Sontag Shogun, Stijn Hüwels ~ The Floating World & The Sorrowful World

The Floating World & The Sorrowful World was always meant as a diptych, but for nearly a year the two tracks were cut off from one another, set adrift, seeking the balance of their complementary twin.  Ironically, this temporary excision adds to the appreciation of the overall project.

The titles are alternate readings of the Japanese word Ukiyo, which implies that “the world exists simultaneously as a place of great emotional heft, and one of surreal hedonistic detachment.”  In side-long pieces, Sontag Shogun and Stijn Hüwels attempt to capture this liminal state, and in so doing glaze the concept of polar opposites with Eastern nuance.

As much as they love to self-define, humans live in a constant state of flux between selfishness and gregariousness, between action and stasis.  The music reflects this tug, sometimes somnambulant, sometimes eye-opening.  As the curator of the Slaapwel label, Hüwels is perfectly positioned to offer the former, while Sontag Shogun – known for surprising juxtapositions of genre and voice – is a fine fit for the latter.  But again, it’s not that easy.  While it’s clear that the tape loops of “The Floating World” seep from Sontag Shogun’s dreamlike world, Hüwels’ guitar has a chameleon-like nature.  He’s not on either side; he’s both and neither.  While listening, it’s easy to fall in and out of attention, but it’s impossible to separate the performers.  The improvisations, recorded at Hüwels’ home in Leuven, are a representation of blurred lines and a shared vision.

“The Sorrowful World” first appeared on THESIS 1/3 last April; we reviewed THESIS 2/3 (so close!). But where was “The Floating World?”  As society has grown increasingly polarized, we’ve seen the effects of binary definition:  gender politics, Brexit, religion.  “There are two kinds of people in the world,” we say, “______” and “______.”  But there are infinite binary assignments, and they overlap.  In the same way, “The Floating World” needs “The Sorrowful World.”  It needs its similarities: the pattered chimes, the sense of sonic suspension.  But it also needs its differences.  The latter track is more prone to drone, especially in its sounds of smudged transit.  While it contains conversation, some of its vocal loops are more prominent, concentrating on single words: “patience,” “morality.”  Each of these is needed for ethical progress.

The finale of each piece breaks prior boundaries.  “The Sorrowful World” ends in bird-like electronic beeps, a bass pulse and an imitation of a teletype machine, as if sending a message to “The Floating World.”  “The Floating World” responds with waves, percussion and fragments of song.  Or is it the other way around?  It depends which is played first. Either way, the message is the same: dialogue beats monologue, and collaboration breeds understanding.  (Richard Allen)

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