Tone Glow 004: Charles Curtis
An interview with cellist Charles Curtis + album downloads and our writers panel on Manuel Pessoa de Lima's 'Realejo'
Welcome to Tone Glow, a newsletter focused on experimental music edited by Joshua Minsoo Kim. In our fourth issue, we talk with accomplished cellist Charles Curtis. We also have album downloads and our writer panel’s thoughts on Manuel Pessoa de Lima’s Realejo.
Charles Curtis is a cellist who has worked with influential figures such as La Monte Young, Alvin Lucier, and Éliane Radigue. A few days before the end of 2019, I called him and we talked about many things, including his influences, his work as a teacher, and the pieces that comprise his upcoming anthology, Performances & Recordings 1998-2018 (out January 24th on Saltern). The below photograph was taken by Beth Buckley.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: I’m curious about your profession as an instructor. How long have you been teaching? Obviously you’ve taught students of different skill levels and ages, but is there a single thing you want your students to take away from the lessons they have with you?
Charles Curtis: (laughs) Interesting. I feel like in one of the early emails it said that you were also a teacher?
Yes I’m a high school science teacher.
I have a lot of respect for high school teachers. It’s just relentless—four classes a day, every single day. My youngest daughter is a senior in high school, and I sometimes go to one of my kid’s classes, and talk a little bit about experimental music or just American art. Like in a philosophy class, I like to talk about John Cage. I really enjoy going to the talent shows, the football games—I really like the whole culture of high school. You walk in and there’s crazy energy. It must be something to contend with if you’re dealing with it every day and teaching.
(laughs) It can be exhausting, yea.
I love going there for short spells because it’s incredibly inspiring. My father was a high school english teacher so I have a lot of respect for that kind of teaching. I teach in a university and mostly in the graduate program, although I do teach undergrad classes but they tend to be more like lectures, sometimes quite large with 150 students. That’s one side of the teaching I do, but I guess you’re more asking about how I work with students on an individual basis.
Yes that’s what I was curious about.
Well, you know, it’s changed a lot. First of all, I had to sort of gradually learn how to teach and bring my own experience into teaching. My own experience often barely matches with that of the student and, also, there’s a generational shift. We’ve had such a seismic change in teaching from the time I was a student until now. The people I studied with growing up, they taught in this very old-school—and I must say—rather authoritarian way. Very harsh, very high expectations, there was barely a hint of encouragement or flattery or statements of a complimentary nature.
Now of course I’m talking about classical music and this tradition of teacher-student relationships that goes back to whenever, the late 19th century probably. All of that being said, that’s how I thought teaching worked and I was okay with it. I mean you had to be. You had to kind of survive it a little bit, fight back against it a little bit—but not too much or you’d get kicked out of the studio. And I’ve had to completely relearn that because that just doesn’t work in the world we live in now, and it also doesn’t work in the experimental music world.
The short answer to your question is that I’ve learned to try and seek with the student what they really want to do and what they might do most successfully—what they might manage to pull off in the most convincing and compelling way. That’s what I try to bring to these relationships now. I know that I am a very, very critical teacher—I’ve been told this. But still, nothing like the people I studied with. I’m critical because I’m very detailed in the questions that I ask and—I’m sure it’s obvious to you—with the way I approach my work. I’m very rigorous about all of the inner workings of what I’m doing. I don’t like to do things superficially and I just kind of expect people to know this when they study with me. But the focus for me is what the student is good at or going to be good at, not what I’m good at or what someone ought to be good at.
I also don’t just work with cellists, I work with composers frequently—not as a composition teacher—but in the community. UC San Diego is quite fluid and students from different areas, even computer music—even though I know very little about computer music—will work with me on things they’re interested in that overlap with what I do. I also work with performers on other instruments, so that’s very exciting to me. I guess I bring the attitude and mindset I bring to music myself, but in aid of finding out what the student is after. Now, I might find out that the student is after something I have no interest in or have no ability to work with, and then it just becomes clear that we don’t need to work together, that someone else would be better. That’s the approach I bring now. I would also add that when I think about the great teachers I’ve had, they weren’t all explicitly or nominally my teachers. They were just older musicians I encountered and worked with closely, and one of them would be La Monte Young. I think of him as a teacher in addition to a composer with whom I worked and continue to work with. But also, when I lived in Germany—er, Joshua, do you have a background in classical music?
I took classical piano lessons growing up. After high school I stopped and realized I didn’t want to continue doing them despite enjoying playing the piano a lot.
Mmhmm. One stretch of my working life was as the principal cellist of a very, very good orchestra in Germany and the conductor that we mostly worked with was Günter Wand. He, already at the time, was quite old and he’s no longer alive. He’s kind of representative of this older generation of German conductors. I guess you could compare him to Furtwängler—I think, actually very similar to him. Some of the guys in the orchestra really couldn’t stand him. He was so detail-oriented, so careful in the rehearsals, and he could be very impatient. He would shout, he would have tantrums (laughs). He could be a bit insulting at times, but the musicianship is just awe-inspiring. And when it came to the performances he became so relaxed and so loose and, actually, playful—he would smile, he never used a score either—he would just be floating there in the music. It was very beautiful to observe. You know, being right there in the front of the cello section, sitting right next to him in the rehearsal—I was just in ecstasy. It was just so interesting to observe him. I consider him a great teacher—he would never acknowledge me as a student (laughs)—but I would consider him one, and it was over a stretch of 10 years.
So people like that—Günter Wand and La Monte Young—I really learned from them an attitude towards music making which is completely uncompromising, but imbued with a deep spirituality and kind of a lightness. And that’s present with La Monte Young, he’s a person with a great deal of humor. I’ve been very fortunate to be around people like that, who have that old-school kind of rigor and discipline but also obviously derive so much joy from what they are doing that this other element came through as well—this beautiful, gentle kind of lightness. So those have been really important teachers for me, but more so teaching through doing. And that’s something I do with my students—I give performances with them. Those are probably the most valuable experiences for my students, just working with me on performances.
You mentioned that with your students you try to find out what they’re good at and what they’re after. My question is, then, what do you feel you’re good at? What is it that you’re after when composing or performing works of other composers?
Hmm, that’s a big question. I think it varies to a certain degree from situation to situation but… on an immediate level, I have a very strong interest in tuning and intonation. But my interest in it is not as a sort of theoretical system but as a human act of calibrating, listening, adjusting, tuning in in very physical, corporeal ways. That’s something that holds across all of the music that I’m working with, but of course it’s not an end in itself. I think that what really inspired me when I became involved in the music I continue to make—and I may not have realized it at the time, when I started in my mid-to-late 20s—was the idea that through sound, we’re entering into the realm of the infinite.
There’s something very straightforward about that statement when you think of the harmonic series, the overtone series. It’s an infinite series—we hear some subset of it that’s in our audible range. But as a structure it goes on into infinity. But even though we are only hearing an excerpt of it, we are conscious of the fact that it goes beyond our hearing. And that is somehow palpable to us or at least this is how I experience it: that we’re dealing with something unending. La Monte Young talks about sound as a model for universal structure and that might be true, I don’t know, but the idea that sound is this entryway into something that goes way, way, way beyond the range that we directly experience is very inspirational. It’s a sort of materiality to the spiritual aspect of music. There is this spiritual richness which we can understand on that level.
To go back to tuning, this is what I really learned from La Monte Young. That the precision of our tuning is not an end in itself; it’s not just about being accurate or precise. The more precise we are, or the closer we get to some state of in-tuneness, the further we can see into that entryway that’s pointing out into infinity. I don’t necessarily get this from the sense that perhaps John Cage meant. That we simply listen to the world around us and realize that there’s a richness and a wealth of sound and experience. I think that’s great but this other idea, that by focusing in, by tuning, by going further into the relationships between sounds—that’s where I really feel it happening. Whether it’s with Alvin Lucier’s music, which is not really about just intonation, but about tuning in a different way. Or with Éliane Radigue’s music, or Terry Jennings and Richard Maxfield—all of them share this sense of infinite possibility that is achieved though specific and precise approaches to sound.
How does a composer like [Guillaume de] Machaut fit in then with these newer composers?
Interesting question. You mean why I am attracted or drawn to playing his music?
Yes, and do you see a throughline between his music and those of these newer composers.
I don’t know if I see a throughline. I do feel that the kind of playing that I have cultivated through my work with, say, Lucier and La Monte Young has fed back into my performance of older music—whatever people mean when they say classical music. It’s fed back into that in surprising ways and I think I like the music of Machaut because it’s so focused around a particular mode and a single tonality. It’s not like Schubert or Rachmaninoff which is constantly modulating and developing. It’s much more, how shall I say, self-contained and focused. I don’t want to say reduced or minimalist—that’s sort of absurd to think of Machaut as minimalist. But it is about using limited means to achieve a great deal, that is then from a perceptual standpoint very, very rich. So that this relationship between the perceptual result being very rich and the means to get to that being quite focused, quite limited—that’s where I would say the connection is. And for that reason, the kind of performance style and technique that I’ve cultivated seems to bear fruit in that music as well. I came to Machaut kind of by accident. Originally by listening to records—do you know this old box set called The Art of Courtly Love by David Munrow?
I do not, no.
David Munrow was this virtuoso on many ancient instruments, I think wind instruments. He took his own life at a very young age but he made a few beautiful recordings and one box set is called The Art of Courtly Love and I was just in love with this. And there’s quite a bit of Machaut—not the Machaut that I play—but also contemporaries of his.
When I was teaching at Princeton in the late ‘80s, I was very interested in putting together a solo cello program. I had a very strong desire to get on stage alone, which is unusual for a classical cellist. Some of the graduate students were very helpful in locating music and finding interesting things. One of them shared with me these monophonic songs of Machaut and I’m not really sure they were even intended to be played or sung monophonically—they may very well have had some kind of accompaniment—but I found them so striking in the apparent simplicity of the music.
But as you got into it, it wasn’t so simple at all. As a kind of sound experience, it’s very complex and rich. It took a very long time for me to find an appropriate instrumental approach to those pieces, to find a way to chasten my own playing to match up with the spirit of the music as I heard it. And I’m sure it’s clear to you that I’m not trying to play this music in a historically accurate way. In fact that’s not my interest at all, that’s not my interest in general. I’m not an enthusiast for the revival of authentic performances of early music.
I find that from a conceptual standpoint they’re very hard to deal with, finding ways to really feel like I’ve lined up with them, that I’m in sync with those pieces.
What about his work do you find challenging when you play them?
Well, really, to not bring too much to it, and yet bring enough to it (laughs). I don’t want to give a detached or objective or remote performance, and yet I want the simplicity—I’m not sure that’s the right word. Perhaps it’s a simplicity in the way that it’s used in mathematics, solutions that are simple, that have the beauty of the most reduced terms. I don’t want to burden the pieces or load them up with anything that they don’t need. I want to let them speak freely without leaving them empty either, it’s about finding the optimum—not the maximum, not the minimum, but the optimum.
Your anthology is coming out soon. Of the twenty tracks, which would you say you’re most fond of? I know it can be like choosing a favorite child but is there one you have a strong attachment to, be it due to the rigor needed to play it or the memories associated with the piece.
Well now I have to sort through the tracks in my head a little bit. (long pause). It’s hard to answer because there’s such a range and they’re from different parts of my life—not just chronologically—but just different sectors of my musical and personal life.
You don’t have to pick one that’s representative of a favorite, but could you speak to one that you have fond memories of.
I’m very pleased that a couple of my own pieces are included here because that’s something that’s been a coming-and-going relationship through my whole musical life. Of course I grew up as a classical musician. I definitely did not think of myself as a composer and still don’t. And yet I’m a musician who has made pieces of my own, but I definitely don’t compose music for other people to play. I would not even want to do that.
Why would you not want to do that?
Well, perhaps it’s just because it’s my long experience of being on the performer side of that relationship, but I’m not the sort of person who wants to dictate what other people should be doing. If I’m going to make a piece of my own then I’m also going to play it. I don’t like the idea of scoring or scripting something that other people should do. That might be a strange thing for me to say given that I’ve spent much of my life doing that from the other side. It’s actually a tricky situation because what has been a touchstone for my life as an interpreter has been finding relationships with composers in which I actually do have a great deal of creative space, relationships in which I’m not just reading a script; I’m actually realizing the potential of the work in a unique and personal and creative way.
But I have no desire to write out parts for other people to play, it just seems like an extremely unappealing proposition to me, and I think that the Western tradition of the specialist composer and the specialist performer is historically a recent thing, and really is an anomaly across history and across global musical cultures. It’s an interesting one but it’s weird—it’s pretty weird that we have these role assignments, these divisions of labor. Most of the composers that I’ve been close to are also performers and I think that’s not accidental.
To get back to your question, I’m very happy that pieces of mine are coming out and it’s something that I drifted away from over my years teaching here in California at UCSD. I hope to swing back in that direction. One of them, the piece with multiple cellos which is called “Unfinished Song,” I never really thought that was releasable. I really thought it was unfinished—it was just a project, something I was working on. It was Tashi Wada who looked at me and shrugged his shoulders saying, “What do you want? Why not? It sounds good, let’s release it.” It took a bit of encouragement from the outside to hear it that way so now I’m very happy that it is coming out and I also want to try to perform it. Also a piece with my old rock band, the Charles Curtis Trio, called ”Music for Awhile.”
I was really surprised by that. It sounds like Talk Talk or Slint or something like that.
Oh I actually love both of those bands. I would not have thought of Talk Talk. I don’t know if you know that album of mine called Ultra Violet White Light. There was a stretch where I was doing this music pretty seriously. And “Music for Awhile” was, I think, the last thing I did with those guys—Henry Grant and Peter Imig—with whom I was very close and worked together for a few years. It was sort of like our farewell piece. I think we recorded it in the summer of 2000 right before I moved back to California from Germany. So yeah there are definitely some strong feelings associated with that.
In my mind that track is very distinct from the rest of those on the box set. What was your goal with that piece?
From my really early 20s, when I was a student at Juilliard, I kind of fell into a scene in New York. There was a band that later became quite famous called King Missile that I was a founding member of, and there were other bands that were more obscure that had their moment in New York. There was one called You Suck!, there was a guy named Dogbowl and I was regularly performing with him, there was a band called Bongwater that I performed with a little bit.
I fell into these people completely by chance and there was no plan here at all. I didn’t wake up and think one morning, “I should really get into rock and roll, or hardcore music” (laughs). It happened through the fact that I rented a room from a woman on the upper west side whose daughter was in a bunch of bands. She saw that I played the cello and said, “Hey can you come to CBGB tomorrow night and play with us.”
What I learned from this experience is that there were musicians who were roughly my age who did not read music, did not study music, did not play classical instruments—they had a completely different musical background than I did or anybody I knew in my constricted world of classical music—and yet I could see very quickly that they were consummate musicians. They were on a level that was just astonishing. There were people who could hear a song on the radio and then play it on guitar in its entirety. There were people who had singing voices that were so pure and in tune, it was astonishing… without any expressive cliché, it was straight from the heart. It’s maybe embarrassing to say this but this was a little bit of a shock to me. It really jolted me and made me realize that there’s a kind of musicianship that I perhaps neglected, or that had been trained out of me to some extent.
So the experience with working with these people and seeing how they would make a song, or go about shaping a performance completely without writing anything down—completely aurally—I had to figure out how to do this on the cello. It was so appealing what these people were doing so I started to pick up the guitar and they’d show me how to play bar chords and the basics, teaching me how to do a little lick. I started to play guitar more for my own pleasure and little by little, finding that there was something extremely gratifying in this creative process that was so different from what I was taught at Juilliard. I don’t mean to denigrate that—I love classical music and continue to play it and continue to have friendships with very straight-ahead classical musicians, but this was a revelation for me in my 20s. It changed me.
It was around the same time I was working with La Monte Young and the point of conjunction there was that these friends were all completely obsessed with The Velvet Underground. And this was the thing, these were New York bands in the early/mid-’80s and they were totally obsessed with the Velvets. And when I found out The Velvet Underground had a connection to La Monte Young, it all kind of clicked into place. I thought, “Well wait a second, this all makes sense.”
Anyways, with “Music for Awhile” I got into this thing where I wanted to make pieces in which there was a sine wave chord playing all the way through the piece and what that meant was your harmonic palette was very limited. People call it a drone, I don’t really think of it as a drone—I don’t really like that word. It was a pedal point, a single chord. So then, I started experimenting with composing chords I could make simple pop songs around where every chord I played related to the sine wave chord in some slightly different way. It became an interesting harmony exercise—not easy to do at all. Some pieces were very simple, they wouldn’t wander very widely harmonically, but I got interested in how far one could go. I think “Music for Awhile” is kind of a limit case, it really does modulate and go through a lot of chordal areas and key areas and there are a few points where a few chords we were playing as a band were clashing with the sine wave chord. But the sine wave chord itself is rather complex so it gives a lot of leeway because it’s an ambiguous chord—I think it has six tones in it.
What I was kind of going for with that piece was to have a single sonority running through, and to reflect on it from as many remote harmonic points as possible. It took a long time for us to learn it because we didn’t have any score or notes, we just had to remember every chord change and every little pattern and every evasive maneuver in the chords. But we actually played that piece a lot live and then recorded it one afternoon in an empty radio studio just live to a 2-track Telefunken reel-to-reel deck and later I added organ and a second guitar in California as overdubs. So that’s that piece (laughs).
Are there any composers who are new to you, who you either weren’t into before or didn’t know about, that you’re currently excited by?
Hmm… interesting. (laughs). I’ll say that I don’t actually listen to a lot of music. I go through phases where I do listen a bunch. I have an odd relationship with recorded music.
Well, if I listen to music I have to stop everything and just sit there and listen to it. I’m not a person who can have music going and do something else. And there’s only so much time in the day and I have a pretty complex life—I have a lot of family and work to do—so I really have to carve out time to listen to music. Recently, I discovered that I have a lot of old LPs of the music of Franz Liszt and I started really getting into late, obscure music of his, especially the last year of the Années de pèlerinage. For me, it’s not so much about discovering a new composer but discovering new pieces that I was not aware of by composers I maybe knew a little bit but haven’t really explored. I haven’t recently had one of those experiences where you hear something and go, “What? What is that. I have to check that out.” I should do more… I feel a little ashamed that I’m not a bit more on the lookout. I should be.
But over the summer I made the unexpected discovery of the music of Giusto Pio, especially his beautiful Motore Immobile. There’s also the songs and lute works of John Dowland, and I continue to discover and marvel at the early feedback music of Éliane Radigue, whose music I certainly know quite well, but which seems new and surprising every time I listen to it.
For me, the process of learning is more going further in than it is going further out. At my age, I’ve heard a lot of music and am familiar with a fairly wide range of stuff, but I’ve also never been much of a collector. I’ve never been a kind of Jim O’Rourke or John Zorn who has how many thousands of records and encyclopedic knowledge of early blues or Japanese psychedelic rock.
The process of learning for me has been intensive rather than extensive and I think that’s why I’ve stayed so closely in touch with a handful of composers and musicians, working over and over on the same pieces. A La Monte Young piece is never finished you know. Every time you go out to perform it, it’s going to be kind of a new piece. You’re going to try to—I don’t want to say take it further—but you’re gonna wanna go further into it. And so that’s kind of an ongoing learning process. And the music of these composers, of Radigue and Lucier and Young… this is just conceptually and, from a philosophical standpoint, very complex music. It’s very challenging. What is it doing? How does it function? What is it all about?
These aren’t easy questions to answer and I’m happy I have the situation I have right now at UCSD where I can exercise these questions and work through them with students. It’s a never ending process of rethinking, of reimagining—so that’s where I’m continuing to learn. In that sense, I feel like I’m perpetually at the beginning. I mean, there are times where I think about stuff or even when I’m performing it where I have to stop and ask myself, what on earth is this? What exactly are we doing here? It’s an ongoing process that I don’t think ever ends, and I think that I learn the most, paradoxically, by continuing to work with the same issues, the same pieces, the same composers. I think that’s how I learn the most—by going in to the same things rather than discovering things I’m completely unfamiliar with. Though, that is also a very exciting process. Do you know the Nonesuch Explorer Series?
Yes, great series.
They’re so cool, extremely cool. I have a bunch of those LPs and I was just stunned. But, I have to say I’m not that type of consumer or student of unfamiliar music where I’m constantly bringing in things I haven’t heard before. I should do more of it.
What plans do you have next?
I do have some sabbatical from the university which I plan to take starting at some point in 2020. I’m really trying hard to finish a lot of projects that are unfinished because I’m perpetually short on time. I have writing projects to finish, recordings to edit, and I’m trying to use the next six months for those projects so that I really have, to some extent, an open slate once I’m able to take time off. I want to give myself the chance to free associate, to not come in with much of a plan. I have some ideas lurking in the back of my mind—possibly writing projects. I have the beginnings of a project going on right now with some musicians here in San Diego doing something more like my old rock recordings, and we’ve recorded a handful of pieces already and I’m just sort of sitting with them for the moment, listening to them and thinking about where to go with them.
I have a very interesting personal situation in that my three daughters are all reaching adulthood now and that’s a super exciting moment for me, to relate to them as, you know, pretty much as peers now. They’re learning things that are new to me and checking back in with me—we really have these adult relationships that are fascinating and gratifying. And then I have a one year old son which is a whole new process, and which is extremely surprising and inspiring. So, these are the things that are going on in my life (laughs). I’m turning 60 in the spring and I feel like it’s a very interesting moment to take a step back, finish some things, and try to imagine what the next few years will bring, what my priorities will be, what the gravitational pulls might be, and then to try to go along with that—let my intuitions lead me.
Performances & Recordings 1998-2018 is out January 24th on Saltern. You can pre-order the album on Bandcamp.
Every issue, Tone Glow provides download links to older, obscure albums that we believe deserve highlighting. Each download will be accompanied by a brief description of the album. Artists and labels can contact Tone Glow if you would like to see download links removed.
The Early Music Consort of London directed by David Munrow - The Art of Courtly Love (Seraphim, 1973)
After reading bits of Guillaume de Machaut: Secretary, Poet, Musician, the importance of Machaut’s role in instilling a sense of hope (among other things) to the French is hard to overstate. I’m ill-equipped to discuss him and much of his works, nor those of his contemporaries presented on this massive box set, but these compositions are undeniable. These pieces, almost all of which are polyphonic and come from the 14th and 15th century, are surprising in their beauty—bolstered in no small part to the clarity of recording (contemporary recordings of music from this time are always more invigorating when close-miking is utilized). Among many pleasures: the dizzying counterpoint on “Le greygnour bien” that makes its classification as avant-garde readily comprehensible. —Joshua Minsoo Kim
Charles Curtis Trio - Volcanoes (Strange Ways Records, 1996)
What the Charles Curtis Trio do here is what Curtis mentioned in his interview: they play along with sine tone chords that are sustained throughout the length of these tracks. Beyond the harmonic framework they provide, these tones foster a listening environment that encourages careful listening, allowing Curtis’s spoken word to become an appreciated central focus. His delivery—at once diaristic, poetic, and matter-of-fact—sits somewhere between Spiderland and the Dale Cooper tapes, creating subtle tension in the arid landscapes formed by the instrumentation. Covers of Joni Mitchell, Nico, and The Left Banke are shoddy but provide moments of charming repose from the longform pieces. And it’s these pieces that need to be heard, making Volcanoes an unheralded post-rock treasure. —Joshua Minsoo Kim
Richard Maxfield - Richard Maxfield (Slowscan, 2014)
“Personal taste is not sufficient to deal with the unknown.” It’s a provocative statement, and one that Maxfield declares in the interview featured in this double LP. His declaration is utilized as justification for the necessity of indeterminacy in his works. He sees a proclivity toward such a compositional approach to be a product of the times: “The only possibility is to hypothesize; we will never arrive at the final truth. In other words, this is an era of indecision instead of decision.” He admits that after randomly organizing pieces of tape for “Cough Music,” he messes with the final result, editing it to get the product he so desires: chance not as transcendent art, but as a means of finding it.
The pieces here are all intriguing—even more so for being composed between 1948 and 1966—but I’m drawn to two in particular: the aforementioned “Cough Music” and “Perspectives II For La Monte Young.” The former rumbles about in eerie and controlled cacophony. You can hear snatches of actual coughing for brief moments, but what’s mostly heard is a kaleidoscopic barrage of tape music that appears frothy at one moment and psychedelic the next. I’m enamored with the piece’s quieter passages—like one is hearing nondescript noise through a baby monitor. It’s emblematic of the piece’s general tone: one of quiet oppression that leaves one in a state between anxiety-ridden and cautious calmness. “Perspectives II,” written for violin, is similarly queasy: incessant squawking that nevertheless pinpoints the physicality and materiality of the elements used. Unexpectedly transfixing and still refreshing today, really. —Joshua Minsoo Kim
Every issue, Tone Glow has a panel of writers share brief thoughts on an album and assign it a score between 0 and 10. This section of the website is inspired by The Singles Jukebox.
Manuel Pessoa de Lima - Realejo (Black Truffle, 2020)
Press Release info: Black Truffle is pleased to present Realejo, the first vinyl release from Brazilian sound artist and composer Manuel Pessoa de Lima. Having composed works for diverse contexts including cinema, contemporary dance, theatre and television, Lima’s live appearances often take the form of self-reflexive lecture performances that combine electro-acoustic sound, red light, video and spoken text, moving unpredictably from the hilarious to the distressing.
Realejo consists of two side-long pieces of highly idiosyncratic electro-acoustic collage, beginning with recordings Lima made of himself playing the organ in the Schloss Solitude Chapel in Stuttgart. Exploring the peculiarities of the instrument’s mechanics, Lima made hours of recordings with the organ stops half-way open, moving from haunting gliding tones to oddly tuned fair-ground melodies reminiscent of the record’s namesake realejo, a hand-cranked organ traditionally found in Brazil as the musical accompaniment to the work of fortune-telling parrots.
Matthew Blackwell: Perhaps it’s because it feels like the end of the world is looming, but it’s difficult listening to Pessoa de Lima’s Realejo without constructing a narrative of paranoia. The security guard’s whistle that opens Side A is an audible reminder of visual surveillance, as the guard uses it to mark the comings and goings of locals and non-locals. Pessoa de Lima’s assurance that this particular guard has been watching his neighborhood for 30 years isn’t reassuring at all: it merely reminds us how easily such surveillance becomes routine. In this context, the recordings of Pessoa de Lima’s friend’s child are less than endearing. It is impossible to forget that the child, too, will enter into the surveillance state—and in fact, already has. The third major component, the organ that Pessoa de Lima played in Stuttgart’s Schloss Solitude Chapel, suggests a desire to get away and find real solitude. But Pessoa de Lima’s playing only adds to the foreboding atmosphere of the whole. At 5:27, we get panic-inducing horns; at 14:00, there’s an agitating hum; at 18:16, darkly distorted, widescreen white noise covers the aural field. Side B doesn’t let up from the claustrophobic cacophony, though it presents a wider array of sound sources, from public transportation to recordings of a reading of alphabetized country names. None of this sounds pleasant, no, but it does reflect the unease of daily life in the first weeks of 2020.
Jeff Brown: Melancholic themes on organ open both side-long pieces. During certain passages, Realejo resembles a calliope and conjures up visions of sidewalk busking. The overall flow is akin to isolated film cues in how they don't overstay their welcome, and could be mistaken for outtakes from Vangelis’s Blade Runner score. The mixture of synthesized instrumentation with found or field recordings is balanced nicely—street noise and whistle blows give way to an oscillating synth that morphs into the sound of an ocean, with crashing water replacing electronic wave modulation. The barrage of sounds is unpredictable, one shining example being the Atari Asteroids-style bitcrush explosion, as is a piece of dialogue about choking when no one is around to help—it feels like a Voight Kampff test scenario, solidifying the aforementioned Blade Runner impression. During the closing moments, a looped organ melody rises in pitch, becoming entangled with mechanical growls, abruptly dissolving into nothingness: the titular barrel organ has run out of power.
Samuel McLemore: The title track is wrapped in “spooky” signifiers—lonely church organs, atmospheric synth washes, field recordings of babies and security guards—all clearly intended to communicate mood and mystery. It plays like The Caretaker doing a Creel Pone impression: surely an enticing description for many, but for me a true bore. Instead of presenting a personal and unique sense of time and place, we’re given repetitious fog that cycles between familiar sounds and unarticulated ideas. There are interesting moments, however. Certain organ phrases almost recall Southeast Asian flute ensembles—a comparison made stronger by the timbre of a guard’s whistle—but instead of exploring this further, Pessoa de Lima chooses to fall back on tepid synth interludes and recordings of baby talk. “Presenting Yourself” deepens the sonic pot, offering up a full-throated collage of voices, radio snippets, language lessons, and more faffing about on the church organ. Still, all that Pessoa de Lima stitches together amounts to little in the end: no individual element is interesting enough to stand on its own, and placing them together in this manner reveals nothing clever or novel about their sonority or character. On Realejo, there’s no real sense of tension, no broader political or social messaging, and its two pieces barely cohere as a full album.
Leah B. Levinson: When we whistle we mark time passing like ochre marks a significant capture on the wall of a cave. With childlike wonder, we—whistlers—move through the day. This landscape of a city—constructed, sculpted, collaged, textural, woven—is driven by a whistle and pipes. Melodies and cadences give shape to episodes passing. Here is a quilt where changes in texture are starts of new buildings, seams between patterns, enjambed, window to window. Here is grayness as softness as heavenly warmth, whispering omens. Here are clear tones as lovely, melodious grace. Somebody’s child, seeming secure, quiet, is speaking, marking, making. Could one play this loudly? I wonder if it would always be quiet. It’s in this restless stasis: water moving slowly with one slowly wading. Soft starts, swells, lovely decay, and a warm frequency range. One harsh texture and then just some crackling. Whistling: dressing up motion with one’s own meaning. Growing up and learning to love and to whistle. To whistle is to forge sense in time, to imprint upon it. A handcranked organ makes time subject to our own making. Confrontation is rehearsed through fantasy—security, police, our games, our training—in small predictive moments. Synthesis, mimesis, and documentation are forced to contour and develop motion. With airy light chords it turns like fire up in the sky, small bursting like laughter, remembering silence.
Raphael Helfand: In Brazil, the realejo is a hand-cranked barrel organ traditionally used to accompany fortune-telling parrots. São Paolo-based sound artist Manuel Pessoa de Lima has made it the eponymous artifact of his newest project. The name is misleading, though—the album’s central instrument is not a realejo but the organ in the Schloss Solitude Chapel in Stuttgart, Germany. On the title track, Pessoa de Lima treats us to recordings of his time there. He flirts with melodies that mimic the realejo’s carnival novelty, but for the most part he washes us with eerie chords created by playing the organ with its stops halfway open. Instead of the traditional parrot, he accompanies his playing with the whistles of a neighborhood security guard and the inchoate murmurings of his friend’s infant daughter. Together, the sounds take on a ghostly quality, like field recordings of a since-abandoned city, evoking a wave of nostalgia for the unknown.
On the record’s B-side, “Presenting Yourself,” the organ warps into a buzzing synth, then back to organ, then to further realms of abstraction. Over this seething soundscape, Pessoa de Lima dubs in YouTube clips and snippets of his earlier piece, “36 English to Portuguese Lessons.” These soundbites become increasingly banal until, out of nowhere, a clear voice says, “So, you’re by yourself and you choking. There’s no one there to help you.” The track is peppered with surprises like these, disparate voices uniting in dissonance on the surface of Pessoa de Lima’s amorphous sonic sea. Together, the two tracks are a sinister rendering of the subconscious, a fragmented journey through broken memories that will never fully return.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: One is tempted to consider this a maturation of Manuel Pessoa de Lima’s compositional style. To be certain, his patchwork has never been more coherent—timbrally, thematically, emotionally—but gone is the ramshackle charm that defined 36 English to Portuguese Lessons (there’s nothing as unexpectedly delightful as that album’s inclusion of, say, Super Mario Sunshine’s “Delfino Plaza”). The result is a sense that he’s lost some sense of individuality. Such “serious” work can be serious work to endure, not because it’s bad, but because it hits the same stylistic beats of revered experiments of yesteryear. My experience of this brings to mind that of another Black Truffle release: Joe Talia’s Tint. It was a great work—unassailable even—but a bit too much like its influences (namely, Jean-Claude Eloy’s Gaku-No-Michi). Realejo is impressive, but the criteria with which I’m encouraged to judge it is, in part, based on an adherence to established forms; it’s good, yes, but exciting?
Oskari Tuure: Realejo is like an audio diary of the artist’s life in Brazil, one where the entries are out of order and garbled up but paints an evocative picture of its subject. The first track is more focused on field recordings and tonal experimentation—electroacoustic music, organ improvisation, a blast of white noise—but the second track, titled “Presenting Yourself,” has Lima turning inwards and, well, presenting himself. This self-introduction consists of a lot of the same musical elements as the first track, but also features fragmentary pieces of his previous work. Using so many recycled snippets makes the album feel like a Best of Manuel Pessoa de Lima anthology, curated by the artist himself. Simultaneously, the vaguely ethnographic field recordings constitute a short Best of Brazil collection, reminiscent of John Cusack’s quotidian material on Favourite Beijing Sounds.
One of Lima’s previous works is repurposed especially well here: his lessons in guidebook level Portuguese (from 36 English to Portuguese Lessons) hilariously contrast the babble of an infant who decidedly does not speak the language yet. The entire work is punctuated by the soft sounds of this baby, and the recurring crying and cooing emerges as a motif that reappears throughout the runtime. If the electroacoustic sounds lift you up and transport you to an imaginary, idealized Brazil, the baby pulls you back to reality and grounds you in the present. Getting snapped back to your surroundings by the baby’s voice is pure evolutionary instinct magic, skillfully exploited for artistic purposes.
Sunik Kim: Contemporary electroacoustic music often vacillates between two poles: one explores the physicality of sound as sound, presenting various sonic artifacts in isolation; the other guns for raw emotion, exploiting personal/field recordings and the collage format to construct a room of interrelated sound-objects that the listener can freely navigate and through which the artist speaks. I find the best work in this field carefully synthesizes the two approaches: too much emphasis on the quality of sound-objects in isolation leads to sterile sonic experiments with little emotional heft; too much emphasis on emotional weight over pure experimentation results in an endless retreading of the same sonic territory. Lima’s Realejo strikes that balance with rare confidence: this is an immaculate, artificial world in which organ chords melt into whirling gushes of wind, a security guard’s whistle mimics birdsong (in what feels like a direct jab at the tired tropes of field recording), digital gunshots echo across seas of wavering sub-bass, and blasts of white noise interrupt poorly-encoded Futurist vocal assaults.
There are many openings for cliché here: the intrusion of digital synthesis into natural soundscapes as statement on industrialization and the destruction of the natural world; the use of a baby’s vocalizing, which usually indicates that the work in question is deeply personal, or something; the collaged nature of the piece, which often results in a scatterbrained, hectic sound that characterizes much over-labored musique concrète; the use of organ drones in the age of the Kali Malone-Boomkat industrial complex. Lima manages to avoid these tempting pitfalls with a keen ear for duration and context: no sound overstays its welcome, and each new element is granted the space to breathe, bloom and die away. He achieves the goal of much work in this territory, which is to “denature” sound; but he does so over and over again in a spiral of increasing intensity, constantly rearranging and re-contextualizing the same sound-objects to the point that the boundaries between “nature” and “denatured” are truly blurred. Clear of the murk and aimlessness characteristic of much adjacent work, Realejo goes far beyond mere “play”—into the ecstatic.
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