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Simon Wickham-Smith - Love & Lamentation ::

Simon Wickham-Smith - Love & LamentationIt must have been quite some years since I last heard music by Simon Wickham-Smith, but there was a time when I played it a lot, especially the various albums he recorded with Richard Youngs. But I guess that's how things go. Interest shifts I assume. To be honest, again, I have no idea when I left off, or why. But its good, as well as strange perhaps to see him back on Pogus Productions. On the cover I read that 'not satisfied with making music, he has also been a Buddhist monk in the Tibetan tradition, and is also a translator and scholar of Mongolian and Tibetan literature. Maybe that's why there hasn't been much of his music in recent years. Its not easy to describe the music of Wickham-Smith, both from how it was made and how it sounds. Perhaps he uses a computer to alter his sounds, but I tend to believe that's only in the final stage of the process. I envisage his music as generated with lo-fi means: worn out cassettes, cheap samplers, reel-to-reel tape loops. There are three pieces on this album, all of which seem to be dealing with voices, altered and otherwise. Wickham-Smith takes these, makes loops out of them and crafts a minimalist changing pattern with them. Through the various techniques, which I hope to be lo-fi as outlined before, the sounds are a bit hissy, static, crumbled, warped, folded and of a lower resolution. Chanting like in 'Sandokai' or the three parts of the title piece, or more poetry spoken word in 'The Kin-Kindness Of Beforehand', this is all excellent stuff, bringing back the good memories of his older work (which, if Vital Weekly wouldn't consume so much of my ear-time, I would grab out and play again). Wickham-Smith's music is like an anthropologic quest for voices connected of rituals, all over the world, from Tibet to Egypt, but he manages to give things a twist of his own, while maintaining a zen-like character to them. Great one. (FdW), Vital Weekly

Born in 1968, Simon Wickham-Smith is quite an interesting figure. Graduated in English literature, he widened a keenness for recording strange ideas after meeting Richard Youngs, with whom a strong and friendly connection - alimented by their swap of sonic experiences - was developed. If that weren't enough, he's been a Buddhist monk in the Tibetan tradition and still acts as a translator and scholar of Mongolian and Tibetan literature. The tracks comprised by "Love & Lamentation" do possess spiritual features and hallowed tinges, yet they're also distinguished by what often appears like a wry sense of humour - which is not bad at all, especially in consideration of what the composer himself writes about his own liking/disliking of parts of the work. "Sandokai" is the mangling of a tape containing a recital of prayers given to Wickam-Smith by a nun years ago, the chants so deeply disfigured that the originals aren't identifiable anymore, looping and pitch transposing at the basis of the procedure. "The Kin-kindness of Beforehand" is the result of a teamwork with poet Rachel Becker, her self-recited verses subjected to a distorting treatment for which the woman's voice is rendered in dozens of different accents and tones, including a hard-to-believe conversion in a baby girl. The three-part title track revolves around the tone of Turkish singer Asik Veysel Sirsoglu, which - mixed with seamed samples of psalm singing of the Scottish Isle of Lewis - generates a chain of entrancing matters whose substance is pretty much gripping, if a little too long-lasting. This doesn't detract from a brilliant, ever fresh-sounding release. - Massimo Ricci, Touching Extremes

With a degree in English literature at King's College in London, Simon Wickham-Smith is certainly not concocting. In his album's title he places a fairly explicit reference to the "lamentation" genre, a literary and musical style in vogue between the fourteenth and the sixteenth century, mainly in Europe, which in turn borrowed from Greek tragedy and famous antecedents in the Bible. In the form - in fact - of a melting prayer, "Sandokai (The Harmony Of Difference And Equality)" is based on a tape given to the author by a nun, at a zen devotional ceremony. The texts, written and recited by the American poet Rachel Becker, are subject to minimal digital manipulation."The Kindness Of Kin-Beforehand" brings us ethereal and dark atmospheres, using multiple languages and interpretations. We hear voices of ghosts in unison that appear lost in a vacuum yet remain vibrant as micro-tales. Echoes and minimally dissonant electronic music, harmonious mantra and orientalizing influences, which interlace with traditional Scottish psalms in the title track, in a strange mixture of tastes, textures and repetitions. A fascinating work, restless, rich in suggestions and melancholic. - Aurelio Cianciotta, Neural Net

Simon Wickham-Smith was born on the south coast of England in 1968. He studied English Literature at King’s College in London, graduating in 1990. In addition to making music – which he has done prolificly – he also became a Buddhist monk in the Tibetan tradition. He is a scholar and translator of Mongolian and Tibetan literature.

Track 1. Sandokai (2001) [18:38]

I searched my memory far and wide when I first listened to this music, the first track of Simon Wickham-Smith’s CD love & lamentation; Sandokai. I was swept away in this tonal torrent, which is brutal as well as sweet, tempting and rough; dangerous and somehow hypnotic; a forceful flow of lethal beauty that seems to sweep you behind time and matter, intensely persuading and elastically dreamy. After a long search inside me I came to a place in my youth, around 1962, and a Japanese movie I’d watched on television: Mothra. I didn’t remember much about the plot, but I knew it had mystical, mythical bearings, and that it had something to do with a dreamland deity in the shape of a butterfly coming to save some small female humanoids who had strayed from the Beyond, having been caught by scientists and/or militaries of Japan. The real conflict, as I recall it, or as it has colored my mind, was one between the materialistic, narrow-minded but seemingly successful and also cruel and remorseless modern science, and the shamanistic world of myth and religion. I was much affected by the atmosphere of the movie, anyway, watching it in the Swedish countryside at the farm where we lived. There was a song being sung in the Mothra movie, by the young humanoid girls, and the Mothra, when it approached in the distance, also emitted a sound – and these sounds were beautiful, mystical and hypnotic, sounding very much like the music of Simon Wickham-Smith’s Sandokai.

Sandokai has a subtitle; The Harmony of Difference and Equality, and Wickham-Smith explains:

“The Sandokai […] is a prayer written by the eighth century Japanese Zen teacher Sekito Kisen and recited daily at Soto monasteries. The basis for this piece was a tape given to me by a nun of a recital at her monastery. […] I wanted to create of this sample a prayer without borders, a follow-up to an earlier work, Ave Regina Caelorum […] in which I used the Latin plainsong of a prayer to the Virgin Mary in much the same way.
The organ sample at the end is from a piece by Erik Satie, whose spirituality was equally strange and eclectic. All the samples, of course, have been stretched and pitch-shifted beyond (immediate) recognition, [and] to my ears they have melded into something which seems at once both ethereal and solid”

This is indeed magic, alluring music, and quite original, to that. I’ve never heard anything quite like this, although the methodology used by Wickham-Smith is commonplace. Maybe his basic material – the tape he was given – already was permeated with some kind of far-reaching alien beauty and magic, but his handiwork with the machinery and the concept he must have harbored probably were decisive.

The Mothra atmosphere is very strong in my mind, and if I should compare this very original music to just one other work out of my huge collection of sound, it would – though quite remotely – be Over de Dood en de Tijd by Dutch composer Gilius van Bergeijk, which also drifts out into a gray zone between here and now, where some of the most interesting things concerning disappearances and appearances gleam and glitter, at the periphery of perception and mind. I have fallen helplessly in love with this work by Simon Wickham-Smith.

Track 2. The Kin-kindness of Beforehand (2003) [12:29]
Rachel Becker [text & voice]

This is a more traditional sound-poetic text-sound composition, but cleverly and soothingly applied, i.e., alluring, again – as well as both elastic and dreamy!

The Kin-kindness of Beforehand is an offspring of the composer’s project Multiple Tongues, in which he had digitally manipulated voices speaking in several languages. In Oxford Wickham-Smith met the American poet Rachel Becker, who read him a series of her poems, which he recorded and then permuted in various ways for this composition. Initially, the poet was discontent with the result, and of course, if she had expected a more coherent, straight usage of her writing, she would have been surprised, but I think the composition – viewed as sound poetry and text-sound art, is interesting and enjoyable; inspiring. I can’t help but recall another instance when a composer asked a poet for her collaboration, resulting in a negative reaction from the poet at the result, initially. This was when Swedish composer of electroacoustic music, Rolf Enström (1951), collaborated with Swedish poet Elsa Grave (1918 – 2003) in the work Slutförbannelser (Final Curses) (1981), in which Elsa Grave’s reciting of her own work Slutförbannelser (1977) is cut up and heavily permuted, but slowly regaining coherence and clarity as the work progresses. It was a case of the same unpreparedness on the part of the poet. It’s easy, as a sound artist, to loose track of how most people regard sound, and perhaps especially their own voices, and not least, in the cases with these poets, who perhaps felt protective of their poetic works of art, which were crunched and wrenched in the composers’ sound tools. In the end Final Curses became one of the classical standard works of sound art of Scandinavia, and till this day I regard it as one of the best text-sound and electroacoustic works I’ve heard. I wouldn’t allot that much praise for Simon Wickham-Smith’s and Rachel Becker’s The Kin-kindness of Beforehand, but it’s a good work of art.

Tracks 3 – 5. love&lamentation (2004) [15:52]

Yes, the title is supposed to be written like that!
In this extended composition in three parts, Simon Wickham-Smith gives his best attention to a mixed form och sampling, permutation and text-sound, into scissors-fingery cut-ups of speech to meandering, soaring consciousness layers of hypno-shamanistic flights through the stratosphere, where time and space are just mere commodities one can consider or not. Most of the time you get a sense of beyonds; i.e. that “reality” is sensed, heard, felt through the wall, from a neighboring existence, from which traces of something – perhaps a whole universe, or perhaps cloudy reminiscences inside a sedated mind at the psychiatric emergency ward – are leaking into your perception. Or is this the confused whoosiness of a Bardo traveler trying to avoid an instant rebirth, reaching for an entry into a Blissful Pure Land, as described in Peaceful Death, Joyful Rebirth: A Tibetan Buddhist Guidebook by Tulku Thondup Rinpoche; Shambala Publications isbn 1-59030-182-x?

No matter what this might be considered, Simon Wickham-Smith has impressed and pleased me just as much with this composition as with the starter of the album; Sandokai. This bit is in part reminiscent of Sandokai, in its dreamy beyondness and forceful, laidback urgency, but it shows more variation. There are numerous layers of sound to explore in this listening experience. This love&lamentation composition is one of the most exciting and rewarding pieces of music I’ve traveled in a long, long time. Wickham-Smith’s CD from Al Margolis’ POGUS label has been stacked in the urgent pile of music-to-review for a long time – I think at least a year, because life is crammed with to-dos – but when I finally permeate my space and time with this music, I am as defenseless and happy as I feel when browsing the precipes of Lapland on my hikes through the rock deserts in late summer, taking in the treacherous, breathless views of ascensions and descents ahead.
Simon Wickham-Smith’s music instills a hunger for more of the same, the more you listen. I seldom feel this lust for sound these days, but Wickham-Smith’s music has awoken that shiver within me, and I wake up out of the sonic landscape, shaking off dust and debris, once again coming to life, growling and snarling like a cranky bear disturbed and angered by wonderfully vicious impulses!

The dreaminess, in the latter stage of the first part of love&lamentation, is merged with a heavily, but somehow still withheld, rhythmic textural force not unlike some backwards-in-time stages of John Lennon’s and Paul McCartney’s Tomorrow Never Knows from the, at the time, revolutionary Beatles album Revolver (1966), while also letting a distant wavy chant provide a soaring invokous backdrop. Simon Wickham-Smith manages to conceive and achieve this merger seamlessly, until you realize you’re spinning around in an electronic centrifuge of disposed analogue sonic matter that lumps together in multi-colored bands around your head. Your self, elusive as it may be, is inserted into a motion inside a motion inside a motion, and although it messes you up, your confusion is one of beauty and elegance, down the vertigouos spin of numerous heres and nows.

The composer talks about his composition:

“love&lamentation started life as a setting for voice and electronics of part of the biblical Book of Lamentation, but it quickly became clear to me that the literal setting of words was not going to convey the melancholic intimacy that I felt needed to be expressed.
As a teenager I had heard Alain Gheerbrant’s wonderful ethno-musicological recordings of the blind Turkish troubadour Asik Veysel Sirsoglu, and I had fallen hopelessly in love with his voice and exquisite playing of the saz. About the same time […] I had discovered also the ex tempore psalm singing of the Scottish Isle of Lewis. Now, fifteen years later, I decided that these two could be made somehow to work together to show the love and lamentation, which I felt they both held in their deeper recesses, and which I wanted to present in this new piece of mine.
The result is a strange melée of feelings, repetitions and textures. From time to time we hear a somewhat bizarre percussion sample, which I had first worked on in 2000. Part 3 [track 5 on the CD] opens with an offcut from an unreleased […] piece from 1999 called Deaf Piano.
Asik Veysel’s voice starts the piece [track 3 of the CD] and revolves through part 2 [track 4 of the CD] in a kind of hippie trance love-in fashion. The congregation from Lewis sings their melancholy in a sparser and maybe wilder way… and die slowly away into the distance at the close […]”

The sonic modality of the last part of the piece – also the final track on the CD – makes its persistent entry into your perception in sincere, beautiful, gleaming fragments of repetitious insistence. The circling little figure is presented in dust and smoke, like a young god of old Greece playing his lute in brittle, golden traces across the habitat of amnesia, through the halls of the sub-conscious, through the state of hovering, homeless mind of the passage from drowsiness to sleep. The highly disguised and painted-over chant of the inhabitants of the Isle of Lewis [Eilean Leòdhas] seeps through the veil of forgetfulness, and as the music recedes, I feel I’m standing in some kind of thousand-year-old cathedral, looking at a faded textile up on the wall, partially lit by rays of light coming down diagonally through the dusty air of a whole culture’s tradition. - Sonoloco

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