Oren Ambarchi is enviously prolific. Composer, performer, occasional Sunn o))) cowl-wearer and member of numerous combinations of improvisational cream, his workload and recording output seems superhuman. The constant drive also might explain the extended birth of Quixotism, an album recorded on four continents over two years with nine collaborators, including the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra.
This is Ambarchi’s third release on Editions Mego since 2011. It shares Sagittarian Domain‘s love of monotonous, driving rhythm but pairs it with the best of apocalyptic orchestral work to create something indeed quixotic. There’s the familiar filmic churn of Penderecki or Ligeti here, but they’re rooted by a chugging, machine-like rhythm courtesy of Thomas Brinkmann.
(Lest you think the simplistic, incessant driving force is a simple press-and-forget setting, it appears the rhythm is a response to the Entscheidungsproblem, a puzzler with tendrils touching logic, mathematics and computer science.)
This rhythm remains constant throughout the piece. It seems to disappear at some points throughout, though it’s never really out of hearing. Extra pieces of instrumentation play around the driving beat, pushing it to the background – especially U-zhaan’s beautiful tabla passages in ‘Part 5’ but it returns in the end, reasserting its key structural role.
One could argue Quixotism sounds elegantly stripped-down, despite the many hands involved in its construction. There’s a sense of listening to a low-key 1970s soundtrack played next to a washing-machine in the initial stages, with insertions of the ambient, bell notes which have been part of Ambarchi’s work for a while now. Stolen piano notes appear, and the sound of broken electrical connection makes itself known. Drones and uncertainty hover, their formlessness playing chicken with the rhythm, further explored in ‘Part 3’.
There’s a cold feeling to some of the composition – ‘Part 2’ touches on the ground Gavin Bryars walks upon – but it’s leavened with the joyous humanity of ‘Part 5’. Organ notes, muted guitar picking and tabla are joined with swooning strings in an elegiac celebration. It’s humanity writ large, and gives the piece narrative – this burst of sad joy seems to tell the story of a machine gaining sentience, a soul, before relapsing.
What’s remarkable about Quixotism is its cohesion. The way the pieces fit just so is notable, especially considering it’s a five-part, album-long composition. Without knowing the music’s backstory, you’d be hard pressed to tell it wasn’t the result of a compressed, intense recording process, completed in one session. The weave is faultless. It’s difficult to tell which parts belong to Eyvind Kang, which to Jim O’Rourke and which to Ambarchi himself, but that’s the point: this album is more than just the people who made it.
Quixotism stands alone in Ambarchi’s catalogue. It’ s a work of organisation, vision and exploration. There’s something to discover with each listen, and in sections it’s straight-out arse-swinging. This is the provocative sound of a composer stretching out.