The Flower and the Vessel was created while Felicia Atkinson was pregnant and on tour. The flower is representative of her unborn baby and her inner blossoming, while the vessel – her body – experiences radical change. The womb is both a protective carrier and a prison of flesh.
Her music evokes and concentrates on the delicate relationship between the micro and the macro, and how they interweave with one another in a constant state of universal, active engagement. The dividing line separating a baby from its eventual destination – a thin wall of skin, muscle, and bone the only border between a mother’s womb and the world – is skeletal and no wider than the barrier between the minimal and a more expansive world of sound.
Borders are blurred in birth as well as in music; they share the common theme of creation.
As well as being a journey into motherhood, The Flower and the Vessel is also an exercise in ASMR: she reassures with her soothing words and her voice is a pleasant lullaby, capable of sending babies to sleep. Strange and surreal sounds accompany her softer melodies, transcribing her morning sickness and her queasy worries over a 9-month stretch.
The Flower and the Vessel is a record of deep connection and deep love, a prayer for protection and comfort against alienation and an unknown future, mother and babe engaged in a constant communion, sharing space, sharing air, even before first contact. Contrasting the physical intimacy of pregnancy and motherhood are the strange locations in which she experienced it: in impersonal, sterile hotel rooms and foreign cities. Through her music, she forms a significant connection with her unborn child as well as cities of unknown geography, the foreign made close and personal, shedding light where once there was doubt and confusion.
Atkinson describes this as ‘…a record not about being pregnant but a record made with pregnancy’. You could even think of it as a collaboration. The Flower and the Vessel is a complex and dense album, gentle and determined in its melodic phrasing, its electronic sequencing, and its background layering. A higher pitch, like a child’s voice, is in communion with the music, sometimes staying behind her mother on the slightly creepy ‘You Have To Have Eyes’, and she’s always ready to imitate her mother’s words. It’s how she learns to speak, slowly forming an understanding as to the melody of words and the rhythm of their pronunciation. Music is a language, and Atkinson is a fluent speaker.
The recording of birds, voice, and ambient melody are all echoes of creation, attempts to make sense of her place in the world at an exciting and stressful time, making a connection between herself, the change within her body, and those unfamiliar places. She meets them head-on.
As a musician, poet, ASMR artist, and head of the Shelter Press record label, Atkinson is one of the leading lights in contemporary experimental music. On this collection, Atkinson cites three French classical compositions from her childhood as influences – Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges (a scary opera for children), Debussy’s La Mer (for its uniting of narration and music), and Satie’s Gymnopédies (an exercise in negative space, irony without cynicism, and melody with doubt). You can find and hear all of these things in this stunning record. Her music has more of a vacant quality, a mirage of mirrors and surreal situations. There is a time of waiting, of pregnant (pardon the pun) pause. There’s an elemental and more expansive quality, too. Her music, like the landmarks and the sleek contours of the body, is a substantial being, where the quietest acts and tones ripple outward in unforeseen ways.
Instrumentally, Atkinson goes further than ever before. It’s bold and exceptionally creative; gamelan patterns, taken from the software on her iPad, chiming frequencies, and the wider sounds of birdsong and voice all help to create a real, living world, albeit one with plenty of sparsity and silence; a walk in the wilderness. Some of the notes act like stepping stones, going from one stage of pregnancy to the next, advancing in her own period of waiting, of nurturing, of growing. Atkinson was also inspired by ‘women who wonder, dream, and create vacant spaces in their art’, and also by Ikebana flower arrangements, which, she says, reflect her own relationship with listening – ‘structure combined with everyday noises, selecting them to make a sparse music bouquet’. Her field recordings come from all over the world, ranging from Tasmania to the Mojave Desert. A gong, a vibraphone, and a marimba are interwoven with delicacy into a still and sometimes eerie space, encompassing different continents.
Closing the album, ‘Des Pierres’ is a 19-minute collaboration with Stephen O’Malley, guitarist in SUNN O))). One of the few pieces tracked in a proper studio, tight knots of feedback squeeze against the space. Her voice constricts and swirls in the air, avoiding the prickly snare of a holly-speckled overdrive. The guitar rides the accompanying ambient atmosphere with sensitivity, its waves undulating, its frequencies contained in a snarl rather than a full-on blast. Intensity doesn’t come from an increase of volume. It’s more than that. Sometimes, the quietest piece of music can deliver the greatest emotive strike. There aren’t any cryptic puzzles here, but the music has an equivocal nature, as open as a mother’s arms when receiving her child for the first time.