In the spring of 2016 Stephan Mathieu announced an ambitious new project: one release per month for twelve months, funded by a crowdfunding campaign and available as either downloads or CDs in a fancy box set. As is often the way with these things, there were occasional hiccups with the scheduling, but the final part of “RADIANCE” dropped last month. I’m not going to comment here on the economic merits for artists of crowdfunding or subscription series — a discussion with Mathieu on the ins and outs of it can be found here — but from a listener and reviewer’s point of view it certainly shook things up. I generally listen to an album on heavy rotation for long enough to be able to write a review of it, after which it tends to give way to the next release in the queue. “RADIANCE”, on the other hand, was a case of getting to know a work over a much longer period of time: the difference was comparable to visiting an exhibition for an afternoon versus having the paintings permanently hung in your home, becoming part of the décor.
The twelve parts of the project are stylistically and thematically diverse, and include collaborations (with Peter Söderberg and Frances Jobin), commissioned pieces, and tributes to composers, poets, and Renaissance thinkers. Whether they are best thought of as integrated facets of a single work or as a collection of loosely related works is not clear. However, there are a number of themes shared by some or all of the pieces that I want to mention here.
The music of Stephan Mathieu sounds both old and new at the same time. This assertion will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with his work, even pre-“RADIANCE”. It is sometimes partly to do with choice of instrumentation, whether it be the use of Renaissance instruments (“Alap for Steel Needle, Record and Theorbe”, “Process”) or old mechanical-acoustic gramophones (ditto, plus “Black Square For Robert Fludd”). Sometimes it also involves the sampling and manipulation of recordings of classical music from various eras. But it isn’t just about presenting obvious signifiers of ‘the past’. Sometimes the music itself sounds timbrally aged and degraded, as if it had recently been rediscovered in the vaults of a museum, while at the same time being totally contemporary in its approach to form and structure. Speaking of structure, the use of extended duration and repetition no doubt plays into this impression of time both extended and suspended.[bandcamp width=100% height=120 album=1978845765 size=large bgcol=ffffff linkcol=0687f5 tracklist=false artwork=small track=2677144235]
Impossibly old, but also obviously contemporary: you could call it timeless, but that wouldn’t be right, because it is clearly in time, while traversing long measures of it. The closest thing to compare it to would be looking through a very powerful telescope, receiving light that is unfathomably ancient, yet it hits your eye now, in this moment, and seems to offer the key to great mysteries yet to be revealed. This metaphor points to the relation between time and space, but the usual spatial adjectives used to describe traditional ambient music — ‘vast’, ‘expansive’, etc. — don’t really seem appropriate when describing Mathieu’s work. Of course, he doesn’t make traditional ambient music, even if he draws on some aspects of that aesthetic. His is a music that privileges time over space, much like late work by the dedicatee of part IX, Morton Feldman.
Liminality is the state of being between or at the threshold of things. It is also used in anthropology to refer to the state or quality of ambiguity which exists in the middle stage of certain events or rituals, during which the participating individual or group no longer holds its pre-ritual status but has not yet attained the status it will hold when the ritual has been completed. In music, it could refer to the state between tonality and atonality, obscurity and clarity, randomness and regularity, and so on.
The most obvious example of liminality in “RADIANCE” is “Black Square For Robert Fludd”, a 40-minute piece for mechanical-acoustic gramophones, 78 rpm records and equalizer. Here, change happens at the threshold of perception: in other words, so gradually and subtly that it is hard to perceive it or even be certain that it is happening. The track ‘he wrote,’, from “For Franz Wright”, features a bed of noise that is not quite tonal and not quite atonal, hovering ambiguously between clarity and obscurity like an unsettling dream that almost makes sense.
At their root, the related words ‘liminal’, ‘liminality’, and ‘limen’ suggest not only a threshold, but also a relationship to light, bringing to mind the image of a stone doorway seen from indoors through which Mediterranean sunlight pours. From there it’s a short conceptual hop to the almost-becoming of perception, the almost-arrival of knowledge, to the mystical and the ecstatic.[bandcamp width=100% height=120 album=1908696171 size=large bgcol=ffffff linkcol=0687f5 tracklist=false artwork=small track=358424098]
The third theme I discern linking several parts of “RADIANCE” is alchemy. This term denotes the age-old search for either a cure for death, or a way of turning more common substances into gold. More generally, it refers to the indistinguishability, in the early days of its emergence, of science from magic and the occult; it represents the irrationality and desire of the Enlightenment. Robert Fludd, the dedicatee of part III “Black Square”, was a believer in alchemy, and frequently debated with astronomer and astrologer Johannes Kepler, the inspiration and namesake behind part VI.
While from many perspectives Mathieu’s music may not seem to have to much to do with alchemy, from others it is everywhere: sounding in radio waves plucked from the ether, in the vibrating of metals by unseen magnetic forces, in the forgotten knowledge unearthed from antique recordings on obsolete media, and in musical structures that follow their own peculiar logic, accepting and denying scientific facts as required. Mathieu doesn’t just plunder aspects of Renaissance art and thought for presentation in a contemporary context; the depth of his engagement with this period of European history is such that he seems to think like a Renaissance thinker, his way of perceiving, his attitude and countenance, mirroring theirs.[bandcamp width=100% height=120 album=2507134036 size=large bgcol=ffffff linkcol=0687f5 tracklist=false artwork=small track=869976076]
It would be crass to make some metaphor in which musical materials were transmuted into gold, but “RADIANCE” is indeed a rich store of invention, illumination, and beauty. It’s a fantastic achievement, and certainly worth the not-inconsiderable time investment required to delve into and absorb its various subtleties. Not that this should be thought of, in the age of Netflix and TV box sets, as advocacy for an equivalent ‘binge listening’. One part per month should be about right.
Image by Cara Mikalef for Cabina