Somnambule - Writing About Music

Akira Rabelais ~ Spellewauerynsherde

Akira Rabelais is a composer and developer of sonic software christened with such exotic titles as Argeiphontes Lyre, Lobster Quadrille and Evisceration Reanimation. The sum impression of such epithets raises the expectation of something out of the ordinary and Rabelais’ latest composition doesn't disappoint. Spellewauerynsherde is a hauntingly beautiful work, made of a host of lost voices found and sympathetically treated. It’s the third release on David Sylvian’s label, Samadhi Sound, whose website provides ample details about its background. In fact for such an allusive work, the notes may for once be said to provide a little too much detail because the very mysteriousness of the enterprise is one of its great pleasures. The music appears to be almost literally spun from a host of lamenting female voices which form the emotional core and sole source material of the composition. These voices are, the reader is informed, field recordings of traditional Icelandic accapella lament songs made in the 1960s, discovered by Rabelais on neglected reel-to-reel tapes. However, these voices are not presented solely as Duchampian objets trouves as Rabelais combines them into musical forms reminiscent of wreaths winding and unwinding in slow, endless motion.

Their sound immediately triggers associations with medieval plainsong, the chant of medieval Christian liturgies in Europe and the Middle East. The second impression is of the mourning songs of sirens stricken with conscience at the deaths of sailor victims. No matter how beautiful their echoing songs, it seems they’re unable to assuage their collective guilt.

Each of the seven tracks - which might better be called movements, so coherent is the album as a whole – is given an elliptical, verging on gnomic, title. For example, ‘1382 Wyclif Gen. ii. 7’ probably refers to John Wyclif, 1324-1384, a vocal critic of the corruption of the Catholic church in the 14th century, who was most notably responsible for the first complete version of both Old and New Testament in English. The date of the title was the year Wyclif’s writings were banned and he himself was excommunicated.

The centrepiece of Spellewauerynsherde is the 21 minute ‘1483 Caxton Golden Leg. 208b/2’ which plunges the spirits of the singers into celestial depths, from whence they call to the listener as they’re recompiled and stretched by Rabelais’ alchemical software. The result might be the sound of aloneness or exquisite torture. Whatever the individual interpretation, it’s an exquisite experience of wraith-like etherealism with hints of the eternal. The process of attenuation causes the voices to become almost indistinguishable from the spectral murmuring of the wind. The title perhaps refers to William Caxton, the first printer in England. 1483 was the year in which he published the first English version of The Lives of the Saints. It’s succeeded by the 44 second ‘1559 W. Cunningham Cosmogr. Gl’ which is the least processed of the seven pieces: the singer’s voice is more immediate, its distinctness acting as a brief focal point rising momentarily above the sea of other voices.

What most isolates Spellewauerynsherde from its cohort is the evident intensity of Rabelais’ sympathy for the material and his ability to preserve the initial impulse, simplify its power and apply only a certain, defined change. In addition to the music itself, its composition from found voices and the allusive titling of each track, two additional elements proffer further skeins of assocation. The black and white cover photograph displays a Russian icon of the Virgin and Child mounted on oppressively patterned wallpaper above utilitarian furniture. Inside rich red and cream wallpaper is overlaid by digital noise. Apt metaphors for the musical processes within perhaps. Included too is a poem from Rabelais which begins:

"carefully questions unraveled in their answers upon polite observation, dipping and drawing..."
A gathering of signs and feinting hints out of which to construe meaning, the listener motivated to do so because of the haunting, strange beauty of the music.
Colin Buttimer
Augustl 2004
Published by the BBC