In April, I went on a three week trip to the USA, and visited (of course) many favourite record stores along the way. In New York, I was in Other Music and they were playing something that sounded like modern composition, but scored for viola da gamba. I guess it takes a cellist, as I was right about the instrument, but ‘modern composition’ is perhaps misleading, because it turned out to be a promo copy of this wonderful new album from Colleen — Paris-based Cécile Schott — whose previous releases, while each different from the others, have been based around sampled acoustic instruments on the whole.
That Colleen is a cellist was reasonably well-known, and the viola da gamba, not to be confused with the viola, is a renaissance instrument from a slightly different family than the modern string quartet, with a beautifully airy quality to it. But as the album progresses, Schott brings out a variety of other instruments, from classical guitar to clarinet.
That first track is is still striking, even outside the context of a famous experimental record store, combining as it does a very baroque sound with the very contemporary technique of creating a piece out of looped and layered phrases. It’s a kind of fugue for the digital age, but I suspect from the allargando (slowing down) at the end that it’s actually multi-tracked rather than looped live — and indeed this album leaves behind any vestiges of sampling and studio trickery from Colleen’s earlier work. There are a couple of other tracks based solely around the viola da gamba, and the starkly beautiful compositions are served well by the space-conscious recording and Schott’s accomplished playing (not dodgy tuning here!)
Track two’s spinet performance (it’s a kind of miniature harpsichord) continues the early baroque feel as well as the solo instrument theme. Elsewhere, however, there are tracks which aren’t so austere as to feature only one instrument, although the feel is very much of ancient musical forms and instrumentation. Classical guitar is offset by smooth clarinet lines in ‘Sun Against My Eyes,’ but the highlight is ‘Blue Sands,’ with lonely picked guitar joined by tremolo guitar à la balalaika, highlighting specific notes from the original guitar line; so far so lovely. But then the viola da gamba joins in, with shimmering harmonics a couple of octaves up, and we’re transported to somewhere otherworldly and magical. It’s an amazing creation.
The album would be worth the price of admission for this track alone, but there’s much more to be enjoyed throughout. Both ‘Sea of Tranquility’ and ‘Past the Long Black Land’ use similar techniques to ‘Blue Sands,’ each with its own strange harmonic voice. This is quite unlike anything else around, but music this good doesn’t need to be.