Hans-Joachim Roedelius – Wahre Liebe – Looking Back, Looking Forward

The first time I heard Hans-Joachim Roedelius was on the track “By This River” on Brian Eno’s Before and After Science. I didn’t know who Roedelius was, but I knew I loved that gently lilting, mournful song. Nearly forty years later, it still moves me the same way it did the first time I heard it. There are few musicians whose work I can honestly say this about.

Hans-Joachim Roedelius

To my thinking, there’s a pretty clear divide running through Roedelius’ prodigious fifty-plus-year output. There’s the music from the kosmische/krautrock era that he made primarily with fellow musician Dieter Moebius while playing in the groups Kluster, Cluster, and Harmonia. While I appreciate the value of this music on a socio-historical level, too much of it feels thin and whimsical when it isn’t fumbling toward a kind of abstracted, prog-esque sound (though if you’re curious to investigate, Musik von Harmonia is propulsively forward-thinking and fizzing with ideas and inspiration). The music is both a definitive product of its time, and a fossil from it.

With the temporary suspension of those groups came the start of Roedelius’ solo era. His first efforts, Durch die Wüste, from 1978, and Jardin au fou, from 1979 are jarring, uneven works that find him shuttling between introspective tuneful pieces that contain the seeds of his eventual florescence, and quirky, cartoonish tracks that come across as perversely disruptive, even silly. His next album, Selbstportrait, was the breakthrough and revelation. It’s a confident collection of intimate, revealing tracks that offset candid emotion with brittle, tenuous-sounding electronics – an unlikely fusion that, surprisingly, works. By embracing fragility and risk, and jettisoning the outlandish and carnivalesque, Roedelius created a new kind of warmth for synthesized sound. The results are rich with mystery, melancholy, and the excitement of stepping into new terrain.

“In Liebe Dein” – from Selbstportrait

Selbstportrait II from 1980 is a clear continuation of the work started in Selbstportrait. While there’s a more lighthearted, sunnier aspect to some of the music on Selbstportrait II, the album is no less exploratory or emotive for it. Nonethless, to my mind, Roedelius wouldn’t hit his stride again until Wenn der Südwind weht.  On this album, his fifth solo, he comes up with a playful variety of styles buttressed by an underlying sense of gravitas and a commanding uniformity of voice, exemplified in both the tender, minute-long “Goldregen” and the ominous, pulsing epic of “Saumpfad.” The following year, Roedelius released Flieg Vogel Fliege, another gem of mellifluous, cascading sketches, jaunty bursts, and gently brooding melodies. The final track, “Wanderung” is a glowing orb of sound and a fitting end to the hike the title refers to.

I should mention here that establishing any sort of order to Roedelius’ catalog is not my goal. He’s been involved with more than 160 recordings so far, and I’m neither a completist nor an archivist. Added to that, there are inconsistencies to the numbering of records, as well as subjective categorizations. For example, there are solo albums that are considered by Roedelius to fall within the Selbstportrait series that aren’t designated as such, at least by name, Flieg Vogel fliege, being one. Then there are possible oversights, such as two different, wholly separate and unique albums called Selbstportrait Volume VIII – one is subtitled Introspection, the other is Wahre Liebe. All I’m hoping to do is celebrate a musician whose work has moved me and shaped my tastes while providing me with hours of genuine pleasure, inspiration, and solace.

After Flieg Vogel Fliege, Roedelius began working again with other musicians. Since I’m focusing on the solo work, let me say that much of the material from these collaborations doesn’t exactly interest me. There are two solo albums, however, that he recorded in the midst of these collaborations that need mentioning. The first, Wie das Wispern des Windes, from 1986, features Roedelius on solo grand piano. He’s at his most Harold Budd-like on a number of these tracks, and if you consider yourself a fan of Budd, then check out this album immediately. The second is Plays Piano, a live recording from 1985 (released in 2011) that sees Roedelius once again on solo grand piano: twenty-one sketches that capture his mercurial imagination in motion – and a spryer version of “By This River” as well.

Track 11 – “By This River” – from Plays Piano

In 1991, Roedelius released Piano Piano. In musical notation, it refers to the term “pianissimo” which is a directive to a musician to play a passage or piece of music softly. Roedelius is once again at the grand piano, and his resolute, passionate, unadorned playing eliminates the line between the composed and the improvisatory. There’s a quiet intensity at work throughout as if one had walked in on him daydreaming and experimenting at his keyboard. The surety of his touch, the varied approaches in style, and the range of mood and melody are all indicative of a confidence and expertise honed and developed and caught in full flower.

“Die Gunst der Stunde” – from Piano Piano

Four years later, Roedelius released Selbstportrait VI – Diary of the Unforgotten. The album includes a personal essay of sorts in which he writes about his early years as a musician, living in a sprawling estate building in Forst, West Germany, with his musical partner, Dieter Moebius. After a year of squatting and living without heat or running water, the two were able to set themselves up and get down to making music while also becoming more self-sufficient and learning to live off the land around them. Eventually Roedelius married a woman (whom he doesn’t name) and together they had a daughter, Rosa. Roedelius writes:

 “…Rosa, our first child, was born, not long after our wedding, at home in front of an open fire whilst (my own) music played softly in the background. This fireplace birth had a profound effect on my daughter, with Forst enduring for her as an image of paradise entered. Which it had always been for me as well, from the beginning to the inevitable, bitter end.”

That inevitable, bitter end took shape in the form of the nearby Würgassen nuclear power plant, “constantly being shut down for some fault or other.” Roedelius further states that “a rise in leukemia and cancer-related illnesses in the area,” forced his eventual departure.

This feeling, rooted in the actual experience of a utopia gained and lost, goes to the haunted, wounded, core of Roedelius’ Selbstportraits. There’s a built-in bereft quality, heightened by his playing alone. But it’s the sorrowful, melancholy melodies that tell the real story. Even his lighter, happier work in the series is marked here and there with a musical stain or blemish. The impact of his brief idyll in Forst, when he was young and in love, discovering himself, his family, and his art, reverberated through his life and indelibly formed him as a musician. But the beauty and wonder from that time survive in his music, too.

Selbstportrait VI is a highlight of the series, with standout tracks including the blissful “Remember Those Days,” the ragged lament of “Du” with its minor mistakes left in place while the tape runs, the steady tranquility of “Schoner Abend.” Frankly, I could point to any track and recommend it. The centerpiece though is “Hommage à Forst” an epic, 24-minute collage, loaded with Cluster and Harmonia samples, granulated room tones, field recordings from the grounds of the estate, and what sounds at times like an old film projector. It’s one of the least “musical,” most directly autobiographical tracks Roedelius ever created and, in light of the meaning of Forst for him, one of the most fascinating.

Alter Weserhof, Forst, where Roedelius lived.

So now, here in 2020, we come to the latest Selbstportrait, Wahre Liebe (True Love), available on the Bureau B label. Apparently, Gunther Buskies at Bureau B asked Roedelius if he was interested in creating another installment in the self-portrait series using all the old gear he’d used to record his earlier albums: “a Farfisa organ, drum machine, tape-delay and a Rhodes.” Roedelius dove in, and the result is a stunning thing, a work of true love, and a necessary expansion of the Selbstportrait series. Each track embodies the specific ideas and moods that are Roedelius’ own but there’s no straining toward the epic, no sense of an artist unearthing his difficult late period work or attempting to define the ultimate meaning of his legacy. It’s just Roedelius doing what he’s always done best – presenting more musical plein air gouaches, quick and light and immediate, yet saturated with color, feeling, and depth.

“Wahre Liebe” – from Wahre Liebe
“Gleichklang” – from Wahre Liebe

Furthermore, there’s no sense of time passed or lost, nothing elegiac. He sounds as solidly connected to the foundational source of his musical imagination as he did when he first ventured into the realms of his solo work. His wit and creativity and feeling are as fresh and alive as they ever were. Wahre Liebe is a brilliant addition to a catalog already brimming with great work.

Selbstportrait VIII – Wahre Liebe

“By This River” – from Brian Eno’s Before and after Science

Soundtrack for an Empty City: A playlist

Before getting off the bus, I take a look around to see if anyone else has been riding with the driver and me for the last twenty minutes.

There’s just one more, a mountain of a man asleep in the back, taking up two seats. His legs are open wide and his head is tilted into the corner behind him. His jaw hangs low as if he were asleep in his living room. From the looks of him, he should be snoring but he’s not.

We’re at the last stop, the stop where the driver usually tells everyone to clear off, but tonight he doesn’t say a word. Then again, there’s a yellow plastic chain separating him from the rest of the bus, so I don’t know if he’s actually said something. That, and he’s got a mask over half his face.

Approaching the curb, I look up for traffic. I already know there probably won’t be any cars, just food delivery people wrapped from head to toe silently whipping past on e-bikes.

But there is one guy, short, thick, jacketless, with a Ray Davies “Come Dancing”-era comb-back. He’s standing in the bike lane of all places when there’s nothing but empty space around, yelling into his phone:

“I TOLD YOU, YOU CAN CHANGE EVOLUTION.”

Any other day, I would’ve let the moment pass. But with everything about city life that on a person-to-person level I’ve grown accustomed to – taken for granted even – suddenly gone, the indie movie cliché of the crackpot with a leaky theory about what’s really going on around here, man, stood out. Behold, your newly unemployed security guard, losing his shit with nobody around to notice or care.

I do that city thing though, and keep walking.

I turn the corner by the bank and head to Cooper Square plaza, a space that’s usually busy with skate boarders, pot-smoking bike messengers, residents like me walking to or from work, folks out for the night.

There’s nobody around. A fresh breeze gusts from the south and smells surprisingly clean. Less traffic, less pollution: one silver lining. Without all the headlights and ambient light from apartments and restaurants, the traffic and street lights glow with an almost sentient intensity. It’s beautiful. All of it. The silence, the surrounding darkness, the emptiness.

Beneath all of this is a horror story. And as I walk, I see ambulances parked mid-block on every other street, with warning lights whipping and flashing…

This playlist is an attempt to reflect some of the uncertainty permeating the city. The feelings of abandonment, of isolation and fear and doubt. It’s also an attempt to catch some of the unintended beauty revealed in the wake of all the people who have gone inside or gone away or gone missing.

I miss them. I miss us. In some way, I’ll miss this version of the city when it’s gone. Yet I can’t wait for all of this to be over.

Michael Grigoni & Stephen Vitiello – Slow Machines – Catch the Drift

Looking for something to clear your head in these days of media glut and radical uncertainty? Check out Slow Machines from Michael Grigoni and sound and installation artist Stephen Vitiello on the 12k label.

The gist of Slow Machines seems to be one of drifting. Of letting go of any kind of rigidity or formal structure to float away to a looser, unfettered dimension. Grigoni’s languid yet precise playing on his dobro, pedal, and lap steel guitars works to conjure images of an eternal Southwestern landscape while Vitiello’s electronics, field recordings and effects (as well as his application of clicks, ticks, and scratches from the Tinguely-esque kinetic sculptures of Arthur Ganson on the first track) keep the music grounded in the physicality of the here and now. Together the two artists strike a lively balance that suggests vast expanses of space and time without explicitly referencing the celestial.

“Arthur Ganson”

Grigoni’s gentle picking and strumming on most tracks creates a spare pointillist specificity that hovers over Vitiello’s beds of glowing, swelling effects. “Purpling Cloud” finds them slowly building up the sense of a gathering storm, with a kind of breezy playing from Grigoni buttressed by softly distorted growls from Vitiello. The piece ends in a rainy patter of notes, bringing with it a feeling of dry heat and the peppery smell of petrichor.

“Purpling Cloud”

The rain suggested in “Purpling Cloud” reaches land and seems to float in the distant background of “A Clearing,” but the track never lapses into an ambient cliché of dreamy stasis. This is thanks to Vitiello’s subtle intrusions and ruptures as well as Grigoni’s muted, wordless vocals, which both echo and harmonize with his playing. The closing track, “Transparent as a Hanging Glass” throbs with a more pronounced bass sound while reversed guitar notes and glinting harmonics throughout add new textures and dimensions.

Each track on Slow Machines is part of a larger mood, yet the album is never monotonous. It’s packed with intriguing details and ideas, and plays out in a fresh and surprising fashion. I find it both a much-needed antidote to our current craziness and a source of solace. And if you like it as much as I do, check out Grigoni’s earlier 12k release, Mount Carmel. It’s a beauty.

While I’m suggesting other work by these artists, check out this new release from Vitiello, And the room into my buzzing head. With just an open window and an Aeolian harp – a harp that’s played by the wind blowing across its strings – he’s captured a rich and lovely recording of both the lulling swells of the harp and the vibrant sounds of life outside his window. From a startling array of birdcalls to the muffled thrum of drowsy insects to the evocative, heralding call of a distant train. It’s a surprisingly emotive variant on John Cage’s “4’33” and a soothing sonic strategy for these self-quarantining times.

Jana Winderen – Spring Bloom in the Marginal Ice Zone – “New Worlds to Gain”

Touch has just re-issued sound artist Jana Winderen’s Spring Bloom in the Marginal Ice Zone, a startling and movingly intimate exploration of subaquatic life in the Arctic. And not a moment too soon.

The recording begins with excerpts from an interview with marine scientist and ecologist Carlos Duarte describing what happens during the annual spring bloom in the marginal ice zone of the Arctic, the transitional space “between the open ocean and sea ice,” according to the Norwegian Polar Institute.

Owing to the general deep freeze and the lack of steady warming sunlight during the winter season in the Arctic, there’s relatively little biological activity beyond extant organisms feeding off leftovers from the preceding season. But starting around February each year, the sun slowly re-emerges, melting off snow cover and thinning out ice, and with that the spring bloom is on. Within a few weeks, ice algae begins to photosynthesize, and diatoms and plankton begin to bloom, depleting the carbon dioxide in the water and creating the largest carbon sink in the biosphere. No small thing, as this also helps sustain life – the phytoplankton alone produces half the oxygen the human race relies on. Through various levels of food chain predation, those diatoms and other organisms ultimately become meals for birds and mammals indigenous to the region. Once stripped of their nutrients, what remains sinks to the ocean floor and is consumed by the organisms there that are in turn fed on by other organisms, and so on.

Life, in other words. Non-human life. Not that the Arctic has evaded the crushing impact of a human touch. It remains to be seen what effect the climate crisis will have on the region but the prognosis is dire. To go back to Duarte, he states near the end of his interview that while the rest of the world is looking at a two-degree threshold for an increase in global temperature as a kind of limit for our chances to contain the effects of global warming, the arctic has already blown past that to become the leading area for developing climate change. He sees the region losing all of its ice in the future, sea ice as well as glaciers on land, with no way to prevent any of it from disappearing. Anyone paying even the slightest amount of attention to news like this knows that dangerous rises in sea levels are just the beginning of what we can expect to come our way…

Rather than collapsing in despair in the face of such information, Winderen captures the sounds of this crackling, chirping, whooping ecosystem in full swing. Moaning seals, singing whales, the sounds of blooming plankton, clicking crustaceans, and melting ice are all pristinely recorded and cast in a multi-dimensional 35-minute symphonic drift. Two versions are offered: a headphone mix and a speaker mix, with slight differences between the two in terms of material. In terms of affect, I’d have to recommend the headphone mix. From the comfort of my chair, it was a unique pleasure to be submerged into the unexpected warmth of the marginal ice zone, a place teeming with life forms I felt sure I could have leaned forward and plucked from the speculative space Winderen opened in front of me. It’s a rich and strange world, well beyond the reach of most of us, so getting contact with it, even in this form, is a rare gift.

And it’s a pleasure to be reminded that we are surrounded by life and mystery, not just greed and cruelty and hopelessness.

The time may already be here when we, as a species, will have to think beyond ourselves when we think about the future. Many of us won’t survive the destruction of the natural world that’s coming. What can we do to ameliorate some of that destruction? To preserve at least some of what makes this place so singular and precious?

Spring Bloom is a work of both inspiring imagination and deep compassion – things that seem to be in dangerously short supply right now. Do yourself a favor and check it out.

Two Bass Hit: Bass, double bass, and cello (two playlists)

So, I recently posted on Twitter that in these self-quarantining times, I’d been listening to a lot of solo bass, double bass, and cello and really enjoying the variety of melodies, rhythms, and textures I was discovering. A friend innocently suggested that I put together a Spotify playlist and that was all it took.

Here are two playlists (though they’re not strictly solo works). Enjoy and stay safe.

Richard Chartier – Variable Dimensions – This Is What Ontology Sounds Like!

“Vertiginous proximity prevents us both from apprehending ourselves as a pure intellect separate from things and from defining things as pure objects lacking in all human attributes.”

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, from The World of Perception

It’s been my experience when listening to Richard Chartier’s work (I’ve written about him before) that I’m always pushed to reflect on not only what I’m listening to but what I am as a listening and interpreting being in relation to the work. Chartier’s latest, Variable Dimensions, continues and expands this reckoning.

From my first encounter on through repeated listens, I’ve felt it in my head before I was aware of hearing it. Variable Dimensions comes in surreptitiously, as if a kind of granulated pressure is being poured into my skull, and as it’s pouring in and rising, I become aware of a high ringing tone, and then a distant, buried pulse. But nothing settles. It all continues to subtly shift and ebb and throb and grow. Eventually, as the pressure eases, dissolving into a cloud of static, I become aware that with its cessation, a sense of unease and anxiety that’s been building in me is being leached away. In its place, on a more conscious level, appear unnerving questions about my own vulnerabilities to the simplest sorts of information. And the piece goes on changing from there.

I could have chosen another word, but “goes” suggests movement, which suggests space to move in, neither of which actually applies here. Yet as the title of the work implies, there are dimensions, just mostly of one’s own making.

This is Chartier’s suggestion for approaching Variable Dimensions:

To find words to adequately describe it, please listen to it.

In other words: It is. You are. Figure it out.

This is work that both begs and confounds description. It suggests space without occupying any. It simulates haptic qualities while lacking tactility. As it proceeds through its near hour-long span, I find that it distorts and erases any simplistic conception of time I might have as an ordered, directed progression. A complex and edifying relationship can be established with it, simply through listening. And this is something I find so fascinating and enriching about Variable Dimensions and the rest of Chartier’s work. His mastery of sound sculpting techniques and his willingness to push psychic and temporal boundaries address issues around information and experience in a media-saturated culture. (What is real? What is imagined? How do we know the difference?) For all of the seemingly “chilly,” minimalist trappings, it is “music” that is deeply felt, deeply aware of, and deeply interested in the listener.

It is. You are. Have a listen.

Kamran Sadeghi – Loss Less – Industrial Evolution

Back in 1990, my job used to take me past a building on Sixth Avenue called Americas Tower. Construction had started on it in 1989 and in that same year stopped. As I walked beneath its murky shadow, I used to think of the unfinished building as a gigantic work of art unto itself. What could be more perfect? A symbol of “America,” hulking, generic, and as I discovered years later, nakedly incomplete thanks to lawsuits over shady funding from the Marcos clan. To my disappointment, work resumed in 1991 and the ugly thing was eventually finished and folded into corporate oblivion along with the other unremarkable towers along that stretch of midtown Manhattan.

The idea of that other tower, and the possibility of repurposing whole structures, still lives in my mind…

Over in Satsop, Washington, stands what was intended to be a five-tower nuclear power plant, the largest in the country. Started in 1977, construction came to a halt in 1983, thanks to an enormous budget gap. Two of the hoped-for plant’s enormous cooling towers survived, both nearly 500 feet tall, and with bases 440 feet wide, and from 2004 to 2008, a local organization worked to open them for artistic exploration.

All of which brings me to Loss Less by Kamran Sadeghi.

As artist-in-residence at Satsop in 2008, Sadeghi created a pre-recording – a string of metallic-sounding strikes, varying in attack and pitch, a little over two minutes long – then played it into the space of the unused cooling tower and recorded it, capturing the tower’s unique acoustic response to the recording. (The cover art above is a shot taken from inside the tower.) He then repeated the process with that new recording, capturing the next generation of sound. And so on, and so on, up to ten times through, recording and replaying every amplification and every distortion. What might sound objectively like a dead-end exercise in methodology resulted in something extraordinary.

Unlike Alvin Lucier’s legendary “I am sitting in a room” – a stated point of reference for “Loss Less” – things go askew quickly. By the third time through the cycle, the individual strikes of Sadeghi’s original recording sound as if they’re smothered in clouds of cotton wool. The dormant acoustics of the tower space are fully activated, pulsing and swelling and resonating, yet the source material can still be discerned through the sonic fog. By the fourth round, distortion has firmly taken over, and as you enter the fifth iteration, you’re in another realm altogether. Where Lucier’s piece gradually works its way toward a glowing sort of hum, “Loss Less” hungrily morphs into a howling delirium, a blistering, roaring blast that raised the hairs on my neck and left me flinching with delight. If you’re a fan of Yellow Swans’ mighty Going Places, you need to check this out. 

In the spirit of reiteration, Sadeghi follows up the 25-minute “Loss Less” with a 25-minute rework, combining samples from his source material with various effects over a rumbling drum track that put me in mind of the calming, repetitive sounds of a train. Both pieces effectively conjure sounds of industries – one from what was intended to be the future, the other from the past. Sadeghi deftly slips into that temporal gap, exploring and exploiting the tension between presence and absence, representation and abstraction, site and non-site while drawing out the tower’s unintended yet serendipitous acoustic properties to create something altogether other. “Loss Less” offers caustic bliss in abundance. Be sure to play it loud.

drøne – The Stilling – Shattered Atlas

It makes sense that it starts in medias res, with a welter of traffic noise and an amplified voice in the distance singing indistinctly. Up close you can make out snatches of laughter and echoing crowd sounds, the rumble of panning engines and blatting horns. We’re indoors and outdoors. In a market. At a festival. Or perhaps it’s just another day in the thrumming city. And while one listens, trying to get bearings, a drone slowly builds – a low tone and a high tone in the same key. Something that sounds like a teletype machine kicks in, getting louder as it goes, while under that a static-choked voice mumbles on a radio. Then suddenly we’re in a restaurant, with the random ding of a delivery bell (or a bicycle bell?), a woman’s voice taking orders, perhaps, or chatting with a customer, and the gentle rattle of what sounds like a register drawer. The drone, however, is still there, hovering, menacing.

Then it’s all shredded by an unidentifiable blast and we’re somewhere else entirely.

Welcome to The Stilling, the latest album from drøne, aka Mark Van Hoen and Mike Harding.

The Stilling is a work you submit to. A bricolage of locations and dislocations, moods and moments made from decontextualized field recordings, radio static, and synthesized sounds that stretch and bend and build until they collapse, then rebuild or mutate or disappear altogether. Here and there, a compact string section provides keening emotional counterpoint that contributes to the anxious psychic states that Van Hoen and Harding whip up. As a whole, the effect is disorienting and jarring and altogether mesmerizing.

“Vitula”

I’ve been a follower of Van Hoen’s eclectic output since 1994 when I first heard Weathered Well, an album I still listen to and love. He had a sound that was uniquely his own, but what always grabbed me were his gorgeous melodies. His partner in drøne, Mike Harding, along with Jon Wozencroft, is a founder of the massively influential label Touch, home to forward-thinking, innovative sound artists and musicians, such as Simon Scott, Christian Fennesz, Oren Ambarchi, and Hildur Gudnadottir. Chances are I might not be working on this blog if not for the hundreds of hours I’ve happily spent coming to grips with the music and ideas that Touch has exposed me to.

No single track can do justice to the totality of The Stilling and anything taken out of context runs the risk of misrepresentation. Here’s a little more anyway, to give you a taste:

“The Stilling”

If you’re curious, you can try the whole thing here.

While the title refers to the phenomenon of the generalized stilling of the winds around the world – something that may or may not be happening – I think it might also be referring to the need to retreat, to disengage from the apocalyptic vortex of the media in order to still one’s racing mind and heart.

Or, as the artists themselves put it:

Scream – it’s all you can do now. Overwhelming, scatter-gun information delivery has us confused, bowel churningly fearful and appalled at the nature of the changing times. We are biologically, psychologically and emotionally able to cope with slow evolutionary change, but struggle with revolutionary, violent distortion or mutation. This leaves us anxious and even desperate for a firmer footing. Fight or flight.

Or maybe both. The Stilling is an essay of sorts, a take on the fragility of our species, the fragility of our planet, our home. It’s a short run, around 35 minutes, but it will sweep you up and take you to another world that, curiously enough, is somehow still our own.

Machinefabriek-Stillness Soundtracks II: Future Reference

In 2013, artist and explorer Esther Kokmeijer collaborated with musician and sound artist Rutger Zuydervelt, aka Machinefabriek, on a project called Stillness, a series of short films of landscapes in and around Greenland and Antarctica.

I like Stillness as a multi-media piece, however, I could never manage to connect the music to the footage it was meant to accompany. The soundtrack seemed to float in another dimension, as if it pre-existed and had been chosen after the fact. Kokmeijer’s footage also struck me as perfunctory, as if she’d turned her camera on and just let it record whatever came through her lens in the hope that the extraordinary landscapes would take care of the rest. Beautiful and otherworldly as it was, nothing drew me in or touched me. There was no sense of scale established, no engagement with the terrain. I felt an odd, unexpected distance, a kind of torpor at work that didn’t suggest stillness as much as detachment.

This year Kokmeijer and Zuydervelt have followed up with Stillness: Brash Ice, Pack Ice, Growlers, Bergy Bits and Icebergs. The unwieldy title doubles as a glossary of terms for arctic ice. (In case you were wondering, a growler is smaller than a bergy bit, but you can look it all up here.)

Nothing prepared me for this new work. Kokmeijer’s footage is eerie, astonishing, and horripilating – active and fully engaged – and Zuydervelt’s music is right in sync with it. I’ve been listening to this for days now and loving it, reveling in its depths and textures, losing myself in the speculative soundscapes it conjures for me. And when I need grounding, I pore over the booklet of moody, mystifying, emotive images that comes with the download.

Stillness #6, Lemaire Channel, Anatarctica

As I’ve been looking and listening, I’ve also been reading. On February 13th, 2020, the temperature at Seymour Island, Antarctica, was 20 degrees Celsius, or 68 degrees. One week prior to that, a temperature of 64.9 degrees was recorded at Esperanza Island, Antarctica. Elsewhere, it’s been pointed out that January of this year was the hottest January on record for the planet. All of which has added a poignant new element to my experience of this work. Icebergs and arctic regions are melting down. Will they disappear? And if they do, are we prepared to face what comes next?

With Stillness II, Kokmeijer and Zuydervelt have opened a portal to a part of the world that most people will never get to but that everyone will be affected by as it disappears. Step through and look around. And if you find yourself at some point in the future trying to describe what ice was like to someone who’s never seen or felt it, Stillness II might be the place to start.

Nathan Salsburg’s “Third”: Both New and Inevitable

I have to confess: I have a soft spot for solo acoustic guitar. Not that I’m embarrassed about that exactly. It’s more that hearing it can still stir up my untested teen dreams of being that guy, the one who can pick up and play the guitar flawlessly, with silent reserve and perfect hair, as if his (my!) talent weren’t the result of thousands of hours of patience and practice but simply the purest expression of my deep and mysterious soul. This probably explains why I don’t play any instruments at all.

There’s something different, though, about Nathan Salsburg’s music – the piercingly sweet melodies that sound both new and inevitable, or the nimble command of his playing, or the balance he strikes in his music between virtuosity and feeling. Whatever it is, all I know is that his album Third, released in 2018, revives all of my foolish musicianship fantasies and lays them to rest at the same time.

There’s not a dud on the record, nothing that’s ever less than thoughtful or moving or surprising. There’s also a quality of timelessness, as if the freshness of songwriting – the exploration of what a new song might be, discovered in the moments of just playing around, as I imagine it – has been preserved in the recording process. Favorites are nearly impossible to pick, but if pressed, I’d have to say that “B.B.” (the “chorus” puts me in mind of some of Joni Mitchell’s playing on Ladies of the Canyon), “Ruby’s Freilach/Low Spirits,” and “Walls of the World” always make me pause in whatever I’m doing and dig in. But “Timoney’s” and “Impossible Air” and “Exilic Excursions” do the same thing too. All are graced with lovely melodies expressed in fluid, intricate fingerwork. In fact, there’s great sweetness throughout the whole album yet Salsburg deftly avoids slipping into sentimentality or nostalgia for its own sake. He mines many traditions yet never becomes mired in any of them.

I’ve been listening to this album steadily for months now and have yet to grow tired of it. It really is kind of shocking to me how good and deep and satisfying it is.

B.B. – Nathan Salsburg

Third is – no spoiler here – Salsburg’s third album, and I also strongly recommend his first two: Affirmed (named after the horse that won the Triple Crown in 1978) from 2011, and 2013’s Hard For to Win And Can’t Be Won, a title that could’ve come from Samuel Beckett if he’d been born your grim southern grandpa. Salsburg has also recorded two captivating albums with James Elkington, Avos (available on iTunes) and Ambsace. Not surprisingly, both are on a par with his solo work. Check out their rendition of Duke Ellington’s “Fleurette Africaine” from Ambsace. It is heart-stopping.

Fleurette Africaine – Nathan Salsburg & James Elkington

Salsburg has a dayjob as a curator at the Alan Lomax Archive at the Association for Cultural Equity. I mention that because it takes me back to ideas of exposure and influence. For all of the various DNA strands in Salsburg’s music that inform and shape his sound – some British folk here, some “American Primitive” there, the foundational bedrock of American blues and jazz underpinning it all – the end result is still unique. He’s got his own thing; no small feat.

So yeah, I love this guy. As for those daydreams about being that guy, it’s enough for me to simply love this music without having to measure any version of myself, real or imaginary, against it. Only took me most of my life to get there, but better late than never.