Peeling away the layers. The Onion album.
Abridged phrases, expert musical images and hypnotic rhythmic ideas is what we hear in an Auziņš / Čudars / Arutjunjans recording
AN INTRO BY EŅĢELIS. A GOOD–NATURED HALBERD.
Once I’ve read a book by musicologist Vija Mukše about Jāzeps Vītols as a music critic. When Vītols was spiky, his despicable metaphors could be compared with a halberd which you arm yourself with for a battle to defend your artistic ideals. Sometimes Vītols was mercyless while speaking his mind, or, as Juris Griņevičs would say, take some new original work and trash it, but when stumbling upon the same music again after a while, made him feel more hopeful or even inspire some good–natured humor. It shows that time changed even Jāzeps Vītols and his attitude towards new original works.
When I myself listen to new music, I keep reminding myself that I might change my mind about it after a while. I can’t describe it more precisely, but this unknown in the future reaction or evaluation takes something away, as if foreseeing that in the near future I might deny what I once said. I wanted to reflect on that topic at the same time with writing about Auziņš / Čudars / Arutjunjans latest album «Baltic» (2018) (2018).
The idea is to listen to the album several times, every time in a different place and comparing the thoughts I had put in words beforehand. On my third listening session I was joined by Toms Treibergs and one person opinion turned into a conversation. If there is a point in writing about music (or dance about architecture), than there should be a dialog.
INTRO BY TREIBERGS. A DARK MUSICAL SPACE.
Recently I had a talk with someone who represents the «harder» genres of music, a drummer whom we discussed different way of influences of music with. One of the most interesting thoughts born out of this conversation was of music as a creator of a certain space. First of all it’s a physiological space for our perception systems, a zone, territory where rhythm, melody, tempo and intonations correlate to each other. And then, when you add the components of the spiritual system, an aesthetic space is being created. With a certain inland and it’s additions and changes.
Kārlis Auziņš, Matīss Čudars and Ivars Arutjunjans created something together — «Baltic», and it made me step into a very dark musical space. Later in our conversation with Dāvis we’ll conclude that this darkness isn’t aggressive or depressive, but rather a darkness that hints at a suspense, a truth that will soon be revealed, or something completely opposite — a camouflage for a modern reality made of contemporary jazz with a blurred patina, which turns something very well known into something mystical and majestic.
EŅĢELIS. FIRST AUDITION.
I have decided that the first time I listen to the «Baltic» album should be on the road from home to Latvian Radio and back, taking main streets and backroads, during a snowy time. The sound flowed through «Sony» MDR–XB450 earbuds.
So here I am, walking down the street and I have no words that would go along with this music. My mind is used to generate used notions and descriptions without a proper immersion, but I reject those in an instant. Now I need some new ones.
The musicians remind me of three beacons that take turns in coming into light, in this case by playing, but the next moment a poem by Māris Čaklais comes to mind: «a lighthouse shines throughout the night | hands are reaching to the skies» («viscauru nakti bāka | rokas pret debesīm sviež»), and if I had to describe this album with only one sentence, it would be this one. What exactly from this album? A poetically squared root — an image or plural, that come together and you make the whole album into one tune.
An ostinato rhythmical line in the tune «Baltic» creates visual associations with the Mobius strip, that has tangled itself with another one, but from time to time it frees itself and continues on as an individual spirit.
I’m not so sure that I could be able to decipher those codes that the musicians have encrypted into the «Purvciema epifānija» tune («Epiphany of Purvciems» — a district in Riga).
EŅĢELIS. SECOND AUDITION
In the kitchen through «Philips» speaker set.
«Message». A fantastic idea of contrasting patterns, that makes one think of post war contemporary avant garde musical throwbacks, the stratification (a composer Jānis Petraškevičs described stratification as a multidimensionality of music, that reveals itself in the evolution of the relationship between musical patterns). «Damiana». It sounds like the musicians are revealing the key elements to the tunes content. «Baltic». Since the «Message» it’s the most melodic tune, it also has ostinato and on top of that flows a seemingly free melody. Matīss Čudars’ guitar rhythmic patterns are made of fine and indented lines. «Baltic» is a tune that was perfectly worked through. «Purvciema epifānija». There’s a feeling that something eary illogical might happen, unexplainable, like a printed strawberry might suddenly start moving. One of the most complicatedly built tunes. «Starp citu». Čudars starts his phrases with an anacrusis. Auziņš starts on the first beat. And then it all goes to hell with a wide tempo change, and afterwards it comes back to the previous togetherness. «Donkey». If you want to try and predict something in this album, that could be the buildup of the musical material. «Message», «Baltic» and «Donkey» — these are the compositions that prove to be the ones that demonstrate the most stable way of using such musical tools, like notation. Ostinato once again, seemingly simple perforated rhythmical line. A feeling of a slow and neverending introduction, or a foreplay appears, probably because of the 6 tunes that I’ve already heard and an instinct to join the guessing game has stepped in. This is one of those structures that unites the album as a whole. Čudars and Auziņš create an additional counterpoint.
The fifth track on this album is called «Purvciema Epifānija». For me it is an unknown territory, because I’ve never experienced anything significant in that specific district of Riga, apart from the passing roads seen out of the bus window. Maybe it’s a completely foolish thought, by I could try listening this album there, in Purvciems.
For this expedition I have taken a «Toyota Auris» car. I met up with Toms Treibergs in the center of Riga and we went to explore Purvciems. Our road has no specific destination, because we have no address to drive to. The main point of this trip is to drive around Purvciems while listening to the album, thus creating a certain unity of sound and visuals. Even in the late morning time Purvciems is a great place, that allows to take road after road at a leisurely pace, because at that moment there is no overflow of cars.
We’ve decided on a certain course of action — we listen to two compositions and then make a stop to discuss what we’ve heard. Then we move on. We left behind Čaka street, that morphed into Ieriķu street and then into Dzelzavas street while listening to «Damiana». Our first stop is at a gas station.
«The Message», «Damiana»
TT: Ok, so, let’s pretend that I’m conducting an interview.
DE: Splendid. It’s been a while since I’ve been in a situation with the roles reversed.
TT: Apart from «Kultūras rondo» («Cultural Rondo»).
DE: Well, yes.
TT: So, the first thing to catch my attention was those broken rhythms. And in this case, of course, the role of drums, that are more on the front in the first tune, and more on the background in the second. How do you see that method of play — not just in the context of jazz, or contemporary jazz, but in a mathematical way — how do you perceive it at this moment?
DE: I think that the fact that you’ve mentioned the mathematics of it is quite fitting. I’ve been to the trio’s concert in the Spīķeri concert hall and there Matīss Čudars, while announcing a tune, said that numbers played a big part in it. Also that he’s very fond of numbers and that maybe someone had noticed that already. While talking about the «Message», he mentioned that Kārlis Auziņš had written it while decoding Morse signals from words or sentences into rhythms. And that exactly has become a rhythmical founding of the tune. I even tried decoding it at home, but I wasn’t able to.
The thing you’re saying about the broken rhythms and the asymmetry of it all… I suppose that on some certain level it creates the structure of the album. The contrast between a seemingly stable and unstable musical material. Sometimes it is hard to follow the time — in some places even impossible. The first, fourth and seventh tunes are based on relatively stable rhythmical ideas. And in those three tunes you could see the transformations, how differently they as an ensemble resolve that repetitive looping technique. I suppose that is one of the reasons why you should listen to the album several times — to follow those small details in their interplay. The first two tunes illustrate the differences in the possibilities of the interplay, how they fulfill their functions, at what exact moment the drums and the guitar create a rhythmical pattern that morphed into a loop (and that is the brightest thing that stays in mind about the «Message»), at the same time the phrases of the guitar and the saxophone exist in another time frame in contrast to the layer of the rhythm, it is a different pattern with its own rules, that are more free. I’ve also seen how they do it during live performances — Matīss conducts each new phrase with a wide gesture.
TT: Yes, that seems to be his signature move, as much as I’ve seen him live, he’s a performer and a conductor at the same time.
DE: One thing that I’ve managed to define — when Čudars and Auziņš play a line, than in a tune this line has not drunk, but rather foggy, blurred outlines. At the same time that line has its goal. I suppose that this is one of the intangible qualities that they managed to achieve in this recording.
TT: Yes, that’s a very precise definition.
DE: The two edges of an image that appear at the same time.
TT: I, in turn, want to add that the choice of the broken rhythms sets a certain mood, if one chooses to accept the music, a pretty charged mood. I want to use this opportunity to draw connections to the contemporary arts, but it would probably be in a different way from what can be found in Latvia, but rather the one that comes from the earlier times. Probably we could relate to the 1990s, where the provocative arts were on the front lines and that was offensive not just to a conscious and willing observer, but to a bystander, an accidental viewer. In my mind those broken rhythms serve as a positive offence that, of course, could be led to the end. And then there’s the question as to how many adepts there will be who will choose to follow this one through, and in this case (at least in the case of the first two compositions) there’s not a finale in the end, but something that requires the participation of the listener in this musical structure. And I’m not talking about clicking fingers, because, as I already said, it’s quite hard to do here, because there’s no certain first beat; but rather about the requirement of presence, where you follow the music not only with your hearing, but when the reactions to your aesthetic feelings are physiological, when you engage your response apparatus, immerse into the music.
DE: Yes, this album is like a positive offence, it makes you become attentive to what you’re hearing. I can conclude that while listening to this album there’s a spiked interest, it’s cool, but that doesn’t say anything about the music. In this case I would like to verbalise what I’m hearing there. Yes, I think that to some extent what Matīss had said during the concert is confirmed and that the music is full with codes — by the use of the very same broken rhythms — by each tune in turn has the keys to decode those and we should be able to find them. And one of the main arguments to why I do like this album is this very search of the key. You can skip this action all in all, bet this album is like peeling an onion.
TT: I think we have a hint to the title of this article. An onion peeling album. Now we can hit the road again.
DE: I just remembered what hooked up me in the first, fourth and seventh tunes — ostinato in the rhythms, repetitive… carpet. A base. Fundamentals. The first tune is an introduction to the album, but it also is a complete work — it has an introduction, theme, ending. I don’t want to say ostinato, you are better at finding the right words that are not connected to the music theory, but are descriptive and to the point. Let’s take a base ground for example. In the first tune — «Message» — it is virtuoso in its technique, but the term «virtuosity» in this case means something more than just the excellence of the technique. It is an excellent understanding of the chamberness of the music. And «Baltic» is the second tune, where an ostinated movement, or the ground, drives the tune forward. And here the musicians already show different ideas and what they are able to achieve while using them. They take the thematism and develop it. You’ve started our conversation about the brokenness of the rhythms, we can continue that, because that brokenness is repeated later on. About the hypnotism of those broken lines.
TT: Well, yes, in this case I’m still not able to read this layer very clearly. First of all the instrumentation is different than in other cases, where I enjoyed this rhythm or the repetitive motives, as it often happens in post rock. Of course, you can mention the «Godspeed You! Black Emperor», also «Do Make Say Think», that could be considered close to this recording in its expression. Because here I find it harder to point out this overlay of motives in the compilation of compositions, as you said before about the chamberness, this instrumentation presents itself in pastel tones — soft, thick, dark. That doesn’t mean that it’s sleepy though. Despite this timbral expression, there’s sort of a density in it, a wrong presence, a suspicion that (if we speak about «Baltic» tune) yes, it is made in the warm and not cuddly, but rather caressing expression, but it can have that dark base or a nerve that has one of its ends carved with a scalpel and it has a certain substance leaking out, that is not connected to something soft and calm at all. I think that’s extremely cool.
DE: Yes, I think that the dualism of the thematics makes an appearance here as well. This album and its musical images are dark–ish, they have no fluffiness in them, but at the same time they strive to be caressed and this «Baltic» tune, I think of it as of a manifestation of virtuosity and I surely have to explain why. I’ve listened to it for the second time and realised that it’s a title image of this album, maybe that’s why they called the album as they did. A title image in a sense that those images that have going on throughout the whole album somehow come together in this exact tune. They have this leisureness of the rhythm, somewhere around this tune the album changes its pace. Comparing to «Message», for example. The album did turn out to have this energy accumulation in the beginning, and this energy becomes more flowy, distanced and observing.
TT: That will be a hot comparison, but there’s an album that popped up in my head just now, one by «Radiohead».
DE: «Moon Shaped Pool»?
TT: «Moon Shaped Pool» as well, but also «In Rainbows». It starts with a very active introduction and, just as some cosmic flying devices that disconnect more and more parts from them the further they move into space. That’s a very interesting concept — when you blow up the tide from the first seconds and then you leave the listener — I don’t think that in loneliness — but there’s that naked feeling, when you were in the music at the beginning and suddenly you are thrown into a completely different water, totally unprepared. Here I have to repeat myself once again. Probably I am not able to pinpoint that specific change in the middle of the album, even in the sense of tempo, and that also bothers me in the sense of heeding meanings.
DE: You don’t let your unease to cool down.
«Purvciema Epifānija», «Starp Citu»
TT: I had a pretty bad mood a couple of days ago. Had to walk a long way on foot.
DE: In the Northern wind?
TT: Yes, in the Northern wind. And I thought about something that could give me some satisfaction and turned on that. And I thought of what could make me feel more satisfied, and put «Ummagumma» by «Pink Floyd» on. That’s what I was reminded of while listening to «Starp Citu». I can describe it as an organised mayhem, that is different from the harmonic ways we’re used to, that in turn can charm us and give that pleasant feeling that is both esthetic and physical. In my opinion it’s an interesting motive, where the musicians slowly enter this walk in the Northern wind. The question is whether it’s a feeling of tiredness from this overabundance of the music that is popular and close to the mass listener, or is it a search of new ways of artistic expression, or a challenge to yourself in how long and how successfully you can go against, the mixup of the numbers.
DE: I think that this might be the most important guidelines of this album, the organised mayhem you’ve talked about. During one of the two tunes («Purvciema Epifānijā», or «Starp citu», I haven’t checked yet in which one exactly, but I’m trying to note what I’m hearing), from time to time a musical image is less melodic, but rather serial. I like the way you described it, that they mixed up the numbers. Also seeing them on stage, I’ve noticed how comfortable they feel in this musical material. Those sharp phrases have some gentleness about them, a homey feeling. That angular loneliness you’ve mentioned before that pierces the compositions, and at which point you can’t really escape that. While listening to such tunes as «Starp citu», you get used to that feeling and can even start understanding it.
When I took my car, I thought that the idea of driving through Purvciems while listening to «Purvciema epifānija» is an illustrative action in a way. I started having doubts. But I still wanted to try. But now, while driving through the dark streets surrounded by apartment buildings, I quite enjoy this audiovisual result.
TT: I think our conversation would certainly be different if we were to listen to the recordings in the studio or at home. Also this album has a composition named «Ceļš» («Road»). And it makes sense now to take the roads that previously seemed unappealing. The thing that you said about the abruptness, that can sometimes be denied, you can perceive it like this: there’s an old man somewhere deep inside me, wearing those checkered slippers, who’s constantly mumbling, reminding me that the virtuosity of Matīss’ guitar play was first discovered at one of the concerts of the «Spāre» band. I don’t know of «Spāre» now. They appeared as a ray of light, and a quite big one. And the old man inside me, of course, is worried about that. Čudars’s presence in a band of such popular genres as indie and art rock is sporadic — he came, left his mark and moved along. For me, a person who feels like a fish in the water in those specific styles, it’s a bit of a disappointment — ok, it’s cool, you’ve tried yourself in those other genres, now the old man is waiting for you to come back home.
I don’t know where this comes from, but sometimes I have the feeling when I want all the boxes to be equally full. So that one of the boxes wouldn’t overflow with things and the other left bare, with only cockroaches roaming it. When I see those musicians who start filling in one of the boxes and then suddenly «Oh, there’s this other project, let me show you!», but what happens with the unfinished box? And you’re left behind. But that’s just a small detail. There’s constantly an appearance of new musicians. I think that this genre we’re discussing now that can be somehow linked to free jazz or contemporary jazz, or even avant garde, just like a cigar, you have to learn to burn it, it takes time. It shouldn’t be showing off, you have to be able to play it. To truly know how to play it. The devil’s in the details and it takes years to master those details. Maybe that’s the deal with jazz, that it’s a multilayered music and can’t be perceived on the spot. You can probably talk about some measure of understanding after spending years digging through the roots of the «problem». The best example, apart from Ivars Mazurs, RIP, there’s Visvaldis Dreisks, jazz and world music enthusiast, who says that jazz isn’t just banging a cymbal with the drum brush in the rhythm of swing, it’s a whole universe.
DE: I was lucky enough to attend a concert of Matīss and a soprano Lea Trommenschlager. They played something, Matīss comped songs and arias written for a piano on the guitar, but there were also his own tunes and even something from «Radiohead». They switched through styles with ease, as if they’re used to doing that in their everyday life, everything sounded so natural and not forced. That box complex is like a sound system, this album fits it perfectly, alongside his free jazz performances, but also Kārlises solo performances, which I’ve discovered today and by accident.
A quality that I haven’t noticed in the album, but rather found during the concert, is that he is able to masterfully change the sounding of the saxophone, making the timbre more doudouk like, of a whaling tea pot, or some completely different thing that doesn’t remind of a saxophone at all. And he’s a pro in turning that into meaningful musical images. I remember when I listened to the review of this concert on radio «Klasika», Rolands Kronlaks said that Kārlis Auziņš is able to preserve his musical thought while at it. I completely agree. It’s a special, laid back style of playing, and not even the style, but rather his signature mark. He is very cautious with his musical material, not revealing everything at once, it is a significant part of his composition technique, when you don’t combine 5 different ideas in one tune, but rather take only one or two and then do something with them, create a piece out of them. I think that Kārlis Auziņš is blessed with this ability, and you can hear it in this CD as well.
TT: Yes, you can. And I want to also point out the successful mastering of the music. Of course, we can only talk about the sound heard through the digital devices, but I think that the mastering of this music is very skillfully done. Was it done by themselves as well?
DE: It was done by Gatis Zaķis.
TT: Than it says it all.
DE: I can feel the room right away, the one assigned to this recording. I can hear that the places where the sound comes from were chosen carefully, to illustrate the room that we hear.
TT: Here I can see some similarities with the legendary album of «The Strokes» — «Is This It». They recorded all the instruments at the same time in an apartment in New York, which was a revolutionary choice in the year 2000, when all the recording studios did what they could to emulate that room sound to then pass it on to the public and earn the money back. «The Strokes» decided to record all the instruments simultaneously and I have the same impression here, when you said about the placement of the musicians (of the sound) in the room, that you can hear it clearly. Even if I don’t know the exact concept of the recording, the important part is our perception. And also, talking about the similarities, I can think of John Zorn, American composer and saxophonist, and one of my favorite drummers Joey Baron; in his approach I can hear a lot from John Zorn. I like the music a lot, how the instruments adjust another and then leave the adjustments on the side. As if stepping away. This step is a bit dramatic, and then there is a dramatism that comes from another instrument.
DE: Gives an impulse and allows it to go on.
TT: Yes. And somehow one passes this intensity into the hands of another. First of all one is not a warrior, secondly — if before we spoke about lines that were repeated, now we can maybe talk about passing on the emotion from one to another.
«Donkey», «All Blue», «Latgale»
DE: «Baltic» is through. «Donkey» was once again with a repetitive foundation, rhythmic ground, the simplest of all. Although I have to admit that it was the most complicated theme, along with a free improvisation by the saxophone and the guitar. «All Blue», in my mind, is a quiet culmination that brings together all the images that had appeared in this album. Like a reprise. At least on the emotional level, when you go through everything you’ve heard before.
TT: Then «Latgale» is the coda.
DE: Yes. And now, if you put together all the compositions, starting with «Message» and finishing with «Latgale», the «Baltic» album even more reminds of a mini «In Rainbows».
TT: If we talk about «All Blue», and if we compare this album to a diary that is written at a certain moment in time, if this time frame doesn’t exceed a year (because that way it could become useless for comparison), then in my opinion «All Blue» a reflection of a noticeable event that happened during this year. I think that it’s not really possible to formally define, at least for now. This probably is a result of musicians attitude towards life. If you imagine «All Blue» to be the spine of the album, then each would feel as if a metal hammer is methodically being hit.
DE: And that in turn makes the whole body shake.
TT: Yes. And this shaking will not be an answer or an explanation or even a summary of everything. We’ve started our conversation with the broken rhythms, here we can talk about the broken tones or intonations. A transcendence of sort.
DE: Something like an ability to change direction.
TT: Yes, yes!
DE: I think that at this point there’s a lot already said in the album, so this change of direction is rather necessary. A small stop a u–turn.
DE: Increasing the drama with a musical gesture.
TT: It’s a very interesting and unusual manner to create music with the help of a certain energy or tension, when in the end this music doesn’t gift the listener with this energy.
DE: Yes, you, as a listener, have to take it in yourself.
TT: You either take it yourself, or.. Well yes, it’s very casual. I remember my mother told me, that in her time, while still in school (ot was the end of 1969s, the beginning of 1979s) she used to listen to «The Animals» and their hit song «House of The Rising Sun», when she had the opportunity to secretly get a hold of those re–recorded tapes. And after a while in some quietly obtained foreign magazine a picture of the band — blazers, ties. She thought — oh my, what a nerd, how is it possible that this person plays this kind of music? They had to be different, but here they are, a bunch of bookkeepers. What we see here can be compared to that story — the method used in composing is very casual, assuming that you are managing an arsenal of pretty specific occupational skills, a stone’s throw away from fusion (because of the saxophone). But the aftertaste is not very uplifting. On the other hand you can’t say that it drives you into a depressive mood, that somewhat it reminds of a walk that you can be a part of, and that is taking place in a rather limited environment. And you start understanding those limitations only after a while. But when you’re still involved in the action, you think that there are wide spaces around you. In the end no, everything is close at hand, if you did decide to join the walk.
DE: I’ve used a car as a tool to listen to the music for the first time. It seems that the experiment was a success.
TT: I have to admit that the sound equipment in this «Toyota» model in in a very good condition, really. I was surprised.