Terje Isungset – “Winter Songs”

There are certain musics that seem to reach back into the distant reaches of human consciousness: didgeridoo music of Arnhem Land, the vocal harmonies of the Central African Pygmy, witchcraft music of Tanzania, Kirana ragas from North India and Pakistan come immediately to mind.  These are ancient forms carried through the generations on the carpet of the oral tradition.  Though feeble attempts have been made, these traditions defy intellectual analysis.  This makes sense when we realize that these musics are pre-intellectual; pre-rational is a better term.  Modern analysis (post-Renaissance) is based upon a process of dissection, abstraction, and quantification.  As soon as this method is applied to ancient music, as soon as it is codified, notated, and filtered through the Western scientific mind, the music itself crumbles.  Its continued existence relies upon the fact that all of our experience travels through the vestigial realms of past consciousness.  As much as we would all like to think of ourselves as rational creatures, we are equally mythical and magical; our moment to moment coming into being, upon close inspection, is just as mystifying as it must have been to the first cell, the first molecule, the first subatomic particle – the Big Bang creation myth is as fraught with miracles as any other.

Modern musical instruments have all evolved from the same materials: skin, bone, wood, gut, and voice.  So one wonders what ancient memory is stored in ice.  What fragility, loneliness, and incalculable beauty is stored in the solidified molecules of the very stuff upon which life depends?  I have distinct memories of trudging home from grade school at dusk, the snow knee-high.  Cold, dark, quiet.  There was a distinct sound as the snowflakes hit my face, my feet breaking the smooth surface of the snow; something ominous about the muffled sound of a car moving past; something very eerie about the half-finished snowman in the big corner lot.  Everything became so still.  But it was a haunted, pregnant stillness – a feeling that the trees, despite appearing quite lifeless, merely had their eyes closed.

Terje Isungset’s music evokes a time and a place at once so mysterious and so familiar. All the sounds are created upon instruments carved from ice.  The pieces are improvised and recorded in structures made of ice – igloos and glaciers.  Yet, despite the incredible “technology” involved in the construction of the music, what strikes the listener is the transcendence of music into a sonic experience of our earthbound mythology.   The cavernous resonance emanated by centuries of frozen history, the fragility of instruments whose very magic lies in the nature of transience, and the human voice- the ephemerality of which is so deeply embedded in breath – spiritus.

Isunget’s music does not tell us a myth, it involves us in the actual living of myth.  The ability to mythologize is not the ability to tell stories, it is the ability to create meaning from that which will forever remain a mystery – existence.  Yes, Isungset’s music is deeply beautiful, richly evocative, highly original; but allow it to work upon your spirit and you may find your self changed, not transformed but deepened.  You may recover something ancestral, something that puts you in touch with the natural world in all its mystery, delicacy, and inherent evanescence.  By the time you read this sentence, the present moment is gone.  The stuff of philosophy is wonder.  The stuff of music is soul.  Great art finds the place in between.

Listen to clips here:



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 (http://alantower.net/), 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. (www.smeykal.com)