The Unfathomless label continues its stellar run with a sonic study of Cambodia, courtesy of Jérémie Mathes, who has called the nation home for the past three years. Living in the country of the recording lends this project an authentic tone: not the discovery of where one is visiting, but the desire to know where one is. A great respect for place is shown in this collage, in particular for Buddhist temples and their ceremonies. The sound artist attempted to disappear as much as possible from the recordings, echoing the concept of emptiness that suffuses Buddhism; if the self pops in eventually, it’s only to ground the recording rather than to let it float away.
This single, 40-minute piece is packed with nuance, graced by the intricacy of complex sound. Creating contrasts between crickets and prayer bowls, birdsong and loudspeaker announcements, rain and temple percussion, Mathes exposes Cambodia as a land of contradictions seeking to form a unified whole. The recording is a parable of the nation’s history. Forty years have passed since the Khmer Rouge ruled, yet the nation still bears its scars; most Westerners still associate Cambodia with the killing fields. Yet with religion no longer outlawed and both “a constitutional monarchy and a multi-party democracy” in place, the Kingdom of Cambodia is on the way up, slowly gaining notice on a global scale. The very existence of this album is a testimony to the distance traveled.
Many of the expected Cambodian sounds are here: gongs, thunderclaps and horns. The difference is in the presentation, as Mathes makes everything seem like a meditation: human and animal, traffic and nature, metal and water. The artist smooths these sounds over, helping them to find harmony without obscuring their intrinsic clarity. Construction workers hammer, children shout, roosters crow, and all the while the peacefulness of the pagodas shines through. By showing no partiality to floating village or temple, river or sacred song, Mathes presents less of a mirror than a vision. Every sound is given its own sonic space and the ability to express itself fully. Societal parallels are easy to find. The surprise is that Mathes has been able to adopt such a specific set of geographically based sounds and expand them to fit the world. (Richard Allen)