The Blizzard That Birthed Her
When the recording studio became an instrument and not just a place to capture a musical performance – maybe in the early 60s’ – the shape of music, both as a practice and as an object, changed forever. This didn’t happened in a vacuum and the experimental works of electronic pioneers in the 40’s and 50’s, in particular Pierre Schaeffer and his musique concrète or John Cage and his piece Imaginary Landscape No 1 for four turntables, were most certainly seminal points in the development of a different approach to modern music, but it’s really the development of commercial tape recorders, famously used by the Beatles in 1966 on the album Revolver, that allowed the studio to become a place to experiment with audio as a raw musical source and more importantly to do so in the realm of popular music. Brian Eno came later with the concept of studio-as-compositional-tool which he furthered throughout his career and redefined as a way to create and continuously rework music. It’s also in the late 60’s that people like King Tubby and Lee Scratch Perry used the studio to directly manipulate and re-contextualize existing pieces of music and created what would later been known as dub which was somehow an early form of remix.
The remix cultures really took shape in the 70’s with dub and disco, especially in the hands of Dj Kool Herc and Grand Master Flash. In the mid-eighties when house music first emerged, the concept of remixing took a brand new meaning concomitant with the apparition of the sampler which allowed to combine in a single piece of music and its infinite variants virtually any form of recorded sound and to do so in near real time, so effectively the recording studio, often reduced to a few machines in a bedroom, became an ubiquitous way to approach music making. Fast forward to modern days, the sampler has now been replaced by the laptop and all sorts of flatter derivatives, but it’s important to always remember that electronic music in its most general definition has its roots within those seminal years of experimentation both in concept and in practice. Remixes or a re-works as we know them today are often re-interpretations of existing materials and they provide an opportunity for the composer to pass a piece through a reflective prism so its elemental components can be isolated and re-arranged into new narratives. In effect a remix is both an homage and a work of destruction and reconstruction to potentially uncover new meanings and new possibilities implied in the very seeds it originates from. Many artists have released remix albums to mixed (no pun intended) results. If we exclude the domain of club music where remix EPs and albums have a particular use outside the scope of this discussion, it’s a very fine art to make this type of record work in a cohesive and meaningful way.
The label Facture started its existence in 2011 and released at the time a wonderful album solely made of reworks of Hummingbird’s record Our Fearful Symmetry. In the liner notes that accompanied the album at the time, the label’s curators made a very interesting point that is still very valid today: “It has been remarked that our culture USED to be a reflective one. If someone needed to make an important decision, they would take time over it.” This statement resonates strongly with the importance of reworking music, how you can utilize the studio often reduced to a laptop, so one can reflect once again on the meaning of a piece of music and come back to it with fresh eyes/ears to explore alternative possibilities implied in its birthing. The new release on Facture, The Blizzard That Birthed Her, is another attempt to reflect on music and expose to the audience how one can always rework existing music and expand its reach towards unforeseen territories.
In the aftermath of his album The Book Of The Folded Forest released on Home Normal last August, Orla Wren found himself with a couple of tracks that he thought didn’t really belong to the record for which they had originally been composed, namely Five Acre Ladder and Mountains & Wishbones. He subsequently approached the label Facture to possibly release them as a 2-track 7” vinyl. One thing leading to the next, he was asked to add two new tracks so that could make up for a 10” vinyl instead. With the help of his friend Aaron Martin who provided cello parts improvised on top of the tail ends of both tracks combined and looped, new parts were produced so Orla Wren could re-arrange the material into new compositions and end up with the necessary four tracks. After further discussions with the label, the idea was to also release a companion CD made of eight tracks, so the process was repeated, this time with Isnaj Dui who improvised flute parts to make two new tracks and finally two reprise versions were created. So in essence, remains on both the 10” version or the accompanying CD the idea of an A and B side with clearly delineated contours circling around the initial compositions, but exploring vast compositional landscapes and taking the two original pieces into completely new territories.
The very first track Five Acre Ladder opens the record in a rather sombre mood, a choir in the distance just about pierces through a opaque veil obscuring the view but as it comes closer and reveals itself more fully amid a cloud of distortion before disappearing in the low tones of a dark procession, one discerns themes of loss and mournfulness. The narrative doesn’t offer much hope, it’s not bleak but quite dark. Through the process of re-working it with Aaron Martin, the piece becomes more pastoral, cello loops slowly ebbing and flowing on the surface of gentle fuzzed-out contoured lines as processed field recordings of birds give the track a re-assuring feel and towards the end hummed vocals anchors it within a more fragile realm. Isnaj Dui’s flute dissolves the emotional heft of the original track into calmer and more centered territories while the reprise version has a more spectral feel, looped vocals hovering over darker tones and intertwined cello and flute motifs. In Mountain & Wishbones, Orla Wren explores more rhythmical and dynamic contours to start with but the piece slowly settles down and in the process gets a more melancholic veil. It’s interesting to hear how the re-work versions are somehow heavier and more emotionally detailed, both the cello and the flute bringing their own aura to the original piece. The reprise is perhaps more contrasted as the darker tones of the opening section are slowly replaced by disembodied cello motifs while the track seems to slowly evaporate in the ether of its own programmed disappearance.
True to a long tradition of music entirely composed in the studio with tape machines and their modern equivalents, Orla Wren manages to develop and re-work two ideas into much larger bodies of work and to do so in very interesting way. Each track, rooted in well defined moods and atmospheres, are de-territorialized through process and association with fellow musicians, and later re-territorialized with new fields, so alternative possibilities can be explored to expand the emotional reach of each piece. In doing so, Orla Wren gives a bigger contour to its original work but knows how to keep a very cohesive feel to the whole record (either taken as a 10” vinyl or a CD) so it spreads out like a dense rhizome of delineated emotions strongly rooted in the fragility of its own birth.
A few remaining copies are available on the Orla Wren Bandcamp page