Paragaté – Spaceflight Pharmacology (ambient)

Camerata C2, 2012, CD & DD album, 58m 27s

$? CD $7+ DD

Spaceflight PharmacologyPossessed of a melodic simplicity that invokes naïvety, and a harmonic rhythm that deploys some erudition in the service of fairy-tale inevitability, ‘Friendship’, the brief G. Cook piano piece with which Tom DePlonty opens Spaceflight Pharmacology, is a scene setter. Quickly succeeded by a piece that might more readily be associated with Paragaté’s established interest in ambient music, it serves notice to the listener that they should have their ears open, and that their critical responses should be held in abeyance until they have heard the entirety of this hour long utterance. Many of the pieces that follow are more aurally discursive than is common in ambient music, and although atmosphere is clearly a concern throughout, with a sense of spatialised mood permeating the album, much of this music articulates its meanings very explicitly at a superliminal rather than a subliminal level. There are long tones and diffuse pads, but there is also a preponderance of rhythmically specific phrasing and intelligibly narrative harmonic development. ‘Friendship’ announces an accommodation with conventional musical values, but given that the only places in which DePlonty’s reading is anything less than emphatic are those in which we might expect the most emphasis, the phrase endings, it also foreshadows the contingency and ambiguity with which those values are approached; it is, if anything, a reassurance that the listener’s willingness to follow Paragaté’s progress away from the beaten track of conventional musical aesthetics will be rewarded with warmth and generosity. The harshly abrasive or coldly unsettling textures of many such creative expeditions are quite absent from Spaceflight Pharmacology; to call the music accessible might suggest that it offers generic stylistic cues, or that it assumes an indolent listener, neither of which is true, but it is fair to say that it erects few barriers. Sometimes that’s the greatest challenge of all; it’s easy enough to achieve artistic transgression with dissonance or distortion, but to render such a rupture as an open and friendly invitation to share in discovery and exploration, as Paragaté do here, requires another order of creative integrity and technical facility.

Consistent with earlier releases, Spaceflight Pharmacology compiles a number of pieces credited separately to Tim Risher and Tom DePlonty, and a number credited jointly; but given that the release is credited in whole to their collaborative identity it seems fair to consider the entirety of the music under the authorship of Paragaté. What has changed is the clarity of the distinction between the two artists’ contributions; I wouldn’t have been able to ascribe any of these pieces to one or the other, aside from the piano performance of ‘Friendship’. There is a sonic consistency to the music (The World Above Us having been notable for its eclecticism), but there are a great many approaches to making music in use. The title track is driven by a hard, percussive pulse and insistent string-sample block chords, against which an electric guitar entwines angular statements of melodic and timbral narrative around an ambiguously resolving bass ostinato. ‘Isonoe’, which follows it, is far more conventionally ambient in character, but it is still animated by the unfolding of a harmonic narrative. There are digital and (real or modeled) analogue synthesiser sounds, poly- and homophonic textures, drones, spatial ambiences, and there are beats. What there is not is a great deal of identifiable piano-playing (other than ‘Friendship’ and some of the sounds in ‘Aliquis Latet Error’), or, apart from the guitar and bass in ‘Isonoe’, much other sign of haptic human agency in the production of the sounds. Nor is there much dissonance or tension in the timbres and harmonies, although there is certainly complexity, and sufficient astringency to reward active listening.

While such active listening is rewarded, or even demanded (in my opinion), Spaceflight Pharmacology doesn’t insist on it. The demand is made by the quality of the musicianship, and by the extent to which close attention can reveal the frankly gorgeous detail in these compositions, but the affective mode is one of relaxed and weightless becoming. It’s easy to float on this music, and spaceflight is exactly the right analogy for its sense of drift punctuated by the precise application of specific course-changing vectors; the music possesses inertia or momentum, but for the most part it is revealed only in those liminal moments of transition. Personally I find no contradiction between close analytical listening and affective immersion; I like music to engage all of my faculties simultaneously, but if you prefer more of a one-at-a-time approach, Paragaté have catered for you equally well. There is novelty and detail in every moment, and there is also beauty; the soundscapes, in common with those to be found on their earlier releases, have the character of translucent, coloured fluids, in which the listener is suspended, among curious floating objects that Risher and DePlonty have placed in the tank for our entertainment and delectation. This sense persists through the more discursive or rhythmically explicit passages of the music, inviting a complexity of response to match the subtle character of Paragaté’s creative practice.

The album concludes with a Tim Risher piece, titled ‘Friendship’, constructed from the recording of the same name which opens it. Where the opening statement outlines a simple, classically harmonised melody, with a straightforward symmetrical phrase structure, which is over and done with in seconds, Risher stretches and warps it until its metric sense all but disappears. Without going to the bother of analysing it properly (one of the many perks of being a blogger rather than a scholar) I would guess that it restates the same notes in the same order, and in more or less the same proportional periodicity. The timbre is still identifiably that of a piano, although its attack is abraded away to a juddering tremolo, and its envelope is unrecognisable as such. Harmonically, and consequently emotionally, it delivers the listener to pretty much the same place, cycling repeatedly back to a tonic that turns out each time to be a point of departure rather than a point of rest, until at last it settles on its resolution. This is not a bad metaphor for the creative narrative of Spaceflight Pharmacology as a whole, which I suspect is the intention; each of these diverse pieces professes similar premises, and arrives at a similar point of rest, but it is in the continual cycling around those points, in the various routes and strategies employed, that the compositions find their distinctions, and thus their identities. All art is inevitably concerned with the dance of difference and resemblance, but Paragaté seem to have placed that at the core of this work. Whatever it is that floats your boat musically, unless that happens to be a generic sense of familiarity, this album should have something to offer; it’s intelligent, creative, innovative, rigorous, probing, and above all generous.


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