Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Drone Classics — Ora

One of the first albums that got me hooked on drones was by the elusive British group Ora. Amalgalm was a 2-lp set released in 2000, sometimes called Amalgam, but the Ora discographies at both Brainwashed and ICR use the former — FWIW, the label website says Amalgram. I should say a word about the packaging — two clear lps, each in their own clear plastic sleeve, and both lps in a larger clear plastic wrapper, along with a full-size double-sided color insert that went between the two lps. Naturally, the pictures available on the internet don't do any justice, and I had to sell all of my vinyl when we moved to Arizona, so I can't produce a cover scan any more. The work was released on editions …, a label based in Georgia (USA) which released a number of treated field recording works, but which appears to be dormant for the last couple of years. The label's motto is "...we are not cognizant of the state of our own surroundings," and works like Amalgalm help make us cognizant by introducing a degree of strangeness into our natural surroundings.

The group for this collection included Ora stalwarts Colin Potter and Darren Tate, with the participation of Michael Northam. This album was probably my first exposure to Northam, about whom I'll have more to say in a future post. Northam brought to Ora a consciousness about place for this one release in which he worked with them. Even though Potter and Tate are both pioneers in using field recordings to create drone pieces, I have no other release by either one where the locations of the field recordings are provided on the album. On Amalgalm, each field location is identified by a Greek letter, and the letters are then keyed to each piece. For example, the piece "Crop" has the symbols θ and ε. Checking the key tells us that θ means "Inside a watertower in Lancashire" and ε means "Under the water table of the glacial lowlands west of the White River". (Every piece on both lps uses θ; the Watertower is the name of Potter's studio in Preston, Lancashire.) Interestingly, all of the locations mentioned have a connection with water, whether it's the watertower in Lancashire, a location near a river bank, or other large body of water (Gulf of Finland and Puget Sound are mentioned).

One of the most powerful characteristics of this music is its polyphony. On a piece like "Crop", for example, there are four distinct layers, all moving at their own pace. The first sound we hear is a kind of white noise. It could be ocean waves, although this is understood more because of the rhythm of the oscillation rather than its actual sound. Then, a much slower and deeper oscillation starts, rich in overtones, more of a proper drone, which underpins the remainder of the piece. A third voice is mysterious but fairly rapid, almost functioning like a lead voice except that its pitch content is microtonally centered around a tight frequency range. Its rhythmic contours suggested an origin in human speech, but if so, it is so altered that no specific vocalizations are recognizable. Finally, a second long-running drone, similar to a cymbal roll, rumbles in, eventually replacing the oceanic oscillation that opened the piece. Ora gives each of the layers some time to itself, so they remain perceptible throughout. This pattern extends to most of the other pieces on the album, where a layer of sound will be set into play with other layers. Some of the layers are pretty static, and some have quite a bit going on. Ora's artistry is that the resulting piece is a sculpture in sound, giving the listener enough time to wander around the piece and hear it from multiple angles.

Amalgalm was a personal harbinger for drones made from field recordings. I was marginally aware, by reputation only, of R. Murray Schafer and the soundscape artists primarily located in Canada, their pioneering efforts starting in the late 1970s and their work in the acoustic ecology field. I was enough aware to join a Yahoo discussion group for "phonographers" that kicked off in 2000, which was one of the first serious attempts to gather up field recording artists into a wider community. The phonographer aesthetic was somewhat different from soundscapes, based more on Cage than on Schafer, and thus more closely aligned with my own interests (southern Ohio didn't have many interesting soundscapes). As for Amalgalm, despite the list of recording locations, there isn't that much in this album that says "soundscape" aside from some sheep on "Pan". But there's enough of a suggestion of the world in Ora's music to direct my attention outward, but enough resonance to tune into the frequencies and become immersed in the music.

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