Matthew Herbert: Mahler X Recomposed

There have been many attempts to fully realize the splendor of what might have been Mahler’s 10th Symphony.  Succumbing to an infection of the blood at the age of 50, Mahler also fell prey to the “curse of the ninth”, so we will never really know what harmonic breakthroughs he would have gifted the world of music.  What he did leave behind, however, is akin to the vexing Reimann Hypothesis – the mystery of which gave purpose to generations of creative mathematicians.  Rather then attempt, however, some kind of speculative harmonic structure for the unfinished movements, Herbert takes as his starting point the “finished” Adagio as performed/recorded by The London Philharmonia under the direction of Giuseppe Sinopoli.

The music emerges from a pregnant wet silence, birds and the solo violin iterate Mahler’s plaintive melody – purportedly performed at Mahler’s gravesite.  From the start we feel less of an attachment to the 20th century classical tradition than we do a reminder of the dusty places we keep our memories.  The Symphony is re-recorded (reinvented) through a panoply of settings simultaneously weighty with meaning and banal: through a car stereo, inside a coffin, buried in an urn, etc.  We are brought to the brink of collapse, decay only to again be revitalized and reminded of music’s stubborn ability to remain.  Though a fitting tribute to a composer lost too soon, the music begins a deeper philosophical inquiry about life; it is about the act of listening; it is about immortality and on the same coin disintegration and mutability.  It is about the medium of recording, the method of playback – but most striking to this writer, is its tentative rattling of the gates of modern temporal sensibility. It begs the question – How does music reflect our fragmentary timeline of history, while retaining the unity of experience in memory?  The solo violin hovers the gravesite; it now haunts the space behind a door that was not there the night before.

Our epoch is one whose relationship to time is being deeply questioned.  Here the past is brought into the present and transmogrified.  One is reminded here of Marconi’s hopes that his wireless technology would enable him to hear the echoes of the Sermon on the Mount.  More deeply though, we think of the operator listening to the Titanic’s distress signals five hours after still ocean waters concealed the ship’s final resting place at the bottom of the Atlantic.

Herbert’s music is the beauty of the classical tradition revealed through the filters and aberrations of modernity.  One wonders how Mahler’s lush, tender melody survives the broken journey from the concert hall to the brittle realms of the digital domain… but it does.   The music is at once majestic and grand, and in the next moment fragile, distant, and faded. Like an old photograph, it portrays aspects of memory, the whole of which can never be captured.


Ondrej Smeykal: Didj from Another Dimension

I am writing about the best didgeridoo player you have never heard of. On his second cd “Didgeridoo Solo II” the music drifts in like an archaic wave of consciousness, from a time before an egoic sense of self divided us from all that is, lulling us into a womb-like, but false, sense of security. I remember his tricking me like this at his show as well, waiting for my consciousness to drift back to the Dreamtime, before abruptly transporting me back to the 21st century with music shifting back and forth between duple and triple meter, but relaxed and natural as if were an ‘of course’ kind of an event. I know now that this was no trick, just infinite compassion on his part – he knew that if the cap were too soon blown off of my consciousness, that the rest of the show would be a wash.Smeykal plays with the sonic dimensions of consciousness: small bits of melody are created which take up residence in the mind’s ear even after they are no longer present in the sound structure itself. Close your eyes and you can imagine that something of a more modern ilk is occurring on the stage: house, drum and bass, Reich, Stockhausen… It seems impossible that this music, this soundscape is being created real-time on an instrument whose roots trace back over 10,000 years.

Impossible polyrhythms and molodies emerge from a primal drone. Smeykal mics his nose, so the breath can be used as another sound source – percussive and syncopated. Barks, growls, hoots – ancient didgeridoo language – are layered within complex rhythmic structures and laid skillfully within the overlying bed of sound whose relationship only multiple listenings can reveal.

I spoke with Ondrej after his last show here in the Bay Area. (I actually wanted him to sign his beautifully packaged, handmade [by Smeykal himself], embossed, woodcut adorned, cd’s for me.) He is a humble, approachable, young man, endearing Czech accent, very sincere and appreciative. In the short time I had, I asked him about one of the pieces he played – one with long phrases in 7/4 and smaller phrases embedded within it, also in 7. (A mind-boggling feat in any musical medium, but on a didg, unbelievable.) His answer was simple. “It is simply breath,” he said. “Every structure that emerges is based within natural cycles of breathing.”

Smeykal embodies what I would see as a truly integral approach to music: complex layers of modernity which are transparent to an art form still in touch with the Dreamtime. Complex music theory and magical trance walk side by side, merging with one another, respectful of one another, and sharing each others’ strengths, creating a music which transcends genre, place, even time. Seeing Smeykal is an opportunity which should not be missed. Alan Tower, a local didg master (, describes him as “a didg player from another planet”. I would whole-heartedly agree and add that this music points to a mutation of consciousness which is the collective destiny – Integrality: a consciousness transparent to the Archaic, the Mythic, the Magical, and the Rational. Each held with equal weight in a sphere of timelessness. See him, listen to him, and be treated to the flavors of what is to come. (