Arvo Pärt – Te Deum / Swans – Avatar (from The Seer): Round 40, Nick’s choices

I’d half-heartedly set the theme of “moving house, or home, or furniture, or newness” at the end of our last meeting, as round 40 was to be the first DRC at my new house, but without really thinking about what this might mean. I’ve already played the Fever Ray album, which could be a contender, didn’t want to pick (half of) Aerial by Kate Bush, and couldn’t think of any snappily-house-related-titled bands or albums.

So I ignored the theme, pretty much, and plumped for something I’ve been thinking about playing for a while. I explained it as being a completely new type of music for DRC to listen to at a completely new venue, but no one was biting.

I know next to nothing about classical music, and even less about modern classical music, despite the best efforts of our old neighbour (from before we moved). I recall being recommended, or intrigued by something written about, Te Deum by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt some years ago, and buying a copy as a result. I have, I believe, only listened to it once: classical is not my go-to music, and Pärt’s Te Deum is an intense, involved, enveloping listen; it’s not something you can just throw on the do the dishes to. I’ve been intrigued since we started DRC to see how we respond to something classical and unfamiliar, that we have little or no frame of reference for.

Some context, drawn shameless from the Wikipedia page because I know not what I talk about: Pärt is just one of many composers to set the verses of Te Deum, which dates from AD 387, to music. He composed his version in the 80s, and the recording I have, on the ECM label, is from 1993. It is scored for three choirs (women’s choir, men’s choir, and mixed choir), prepared piano, divisi strings, and wind harp. To my ears, it’s a predominantly choral piece which slowly swells from literally nothing into huge, almost overwhelming rolls of voices, strings, and surreptitious drones. I don’t understand it, but it does move me.

Pärt has said that the original text Te Deum contains “immutable truths,” reminding him of the “immeasurable serenity imparted by a mountain panorama”, and that it seeks to communicate a mood “that could be infinite in time—out of the flow of infinity. I had to draw this music gently out of silence and emptiness.” That pretty much sums it up.

This is a translation of the original verses of Te Deum:

We praise thee, O God :
we acknowledge thee to be the Lord.
All the earth doth worship thee :
the Father everlasting.
To thee all Angels cry aloud :
the Heavens, and all the Powers therein.
To thee Cherubim and Seraphim :
continually do cry,
Holy, Holy, Holy :
Lord God of Sabaoth;
Heaven and earth are full of the Majesty :
of thy glory.
The glorious company of the Apostles : praise thee.
The goodly fellowship of the Prophets : praise thee.
The noble army of Martyrs : praise thee.
The holy Church throughout all the world :
doth acknowledge thee;
The Father : of an infinite Majesty;
Thine honourable, true : and only Son;
Also the Holy Ghost : the Comforter.
Thou art the King of Glory : O Christ.
Thou art the everlasting Son : of the Father.
When thou tookest upon thee to deliver man :
thou didst not abhor the Virgin’s womb.
When thou hadst overcome the sharpness of death :
thou didst open the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers.
Thou sittest at the right hand of God : in the glory of the Father.
We believe that thou shalt come : to be our Judge.
We therefore pray thee, help thy servants :
whom thou hast redeemed with thy precious blood.
Make them to be numbered with thy Saints : in glory everlasting.

As a counterpart, and because Te Deum lasts for only 29 minutes, I played Avatar by Swans from their current album The Seer, which has a similarly intense, devout atmosphere, but creates this ethos in a very different way, with strikingly different tools, and heading in a very different direction.

Tom Listened: Although Nick is spot on when he said in his response to Rob’s offering from this meeting (Home by Casper Brötzmann Massaker) that Te Deum complemented it well, for some reason it did not elicit the same reaction from me despite sharing many atmospheric (if not sonic) similarities. I was already vaguely familiar with the work of Arvo Part as my parents own a few of his CDs and I have always found them pleasantly interesting whilst also being somewhat perplexed by them.  There are, for me, many paradoxes contained in his music…it’s modern yet sounds like it’s hundreds of years old, it drifts by without making much of a fuss yet it demands attention, it’s not unsettling yet it isn’t without its unsettling moments, it’s VERY quiet and then VERY loud…music for cars it most definitely is not! Unsurprisingly, I’m not really sure what I thought of it but I certainly wouldn’t be against another listen.

Rob listened: We have an Arvo Pärt record which i’m reasonably familiar with. My Mother-in-Law bought it for us. It’s the only record we both like, as far as I know, although I do recall her commenting favourably on hearing portions of Low’s ‘A Lifetime of Temporary Relief’. Our album is called, pretty definitively, ‘The Best of Arvo Pärt’ and this piece is not on it, therefore it must be one of his shitter numbers. I really enjoyed it though. What a glib sentence to write about music written with the single intention of stirring the soul and offering humble praise to a divine being. I did enjoy it though, really.

Swans have been one of my favourite bands since I reviewed ‘The Great Annihilator’ in 1995 and ‘The Seer’ does genuinely seem to be, as Michael Gira has claimed, “the culmination of every previous Swans album as well as any other music I’ve ever made, been involved in or imagined.” Coincidentally, as we met for DRC on a Wednesday evening, my ears were still ringing, not yet fully recovered from seeing this very band play in Manchester four days earlier in a pulverising, devastating, transcendental performance which, as it happened, achieved for me the pure holy intensity that Mrs Pärt’s lad was aiming for with ‘Te Deum’.

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Owen Pallett – Heartland: Round 36, Nick’s choice

Heartland is another record I’ve been hankering after playing at DRC since we started, and my determination to play it is what inspired me, mischievously, to set us a theme of ‘Concept Albums’, aware of the horror which that phrase inspires in Tom and Rob.

Because that’s what Heartland is: set in a fictional land called Spectrum, it concerns a young, violent farmer called Lewis, who is plucked from the fields and anointed for some higher purpose, embarks on an adventure, realises his status as a character within a song, rebels against his god / author (who is, of course, called Owen), who he then kills, and, possibly, assumes control of his own destiny. Or something. Sonically, Heartland is like a techno-classical soundtrack to the most amazing all-night role-playing session ever, and it’s also amazingly, beautifully listenable. It’s one of my very favourite records of the last few years, and I played it for months and months almost as instrumental music, before I even started taking in the narrative conveyed in the lyrics.

I’m lucky enough to know Owen Pallett (in an online sense) from his posts on ILM and his Twitter. We talk online reasonably frequently and occasionally exchange emails too, so I thought I’d ask if he’d like to say a bit more about Heartland for the benefit of our little club. Being a gracious and amenable individual, he did just that. This is what he said.

Owen writes: When Heartland came out I tried to have my cake and eat it too. I made a concept record but then asked that people ignore that fact; all I said was “Lewis is a farmer living in the fictional world of Spectrum.” So I spent most of 2010 being asked to explain the plot…

There have been some very detailed explanations online that people have written, parsing out all the references and annotating everything. At first, I thought I might do it myself, a la Barthes’ “A Lover’s Discourse”, but then I thought that’d deny listeners the pleasure of figuring it out for themselves. And they did; check out the Alpentine website for some pretty concise breakdowns, and Nick Thornborrow, who wrote an amazingly insightful and beautifully illustrated comic that offered up his own wordless interpretation of the events.

Lewis and myself, just like Barthes and his beloved in “A Lover’s Discourse”, are the same thing. Written by the same person, so it’s a false dialogue. The final track, “What Do You Think Will Happen Now”, is meant to allude to this falseness of the narrative: Lewis is doing this Puck-style “give me your hands” monologue which is actually a critique of quantitative listening, of aggregation, the fact that numerical critique leaves no room for human shit, human dirt. It’s not a very Lewis-y monologue, but what has been? Our voices are entwined and inextricable. Then, my own voice, entering halfway through and saying “oh my god get me out of the house I’ve been working too long on this record”, becomes the more concrete statement, and the theatre disintegrates.

There’s meant to be a liminal quality to me and Lewis; the whole record could be entirely set in a fictional world, or it could be me singing about my own issues. The most liminal moments are where voices are overlaid: “What Do You Think Will Happen Now”, and also “Oh Heartland, Up Yours”; I hoped that the sentiment “My homeland / I will not sing your praises here” would echo as being about both Spectrum and Canada, which has its own issues.

Lewis’ execution of Owen can be taken in many different ways. Is it a rehearsal of an in-real-life suicide/murder, like Mishima’s “Patriotism”? Is it symbolic of a cutting off of one’s dishonest narrative voice, the voice that lets a rhyming dictionary shape his meaning? Is it meant to be a commentary on in-real-life atheism, the physical execution of that which is said to govern you? Or a Boulez-style patricidal version of modernism? I thought about it from all these viewpoints and in the end, I just went with what sounded coolest, onomatopoeically. That’s kind of the burden of lyric-writing, you’ve got to make it sound good!

Musically, I wanted to try and create an arrangement language for this album that didn’t sound like Glass or Bach or Shostakovich or any other typically “Classical” composer. I didn’t fully end up succeeding; The Drift attempts the same thing and gets further than I did. But I tried it out.

So I basically tried to interpret various synthesis ideas and re-imagine them as orchestral music. “Midnight Directives” and “The Great Elsewhere” feature arrangements that are transcriptions of generative music patches I’d built in Max/MSP. “Flare Gun” and “Keep The Dog Quiet” both feature heavy noise gating and unnatural panning, which I wanted to sound more like Planningtorock’s “Have It All” than Prokofiev.

When I play “Lewis Takes Action” live I run my violin through a ring modulator at the end: for the recording, I transcribed that solo with all the resultant overtones reflected in the winds and strings. “Lewis Takes Off His Shirt” has the orchestra behaving like it’s controlled by an eight-step sequencer. “E Is For Estranged” begins with an approximation of ‘white noise’ with a comb filter running through it. I hoped that listeners would be like “oh, OMD, Cluster, I get it”, instead of “sounds like Gershwin!!”

I listen to albums with the lyric sheet in my hand. I work hard on my lyrics and I don’t like listening to records where the voice is mixed louder than everything else. If it seems like arrogance to think that listeners would sit down and decode this album like a puzzle, I’d just say that this is just the way I listen to albums, repeatedly, trying to figure them out. Conversely, I hope too that people could just put it on and enjoy it!

Tom Listened: I have owned Heartland for a few years now but, as I have it on CD, I have only ‘listened’ to it whilst driving (I don’t tend to listen to CDs in the house – why settle for second best when you can indulge in some prime vinyl?). It’s not really driving music! Whilst there are some great songs on Heartland that are enjoyable enough to let wash over you whilst your mind struggles to cope with the stresses of negotiating British roads, I now know that it requires proper, close attention to get the most out of it and that is something I haven’t really given it as yet. Listening at Record Club, it made a lot more sense but I still feel some way off a proper understanding of how the songs work, in both lyrical and musical capacities, and it’s the sort of record where my lack of comprehension bothers me. I sense it just needs more time and intend to give it that if I ever remember to bring the CD in from the car!

Graham Listened: Given my selection for this round, I probably have no right in commenting on the artistic merits of any of the other selections. With Heartland I don’t feel at all qualified to comment as I haven’t begun to scratch at the surface of it all. Reading the lyrics alongside the first listen of an album was a throwback to my teens and something I haven’t done since. Like Tom said, this needs very close attention and should have just let it wash over me and then picked up the lyric sheet later, trying to immediately tie the story to the music was too much. When I put down the lyric sheets I began to enjoy the music far more and will need to approach a future listen far more carefully.

Rob listened: Nick’s not good at keeping secrets and I figured out fairly early what his choice was going to be. I listened to ‘Heartland’ a couple of times in the run-up to the DRC get-together, enough for it to start to become penetrable, for detail and texture to begin to emerge from the gently babbling brook. I enjoyed it yet more when we listened to it this evening.

It’s fascinating to read Owen’s thoughts – huge thanks to him for taking the time and to Nick for soliciting them. One of our recurrent discussion points is whether artists intend the depths and complexities that we as listeners subsequently find in their recordings. I guess the answer has to be ‘it depends’ but it’s pleasing to know that in some cases, and in this case in particular, incredible care and detailed preparation and planning has gone into the conceptual construction and lyrical execution of the finished work.

Nicolas Jaar – Space Is Only Noise – Round 19 – Nick’s selection

Another meeting arranged at short notice, and potentially our last of the year as busy familial festive schedules start to kick in. So it made sense to theme it around our albums of the year, even if we didn’t quite know how the logistics of that might work; would we vote and play our three consensus records? Pick our very favourite record each? Would we pronounce a Devon Record Club Album of the Year?

Typically, we were more pragmatic and prosaic than that, and each chose a record from 2011 that we liked a lot and which at least one of the other two hadn’t heard. I went last, debating between Patrick Wolf, Destroyer, and Nicolas Jaar; I picked Jaar’s debut after a comment by Rob that there had been a lot of really good “sounding” albums this year (i.e. albums with good sound, not albums that we’re hearsay suggests are qualifiedly “good”). Jaar’s is the album that I’ve perhaps enjoyed the most on a purely phenomenological level, and when I played an isolated track from it at an earlier meeting everyone seemed impressed and intrigued.

The album itself is a sensuous, aesthetic pleasure; not quite the minimal house odyssey some fans of his early singles had expected, but nevertheless immaculately constructed, captivating and unusual. It occupies a strange nowhere land between techno and jazz and minimal and Germany and South American and east and west; the cover picture depicts Jaar himself, as an infant, in the no-man’s land between east and west Berlin. Despite being a very obviously digital construct, it’s a warm, human record, full of pianos, strings, brass, and voices as well as thrumming basslines and thumping beats.

It starts incredibly abstractly, the opening trio of tracks weaving spoken words in numerous languages and found sound recordings of breaking waves through strange rhythmic patterns and irregularly intersecting waves of sound. The mid section of the record adds more focus and direct intention (while never quite becoming obvious), vocals used as hooks rather than ambience, and beats coalescing into patterns that could almost affect dancefloors, before the final three tracks disintegrate the patterns again, and bring the album neatly back to where it began.

Jaar’s dad apocryphally bought a Villalobos album as inspiration for his young son’s musical development on the recommendation of a record store clerk, after asking for the most cutting edge and accomplished music out there. I’m glad he did, and I can’t wait to hear where Jaar’s strange confluence of muses takes him next.

Tom Listened: This album started off really well for me but faded towards the end. I have been aware of Nicholas Jaar’s name cropping up in the occasional best of 2011 internet list and my interest was fueled when Nick played a song from the album at one of the earlier meetings. I enjoyed the album all the way through, but I did feel it lost impact as it went on and by the end it had become (very lovely) background music for me. I suspect that this would become less of an issue with repeated listens but I’m not sure we’ll ever become that well acquainted.

Rob listened: It’s always a pleasure to hear Nick roll out one of his stock phrases, mainly because they tend to be much more interesting than mine. In fact, my most repeated words at Record Club meetings are, “the interesting thing is…” usually followed by something quite plain. Nick, meanwhile, tends towards interesting compounds like  “phenomenologically beautiful” or, if cornered, “non-diagetic”. The interesting thing is that ‘Space Is Only Noise’ did indeed seem beautiful in cold, precisely defined terms. I could have listened to the tinkling piano accompanied by a gurgling child and what sounded like a German man attempting to master English vowel sounds for about 45 minutes, it all sounded so pretty. Like Tom, I found it palled slightly in the middle, the closer it approximated dance music, but all in all a lovely thing.

These New Puritans – ‘Hidden’ – Round 4: Nick’s choice

Hidden
I wasn’t entirely sure which record I was going to pick from a field of about three which were all clamouring for attention, until Rob’s choice started playing (this is a benefit of hosting; with your whole record collection to hand, you can change your mind). Hidden seemed like such a stark contrast to what went on first that I had to go with it (not that the other things I was thinking about selecting were any closer to Rob’s choice!).

Hidden is a strange record. Coming barely 24 months after These New Puritans’ debut album, it’s a very different beast, and it seems like the band not only spent an awful lot of the time since their debut fastidiously arranging and recording Hidden, but that they also did a lot of learning and changing in that time. I can’t think of many other bands who have leapt so far from their debut to their second album.

Because where Beat Pyramid was a decent collection of brief post-punk, post-dance slithers of guitar and occasional moments of dark ambience, Hidden steps out into bizarre territory, opening with an elegiac, Elgar-esque swell of mournful horns, and then moving through multi-part gothic-prog-pop compositions driven by massive, darkly reverberant Japanese Taiko drums, pumping hip-hop and dance beats, and barrages of synths and samples. There’s barely any guitar, vocals are muttered or chanted rather than sung, and the whole thing is recorded, mixed, and mastered to eliminate distortion and maximise dynamic impact, making it sound disorienting, otherworldly, and out-of-time compared to the usual pumped-up, distorted mess of modern mainstream pop, dance, and rock (and quite a big chunk of alternative music, too).

I was delighted to see NME name Hidden their album of the year for 2010; after a decade of safe, trendy, post-Strokes choices, it seems like the bravest pick since Spiritualized in 1997. And in fact I think Hidden, skipping from M.I.A. to Talk Talk to Prodigy to colliery bands to Squeeze (singer and composer Jack Barnett sounds a little like Chris Difford), is just as much a masterpiece as Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space.

Partly this is down to the overall atmosphere of the album, conveyed in part by Barnett’s mysterious, conspiracy-theory-laden vocals (which you could almost sum-up as “I get up when I want, except on Wednesdays, when I get rudely awakened by the Taliban” in terms of delivery), but mostly it’s due to the music. Percussion dominates the album, those massive, ominous Taiko drums, massed rimshots, pumping dance beats, and a cornucopia of other things being hit with sticks; it’s exhilarating, but also disconcerting, especially when a M.I.A.-inspired, chanting, digitalist modern pop song like Fire-Power is slowly subsumed by plaintive brass. I think Hidden is an awesome record.

Rob listened: I bought ‘Hidden’ after NME gave it the top slot last year, and I like it a lot. In recent years I’ve fallen into a lazy sense that British alternative music is indie-landfill, despite loving stuff from Art Brut through Mogwai to Wild Beasts. It’s great to have that up-ended and to hear a band I had assumed would sound like Fields of the Nephilim (bad type-face guys) sounding so much like ‘Flowers of Romance’-era Public Image Limited. Both Tom and Nick said they found ‘Hidden’ oppressive. I don’t get that at all. I find it enveloping, groovy and fun, to be honest, but perhaps that’s precisely because I bracket it somehow with PiL’s third album which it can’t match in terms of intensity. Anyway, a winner.

Tom Listened: I have recently been listening to Lou Reed’s Berlin and John Martyn’s Grace and Danger. These are two of my favourite albums. On first listening I literally hated the sound of both! The songs were fine but Berlin’s theatrical production and Grace and Danger’s 80s synth cheese took considerable effort to see past. I say this because I had a similar experience listening to Hidden at DRC. Whereas I loved the sound of Bee Thousand, but I knew I would need to spend time with the songs (and am confident that I would quickly grow to see them as indispensable), Hidden’s dark and ominous (for me, if not Rob) sound made me feel disorientated and unsettled. It could very well be that, with time, I would grow to accept, then embrace, then love this album (just as I have Berlin and Grace and Danger) and I was impressed by its originality and the fact that it could induce such a strong response in me. However, I think, of the two, I’ll be purchasing Bee Thousand first.