Les Ondes Silencieuses
The Leaf Label
lone wind turbine, whirring on a distant hillside in the half-light of dusk. Meeting a new flame, buoyed by the jittering of winged creatures inside a twitching chest. The laughter of a close friend. Images, sounds, and situations which, by degrees, could each be considered beautiful. Yet some may decry the giant windmills, recoil with anxiety from the rendezvous, or shudder with irritation at each guffaw. Aesthetics, as the school of philosophy knows all too well, are tricky to nail down. Time and again, relativism wins out. Beauty remains resolutely subjective, fleetingly united by consensus but beyond the clammy grip of universalism.
For her previous three releases, multi-instrumentalist Cécile Schott has balanced on a tentative line between the sublime and the somewhat creepy. Everyone Alive Wants Answers was a woozy, disconcerting evening spent inside a thoroughly haunted toy factory—constructed from the click and jangle of various cut-up loops and samples. Her follow-up, 2005’s The Golden Morning Breaks, softened the blow a little, retaining an otherworldly feel but meshing mechanical samples with antiquated instrumentation to ease the claustrophobia. Then, last year, this intriguing Parisian released a short album forged from the joyous rattle and chime of old music boxes: Colleen Et Les Boîtes À Musique.
Now she’s back, after what appears to have been an intensive period of learning to play even more obscure instruments. As a result, the 17th Century viola da gamba and spinet appear alongside classical guitar, clarinet, and crystal glasses for this production; entirely replacing the tinkling, but largely static, repetition which guided Schott’s earlier releases. This is no retrograde step, however. Nor is it a pointless exhibition of Renaissance Faire dabbling. Choosing to work exclusively with traditional (or indeed, historic) instruments has imbued Colleen’s minimalist compositions with renewed space in which to flex, and exposed new areas of sound for careful exploration. In particular, the viola da gamba’s differing methods of play can mold the prevailing mood in contrasting ways. When bowed like a cello, the resulting deep, extended tones hint at melancholy, or the lugubrious passage of time. Conversely, when plucked or fretted, the swifter, sharper timbre of individual strings can suggest frost clinging to a spider’s web, or a hummingbird darting closer to an open flowerhead.
That this form of instrumental music should evoke such mental imagery is almost inevitable. Once it is learned that the album’s title can refer either to the perpetual motion of even the stillest expanse of water, or the vibrating preludes to earthquakes only perceptible to animals, these ideas may begin to act as catalysts for further thoughts. There’s certainly a temptation to be drawn into a watery narrative, which begins as low winds ruffle the surface of a great lake (“This Place in Time”) and gradually expands into a larger tale—like ripples cascading outwards toward the shore. “Blue Sands” initially seems to imitate the struggling motions of a snake upon nearby dunes, meandering its way slowly to the top as rain begins to steadily fall. Switching focus, the track follows these intensifying droplets as they soak into the ground, encouraging plants to blossom in welcome recognition at the cessation of drought. They fall also upon the lake, causing multitudes of miniature waves to undulate in outward spirals. Thematically, it can feel as though the ripples are occasionally reversed—returning to their center in physical defiance, as snatches of sounds and clarinet phrases are fleetingly revisited in parallel arrangements.
Of course, with music that is so open to interpretation, other listeners will draw their own conclusions and delve inside different cerebral worlds. Even if the mind settles on a superficially similar lakeside scenario, the particular details—the images, sounds, and situations—will certainly be altered. The accomplishment is in producing a work from which personal dioramas can spring with such ease, and it’s to her credit that Schott has crafted pieces that inspire with such clarity. Making a relatively bold change of direction with her sound has paid off handsomely, resulting in an album of sparing flourishes and skeletal scaffolding, ready to be covered with the canvas of possibilities. Beauty may indeed be utterly subjective; but Colleen knows where the beholder sleeps, and is courageous enough to steal just enough drops of essence from his eye.