Review – Hapsburg Braganza: Hatchling

19/10/2009

Hapsburg Braganza

Hatchling [40:26]

bandeau

Yannick Franck of Idiosyncratics Records kindly sent me two albums to review.  This is a review of the first, Hatchling, a recent release by Hapsburg Braganza, with the second, From Gold Falls a Bad Rain by Y.E.R.M.O, to follow.

Assumptions

Here’s what I’ve learned from the sleeve notes. Hapsburg Braganza, a.k.a. Phil Begg, is a Newcastle based artist. Piecing together the clues, he seems to be connected in some way to the Culture Lab at the University. Normally you’d expect someone from that background to like fiddling around with sound/noise-making gadgets and devices and to like doing this in live performance, all of which seems to be the case.

The sounds on the album have been sourced from: Indian harmonium, cymbals, acoustic guitar, piano, acoustic/concrete sounds, field recordings (shore of Crummock Water, Honister Pass summit, Rigg Beck, Jesmond Dene pet cemetery. Given the short textual clue,

To the exorcism of ghosts and escaping from cities

I’m assuming some sort of personal exorcism, an autobiographical programme/agenda, with obvious advantages to physical and spiritual health in getting out of the Toon (fine city though it is) over to the Lake District  from time to time. Or (and I’m not being facetious) has his dog died I wonder, given the prominence of Jesmond Dene pet cemetery as a sound source and its apparent representation at the end of the work?

Approaches

In reviewing, as in all things, there are many ways to skin a cat. The timeline approach is not my favoured strategy, but with an album like this,  quite linear in its perception, and possibly in its conception, it would seem to be a good way of getting the best out of the work with its many good points and well crafted features.

First of all I’d say that that the work merits careful listening. You’ll be amply rewarded, especially over headphones. I’ll confess that my first listening attitude wasn’t at all satisfactory. I decided to lie flat on the sofa and listen without any preconceptions or note-taking. I fell asleep, or, more precisely I drifted in and out of a half sleep as the music took me here and there. This is no bad thing. I’ve found reference to two separate and distinct cultural traditions which claimed that all good music must fulfil any or all of three criteria in order to pass for good music – it had to make you laugh (I assume this includes dance), cry or sleep.  The medieval Islamic scholar Al-Farabi was quite clear about this as were the Celtic bards. But my drowsiness was more to do with a long cycle and a big lunch…

The Music

This album takes its time, so you have to be patient. It’s a textural work with very little in the way of figures or gestures. The first minute presents a very slow and beautiful crescendo with some interesting spatial attributes (headphones will bring these out best). A slow and gentle pulse of broadband noise establishes itself as a ground, with gestural iterations emerging at around 2:10. Later, around 3:40, pulses arrive from various sources (presumably these are the concrete sounds), then creaks, hints of static and crackle, resonance, hums and drones emerging and receding as contrasting figures. A gentle and considered polyphony, well separated. You might decide at this point that the message has been delivered and that it’s time to move on, but as I said, patience will be rewarded.

All new sounds are carefully introduced. Another interesting feature, deliberate or not, is the fact that a balance is struck, to my ears at least, between interest in the source of the sounds and interest in the sounds’ sonic features. This gets to the heart of what mimetic or representational material is all about.

We have, therefore, a good concrete introduction, up to around 6:00. In taking his time, the composer introduces each new sound with care, then lets them find their level in the emerging mix.  Foreground and background are well configured and a ‘tight’ spatial ambience establishes itself in the first 3 -4  minutes (studio created, yet threatening to break out in to an outdoors ambience).  In works like this I’m always sniffing out a sense of narrative. There’s a creaky door which of course has metaphorical  implications – perhaps an escape to the country – as well as purely sonic implications; in this case the sound offers interesting similarities and contrasts with its neighbours, enhancing the overall musicality at work. A feeling of human initiated activity makes itself felt quite prominently at around 5:00, though any narrative implications dry up soon after. Structurally speaking we’re dealing with the tried and tested technique of enabling contrasting textures to build into slow measured layers where any looping is long enough to pass notice. This established we’re left to comment on the choice of sounds and to my ears these are well chosen, well separated and well placed in the mix.

I’ll suggest a somewhat artificial section split at around 5:55, where I became aware of a hint of instrumental resonance, perhaps even a synthetic sound which soon contrasts strongly, incongruously even, with the preceding material. Yet this intrusion keeps interest alive in what has become a predictable texture. Bass growls become apparent, again arousing the listener’s interest. I mention this because I think the composer wants the unfolding of the piece to keep our interest alive and his success in this should be acknowledged.

Gradually we begin to shift slowly but surely to another sound world – our concrete world recedes to be replaced by what seems to be a digital world (was the assumed synthetic resonance a false cadence, a deliberate misleading of some sort?) but in fact turns out to be a more organic sound world as the sounds of gently lapping water (or sounds similar to lapping water) balance the narrative, a balance which can be hard to achieve successfully. Whether deliberately contrived or not, the water sounds manage to echo or recall the pulsing drones earlier in the work. The sense of transition is most clearly pronounced at 8:23, a long transition of over two minutes.

I find time here to reinforce my personal narrative, based on semantic anchors– the door creaks and concrete sounds yield ground to a space suggestive of a natural environment. This could be taken much further – there’s still no crisp outdoor ambience,  the embedded soundscape, a favourite of mine, which emphasises the idiosyncracies of the recording device, ‘laying bare’ the device, a technique much discussed in photographic and moving image discourse.

Rant #1

At this point I want to say that some reviewers don’t like, and many probably don’t really understand, the use of obviously natural environmental sounds in new music. It’s an important area and I haven’t the time here to elaborate fully. But I will say that it’s remiss to refer to one or two high profile artists every time someone uses a field recording in their work, as if one or two artists invented the bloody practice just the other week. Such an analysis, that such and such an artist is influenced by the canonical figures,  might be appropriate if the artist specifically acknowledges certain influences.

In Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, Steiner throws a party where one guest’s party-piece is to introduce and play some of his field recordings, a petit-bourgeois parlour pastime. That was in the ’60s, and the context suggests that field recordings as art had been around for some time before that. Can we please have some perspective on new work?

So, to label all water sounds in recorded music, for example, as the same, is similar to saying that all violin sounds are the same. And by the way, if you’re going to slam the practice of using field recordings of one sort or another, it helps to get it right as to the actual source – water/wind/waves or rain? Otherwise you’re not sure what you’re talking about. Maybe we should use terms like ‘of aquatic provenance’ if that’s not too pretentious. I general, if you want to do the artists justice for all their hard efforts,  you have to put yourself about a bit and find out why people choose to work with these sounds, what their intentions are, and then take time to consider whether they’re successful in their final work. Or better still work with those sounds yourself and explore the problems (endless) and their solutions (still under debate). As well as remembering that there will always be tension between musical issues and contextual issues. Phew, got that one off my chest…

The music again

The predominance of ‘water-like sounds’, then, takes us to 14:00, where two distinct watery layers,  sounds more usually used as background, are offered as foreground sounds. A bold statement, to be commended. There was sufficient forward motion to carry this passage onwards –  just. The threat of monotony was always lurking in the wings.

At 15:30 there appears a clear harmonic resonance of uncertain provenance. On first hearing this sound  I would have described it as the sound of a sweeping alien spacecraft over the water, but then I have a particular interest in these fabricated interventions and interferences in representations of natural soundscapes which goes back to a natural human tendency to construct narrative. There comes also a hint of pitched drones, well crafted, well placed in the mix, again best appreciated on headphones.

The harmonium (as it turns out to be) gradually occupies the foreground.  The combination of harmonium and water is risky – there is the constant threat of  ‘new age-ism’ establishing itself as a context, not what the artist wants in this case I presume. But here the combination works because the new timbre is introduced with sensitivity,  the choice of water sound (out of trillions of different water sounds) is timbrally suited to the new sound, and we have been adequately prepared for slow transitions. This is a beautiful transition – my only criticism is that the harmonium stays too far back in the mix for too long. There is something of the awesome here, not in the Paris Hilton sense (‘… awesome heels honey…’) but in the true meaning of the word, where we contemplate something of spiritual grandeur or witness the unfolding of an uplifting event or process. This is due in part to the connotative power of certain sounds. These connotations can be engendered in many ways, for example by familiarity with (and even indoctrination by) film sound. I’ve been familiar with harmoniums for more than half my life having spent many fruitful years in the company of Asian musicians who sang bhujans and chanted regularly to the accompaniment of the harmonium. This period of my life also coincided with ‘the search for the perfect drone’  where again and again I returned to tanpuras, harmoniums and as a last resort, the drone of a drop D acoustic guitar. This then led me to choral music, the drone as representative of the eternal, as in John Taverner’s music, to just intonation, and to the functions of the ground in musical texture. I’ve come to respect the history, uses and conceptual extensions of harmonium drones. So, I think, has this artist. Tension is created. I’m waiting for a massive wall of sound, an explosion of tablas, a pure fifth against the drone from the likes of Shubha Mudgal, or for the unsettling power of subtly developing lines in a malkauns raga by Hariprasad Chaurasia, capable of making you stumble and fall over your own feet.

We come to realise that there is an overall design and direction to the piece (if you haven’t already cottoned on). An appreciation of natural forces comes to mind, or an emergence – the title Hatchling becomes meaningful. I’m hearing cymbals (finger cymbals even) at points in the mix – little metallic clicks and cheeps. The cymbals might even be timestretched as a shimmering foreground layer. There’s a sound first heard at 11:40 – I can’t tell what it is exactly –  similar to a tanpura, which gradually asserts itself. I’m also hearing all sorts of beating and difference tones, the stuff of a good drone. This passage reminds me of a domesticated version of Kraig Grady’s work in just intonation with big harmonium and bowed psalteries.

So now we have instrumental sounds in a similar function to the concrete sounds we heard earlier. I’d call this ambient in the sense of the ground taking up all the space and energy and the apparent background texture becoming foreground, with no gestures or figures. A mood is set, the uniform texture becomes an alternative to the structural use of silence (silence is harder to work with in my opinion), things are left to run…

I don’t know if it’s the  increase in amplitude which allows the full spectrum to come through at a particular point in the crescendo, but around 25:40 the harmonium sounds as if it has been split apart through filtering and the full spectrum pieced together again as clear layers. I won’t analyse this too deeply except to say that it’s very well crafted.

At 31:25, gestural material makes its return – is this the percussive element that I’ve been waiting for in the context of a raga? A good intuitive decision as to the type of material, though I’d have preferred a repetition of earlier material.

The work draws to a close with a BIG diminuendo a niente. At the very end we hear the sound of birds (possibly a longish loop) with all their connotative power  (and cars – is this the town again, the pet cemetery?). It all fits together very nicely as a narrative statement, but needs to end there and does so effectively.

Final thoughts

Throughout the work I enjoyed greatly the construction of my own personal narrative, guided by  ‘the exorcism of ghosts and escaping from cities.’ The high quality of craftsmanship is beyond doubt and the composer has responded well to the challenge of sustaining interest in a mass of textures for over forty minutes.  I would like to add finally that listening to this music in some depth has raised some interesting questions. How might we work with both massive textural drones and a structural use of silence in the one work? Is there a danger that with reasonably clear sounds, new textures arising briefly as a result of layering, a straightforward orchestration (this, then that), a need might arise for a more complex model of morphology and growth? Particularly given the title.

And totally finally (there’s Paris again), the name Hapsburg Braganza – I don’t understand it. I can’t reconcile two dynasties, one Austrian, the other Portuguese, with the music, but I might be missing a clue here. It has a touch of the 70s New Romantic about it – Spandau Ballet comes to mind.

But none of that should prevent you from laying hands on this 300 copy limited edition album, strapping on the ‘phones and wallowing in the unique sound world of Phil Begg.

Hatchling is released on the Belgian label, Idiosyncratics Records.

www.idiosyncratics.net

www.myspace.com/idiosyncraticsrecords

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