Sunday, September 24, 2023

At the Threshold: The Unmoored Dreaming

Album cover art: Bjorn Vandenneucker
“What is typical of our century and largely promoted by the media, is the general belief that everything that is broadcast or distributed must be instantly comprehensible. But that is an enormous misconception. It is rooted in the assumption that there is such a thing as an audience. We must correct this view and make it clear that people are individuals, each of whom is following a unique path toward learning and development and free to make personal choices. So let us be less eager to teach and to prescribe rules, and rather just say: ‘If you want to listen, you can; here are the recordings and scores. We give concerts; we will provide information. But whether or not you come or you are interested is your own business.”
– Karlheinz Stockhausen, “Every Day Brings New Discoveries” (1991)

New music, and I do mean new, has arrived in our space-time continuum. And poised, rather gracefully I might add, somewhere between the free jazz traditions of Ornette Coleman and Anthony Braxton, and the new music domains of George Crumb and John Cage. Yes, this is lofty territory, but these two composer-performers hold their own in the rarified atmospheres I’ve often delineated as soundtracks for an imaginary film, or national anthems for a utopian country. In this case, the country is a multi-cultural effort. The Unmoored Dreaming is a free jazz group consisting of Goncalo Oliveira, a Portuguese guitarist based in Den Haag, and Bjorn Vandenneucker, a double bass player and composer based in Brussels, that explores its mutually created repertoire in an expansive and open format. Open is the operative word here, since their charming music doesn’t so much begin or end as simply happen. And elegantly so.

The Unmoored Dreaming is also the title of their eleven-piece debut album, the result of what the duo call their “reinless traveling through sonic landscapes,” which was released on Bandcamp in April of 2023. As disparate as jazz and serialism might at first appear to be, the tangible and even haptic link between them is clearly the delivery of multiple tempos played simultaneously. The individual pieces in the recording from this daringly confident collaborative duo are also linked as in a suite of sonatas, though each work also stands comfortably alone on its own. Their partnership itself is also identified with and embodied by that evocative name, which captures the shared motive and aesthetic agenda of their initial release, recorded, mixed and produced by Manolo Cabras at Studio Noyer in Brussels.

In many ways, the duo’s efforts almost feel like they are picking up where certain titans of early new music, Charles Ives and Carl Ruggles among them, left off, but they might be doing so by way of Cecil Taylor and Sun Ra (with brief pit stops on the racetrack traversed so emphatically by guitarist Terje Rydal and bassist Dave Holland). Curiously, perhaps, the most startling resonance is with what I have often called the future-music of composer Conlon Nancarrow, whose rhythmically astonishing compositions created back in the 1940’s could only be performed via the mechanics of the player piano, which he painstakingly “programmed” using handmade pinpricks in the rolls.

This alignment, by the way, is not an attempt to compare these composers, or place these utterly unique Unmoored Dreaming excursions in their sphere of influence. Rather, it is to indicate a shared allegiance to the abrupt discoveries made in what Bachelard used to call “the duration of the instant,” as in improvised structures contained within an austerely rigorous set of indeterminate parameters. The gorgeous results, in the case of the ideally named Unmoored Dreaming, are especially evident in the track with kicks off their new album, “For the Man at the Crossroads.” Imagine a blind date between Sonny Sharrock and Charlie Haden where the main topic of discussion is visionary bluesman Robert Johnson, whose classic tune “Crossroads” is the Bach-bone of all blues to follow, and you’ll have the general idea. But of course, musicians, especially highly innovative ones, generally hate being compared to or described in terms of other musicians, so I’ll try to avoid that pitfall, and instead attempt to concentrate on a communal context. Suffice it to say that hard bop was ordered for dessert.

What is at stake in their collaboration, which is above all a conversation between two trusting performers, each responding instantly to the nuances of the other, is a torrential downpour and upsurge of notes that cascades through space and time with the urgency of a fire engine but the subtlety of a flock of birds engaged in murmuration. In fact, the key element in their music, with “Ye Monsters!” and “Amalia” perfect examples, is precisely the kind of murmuration used by birds to navigate sudden alterations in course, conveyed to their fellow fliers through ultra-subtle and almost invisible shifts in either wing or mind, or both.

At first, the resultant rhythms are a sensual and slow-motion train derailing of the wildest proportions, but then the bowing notes begin to converge and become a coherent, undulating cascade of sound, as if time itself had splintered into several dimensions, then folded back on itself to become one again. Then, before the listener has much time to comprehend this fleeting moment of unity, the piece comes to an abrupt stop. What just happened? Time has happened. “Falling, Maybe,” which is almost ambient in its gentle textures, sometimes feels like a pattern of sonic fantasies, but more often comes across like sonic reveries, conscious dreams (hence perhaps the unmoored dreaming). This is music meditating on itself in a most mirror-like and pristinely attenuated awareness.

At the risk of assigning a programmatic element to their mix, which is already amorphously suggested by their evocative titles, I must say that I was also struck by certain metaphysical parallels between an unmoored condition and the lucidity suggested by certain meditative practices in Buddhism. Most pertinent in this regard, although it is not essential to your listening pleasure, is that of the Tibetan practice of dream yoga, also known as clear light or bardo yoga, in which the dreamer becomes aware of the non-existent nature of the narratives unfolding in their mind. Thus the actual pristine nature of awareness can arise, in a manner frequently utilized to prepare the practitioner for the experience of their own death, when similar images and events apparently arise prior to assuming another incarnation. “My Eye, Your Eye” is one contemplative track which feels to me like such a clear light experience, with its meandering bassline conversing with guitar dance steps in the void. This is a void, however, and also in keeping with certain Zen insights, which is not in any respect empty and rather is filled with potential energy that can become kinetic at the drop of a hat, or the pluck of a string.

“Switch” is a notable track that feels most like an Takemitsu sonata of shimmering notes arriving and departing in an organic flock of descent and scent. Similarly, “Frozen Wind,” another rustling curtain of poetic ambience suitable as the score for a Teshigahara film, maintains a firm position in the permanent present moment. “Red Skies” brings the dreamscape to a close with an energetic ballet of colliding sonic textures swirling into and out of silence, the place where all music originates and to which it returns. This fruitful collaboration between Oliveira and Vandenneucker is also an exotic kind of fourth-world ambient hard bop, as if Sharrock and Haden went for after-dinner drinks with Don Cherry and Jon Hassell.

Oops, I did it again, but I can’t help myself. Such references might be signposts for listeners in the know, listeners to what Dewey Redman used to call The Behearing. In a similar vein, the very sophisticated and understated music of Unmoored Dreaming is exceptionally seductive in its reverence for what came before it, since these two composers are smart, while also unafraid of plunging into the clearings of the forest of sound they themselves are inaugurating. Consequently they’re also smart enough to touch and even caress the branches of those who came before them as they make their way forward. Most importantly perhaps, and beyond any historical references which might guide us in our listening experience, this is heartfelt and passionate new music the likes of which you’ve never heard before.

Whether we call it free jazz, ambient or musique concrète is largely immaterial, since The Unmoored Dreaming resides in a spacious and open domain without limits, which is sorely needed in our wounded world. One descriptive word is, however, totally accurate: beautiful. All right then, two words. The other is: listen.

 Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the recent book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, as well as the biographies Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, 2018, and Tumult!: The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner2020, and a book on the life and art of the enigmatic Yoko Ono, Yoko Ono: An Artful Life, released in April 2022. His latest work in progress is a new book on family relative Charles Brackett's films made with his partner Billy Wilder, Double Solitaire: The Films of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder.

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