Eilean Records is ploughing ahead with “Uji”, by Colombia’s Miguel Isaza, which takes the label’s tally to eight albums from five countries in about five months. It’s an impressive schedule for a new label, but then they do have a projected 100 albums to get through. Isaza continues the project of imaginary mapping (each new release on the label corresponds to a point on a fictional map) in a fairly recognisable style – there are field recordings, deep textural drones, all the hallmarks of conventional ambient soundscaping.
While this could easily be taken as a criticism, Isaza’s music (which I confess to never having come across before, despite a large number of releases on his Bandcamp site and his co-curation of the ÉTER net label) is so deft that its frequent reliance on tropes rarely seems to matter. Opener ‘El Monte Suspendido’ begins with – what else? – the sound of chattering birds, soon joined by soft, tinkling instrumentation which, while not exactly mimicking the birdsong, accompanies it tastefully. ‘Sueños del Templo’, fortunately, dissolves things into a far murkier, abstract mass. Discordant bundles of high tones, thrumming lower drones, ominously quiet, and fewer recognisable field recordings combine to create a feeling of threat, of uncertainty. One of the piece’s clearer sounds is the shuffling of some metallic equipment; what it is exactly is unclear, but there is a sense of movement to the sound, a sense that it is a reaction to something just out of shot of the microphone.
Isaza is at his best when creating soundscapes like this, that come with a shadow of the unknown, a little discord, and the attendant thrill of that – to the average listener, there is no thrill in the sound of birdsong. It’s intensely subjective, manipulating the field recordings as part of music that doesn’t entirely rely on them, twisting them to the whims of the musician and their effects on the listener, rather than aiming for any false, hollow objectivity, as the opening piece threatens to do. Interestingly, bird calls reappear on ‘Trozos de la Luna’, but rather than being left to their own devices they are shrunken and minimalised, merged into the static of the drone in a much more affecting way, closing the gap between natural and electronic. “Uji” continues largely in this vein – ‘Canto para una nube’ is even quieter, evoking the isolationist ambient of Thomas Köner or Enrico Coniglio and some of his fellow Italian sound artists.
The exception is closing track, ‘No Nacido’. Here Isaza peels back the broader, weirder layers to reveal found sounds less obviously tampered with, in this case more animal calls (possibly monkeys, although they could be birds again, or, frankly, something else, given my lack of wildlife expertise). However, this time they seem to be duetting with a series of clicks and crackles that could easily be coming from the recording, the recording equipment, or indeed have been added in the studio. It’s a neat marriage of form and content, and Isaza wisely adds little else to it – a couple of lingering notes here, a bit of feedback there. Stripping back the music to reveal more of the source material and to lighten the atmosphere makes a satisfying conclusion to the album.
“Uji” takes its title from a Zen concept of everything as individual moments in time, suspended in impermanence. There’s certainly a feeling of impermanence on the album, central to its threat and thrill, as if at any minute it might all just fade away. It’s rather less calm about this than might be the Zen intention however, usually evoking fear and uncertainty more than contemplative suspension. That suspension is an interesting presence in “Uji” though. The field recordings might be seen as suspended moments of time, surrounded by drones. And, indeed, there is no chronological or causal progression to be discerned, and, as the Zen theory posits, their relationships with other moments is more of a dialogue or an intermingling – see the duet of ‘No Nacido’ or the manipulated birds of ‘Trozos de la Luna’. Isaza’s music, however, feels more grounded. It plays with these ideas, following suspension and transition up to a point (much of the music, whether from electronic, field recording, or standard instrumental sources, is manipulated and tangled into very abstract forms) but it never becomes entirely meditative or entirely abstracted. It is always aware of a shakier dimension to its dialogue between moments, between natural and man-made, recorded and recordist; it remains rooted in a more uncertain reality.
This rootedness is, coincidentally, one of the things linking it to its label predecessors, grounding the album not just in a general way, but to a specific point on the Eilean map. It’s difficult to tell much about this point just from looking (that’s what the music is for really), but it’s tempting to imagine a high altitude to match the Colombian Andes – close to the sea, a fjord-like inlet perhaps, surrounded by mountainous terrain. Truth be told, “Uji” doesn’t wear its nationality on its sleeve. Isaza is more subtle than that. Although one of the primary instruments on the album is charango, a small Andean folk instrument like a lute, it is usually so manipulated as to be unrecognisable. Equally the field recordings are not furiously specific, apart from perhaps those of the first and last tracks.
Nevertheless, the album has a rural feel thanks to its found sounds, and a thin, quiet atmosphere that could easily suggest mountains. Anyway, it’s more than enough for the album to slip comfortably into its place in the imaginary cartography, which, after all, musician and listener are welcome to imagine entirely for themselves.
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