Having a doctorate does not necessarily make one a fine musician, but in this case, the degree is evidence of a keen musical mind. Dr. Felipe Otondo lectures on composition and music technology at the Lancaster Institute for Contemporary Arts, and from the sound of this disc, we hope his students are paying attention. We need more music like this: smart, creative, and grounded. Other artists could learn from him as well.
Knowing the background of each piece adds to the listener’s appreciation, but this is the rare case in which one wants to know more. These sounds are so unusual: the pebbled percussion of “Teocalli”, the sharp bells of “Irama”, the processional march of “Samath”. These pieces are clearly amalgamations of sources, but what sources? Where can one locate such instruments? And how were they all put together? The mastering on this album is so pristine that one feels immersed in the individual worlds created by Otondo: real-life locations enhanced by compositional interpretation. We hear these sounds, and want to travel to where they are, shuttling aside the thought that even if we were to stand by these same bells and hit them with the same sort of implements, they would not sound the same way. That’s where the doctorate comes in, and instinct: Otondo has a keen ear for complementary resonances, and benefits from a non-linear approach.
The word “Tutuguri” carries associations of older art: a poem by Antonin Artaud, and a subsequent orchestral interpretation by Wolfgang Rihm. The heavy use of percussion in that symphony echoes Artaud’s own excursions into musical theatre. Otondo’s Tutuguri may share a love for percussive elements, but its tone is completely different: brighter and smoother, lacking the rusted edges of the former. Even the occasional glossolalia follows discernible patterns, looped in intervals rather than uttered in a Tourette’s-like fashion. Rihm’s dramatic work is also recommended, but for completely different reasons; no one will ever confuse the two.
“Irama”, the most recent of the four pieces, is a reconstruction of Javenese gamelan music with a concentration on the irama, the “interval between two successive sounds or actions”. Otondo experiments with the sounds of a gamelan orchestra, teasing out the timbres and exposing the infrastructure. He focuses on the percussive sounds at the expense of the woodwind, producing a clean sheen. At times, the piece slows to a glacial pace (slow even for gamelan), but even in these sections, woodpecker rhythms lurk in the side speakers. Whenever the traditional pace is restored, the shift seems a revelation. The high-pitched tones provide a welcome balance, offsetting the low.
“Teocalli” is loosely inspired by Julio Cortázar’s short story “The night face up”, bringing it in line with the recently-reviewed The Symbiont, a Josh Mason album inspired by the short stories of Horacio Quiroga. No one dies in Cortázar’s story, although the injured protagonist endures a fever dream in which he is running from bloodthirsty Aztecs. A sense of place is invoked through the incorporation of Mexican street percussion and interviews with Zapoteco Indians. The juxtaposition of whooshes, choirs and looped dialogue produces a fitting disorientation. The most stunning element arrives in the closing minutes: a call and response between speaker and drone, perhaps a compositional first.
Tutuguri‘s oldest piece, “Ciguri” (2008) has the closest connection to Artaud, as it is based on a theatre work composed in his honor. “Ciguri” investigates the time distortion caused by ingesting peyote (which Otondo has only read about – right, Doctor?). Bell tones are extended and truncated, often at the same time, warping expectations of intervals. “Samath” celebrates the more natural technique of spiritual meditation. By incorporating Francis Booth’s field recordings of Buddhist pilgrimage sites, Otondo creates a soundscape that is itself meditative, as well as reflective of place; these bells and birds are geographically, as well as spiritually connected to the Buddha. The most compelling sections travel beyond typical, measured meditation by adding the volume of multiple bells rung at once: something a child might do in order to make a huge racket, demonstrating a Buddha-like abandon. The pounding of a resonant drum, combined with processional singing, reminds the listener of an oft-ignored facet of meditation: it doesn’t have to be quiet.
Together, these experiments meld into a cohesive whole, impressive in light of their inspirational and geographical variety. A famous t-shirt seems to justify any action by saying, “it’s okay, I’m a doctor”. In this case, the words hold true. (Richard Allen)