Good news: another album of music by Marianne Schuppe has arrived! The Basel-based singer and composer’s previous collection “slow songs” remains a favourite of mine three years after its release, and the title of her new record, “nosongs”, suggests an even more reduced approach to the song form. Will she be able to uncover even greater riches in the spaces between silence, voice, and uber-bowed lute, or will it prove to be a case of a reduction too far? In what ways can ‘slow songs’ become ‘nosongs’, anyway? Is a ‘nosong’ the same thing as no song?
For me, one of the tendencies of “slow songs” that finds even fuller expression on the new album is the radical deconstruction or reconfiguration of melody. It is easy to think of melody as a continuous thread, a teleological drive from point A to point B that can easily be traced and recalled in the mind of the listener. Such threads are hard to discern in “slow songs”, and the task is even harder in its follow-up, like trying to track footprints when snowfall and snowdrift have partially obscured them. Rather than running from point to point, Schuppe’s melodies often seem to circle; this is not just a matter of repetition (though this does occur); rather, there is a succession of shapes that seem similar and related, without being identical, in the manner of the crests of a mountain range. The frequent returns to silence underscore this deconstruction; melodic phrases are discontinuous in time, but grouped together in a silent landscape by virtue of a formal kinship. This approach to melody decentres and destabilises the singer: that figure who is so often front and centre of the picture, a reliable guide along a continuous melodic path, now appears only in fleeting glimpses and partial views.
Schuppe’s biography describes her as being interested in the voice’s ability to move between pure sound and words, and this interest is very much evident in “nosongs”. Diction, duration, timbre, and mouth shape are all variables she plays with. Often, every vowel and consonant is clearly and precisely articulated, sometimes even to the detriment of the intelligibility of the word; at other times, a word or vowel sound dissolves into an illiterate hum, melding with the soft, resonating uber-bowed lute. The lyrics, as far as I can discern them, seem as deconstructed as the melodies that carry them: images flash with dazzling clarity, but linking them together into sentences, ideas, or narratives is fraught with uncertainty. Six fingers, tiny raccoons, snow, sidewalks, forgetfulness, arrest: sequences found in the landscape of some other game.
Given such a radical re-weighing of all the traditional ingredients of a song, what allows these ‘nosongs’ to still be called songs? Perhaps it is the presence of Schuppe herself, which, refracted and sometimes elusive as it is, remains tangible, in the silences as much as the sounds. “nosongs” takes the ideas and qualities of Schuppe’s previous work and distils and refines them into an even more potent brew. These most tenuous of songs are also song at its most compelling.
Image by Ute Schendel