albums (Tripudium Naturae) utilizes recordings of someone playing a Norwegian hardingfele (or Hardanger fiddle).  It's worth mentioning, that although some of the sound is not created by the musician, it's in no way "unskilled."  Although I'm not sure of his specific set-up, many of computer applications that electronic or ambient artists often use has the appearance and complex functionality equal to that of a space shuttle, and, to fully utilize, can require an understanding of sound and engineering similar to that of an audiologist and/or recording engineer.  Additionally, since the ambient artist is often *not* working with audio of the same rhythms, natures, series of notes, or otherwise predictable patterns, one has to know well their samples in order to steer the experience in the desired direction -- and Alio Die's works are always splendidly blended.

After careful and attentive listening sessions, one comes to the question of, "What is it that is trying to be communicated in this music?  Is it sadness; wonderment; oblivion; transcendence?"  It could be any of those.  It could be a largely projective experience.  Also, it could just make you sleepy.  But maybe some modest audio during an era where things tend to be pushed to extremes is a good thing.  There's been a small but perhaps warranted backlash in modern societies which perceive appreciation for things like "fast food," frantic film editing styles in cinema, and the micromanagement of most of the time in one's life -- in the form of the cultural shift advocated by the Slow Movement, for example.  At any rate, Alio Die's work makes me appreciate the speed of "slow" with an emphasis on "feel", and I always leave an experience of listening far better than I arrived.

--Seth Premo

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Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Aruna Sairam

Aruna Sairam
Divine Inspiration
World Village USA

The genre of South Indian classical vocalism is not the easiest thing for the west to approach, but, as the cross-pollination of multi-cultural influences in the arts accelerates due to the internet, maybe it’s getting a little easier -- surely Bombay Jayashri’s Oscar nomination for her work on the theme song for the movie “Life of Pi” might indicate that. To western ears, the Carnatic tradition of singing holds many peculiarities, such as seemingly long, uneven, or odd-numbered beats as a basis, solo segments for the vocalist utilizing words that indicate the notes of a scale (“Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Da, Ni, Sa” – the Indian equivalent of “Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti, Do”), very loose slurs & slides (known as “meend”) that seem unapproachable on much western instrumentation, and the rapid-firing of repetitious passages that are outside of the given beat cycle. Proof of the differences between western and eastern audiences is also apparent by how many Indian classical musicians change their performance nature, depending on whether they are playing for a western or eastern audience: Indian audiences can appreciate a lengthy and explorative alap (the initial, beat-less movement of a soloist’s slow introduction to the tonal structure [called a raag] -- which can range anywhere from 2 – 25 or more minutes). These sections are often omitted or shortened for performances in non-Indian countries, largely because the meditative nature of the alap seems not quite as “entertaining” to many western short attention spans.

In addition to the structural elements above, a Carnatic vocalist’s art might also seem at first unpalatable due to the very nature of the style’s sound. An examination of the works of highly-acclaimed Carnatic singers such as Girija Devi, Nithyasree Mahadevan, or the earlier works of Suddha Ragunathan shows that, at least in some circles, what appears favorable is a rather strong, tense, and almost buzzing nature of the voice that seems to come from pushing the tone to the top and front of the throat. In this way, Carnatic singers can be a bit of an acquired taste. But, once that hurdle is overcome, one begins to appreciate the ringing tones of the vocalist as that of any other instrument. The nature of Aruna Sairam’s voice appears largely in this style.  Noting that there is a difference between the western and eastern ears, this album, Divine Inspiration, seems to be geared toward both: a couple of “heavier” and longer tracks in the middle of the album, with some wonderful shorter tunes to start and to end.

The opening track, “Om sakti Om,” is a bit of an “Indian standard,” with a nature hard to not love.  There's also something about the nature of the hard clacking sound that comes from the ghatam (clay pot drum).  Although it isn't as much of a "standard instrument" in Indian recordings as tabla or mridangam, when it is there, it does add quite a pleasing character:

Track two, "Govinda Leena Mol," is one of Mirabaj's bhajans.  Mirabaj, considered a saint in the 15th century perhaps even before her death, fought rigid Indian traditionalism by celebrating a life of devotion toward Krishna until the end of her days -- despite pressures and ill-will from the family of her arranged marriage to devote herself to her husband.  Here, Mirabaj reflects on how she "bought" god by paying the price of devotional love to Krishna.

It is moments in tunes such as this where Aruna's colors really shine.  By sustaining certain moments of the tune, and playing with them melodically while the rhythms dance under her, she is really showing some musical wisdom:

Leena bhaja ke dol, Mayire Maine
Govinda Leena mol
Mira ke prabhu Giridhar nagar
Mira ke prabhu Giridhar nagar, Giridhar nagar
Purva janam ka bol, Mayire Maine
Govinda Leena mol, Mayire Maine
Gopala Leena mol…
I paid the price with my drumming,
I bought Govinda
Mira knows that this bond,
Mira knows that this bond, this bond
Is drawn from lives past
I bought Govinda
I bought Gopala

Another highlight of the album comes in the form of "Saravanabhava," which has an energy hard to keep down, ...

... and, on the other side of the spectrum is the slower and more contemplative energy of "Rangapura Vihara," written by none other than Muthuswamy Dikshitar.  That's right: I said, "Dikshitar"...

Finally, the album closes with a Tillana: a lively and highly-variable piece meant to show of the skillsets of vocalist, and, when they're involved, the Bharatanatyam dancer.  One aspect of the vocal element of a Tillana is the use of onomatopoetic representations of the drum sounds, which usually gets into very satisfying super-fast bits:

In the course of the last year, I've seen myself go from having a desire to hear only one or two tracks off the album, to loving and knowing well each individual track, except one or two.  It might be a hard place to find room in one's palette for Carnatic vocal music, but if you make room, you'll really love that place.
-Seth Premo