CXVI is a quiet episode, a lengthy pause away from the cacophony of noise pollution. Years in the making, the record features collaborations from the likes of Harold Budd, Ben Frost, Biosphere (Geir Jenssen), Kassel Jaeger, and Stephan Mathieu. Hollywood-based composer Akira Rabelais delivers a challenging album, and perhaps a defining one – not so much because of the list of contributors but rather because of the meticulous study involved. He demonstrates dedication and a deep desire to push himself and his techniques into unexplored realms. Incorporating shoegaze, the sensitive aesthetics of ASMR, the studious area of textural sound design, and classical elements from centuries past, Rabelais produces an outstanding record that has at its heart a quiet intensity.
In the midst of fluttering electronics, sparse piano notes lie isolated, cut off from one another, and with no accessible way to reach each other. Imperceptible changes in phrasing occur along the way, eventually slowing down to the point where several seconds pass by without any activity. Only silence. That silence flows into the listener, producing a deep calm. Its long stretches and elongated pauses help in unravelling a shush like that of Basinski’s The Garden of Brokenness.
Later on, Mélanie Skriabine reads from Max Ernst’s ‘la femme 100 têtes’, a delicate exercise in ASMR that poetically glides along, the French rolling off the tongue and producing music in its reading. It’s refreshing to hear such a quiet and restrained approach that is nonetheless alive and free. The mysterious music walks through old grounds and passes through ancient mausoleums; Skriabine’s voice is like an offshoot of ivy, covering the wrinkled stone of a thin, barely-traceable melody. Her voice, along with a lowering of the volume and a conversational tone, like that of being on the phone late at night, speaking in soothing whispers, creates a deep intimacy between herself and the listener. No one else is here, and that adds to the general feeling of isolation. While isolation can be unwanted and frightening, the music doesn’t seem to be afraid despite succumbing to a process of continuous fading; it’s drifting, becoming ever more distant by the second.
Karen Vogt’s plainsong segues into a long and frozen drone (‘within bending sickles compass come’), with Akira’s sustained, glistening notes perpetually ringing out through an icy cavern, dripping eternally. The coda, ‘if error and upon me proved’, cuts up the piano’s tone with a pervasive, flickering distortion, as harsh as a whip. The invasive presence stalks and then settles over a mysterious, almost-celestial drone, becoming the dominant force in the music…but it never completely overrides a billowing, ethereal atmosphere. The whispering voice that follows takes place as if in a fugue…or a nightmare.
CXVI is a refined album – and one would expect that, given the length of its production – but the highly detailed nature of the work never obscures the music; one can feel the efforts involved, but the music always slides along smoothly. The result is one of the most impressive ‘quiet’ albums of the decade.