The Watermark, Jeff Gburek

14/07/2012

Jeff Gburek’s The Watermark comes over as an extremely well produced album with the guitar at its heart. The signature sound of acoustic and prepared electric guitars is accompanied by Javanese rebab or spike fiddle, sitar, bass recorder, piano, voice and vocal effects, field recordings and software processing. The problem, fairly obvious, would lie in the organisation of such a variety of seemingly unrelated instruments and sound sources. Gburek has chosen not to throw everything together in a freely improvised session or two and hope that an avant-garde aesthetic excuses the results. Instead each track impresses the listener with a sense of composition, arrangement and sensitivity to the sound sources. Many of the tracks come across as folk-ish songs, without words, but with a hint of electroacoustic awareness in the background textures and flutters.

The guitar for the most part is clean, apart from touches of reverb, delay and perhaps an octaver. Several tracks, notably 1, 3 and 6, set up delicate arpeggiated chord progressions characterised by their lack of resolution or clear direction. Around these fragile foundations wander the various gnomic voices (singing into a microphone held in the mouth), whistles and crackles or rebab phrases. Track 1 in particular offers a verse and chorus structure which hints at compositional beginnings on the guitar. The preparations are straightforward and effective – what sounds like ebbing and flowing ebowed passages on track 5, guitar activated by means of a portable ventilator on track 8 and, more conventionally, slide guitar on track 6.

What I found interesting was the range of moods offered throughout the album. It would be easy to label the music as ‘ambient’ in the original sense of the word. But within this catch-all there is much variety. Some of the tracks are simply relaxing. Track 4 for example, though perhaps a bit long, would keep many a  stoner happy with its lazy, droney Pink Floydish feelgood atmosphere. Track 5, hypnotic and mesmeric, leaves us hanging in space and time with a mix of high pass filtered folky vocals, a pedal on two pitches, background glitches and electronics. In introducing some new instruments, piano and bass recorder, along with a folky and disembodied voice and wolf sounds, track 7 resembles a traditional chant. The overall mood leans towards the mysterious, even disturbed, more like sound design for a film. Track 8 extends and develops this darker discourse.

For lovers of the guitar and in particular those who appreciate new approaches to embedding the guitar in fresh environments, this will be an enjoyable addition to the cd collection. Work like this always offers a challenging contrast between the recognisability of the guitar, which pins everything down, and the less recognisable accompanying instrumental, vocal or electronic gestures and textures. I would add here that Gburek has wisely avoided relying too heavily on software processing and unnecessary electronic padding. The album comes over very well, to my ears at least, as primarily an acoustic exploration which sits between popular and experimental idioms.

I would also applaud the fact that this is very peaceful music, not in a new age sense, but in the sense that there is no Mr Nasty posturing to be found anywhere. We get a sense of homeliness and gentle engagement with the artist and his collaborators.

I’ve made several references to folk and folkiness. My final comment, and this is purely personal, would be that I think the album could have gone even further in the exploration of what I’d call a conceptual folk idiom. By this I mean a music where there are allusions, hints and connotations of ‘folkiness’, from a variety of world traditions, without any predominance, a sound world in which the listener is left with a mixed feeling of familiarity (homeliness) and mystery (otherness). Although this music is possibly yet to be made, The Watermark makes gentle and positive steps in the right direction.

 The Watermark is available at Orphan Sound

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