This summer has been a pretty hot one here in the UK, which has required keeping the windows open. The music playing through the loudspeakers melds with the shouts and shrieks of the neighbourhood children, the roar and rattle of combustion engines, and the general clamour and hum of the inner city. For some music, this contamination or cross-pollination of the acoustic space can stand in the way of enjoyment; other music can actually be enhanced by it. My experience this summer is that Sergio Merce’s “three dimensions of the spirit” falls into the latter category.
Unlike Merce’s previous Edition Wandelweiser effort “be nothing”, “three dimensions of the spirit” eschews electronic treatments to focus solely on the Argentinian’s main instrument, the saxophone. Not your average saxophone, however: the first piece uses a prepared tenor sax to produce long, soft, breathy tones, thrumming and squeaking, extended through circular breathing. The second and third pieces go even further, featuring a heavily modified ‘microtonal’ saxophone (see picture above) that allows for adjustable tuning, microtones, polyphony, and sustain. This allows for the creation of more multi-layered music without the need for multitracking. Second piece ‘the same morning’ is shifting and unstable in pitch, and the harmonies are quite dissonant, though the soft volume makes them come across as dreamlike or disoriented rather than abrasive. The final, much longer piece ‘ondular de la espera’ uses tones that are ever-so-slightly out of tune to produce rapid beating, and focuses on creating dense layers of sound, becoming quite intense for the final ten or fifteen minutes despite the exclusive use of long held pitches.
I enjoyed “three dimensions of the spirit” when it was the focus of close listening, and I also enjoyed it when it was pushed into the background by the noise coming through the open window. Both Merce’s music and the etymology of the word ‘spirit’ are closely related to the act and concept of breathing, which holds powerful sway over our physical and mental state whether we are consciously aware of it or not. It’s fitting therefore that this album works as well as ambience as it does when it is the focus of sustained concentration; on some listenings, it was the times when I wasn’t consciously noticing it that the music had the strongest effect.