Monday, April 13, 2009

Recent orogenetic activity

If the genre "world music" wasn't already defined as pop music from different cultures, one might be tempted to use it for the ever traveling Michael Northam, whose sound composting methodology has created some deep and resonant drone pieces over the past decade. A look at his discography, approaching three dozen items from nearly twenty years, shows a blend of solo work with a changing group of collaborators, with barely two albums released on the same label. For a pop musician, this would indicate serious interpersonal difficulties, but in Northam's case, it signals an openness to situations and relationships from the most diverse possible origins. Three of his recent releases offer examples of this wide range.

Late last year, the Faria label in Russia released An Opening of the Earth: Recovered, a collaboration with Martin Franklin. Of all Northam's collaborators, Franklin is one of the furthest from Northam's usual environmental and electroacoustic methods. Franklin is a percussionist whose best known project is Tuu, a tribal new-age group with several releases on ambient boutique labels such as Waveform, Amplexus, and Fathom (a sublabel of the seminal new age radio show, Hearts of Space). Northam and Franklin's album predates all of this and is the earliest material that Northam has released. The original session was a three hour improvisation in September, 1991, and this material has been the source for three different versions of the album, all entitled An Opening of the Earth. For the Faria release, Franklin went back to the original source tapes and constructed what appears to be a brand-new release, reputedly incorporating some elements that have not been released in previous versions. In the liner notes, Northam seems to express some surprise at the difference between "the rawness and sustained states" of the original session, compared to shorter events and other (unspecified) characteristics.

Despite its undoubtedly primitive origins and rudimentary recording, the first impression of the recovered album is how contemporary, crisp and clear everything sounds. Although I haven't heard either of the two early versions of this material, I would have expected less than stellar original masters not necessarily preserved with the highest archival standards. While the album doesn't sound much like later work of either musician, in hindsight one can detect the directions that each performer would take. Franklin sets up sustained backgrounds and modal melodies with various synthesizers, a trope that became a staple with Tuu, and which provides an aura of prevailing calm. Northam punctuates the proceedings by tapping, scraping, brushing, and crunching various metal objects, creating intuitive and arhythmic metallic gestures that bring to mind his more recent improvisational work. One of Northam's credit is feedback loop, which perhaps accounts for the occasional squalls and the more noisy static and naked input jack episodes that echo repeatedly into the distance. Each of the eight excerpts (all with titles like Tape 1, Part 1) has its own moods and atmospheres, mysterious combinations of the raw and the cooked.

If Martin Franklin represents a new-age pole for Northam's musical partners, avant-noise percussionist Seijiro Murayama is at the opposite end of the musical spectrum. Murayama was the original drummer in Keiji Haino's seminal noise rock/free improv/psychedelic group Fushitsusha, and has since formed a long-term association with multi-instrumentalist K. K. Null in the group Absolut Null Punkt. Early in 2009, Murayama and Northam released Moriendo Renascor on Xing Wu, an experimental music label from Malaysia, based on recordings and meetings between 2003 and 2004. Moriendo Renascor is their second release together, although the exact chronology is somewhat conflicted. Northam's current web site says that they first met 2003, but the information from their first release together, a mini-CD and download entitled They Stood Around and Watched says it was recorded in 2001. In addition, the music on the earlier release is considerably less processed, exhibiting layers of percussion and flute that could have been the raw feed from a live improvisation. No such clarity is present on Moriendo Renascor, which steers much more towards Northam's composted sound, where layer upon layer is turned, seeded, and activated to become a set of murky, atmospheric electroacoustic pieces.

Compost is an apt metaphor for this collection, whose title means "In dying, one is reborn," a sentiment common to many religions as well as gardening, and here expressed in a nearly extinct French dialect. The album is full of complex ambient drones, barely audible voices and little murmurings occasionally audible, but mostly exhibiting gentle undulations of natural processes brought out through Northam's composting. These drones provide the backdrop for wooden rustlings, stone scrapings, high-pitched whistlings and swishing, occasional bells, and various small details extracted from field recordings. There are few traces of overtly electronic sounds; even these may dissolve into a more natural provenance. The pieces have their own internal cycles, not exactly a narration, but movement from loud roars to very quiet, with sharp internal transitions that belie the track separations (which are inconclusive anyway, with four tracks identified as I, IV, III and II, and ordered differently on the back cover and the inner sleeve). Murayama and Northam use these quiet ambient drones to focus the attention on mysterious foreground activities, whose origins defy elucidation even as they draw in the listener. Drones drift through the pieces like streams through a forest, creating a remarkable sonic environment that reflects the natural ones in Jura and rural France where Murayama and Northam created the work.

January 2009 also saw the release of a solo piece entitled Memory of A, a mini-CD on the Parisian label Taâlem. This is Northam's first solo release since Go in 2006, a tribute to his father, which was also his last release using the mnortham alias which graced nearly all of his previous work. Memory of A is based on recordings that Northam made on a "microtuned tubular zylophone" at the Adishakti Center in Pondicherry, India, in December, 2007. It feels like a new direction for Northam, where the original unaltered recordings intermingle the composted sounds. The dramatic opening, an intense buzzing vibration, is pure timbre, not clearly tied to a zylophone, but it evolves into a full, quietly evolving harmonic drone, with the first unprocessed tones showing up about five minutes into the piece, just as the buzzing is fading out. Northam comments on the unusual winter rain during the recordings, so doubtless this became part of the constant background drone. Crows and crickets show up, giving a sense of space to the music. The relatively constant zylophone tones, alternating the stereo field and hanging limpidly like a mobile, act as the background to a brief sections of unrecognizable origins, scrapes and a rush of tumbling white noise, eventually luxuriating in a series of low tones that seem to resonate forever. The harmonic spectrum widens in the last few minutes, including what sounds like some kind of primitive horn. The progression of the piece from the initial harsh tones through the drifting middle section to the annunciation of the horn provides a sense of narrative, rooted in Northam's own experience but open for the listener's personal illumination.

An Opening in the Earth: Recovered is limited to 500 copies and comes in a full color wallet with three postcard inserts. Faria has somewhat limited distribution, but I got mine from and/OAR. Moriendo Renascor is available from many of the usual suspects (and/OAR, Erstdist, Mimaroglu, etc.) and comes in a gatefold sleeve made from recycled paper. Due to a printing problem, a handwritten poem by Lionel Marchetti on the inner sleeve is virtually invisible, but is available as a jpeg at Xing Wu, or in plain text at Northam's site. Neither of these releases is available as a download, but with their first releases of 2009, including Memory of A, Taâlem is making their releases available in lossless FLAC format, with full artwork.

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