Paragaté – The World Above Us (ambient)

Camerata C1, 2012, DD & CD album, 5m 14s

$7+ (name your price DD)

http://paragate.bandcamp.com/album/the-world-above-us

Paragaté do not offer a lot of detailed information regarding the manner in which they constructed these recordings. Instead they tell us who worked on which pieces: there are two of them (Tom DePlonty and Tim Risher), and they each claim sole responsibility for two tracks, the remaining five being ascribed to some degree of collaboration. The detailed mechanics of that collaboration are, again, unstated, so a joint credit could mean more or less anything; similarly, the fact that the solo tracks are still credited to the creative entity known as Paragaté suggests that we are to regard them, in some sense, as collaborative work. What this suggests to me is that we are intended to regard the individual pieces in the same light as the various moments of agency that constitute them: as constituents of a creative whole, chapters or episodes in The World Above Us, rather than independent works. This impression is reinforced rather than undermined by the disparate nature of the material. As a collection of separate pieces, the album would make relatively little sense, reading more like a portfolio or a ‘best-of’ compilation than a set of related statements; the listener would be inclined to look outside the recorded sounds themselves for some relatively arbitrary thematic thread. Taken as a whole, a work in the round, the disparities take on another aspect, spelling out a discourse far more complex than ‘here are some similar sounding pieces of music we made’. The key to this complexity is the structural nature of the differences between the pieces, which goes far beyond the stylistic, the affective, or the methodological: there are several entirely different modes of aural experience or discourse at work here. The starkest distinction is between the pieces that are essentially ambient (such as ‘Sail When The Wind Allows’, or the title track), suggesting meanings best apprehended immersively and those that state their melodic and rhythmic content precisely, inviting an active and interrogative form of listening (such as Tom DePlonty’s complex piano work ‘Wheel’, or the rhythmic electronica of ‘Where to Find Food’).

It’s not really that simple, of course. ‘Sail When The Wind Allows’ is a tissue of soft, synthetic or manipulated sounds, lacking clear attack points or discursive melody, but it is possessed of narrative nevertheless, building from the most delicate beginnings to a powerful crescendo before it ebbs away. Verbal elements regularly disrupt any temptation to leave the temporal lobes out of the listening process, whether they be fragmentary, as in ‘Clouds Not Sky’, or take the form of more protracted statements, as in ‘Where To Find Food’ and ‘Cork On The Waves’. ‘Round Piano’ seems primarily addressed to articulating an atmospheric impression, but it is full of event and artifact, full of elements like static (perhaps the fluff on a stylus after the record has played out?) that encourage the listener to ‘read’ them interpretively, and the piece’s soundworld is woven as much from conceptual associations as it is from sheer aurality. The two textural elements that dominate are the gentle synth pads and the piano, but there are many other elements, imaginatively deployed: ‘Eye Beam’ allows some of its apparently synthetic sounds to distort, harshly but subtly, and bounces them around through a ping-pong delay; the beat in ‘Where To Find Food’ is almost brutal in the starkness of its contrast to the rest of the album, although the track as a whole seems to occur in the same sort of place, thanks largely to the upper register drones and spatial delay effects. Some of the piano playing presents us with an entirely different sense of musical agency from the balance of the release, particularly ‘Wheel’, which while predominantly textural, also presents melody in antecedent-consequent phrases, and can be admired in a traditional sense for the beauty and consummate artistry of Tom DePlonty’s musicianship.

The effect of this finely nuanced balance between analytic and intuitive modes of listening is, to coin a fashionable term, hypnagogic. When we think we need to drift and absorb, language enters the flow of sound, and activates our interrogative faculties; when we think we need to parse the sequence of events and read out a meaning, that meaning turns out to be no more discursive than a flow of interwoven, consonant tones. For me this feels more completely absorbing, more immersive, than music that addresses itself exclusively to ambience and evocation. This is not just a matter of music being both emotionally rewarding and thought provoking; there is, of course, a great deal of music that is both those things, and much music that elides or erases the distinction, that refuses to allow us to regard its lyrical meaning, for example, as a separate entity from its harmonic narrative. What Paragaté do with this album is to question and confound the boundary between the atavistic and the intellectual, insisting on the presence of the one in the other, in just the same way that the brain inserts de-coupled linguistic signals into the flow of conscious experience, as we drift between waking and sleep.

It’s one thing to think of making music like this, and another to actually achieve it; or to put it another way, it’s one thing to be able to make music like this, and another to actually think of it. Tim Risher and Tom DePlonty have not chosen an easy approach to their creative practice; to successfully make music with such a subtle complex of signification, to make it sound ostensibly simple, and to imbue it with as delicate and crystalline an aesthetic as this, is no mean feat. For all its gentle ambient soundscapes, The World Above Us is not a recording that allows the listener to switch off their critical faculties, but provides a continually moving target, and rewards their close attention with strange beauty whether or not they think they’re managing to follow it.

3 Comments

  1. Tim and I were working on a page for Paragaté, and we wrote a few words about how we work together.

    —–

    We each write our own music, and we also write music together. We started writing together – with one another, and our friends Ted Stanley, Charlie Baker, and others – in a studio at a radio station in Tallahassee, Florida, in the late eighties.

    Today, we do pretty much the same thing we used to do in the studio, except that we are hundreds of miles apart, and we do it by tossing sound files and messages back and forth over the Internet, instead of recording on tape and communicating face to face.

    One of us starts a piece with a line, a rhythm, a noise; some shorter or longer musical idea. It is sent to the other, usually with a notion about where it might go next. The other takes the fragment and notion, and uses them, in whole or part, and so it bounces back and forth. We frequently have several of these going at the same time. Sometimes we add and layer things in a way pretty similar to how any multitrack recording gets made. Other times, one of us does some kind of radical surgery on the work in progress, taking it in an entirely new direction.

    We use (and sometimes ignore) one another’s ideas freely, and the process never works the same way twice. It continues until there is a piece, or until we decide something isn’t going anywhere, and it gets abandoned.

    Working this way requires a lot of openness to one another’s ideas. Sometimes when a sketch comes back to you, it doesn’t sound anything like you were expecting when you sent it away. But this unpredictability also makes it fun and creatively stimulating. Of course, it helps a great deal that we’ve been friends and mutual musical influences for the better part of thirty years now, that we’ve listened to and admired a lot of the same music, and that there’s also now a pretty substantial body of work that we’ve done together.

  2. Thanks very much, Tom; I hope it was clear that I was observing rather than bemoaning the lack of information on the CD, but it’s still very interesting to get an insight into your working method.

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