Utilizing unintentional and incidental sounds produced with a shruti box, the latest solo work from Giovanni Lami is conceptually coherent and carefully arranged. In the past, we’ve covered his work as half of Terrapin (with Shaun McAlpine) and Lemures (with Enrico Coniglio), as well as an album of field-recordings from an industrial harbor. Though quite different from one another, Lami’s work tends to situate itself somewhere in a tradition of drone and electro-acoustic compositions utilizing extensive use of field-recordings. Similar techniques are at work here but the added tactility of an acoustic instrument means Mema Verma is by comparison a more personal work, and one that is ultimately more cathartic.
Lami is an electronic musician, and though he hasn’t abandoned signal processing his extended study of the shruti box has culminated in a very unique record. But first, “what is a shruti box?” I hear some of you asking. More portable than their cousin the harmonium, a shruti box operates according to a similar principle. A bellows is pumped to drive air through reeds to produce a drone, with keys that can be manipulated to alter the tuning. They are usually meant to create a drone to be accompanied by flute or chants in Indian music.
Electroacoustic manipulation in itself is certainly nothing new, nor is “extended technique” of an acoustic instrument. What sets Mema Verma apart is Lami’s approach, which is consistent with the techniques and idioms he’s developed throughout his earlier work.
In Lemures Lami manipulates fragments of field-recordings in real-time to produce what are often very dense compositions suggesting drone music despite not utilizing conventional tones or sustained notes. In other instances his work seems more a product of the studio, a result of careful editing and composition. Interestingly, Lami seems to be searching for a way to split the difference.
Recorded two years ago but re-worked more recently when trying to devise a new live-set this past winter, the work has taken on added significance for Lami, transforming and translating his own personal experiences over this time in tandem with the evolution of the material. As you can see from the videos below, the resulting live manifestation has been successful, but the conceptual rigor of the physical release is worth special attention. The title itself is gibberish, a grammelot with no particular meaning. Popularized in the 1960’s by the anarchist (and Nobel Prize winning) playwright Dario Fo, a grammelot is a kind of satirical language used in theater relying on puns and wordplay. Though the album and song titles may at first appear to have some hidden significance, they aren’t in fact actual words. (Except for the title of the first track, “kīta gīta,” which means bug song, but whose internal rhyme is consistent with the kinds of word play associated with a grammelot.) One might think that Lami is joking around, or otherwise making a statement about the impossibility of communication or the frustration of true communion. I prefer to imagine that Mema Verma is a call to pay attention to the beauty of the sound itself rather than getting distracted by an attempt to decode some hidden message.
Though this shruti box is tuned to a low G (like a harmonica, they come in different tunings) there is very little of the box being played conventionally. The two tracks on the A-side, “kīta gīta” and “sautāceta,” are composed of processed knocks, breaths, whistles and clicks; the shruti box is never conventionally sounded. Lami teases and coaxes a variety of sounds through manipulating the keys and reeds and otherwise doing everything he can with the shruti box besides playing it conventionally. Well-acquainted with the possibilities of the instrument, he treats it as a physical bank of sound-samples, which are then processed and further manipulated. Despite the origin of the sounds, the resulting compositions sit comfortably within his larger body of work. Most drones are one or more pitches sustained for a long-period of time, and changes often occur very gradually as subtle rumbling pulses waiver or high-end overtones interact in unusual ways. Lami’s shruti noises instead build in density, until the almost claustrophobic layers gradually attain the status of concrete-drone.
The entire record is a metamorphosis of the same idea, as the concrete sounds of the A-side give way to the drone of the shruti box finally actualized on the B-side. When on “annīgā śūnyatā” we finally hear the drone of the shruti box, the feeling is one of catharthis. The recordings of the box were played back through a cheap old mid-range speaker, further filtering the color of the drone. Both sides are masterful explorations of the blurred sonic spaces of concrete sounds and electronic processing.
Available digitally, I’d encourage interested listeners to pick up a copy of the limited 12”, which is quite stunning. The third release on the new Italian label Kohlhaas, the record itself features a text-less black label on black vinyl, making it difficult to know which side is being played (without squinting in the light to read the tiny scratches on the inner ring). This is especially interesting as the A-side is cut at 33rpm and the B-side at 45rpm. Mastered by Giuseppe Ielasi and cut by SST, the record sounds pristine. Designed by DEADMEAT and screen-printed by CORPOC, the artwork will give you something nice to puzzle over while getting lost in Giovanni Lami’s most personal work yet. (Joseph Sannicandro)