Give the Ashes to the Indians
solo improvisational workout, whether encased in vinyl grooves, digital data, or fulfilled as sweaty in vivo instacomp, may fool the ears into thinking it “easy,” but that’s usually due to thought having its reception shrouded by a thick, brittle blanket of conceptual hardware that’s yet to have been mashed by the mind. Cutting one’s teeth on this music is nothing more than crushing the concepts that solo sounds are built on; like a spoken language’s phonemes and fricatives, partner-less play isn’t reacting to another’s color contribution; it’s created from the personal palette. What makes one’s yield differ from another’s is the pronunciation of sounds; aural articulation is something worked at. As an abecedarian knows “M to be for Macaroni” way before mentally greasing the nuts and bolts of metaphor, the solo artist must build along the way: If a wall needs to be downed and freed into a foyer, so be it. Construction is ever the work-in-progress.
No different for Heather Leigh, née Heather Leigh Murray, who’s been busy refining a musical vocabulary for some time. Earlier—and unfortunately intermittent—work with Charalambides and Scorces showed Leigh constructing a sparse dwelling erected from single string drone, roiling beams of pedal steel, and wordless cooing that touched even as it terrified.
Cuatro + Vocal Recordings, Leigh’s first solo effort, reduced Scorces’ stock down to a compellingly rich demi-glace. Any notion of a Feldman/Baez/Mitchell amalgam one might have once held was irrevocably lost in the sauce: Leigh’s fingers spider’d slowly around strings; tones splashed like stones tossed to water; vocals deconstructed maternal lullabies, front porch hootenannys, the bluest blues. What was left was nothing but a porch rocker of sound, legs marking time on creaking boards, its motion conveying presence only seconds earlier. The music’s success is realized in addled fashion: The listener continues to stand there, looking at the empty rocker, hopelessly trying to dress silence/absence with mental clothes.
That being said, there’s not much room for silence on Leigh’s latest, Give the Ashes to the Indians. Ashes, a single piece clocking in at just under 50 minutes, is powerful music that has way more in common with Fushitsuha than Morton Feldman. Working with nothing but pedal steel and voice, Leigh smears sounds into recognizable, and unrecognizable forms. Cetus song, sub sonar squelch, and white noise scree are all tossed into the kiln. What’s fired, however, isn’t “finished.” Sounds swoop into each other; dog whistle tones are scratched into glass, only to be smashed by Leigh’s fisted voice as it screams and howls over and over again, bloodied by the shards of song. Ashes doesn’t fade out, instead choosing to stomp offstage in notes dressed in blunt boots.
As one-half of Taurpis Tula, Leigh’s duo with guitarist/writer David Keenan, Leigh works with monkish selflessness to create sounds that recall early AMM, La Monte Young—even the guitar work of Japan’s Les Rallizes Denudes and Keiji Haino. Tula’s latest, Caught in the Teeth of It, works as a sort of companion piece to Ashes, eschewing any notion of denial and basically feasting on sound. It would be wrong to consider this a departure from prior methodology; if anything, both documents show Leigh’s procedure to be fully formed and asserting itself in a pretty muscular goddamn way. Beholding this is anything but easy, but it sure brings the gooseflesh right along with an ear-to-ear grin. Recommended.
Reviewed by: Stewart Voegtlin
Reviewed on: 2005-08-05