Brass Orchids is a dense and unusual album, whose outer darkness disguises an inner light. On the surface, it’s a set filled with field recordings, drones and danger. Below the surface is Anne Guthrie‘s ancestry, apparent in piano pieces from the artist’s deceased grandfather. “Spider” includes a segment of tap dancing that would brighten the heart of even a hauntologist. The project challenges our ideas of the past: is it something to be exhumed, feared, celebrated or a mixture of all three? While Guthrie declines to settle on a single answer, she underlines a common theme: that whatever lies in the past is worth excavating.
“Bellona” recalls the work of debris artist Tarab, whose soundscaping often takes place in abandoned buildings and includes scraping, drips and a tone of brokenness. But there’s that piano, throwing everything off. Usually when one hears such a thing, one thinks of “The Shining” or at the very least, a spooky presence. In this context, it comes across as comfort. The protection of our ancestors is a weapon against fear. “Serious Water” begins with the sound of traffic before entering a field of amplified hums, paying attention again to the surface first, the underlying echoes second. Then in the background: jazz. Consider this the soundscaper’s response to the famous posthumous duet between Natalie and Nat King Cole. And while drone is not a natural relative of jazz, Guthrie finds a way to make it work, reflecting the common experience of grandchildren getting along better with their grandparents than their parents ~ in most part because children like to emphasize differences with parents while grandparents yearn to find common ground with grandchildren.
The press release mentions “basements, alleyways, abandoned cities.” These words imply loneliness and desertion. But such locations also appeal to children, who enjoy exploring: sneaking into empty houses, poking into the ruins of fires. As apparent in the tap dancing segment, Guthrie has never lost the heart of a child. Her compositions may at times seem dangerous, but her intentions are anything but. Instead she seems to delight in the prodding of sounds to see if they are still alive. A sequence late in “Red Wolf” underlines her capacity for playfulness, as she cuts an automated message into snippets, creating the aural impression of a laugh. Alexa would be proud. She even ends the album with the sound of children and a spoken reference to second grade.
The album title refers to the book within a book carried by The Kid in Samuel R. Delaney’s Dhalgren. The character walks around the abandoned city of Bellona, attempting to decipher what he thinks, feels and sees. Guthrie’s album is constructed as an honest score to the book: a mystery within a mystery that makes only subjective sense. Delaney’s goal was to expose the beauty of sites others found ugly: to change the abandoned into the discovered. Guthrie does the same thing with sound, and Brass Orchids invites us to listen to what we might otherwise have overlooked. (Richard Allen)