I’m given to thinking about space more and more at present – in a figurative and a literal sense. And call this hubris, but I can’t be the only one to have noticed this as a broader trend in cultural commentary. Everywhere I look I seem to see a new clamour for space – room – both in the forms under discussion, and something more indefinable, like a new, less frantic place to observe from. It feels almost like a reifying of the metaphoric critical claim for the high ground. It might also be characterised as a plea for stillness, to return to those near-sacred spaces of the past, those (probably illusory) zones which from this rocky vantage point look so full of pure experiential calm and purpose. And my instinct with all this is to say that it’s not just a continuation of the postmodern flattening of things, nor the concomitant ‘flattening’ of sound associated with MP3 culture, and not merely a ‘men of a certain age’ thing (which I’m tempted to call the End of Music syndrome) or a simple waning of affect – this feels new, or at least there’s enough different strands feeding into it for it to sound like a new cry.
That use of the word sacred is contentious (how could it be otherwise) but I’m not sure what other word fits, as tonally at least, this plea for space and the zone itself does have a whiff of the sacred. No other artform excites the easy need for reverence quite like music does (though you could argue it was there in the post-impressionists, particularly Rothko, and some would say too obscurely in Blanchot and the later post-structuralists), and ‘serious’, protective listeners and commentators, are increasingly demanding a shift/return to a kind of monkish devotion when it comes to listening to and commenting on music.
(There’s also, of course, the side issue of the reifying of this sacralising impulse in the continuing fetish for staging concerts in ostensibly sacred places and spaces. Acoustics aside, these concerts don’t perform any subversive function (as discussed by Tony Herrington in an acerbic Wire column), but instead seem to use these spaces in the hope of some referred numinosity or sublimity, a kind of lazy waft at grandiosity that fits with the aforementioned easy need for reverence.)
So what of it? Is there an answer to this cry? Is it merely a generational thing – ageing bodies doomed to chart the clicks and whirrs of metabolic degradation?
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I wouldn’t want to characterise the entirety of its output, but there’s always been a trace of the sacred about a lot of the music released by Touch- and a genuine appreciation of space, both in and around the artists they’ve worked with and the methods they’ve used in recording and production, and subsumed in the sound itself. Much of the music makes demands of the listener – contemplation, immersion – and their appreciation of the tactile, fetish-like qualities of product also feeds into this. (By sacred I do mean in the most secular way possible, less in a religious aspect than in a devotional one, something close to Schopenhauer’s awed notion that ‘music floats to us as from a paradise quite familiar yet eternally remote… it reproduces all the emotions of our innermost being, but entirely without reality’. ) And if you were to select a modern figurehead for Touch’s loose ethos, you’d be hard pushed to find a better example than Hildur Guðnadóttir.
Guðnadóttir’s solo work to date is infused with this combination of the devotional and the spacious – you could even argue that in her work the inherent relationship between the two ideas/realms becomes increasingly obvious. The simplicity of what she does is at the heart of things - that unadorned nakedness of her cello, relying on its rough beauty of tone and timbre – but there is an ineffability to this simplicity that explanations only ever really brush up against. With Leyfðu Ljósinu it’s as if she’s reached the central secret of this simplicity, and there’s a real feeling of the inadequacy of language in attempting to identify it.
Take that title – Leyfðu Ljósinu. There’s an immediate sense that the phrase is untranslatable, that you’re only getting a hint of the meaning. It loosely translates as Allow The Light, which when you try and parse it, feels incomplete and kind of hovers between grammatical and lexical possibilities. It’s a command, but like Schopenhauer’s dictum, it sort of drifts in from another realm; and it’s also an impossible command, because one is unable to find a place of control – instead you have to wait, and let the natural order take its course. Which is as good an analogy for the experience of listening to Leyfðu Ljósinu as I can think of: it isn’t something you grasp and contain, rather you surrender yourself to it and (there needs to be a word for this) find a space of aural contemplation.
Leyfðu Ljósinu was recorded at the Music Research Centre, University of York in January of this year (2012). It was recorded live (without with an audience) and there has been no post-production tampering at all – all the sound processing (such as it is) took place during the 40 minutes of the performance. The ‘Prelude’ consists of little more than a two note cello figure, that rises out of the subterranean depths and sinks once more. This figure acts as a kind of undulating bedrock, the echo of which remains in and just out of earshot throughout the entirety of the main section. This main section begins with Hildur voicing a similar two note repeating figure which is then looped and very subtly layered until it becomes like a layer of vapour over the initial bedrock of the ‘Prelude’. Little else happens for the next few minutes until a thread-thin higher vibrating note is introduced – the introduction of which, seems to induce a sudden concentration on one’s own breathing patterns. The passage of air through the upper reaches of the body.
The resurgence of Guðnadóttir’s cello, when it comes, is low and vast, almost leviathanic – a series of deep, humming notes that swarm beneath everything, and buoy up the already rising vocals. The cello gradually fills the field of the recording, somehow gathering space to itself and the thickening of the air around it is almost palpable. The mid-section becomes, then, a time-warping appreciation of the sonic potential of the cello. Somehow, putting time markers against specific phenomena seems pointless as in reality, what occurs is a kind of expansion: it’s almost as if you’re able to walk around inside the theatre (and sonic) space and feel the instrument as a tactile reality. You start to sense the individual wound fibres of the strings, packed together in their confined wire casings, the bristling hairs of the bow, the raised calluses on the player’s fingertips…
The gradual build to a climax is almost (only almost) anti-climactic in its way, as this contemplative spell is broken, but the enacted drama is a kind of necessary release from the madness of synaesthetic detail – a detail that feels dangerous to contemplate for too long, lest you never find a way out. What this section does need (and has in terms of density), is volume – furniture needs to shake, masonry to crumble…
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In light of my ramblings in the earlier part of this piece, and these ideas of sacredness and ‘easy reverence’, I’ve been thinking hard about my reaction to Leyfðu Ljósinu. I’ve become more and more cautious about the urge to praise, the desire to confer an undeserving status on objects that either don’t warrant it or to which I’ve scarcely had time to acclimatise. Those of us who turn to art to sate our transcendent urges are in danger of running out of superlatives and cheapening the entire exercise. Which is, I guess, another argument for quietude – a quieter place to listen from.
That said, I’ve noticed myself (and have spoken to others who have had a similar experience) stopping in crowded places to let Leyfðu Ljósinu play itself out, resolve itself. Which is, in its way, a form of worship, a giving over to something external and greater than one’s own self. It’s not something I’m necessarily given to doing (except for maybe when paralysed by the force of the natural world) and I guess my point would be that this space we’re all craving, these zones of sublimity that (however illusory) used to exist, that we used to access without thinking, are still extant, still accessible – it’s just that with age, and the ceaseless flows of noise around, the waymarkers are faded and dimmed. Thankfully we still have those who find new ways of sharpening our senses, however fleeting the moments.