Friday, December 17, 2010

Sound toward the light

René Daumal was a mystic and writer in interwar France, a fertile time for the imagination even if it was highly unstable economically and politically for most of Europe. Born in 1908, his early years most famously included a bit of drug experimentation, specifically inhaling carbon tetrachloride, which gave him a glimpse of a higher reality. Although he later renounced external stimulants, he spent the rest of his life searching for the spirit that he glimpsed in his trances. In the late 1920s, he and a few friends created a literary group, Le Grand Jeu, parallel to the surrealists but eventually diverging over Daumal's more spiritual aspirations versus Breton and surrealism's engagement with Marxist politics. After exploring several religious traditions, Daumal found a home with Hinduism, learning Sanskrit well enough to translate some of the sacred texts into French. His spiritual work eventually led him into the circle around G. I. Gurdjieff, whose disciples were Daumal's teachers until his death from tuberculosis in 1944. In addition to many poems and essays, Daumal also published a novel in 1938 entitled A Night of Serious Drinking and left a second novel, Mount Analogue, unfinished. Published posthumously, it later became one of the sources for Alejandro Jodorowsky's allegorical film The Holy Mountain.

Sound artist Michael Northam's most recent release, Solar Night on C40 cassette from the Malaysian label Mirror Tapes, is directly and overtly inspired by Daumal. This isn't the first time Northam has cited Daumal for his music. More than ten years ago, Northam's collaboration with John Grzinich The Absurd Evidence was named after a book of Daumal's essays. The album included as an epigraph "tem gwef tem gwef dr rr rr," the unpronounceable word that Daumal heard in his mystical trances immediately preceding the recognition of eternal truths. On Solar Night the significant quotation is from one of Daumal's early prose poems, given in French on Mirror Tapes' site and recited in English in the music. The texts are set in a passage describing the reversal of the speaker's perceptive faculties, which enables him to see the true world that lies hidden behind the encircling daylight existence.

In many works Northam's primary source material is field recordings, and so with Solar Night. In addition, some of the sound sources are from Northam's live performances during the summer of 2010. I imagine Northam's performances to be similar to Jeph Jerman, who performed in Tucson last winter, and years ago with Northam, and — small, natural objects, rattling and rustling into intricate environmental textures. Remarkably, when I listen to Solar Night, I hear the spontaneous performances, rooted in active and direct communication, quite clearly amidst the various layers. In fact, I thought that there was less processing of the individual layers here than on most previous Northam works. The field recordings, such as the ferocious weather in Bathing in the Golden Wrapper, were detailed and crisp. Other layers seemed to have a more human agency behind them, so I could imagine that it was produced live, in real time. Inevitably, some layers resisted such anthropomorphic fantasies, but I listened to them all the more attentively for the ambiguities.

Solar Night is released only on cassette, with two tracks making up the episodes that comprise each side. Episode A opens with the aforementioned Bathing in the Golden Wrapper, the stormy field recordings subsiding into a watery swamp, getting its complexity from the layering. The first Daumal quotation leads into the second piece, Mask of the Sun, a gentle resonant drone, full of delicate bells and flutes, boundaries between natural and processed completelly blurred. But there's a fire crackling away in the background, more or less audible throughout the whole piece — here we are, sitting around the campfire in the woods, enveloped in Northam's unearthly performance.

Episode B opens with a walk through a Tunnel passing through environments both natural and perhaps not so much. Accompanied by birds and insects, flutes and bells, the walker's steps parallel Daumal's spiritual journey, toward the light. Insect sounds are especially prominent, dancing through the field that needs to be heard on headphones to be truly appreciated. The last piece, Sonorous Skin, sets up a watery nocturnal environment that provides the background for an intense electronic loop, the most alien sound on the tape so far. The album closes with a second Daumal reading, "i am the seer of the night an auditor of silence a silence dressed in a sonorous skin."

Although all four pieces work with shimmering, continuous textures, Northam ends them fairly abruptly, with little twists that open the pieces outwards rather than simply drifting back into nothingness. These endings give the pieces a lift, leaving the listener more suspended and aware. Like Daumal, Northam is embarked on a spiritual journey, for which Solar Night is not only a demonstration, an immersive invitation to find the light behind the natural world.

Solar Night is available directly from Mirror Tapes. Daumal's portrait illustrates this online translation of one of Daumal's essays.

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