“When you order the ‘cassette,’ you will get a pencil.” This seems like a perfect sentence for 2020, a flubbing of expectations through which something is offered and something is taken away. FUGUE STATES -before- is the first of a two-part project in which rotor plus examines the emotions of our current crisis. While in psychology, fugue refers to a perceived loss of identity, in music it refers to a composition in which a phrase is introduced by one instrument and taken up by another ~ a fitting association for a nine-member collective.
The album is quiet and impressionistic, unfolding over two tracks and twelve movements. The opening sound is the sea, lulled by piano. The other instruments enter in unhurried fashion: sedate strings, humble brass, coy percussion. An unseen author scribbles on paper; given the subject, one wonders if the markings are akin to those of Leonard Shelby in “Memento.” We’re all losing our grip on things these days: time, memory, plans. This makes the pencil part of the program.
The music shifts suddenly in the thirteenth minute with an electronic rush and a vocalized “doo-doo” (just one). But just as suddenly, it retracts like a lockdown. The album fidgets with compositional expectations through stops and starts, dissolving and resolving. Only in the final two minutes of “sublimation” does a clear, hard melody break through. And then it’s time to flip the pencil.
“After- the beautiful background” launches in low, elongated notes as crickets chirp along. One may need to pause to separate the crickets of the recording from those outside one’s window; the recording is that soft. Such suspension is connected to the early months of isolation during quarantine, when minutes passed slower than molasses. But one can’t sit forever in a fugue; eventually there must be some movement ~ a memory of long-forgotten motivation, an alternative pursuit, a fevered insight. The electronic buzz re-enters, surges, dissipates. Then for a few glorious minutes, the sonic field is given over to the strings. The crickets find friends, returning with a chorus of their own.
A safe space is saved for tribute. “beyond the tide” is dedicated to Mark Hollis, who passed away in 2019. One need not be familiar with the work of Talk Talk to hear the sense of reverence in the piano and strings. “elegy” continues the empathy, a message to all who have lost loved ones. The album concludes on a dire note, the final 30 seconds before lockdown as recorded by Leyton Glen. A door closes, but it’s not apparent that another one opens; for this we’ll need to wait for Part Two. Lonely and sprawling, yet familiar, FUGUE STATES -before- scores the space in our troubled heads.