One needs time to recover after experiencing The Freemartin Calf. The DVD/OST project is elegant, harrowing, and consistently captivating. Jayne Amara Ross, Frédéric Oberland and Gaspar Claus lend the work the same intensity they bring to FareWell Poetry. The Freemartin Calf was actually completed first, with screenings as early as 2010, but the success of the larger collective has benefitted the public release of this accomplished multi-disciplinary work.
Ross’ spoken word poetry once more provides the anchor, while Oberland surrounds her with the sea: guitar, piano, theremin, electronics and more. Claus’ cello plays a significant role, especially when it comes to establishing the mood; Maxime Champesne’s field recordings provide texture and context. The latter contributions are especially important while listening (as opposed to viewing). In the powerful instrumental “The Crossing II, Gutter-Plunder”, the collective creates images without words: Champesne contributes church bells and civilian chatter while Claus darkens the palette, as if dropping ink into water.
When the players act in tandem, the effect is exquisite. Moments after a murder of crows begins to craw, Ross intones, “I count the bed-crows, those tiny widows that sit on your headboard in diligent supervision.” Sadness is apparent, as well as trepidation; something wicked this way comes. The tumble is about to occur: mother from daughter, knowledge from inquiry. “The hours begin their slow affront, and I attend to it like a good soldier”, states Ross as Oberland’s bass sounds a deep bellow of aggression, like the last warning of a cornered bear. A thin line separates thunder from lightning, thinner as the storm approaches, presaged by a lone atonal note at 2:12 of “Swaddling Thickets of White Deafness”.
Time has given me more days to wonder what it would have been like to take that first step, risking everything in the possibility you would reciprocate. Here it is: not fire, but regret. Would any trade one for the other? The cello bears its regret like a traveler bears a suitcase: never far, seldom unattended. When class bells sound at the beginning of “The Sacrifice”, the benign collides with the turbulent, a cold front and a warm, not waving, but drowning. In its wake, the lightest ivories float to the surface like lost survivors. A cold wind, absent since the album’s first moments, comes back for another round like a drunkard unable to find redemption.
The eyes may change what the ears believe. Until now, those who have heard The Freemartin Calf have also seen it, but now the aural experience can be – and in many cases, will be – enjoyed first. While visual associations often threaten to constrict the realm of interpretation, in this case the abstractions serve as an aid to even wider imaginings. Ross wrote, directed, and produced the film, but does not appear in it; Oberland has a brief role as the young man. The crispness of the black-and-white stock, combined with a host of modern editing techniques, hearkens back to the heyday of early cinema. Why re-score a classic film (as bands such as 3epkano, My Education and British Sea Power have done so effectively) when one has the talent to create a new classic film? Fans of “As True As Troilus” are already familiar with Ross’ cinematic gifts; newcomers will be enthralled.
As early as opener “The Crossing I”, lyrics are reflected in images: “snow-covered soil”, “I hold your knuckles between my thumb and palm”, “I unearth you quickly”. But Ross does not allow the viewer to settle in so easily; pulling back from the opening winter scene, she reveals a woman alone, causing the viewer to question time and tense. The bed-crows are revealed to be but a child’s cutouts; but are they really cutouts? Now the ear suspects that the eyes may have been fooled. And so it will continue, the jagged edges of memory and fear pressed up against the smoother edges of imagination and hope. Non-linear, metaphorical and phantasmagorical, the film achieves a singular, unclassifiable beauty, honoring the subliminal trick of the cover photo. Take a closer look at the eyebrow above the right eye. It’s not an eyebrow; it’s another eye.
Those who purchase the vinyl/DVD set will be given a gift as well: a digital copy of a concert given by the collective at St. Merry Church, an uninterrupted set noteworthy for the restoration of some sound effects from the film, including the old man’s speech; and the addition of Christelle Lassort on violin. As one might expect, a few flubs occur, such as a cough immediately (and strangely) following the words, “drug test”; but overall, the live set is a welcome bonus. With new film work from Ross and new music from FareWell Poetry in the works, there will be plenty more to anticipate, once we’ve recovered from this intellectually and emotionally challenging experience. (Richard Allen)