If you’ve ever wondered where all those chamber ensembles spawned in the wake of Rachel’s could have gone if only they had kept evolving, well, wonder no more, for Ali Helnwein has an answer. We’ve covered the composer’s music before, and although he’s primarily known for his film work and a musical collective based in Los Angeles, the pieces he’s made for tape are strikingly unique on their own right. They feel as if emerging from the shadows of a dozen different musics, taking shape before our eyes mere moments before dissipating under scrutiny. Voyage is no straightforward travel: the ecstasy of the white-collar man in the cassette cover perhaps hints at the strange inner turn of events that leads him to stand up, all dressed for his 9 to 5 job, and decisively blank out the rest of the office in sheer momentary happiness.
The journey starts off quite serenely, with a choir and picked strings section that appears as the slow drawing of a grand horizon – the feeling of opening a door to somewhere far, far off, a hopeful breeze tracing the path to be taken. Unlike many of the ‘neoclassical’ ensembles, however, the way in which Helnwein arranged the piece makes it feel small in scale, creating a sense of grandeur that aims inwards. Spoken poetry, electronic emulations of sounds, and seemingly processed everyday instruments like maracas and toy pianos capture these introspective moments in side A of the cassette, presenting a sort of inner dialogue of artifice against the more traditionally chamber part of the piece, as if wanting to dislocate the ‘purity’ of the ensemble and its classical claims to the natural, the eternal aspiration of ‘high art’. The poetry is surrealistic, and it only happens once, unnaturally connecting with the music through jagged electronic patterns that make absolutely no attempt to disguise themselves as something they are not. This is the twisted beauty of Helnwein’s music, the unassuming embrace of the ‘low’ not as yet another way towards perfection (think here, perhaps, of ensembles like Sunwrae) or imperfection (the more avant-garde approach of very late Rachel’s comes to mind), but as the possibility of fuller, maybe even more fulfilling, forms of expression.
In many ways, this is precisely what side B riffs on, offering a series of vignettes (how very classical!) in which the voyage develops throughout soundscapes littered with weird little electronic bits and bops. The formal parity between ‘high’ and ‘low’ established in side A is completely ditched, bashing them together into shapes that are constantly in escape of definition but that owe much of their emotional reach to something that is essentially familiar in nature. About two-thirds in, the music breaks into a folk passage (very, very reminiscent of an old Jimmie Rodgers song) that is accompanied at first by a decomposing chiptune that mimics the melody, gradually building up into a pretty pastiche of musics more than worthy of heartfelt sentimentality… like a love song finally understood, a love song finally torn away from mass production and made special once again, albeit through very weird, very leftfield routes. Helnwein’s music is very post-modern in this manner, in the sense that by throwing all these properties of the chamber ensemble into disarray, he is able to make out something uncanny of it all, something that is both amazing and utterly banal. We come back to the man in the cover: there is a certain immensity to simple pleasures when they are re-purposed by techniques and an intelligence that in principle exceeds them, an immensity that complex pleasures will never attain.
Fans of post-rock, and particularly of the ensembles that were lost on the way, will probably make the most out of this release, but this does not mean that those who enjoy modern composition will find little for them – on the contrary, there is a lot here to be found by those who might prefer some atonality in their daily listening, particularly when it comes to the use of electronics and how it contaminates the basics of a chamber ensemble in a world full of infinitely repeating programs of classical music. The format might be a bit off-putting, but then again, I believe that’s precisely the point. (David Murrieta)