“I’d like to write… about the desire that drives you — isn’t it so? — to board a train, to cross the distances staring out of the window, without thought, in jostling clatter.” So says Simona Popescu in her poem ‘Juventus’. Her thought could make an appropriate epigraph for David Evans’ “Suddenly Woken By The Sound Of Stillness”, an album of music made from sounds recorded in 2015 on the Trans-Siberian Railway from Beijing to Moscow. While the acoustic character of far-flung places is often packaged up and sold to Westerners as ethnographic exotica, in this case the details of geographic and cultural location are almost incidental to the inner distances crossed by Evans’ train.
This isn’t to say the album is devoid of markers of place: there are station tannoy announcements in various languages, murmurings of voices in the same, faint traces of music in contrasting Chinese and Eurasian styles, and so on. There are also vague mechanical sounds that I found difficult to identify, such as the creaking and dragging in the opening track ‘Beijing to Ulaanbaatar’, or the deep muffled roar heard in ‘Ulaanbaatar to Irkutsk’, as if the train was temporarily travelling underwater (or perhaps through a long tunnel?). Later in the same piece, there’s a strange shifting sound, like waves rapidly breaking or a hand being drawn through water.
The majority of what is heard, however, consists of the train quietly rumbling and clunking rhythmically over the tracks, and the resonance of the air as it is displaced by the moving vehicle. This occurs at different pitches and timbres, which as Evans explains link to the speed of the train, “drawing a different line of sound depending on whether it was on a straight path or moving around a bend, slowing down, taking off or speeding up.” Rumblings of different pitches are usually separated by pauses, suggesting intervals of sleep on the multi-day journey, and pointing back to the album’s title.
The result is a hypnotic, meditative experience. The music seemingly documents a state of mind induced by the train journey, empty and “without thought”, rather than seeking to objectively record the train itself or present its sounds in a sort of acousmatic way. An impression of solitude, of being alone in foreign countries, is conveyed by the quietness and almost complete absence of voices and the sounds of human activity. All is consumed by the repetitive clatter of the train, which then itself withdraws. For the last couple of minutes of the album an ambient chord is introduced, laced with male choral singing, as if announcing a transportation to some transcendental plane perhaps a little too obviously; I’m not sure whether it’s needed, given how powerfully the rest of “Suddenly Woken By The Sound Of Stillness” communicates and facilitates the crossing of interior spaces, propelled by desire.