The pandemic (WHICH ISN’T FUCKING OVER; KEEP YOUR FUCKING MASK ON) has been a boom time for solo music, for obvious reasons. Solo music is risky stuff; it’s certainly possible to achieve something brilliant, but the risk of failure — which mostly manifests as listener boredom — is very high. Two of the three records below walk right up and tempt fate like reaching into a tiger’s cage and flicking its nose, but all three wind up as triumphs, so…let’s go!
Hatis Noit’s Aura is created almost entirely with the human voice. The only exception is the track “Inori,” which includes a field recording of the ocean, less than a mile from the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Most of the album’s eight compositions feature at least three or four tracks — one main line and two or three more Noits harmonizing with her, plus the occasional sonic effect.
Some of what she’s singing might be real words in a real language, but a lot of it is just vocal sounds, and that’s much better. At one point in “Himbrimi,” she’s singing something very close to the nonsense words David Bowie sings on “Warszawa,” from “Heroes”. About halfway through the opening track, “Aura,” she creates a boom with an incredibly close mic that sounds like the TR-909 on Schoolly D’s “P.S.K. ‘What Does It Mean?’”. On “Jomon,” she loops a nasal, sneering tone, laying a kind of agitated choral chant over it (I feel like there are about five or six tracks of voice here, fed through reverb to fill the space even more) and occasionally rising up into shrill upper-register trills. The whole effect reminds me of Diamanda Galás’s piece “Orders From the Dead” in the way it combines unearthly beauty with harsh imprecation.
James Romig’s The Complexity of Distance, a work for solo electric guitar commissioned and performed by Mike Scheidt, is a one-hour piece that adheres rigorously to a complex compositional formula, and if you want you can read the liner notes to understand in detail how they did it. The crux of it, pulled from Romig’s website, is this:
The work’s formal structure comprises three simultaneously unfolding strands of evenly spaced rhythmic pulses, each articulating a unique pair of foundational chords that mutate and combine only when heard coincidentally with, or in close proximity to, others. The first rhythmic strand alternates, at a time-interval of 13 beats, between chords with roots written E and G (sounding A and C in A-standard tuning). The second strand alternates every 14 beats between chords with roots of C and D (F/G). The third strand alternates every 15 beats between chords of B and A (E/D). Beginning and ending with a unison pulse in all three strands, the 13:14:15 ratio takes 2,730 beats to resolve. At a metronome tempo of 48, this cyclic process lasts nearly an hour.
Or, if you’re a knuckle-walking ape-man like me, you can just listen to it really loud and periodically throw the horns, because this may have been composed with all the care and thought of a piece of classical music, but it manifests as one dude cranking out RRRRRIFFFFFSSSSS through an amp the size of a walk-in freezer for an hour. And that very much appeals to me.
Mike Scheidt, in case you don’t know, is the founder of the doom metal trio YOB. Confession time: I have never liked YOB. The title of their third album, The Illusion of Motion, perfectly summed them up for me: the songs never seemed to go anywhere, and they took forfuckingever to not get there. I even saw them live once, at South by Southwest in 2010. If there’s a perfect context for ultra-heavy, glacially paced doom metal, it’s onstage in a packed club, but even there, YOB were Not For Me.
But I do love albums consisting of massive, distorted, gain-in-the-red riffs landing on my skull like slabs of cement falling out of a cargo helicopter, or just walls of amp- and synapse-frying distorted rumble. Shit like Keiji Haino’s Execration That Accept To Acknowledge, or Sunn O)))’s Kannon and Life Metal and Pyroclasts, or Azonic’s Halo, or Marco Fusinato’s work as Spectral Arrows. And The Complexity of Distance is very much in that spirit. Made loud to be played loud, as they say. Imagine the sound of Matt Pike working as Randy Holden’s guitar tech, tuning up/soundchecking for an hour. That’s what this record sounds like. One bone-crunching, caveman-simple RIFF after another, tiny variations on a theme, if that theme is “steamroller driving down a highway paved with skulls, in first gear.” Here’s a four-minute excerpt:
Johnny Gandelsman’s This Is America is a three-CD set featuring two dozen compositions by as many composers, all commissioned by Gandelsman (a founder of Brooklyn Rider) and performed on solo violin. All told, it runs just shy of four hours(!), which is a long time to ask anyone to listen to a single instrument, no matter how skillfully played. What keeps it interesting is the stylistic breadth. The pieces are radically different from one another, and sequenced to accentuate their differences, so if you feel bored by an interlude of austere, plucked minimalism, a joyous outburst of hillbilly fiddlin’ will come along and perk you up. They’re not all for just violin, either. Some incorporate electronics, some have recordings of voices (Maya Miro Johnson’s “Dance Suite” features Johnson herself giving instructions that fall somewhere between yoga coaching and surrealist Zen philosophy), and two, Marika Hughes’ “With Love From J” and Bojan Louis’ “Dolii,” are songs played on guitar and sung.
Rhiannon Giddins’ “New to the Session” (the aforementioned joyous outburst of hillbilly fiddlin’), Tomeka Reid’s “Rhapsody” and Matana Roberts’ “Stitched” are beautiful pieces that do what you’d expect a composition for solo violin to do. Tyshawn Sorey’s “For Courtney Bryan” features twists and turns so rapid, and harmonies so tight, it’s hard to tell at certain points whether there are two violins playing, or just one. The set ends with Kojiro Umezaki’s “Breathe,” a piece for violin and electronics that consists of long single notes passing each other in the air like the ghosts of eels; it reminds me of Alvin Lucier, or maybe Takehisa Kosugi. These are just personal highlights. You’ll probably have other favorites as you make your way through all four hours. Find the time.