It is the quality of uniqueness that appears most elusive in music today. Much of what is ‘new’ seems either palpably derivative of a specific artist or to exhibit the more discrete influence of genre or era. Uniqueness only seems to approach – even in this case cautiously keeping its distance – with the amalgamation of previously disparate styles. Much like Jung’s Collective Unconscious theory, new musical output is arguably more the consequence of what is inherited – on a societal as well as personal level – than anything else. This inheritance is simply adjusted to become something else.
The concept of adjustment is woven throughout the multi-layered Thunder Lay Down in the Heart, whose provenance lies in the 1950s with the penning of a poem, “A Boy”, by the then little-known US poet, John Ashbery. It is the second release from Christopher Tignor, a violinist and member of two bands as well as a live sound mixer, engineer and inventor of music software to ‘performatively transform live sound’. As a careerist in creating then manipulating sound, Tignor’s latest work is imbued with a nuance of self-portrayal – as shall become evident.
Borrowing the poem’s title, the succinct opening track is dominated by Ashbery himself reading “A Boy” aloud – its surreal, metaphor-laden imagery lent heightened drama and pathos by rhythmic swells from Tignor’s violin, dying on the closing line, ‘An unendurable age’. Superficial research informs that the piece concerns America’s past treatment of homosexuality in young men and attempts to link it to schizophrenia, deeming such people to be maladjusted. So the concept’s stem is perceived.
The LP takes its title from a line in the poem, and shares it with the album’s centrepiece: a 20-minute arrangement in three parts performed by the Boston string ensemble, A Far Cry. Divorced from a traditional symphony, however, “Thunder Lay Down in the Heart” welcomes electronics, beats and a drum kit over the strings to shift the whole more towards contemporary soundtracking from the likes of Hans Zimmer. That such disparate elements are introduced and withdrawn in seamless ways that build atmosphere and dynamic is testament to Tignor’s experienced handling of these instruments in diverse environments. There is a patience to the first movement of part one, as dissonant and competing strings are eventually cajoled into unified melody over half-way through by the steady blip of electronics. The drum kit that enters over six minutes in is far from a textural, timpani-esque addition – it propels the piece to its euphoric and dynamic crescendo with a strident, almost pedestrian 3/4 rhythm decorated with tight cello stabs and punctuating a swaying violin ostinato. This section recurs and develops in part two, and epitomises the work’s effortless coalescence of multiple genres (in this instance, modern composition and post-rock).
The album’s ‘side B’ extends the theme of adjustment, presenting a trio of pieces from three to 11 minutes long whose sounds are entirely derived from the centrepiece. Not so much remixed as reimagined. The first two offer artefacts from Tignor’s past work with ambient- and electronica-tinged bands such as This Will Destroy You and Lymbyc Systym. In fact, “The Listening Machines” transports us farther back with a Pink Floyd-esque pulsing synth texture anchoring a high, diaphanous presence almost brass-like, yet presumably of bowed origin. Industrial-sounding beats that build with the synths distort the listener’s perception of this soundscape, creating wonderful anachronism within the amalgamation. Sounds beckoned from their habitat and repurposed for a different place, a new time. “First, Impressions”, the final piece, bookends the collaborative spirit of the record, presenting a reinterpretation co-produced with Rachel’s composer, Rachel Grimes.
‘Driven from Dallas and Oregon, always whither,
Why not now?’
This salient line from the poem questions the need to always be on the move, forever looking ahead, when we should embrace the present. Thunder Lay Down… delves into the past and shines the present onto it. In doing so, an historic breadcrumb trail is created. And so we learn that “The Boy” is said to have been inspired by Ashbery’s watching of an early ‘50s film, The Red Badge of Courage, which itself was an adaptation of a book written in the 1890s. What further progenitors could there be to draw this remarkable work further back into the mist?
The wheel of musical inheritance trundles on, bearing its load of inspiration to new generations. An overlooked poem given fresh prominence to a new audience; a work inspired that captures the musical zeitgeist of different decades, and that graces it with the hallmarks of this time. The work is acutely – proudly – aware of its position within a grander artistic narrative. At its close, the pen that Tignor used to scribe is passed onto another, and his chapter in this absorbing story is complete. (Chris Redfearn)