Geya 002, 2012, CD & DD album, 58m 9s
€9 DD €10 CD
Daniele Camarda effectively straddles two zones of musical practice, invoking two distinct sets of assumptions about sound, art and how they relate to each other. He is a solo bass guitar performer, employing an advanced technique on an extended range (seven string) instrument; this is an unusual thing to be, but not unprecedented, and for the last couple of decades various musicians have been demonstrating to the world that the bass guitar can not only lead an ensemble, but transcend it entirely. These bass players have operated in a number of ways, producing textures that range from the ambient to the brutal, some using drum machines and samples, some employing live-looping technology, some performing in total bare-bones isolation, some using a basic four string, and others utilising instruments so exotic that the average observer would be unlikely to recognise them as a bass guitar. What they have tended to share is a certain dominant musical ideology. There are certain long cherished ideas about art, craft, technical virtue and aesthetic value, whose utility and worth have been the battleground on which the theorisation of visual art has been contested since the 1870s, and which have been more quietly disputed in particular areas of music (progressive post-classical music and free improvisation, for example). Solo bass performers have tended to come down firmly on the conservative side of these debates, founding their practice on mainstream aesthetics and the popular myth of the virtuoso; to some extent such ideas have served as necessary creative and commercial justifications for the foregrounding of a traditionally accompanimental instrument whose raison d’être has historically been to spell out the root motion of the harmony. ‘I may be a bass player performing in the absence of any context,’ they have said, ‘but listen: this is very hard to play and extremely pretty’. These two core values of the conventional understanding of art have been questioned and undermined by changes in artistic practice and audience reception in all the arts however, not just by the avant-garde, but also by the evolving aesthetics of musical mass culture, certain parts of which now tolerate surprisingly dissonant harmonies and abrasive timbres, as well as a post-performative sense of musicianship. The peculiar position of solo bass performance may have promoted a tendency towards aesthetic conservatism, because it is already a fairly transgressive thing to be doing in itself, but it is also an ideal venue for the continuing exploration of alternative approaches to musical aesthetics, for more or less the same reason: it isn’t tied to any rigid assumptions regarding what it should sound like or how it should be done, precisely because the conventional understanding is that it isn’t done at all.
When I say that Daniele Camarda bridges these worlds, I don’t mean that he is a solo bass performer who eschews all signs of virtuosity and beauty, but that he combines these values with a progressive and experimentalist approach to the language and structure of music. His music is in fact highly accessible, breathtakingly beautiful in parts, and it evinces a highly developed technical facility; but the former characteristic is never the whole of the picture, for example when ‘And Only The Dance Remains’ dissolves from relative tonal order into angry incoherence, and the point is never to display the latter, which is always the means to an end. I wouldn’t like to hazard any assertions as to precisely how Camarda goes about creating the sounds collected on this album: he credits himself with ‘7 Strings + Digital Processing’, but he doesn’t explain, for example, whether all of this music could be realised in a live setting. It’s unclear whether he uses live-looping technology, although there are certainly some multitrack recordings among these sixteen pieces. It’s also unclear exactly why his bass sounds in the various ways that it sounds; some of the timbres are very obviously the consequence of digital effects, but he has told me that he does prepare his instrument physically at times, as well as playing it with drumsticks and an oud plectrum. Perhaps the last mentioned implement is employed on ‘Boudha V5b’, with its extended atmospheric washes of rapid upper register tremolo, but I can’t fruitfully speculate as to how Camarda achieves the trombone-like tone that accompanies it. Some of the upper register improvisations resemble flamenco guitar voluntaries, particularly on the opening two tracks, ‘The Dancer Is Lost’ and ‘Movement As A Weapon’; ‘Face And Learn’ takes a rather more sedate approach, but employs similar musical materials and discursive methods, with its lyrical fretless explorations. Sometimes the approach to tonality is contingent and unsettling, as in ‘Brane’, or ‘Flux’ which resembles a complex synthesizer patch exploring a set of premises. ‘Thodol’ pushes boundaries in several directions, providing an object lesson in how to employ a highly developed instrumental technique in the service of a relatively avant-garde aesthetic (although it’s also a fantastically energetic and accessible performance).
The effect, then, is not of an artist attempting to overturn or disregard dominant aesthetic assumptions, but of one who is exploring them in detail, probing analytically at their surfaces, testing their limits and attempting to discover precisely why they strike us in the ways that they do. At times the experience that is offered to the listener is straightforwardly pleasing, and at others it is challenging, evading the conformities of mainstream harmony in a way that demands attention, but that does not alienate the sympathetic ear; there is always clearly order and structure, even when tonality seems ambiguous. Often the effect is ethereal, one of a world that has come adrift from the moorings of familiarity, but which carries the familiar with it and reinvests its symbols with new meanings, like a less whimsical take on the dreamworlds of Lewis Carroll. At other times Sound Act’s investigations sound more rooted and solid, but such pieces may invoke unfamiliar and unresolved modalities; lyricism is frequently heard in conjunction with asymmetric or metrically variable phrasing, the deliberate rubbing shoulders with the stochastic. The textures of these recordings are open and atmospheric, spatial and inviting; they are never domineering, and the timbres are never harsh or abrasive. There is certainly a cerebral slant to much of the music, but the serpentine melody and sinuous groove of a piece like ‘She Who Is Coiled’ are nothing if not erotic; as a piece of melodic improvisation it is both beautiful and highly accomplished, as readily engaged with mainstream aesthetics as with the values of the avant-garde. ‘Spaciousness Clarity And Warmth’ has the feel of early modern lute music, with its parallel intervals and sedate phrasing, which is hardly characteristic of the album as a whole, but its title might have been used in place of Sound Act. Even at their most demanding, these performances possess all of those qualities, and place them in the service of a self-aware creative vision. There are many very capable instrumentalists with very little to say; as a listener who takes some pleasure in hearing a performance of great skill, I find it gratifying to hear a powerful instrumental facility placed at the disposal of a genuine interest in the pursuit of new sounds. Daniele Camarda is an excellent player, and a very intelligent artist.