VA: Musique pour Statues Menhirs

To the imagined envy of compilation curators everywhere, Arbouse Recordings snagged a dean's list of contributors for its Musique pour statues menhirs collection—Fennesz, Benoit Pioulard, Sylvain Chauveau, Greg Davis, Jasper TX, and Mira Calix are just a handful of those whose works appear on the two-hour, double-disc set. Perhaps each was so captivated by the subject matter, they couldn't resist the urge to participate (in Orla Wren's Keiron Phelan words, “The menhirs “speak” to us today … and despite the gulf of time that separates us, we feel a commonality with those of our ancestors who created them”); after all, it's not every day one is asked to create a piece of music based on vertical stone slabs created during the later European Neolithic era and with stylized designs of human figures cut into them. Arbouse partnered with the Musée Fenaille (located in Montrozier, a small medieval village) in commissioning artists to create individual pieces based on the museum's collection, and to open the exhibition Fennesz, Mira Calix, Mapstation, and David Daniell performed live at the museum amidst the statues.

Though the tracks encompass an eclectic range of styles, what's common to each is the sense of awe, wonder, and even humility the artists experienced when confronting the enigmatic slabs. The stone structures bring into sharper relief life's evanescence and the overarching theme of impermanence too, given the imperceptible transformations all things experience over time. Not surprisingly, many of the twenty-one pieces are contemplative in spirit, and, as sometimes happens with these kinds of projects, the pieces by the relatively lesser-knowns end up impressing most of all. All grainy guitar sounds collecting into a meditative pool, “Sundial,” for example, is quintessential Fennesz, but it's not dissimilar from what he's done before. Likewise, there are decent pieces by David Daniels (“Pillar,” a mesmerized, electric guitar-and-harmonica-generated drone), Hefty Records' John Hughes (“BC Drone,” a vibes-and-synths meditation), Greg Davis (“All things change,” a meditative blend of gongs, mouth harp, synthesizers, field recordings, and vocals), and Jasper TX (“Open Field,” eight minutes of vaporous swirl), as well as tracks by ww.lowman (Chicagoan William Lowman), Serafina Steer, Mapstation, Nathan Bell, Parlour (former Slint drummer Tim Furnick), Zelienople, and Melodium.

Five settings in particular stand out from the crowd, beginning with Rafael Anton Irisarri's “Still,” a limpid, tranquil, and transporting electronics setting that swathes piano playing in clouds of strings. Sylvain Chauveau's “La chanson des pierres” is a predictably lovely and spacious solo piano setting, and Orla Wren's melancholy acoustic piece, “The climbing rope,” exudes an ancient feel through its incorporation of gamelan percussion and flute. Astrid's remarkable “High Blues,” an expansive, eleven-minute dirge augmented by kalimba and harmonium, anchors its mournful electric guitar and clarinet melodies with contrabass playing. Best of all is Mira Calix's eleven-minute “In a stony place” which the Warp artist generated using small stones and strings (keening, plucked, and swooping). What distinguishes the piece is that Calix draws a strong connection to the statues' creators by evoking the rhythm of carving, and though it's synthetic and thoroughly modern in character, there's also a sense of toil about the piece that suggests an artisan thoughtfully shaping and assembling materials.

July 2009