Sunday, June 6, 2010

The ruined cathedral

Enrico Coniglio is based in Venice, Italy, where he trained as an urban planner, and his music has deep roots in his environment. I reviewed one of his collaborative works a while back, and this year he released Songs from Ruined Days digitally on the Touch sublabel Spire. At first glance it seems like an odd alliance, since Coniglio's only traditional instrument is the guitar and Spire is all about the pipe organ. But Coniglio is operating here as an aural observer, composing this 45-minute work from field recordings, some of which include a pipe organ. Songs from Ruined Days is a poignant indictment of commodification and the resulting dilution of cultural identity, where the pipe organ acts as a symbol of the paradise lost.

The origin of Songs From Ruined Days is a collection of field recordings from industrial sites and cathedrals, both of which Coniglio sees in a state of crisis. The industrial samples feed into deep, buzzing drones with a full sonic spectrum, an aural equivalent of a dense fog through which we occasionally hear incomprehensible voices and other traces of human activity. Sometimes sustained organ tones underpin this fog, materializing quietly, merging into slow melodies and hushed harmonies. Sometimes, it's just static, atmospheric crackles and the oscillation of distant traffic. But three times out of this haze emerges unadulterated liturgical music, startling in its clarity, beauty, sadness and tradition.

These interludes of sacred music bring a sense of holiness to the music, yet these songs are as ruined as the industrial wasteland that surrounds them, corrupted by human frailty and unable to offer any spiritual nourishment. The pipe organ plays a hymn in the first interlude, faintly accompanied by its congregation. The reverberant space around the organ informs us that we're in a cathedral, and we should have a massive choir celebrating in song. Instead, a few voices, out of tune and out of sync, struggle to carry the message. The second interlude is for a choir alone, but they emerge from street noise and transient conversations, a distant rehearsel punctuated by air brakes and other industrial noises. Choir and organ join in an offertory in the final interlude sequence, the organ setting up a beautiful, clear chorale to the Virgin Mary, Kyrie Eleison and a concluding organ postlude. Even here, the liturgical music is overlaid with conversations and street noises, the sound of nobody paying attention. Lord have mercy indeed.

Songs From Ruined Days isn't Coniglio's first piece dealing with the environmental state of the Venetian lagoon and its surrounding industrial park. Field recordings from the factories show up in Abibes, his podcast for Cronica, and the pollution in the lagoon a subtext in Sapientumsuperacquis, a podcast for Touch Radio. Listeners shouldn't be surprised that some of the drones in the earlier work bear more than a passing resemblance to this one, but the overt symbolism of the liturgical music moves Songs From Ruined Days away from a pure ambient work and into a class of its own.

Songs From Ruined Days is available as a 320 kbps mp3 download directly from Touch.

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