self released 2013, DD & CD album, 50m 38s
€7+ DD €12+ CD
I’m going to begin this review by talking about myself. This is essentially a very bad habit in a critic, and except inasmuch as it is sometimes necessary to lay ones theoretical cards on the table, I try to avoid it. However, in order to explain precisely on what level this album resonates with my own sensibilities, I need to describe the marked coincidence of interest between my own creative concerns and those which informed the compositions on Worldbuilding. Music criticism is a hobby, which I pursue in my spare time; my principal creative pursuit, the consuming passion of my life, which occupies much of my time and almost all of my enthusiasm, is the writing of fantasy fiction. More specifically, it is the imagining and describing of fantasy worlds; I’ve noticed that very few fantasy writers have made that work the principal focus of their efforts, the most obvious exception being J.R.R. Tolkien (and other than his fellow philologist and linguistic synthesist, the little known M.A.R. Barker, I’m not sure that I can think of another example). In most cases, the world exists as a pretext or a scaffold for the narrative; in mine, although I hope that I am making a fair fist of the stories (you can judge for yourself when I get something published), those positions are more or less reversed. What absorbs and enthuses me is precisely the subject of this album: world building. Worldbuilding is, I should point out, an album of instrumental acoustic guitar music, and as such it might seem to be stretching matters to ascribe so specific a topic to it, but it is certainly inspired by that process, as Ernesto Schnack makes explicit on his website. He describes how, having recently discovered an interest in fantasy fiction, ‘when I was writing music, I’d imagine scenes from the stories, or was reminded of certain characters. Or when I was reading, I would be reminded of a song I was working on.’ I think many writers and musicians have experienced a dialogue between the two forms, since most music signifies as narrative, and any fiction worth reading generates atmospheres as powerful as those evoked by music; but Schnack goes on to describe the crystallisation of his creative focus, saying ‘[f]antasy authors are well known for building whole worlds for their stories. I felt to a certain extent that that was what I was doing with my music.’ It’s this sense of context, the sense that an important part of the work that went into the music was in setting the emotional and aesthetic stage on which its narratives play out, that takes the album beyond the simple question of inspiration into more ambitious creative territory. The measure of Worldbuilding’s achievement will be in the extent to which it is structured by that aspiration, both within and between the ten short compositions that comprise it. And given my own proclivities, if Schnack succeeds, I should be his perfect audience.
There are many approaches to solo guitar performance; Schnack eschews any overtly technological devices, such as live-looping pedals, contact mics or MIDI-triggers, and although he recorded his wife Carolina Proaño Wexman’s vocals for ‘Achieving The Godhead’, and Natasha Jaffe’s cello on ‘Liminal’ (and there may be a minor overdub here or there), these pieces are all built around the live performance of an arrangement for a single acoustic guitar. Schnack employs a variety of extended techniques, such as left and right hand tapping, and guitar body percussion, but he also employs a lot of good old-fashioned fingerpicking, and particularly in the crescendi of his arrangements, some heavy duty strumming. Having a variety of timbres and textures available is pretty much a prerequisite for successfully orchestrating any music, and when you are using a single instrument it can take a good deal of technical and artistic creativity to achieve them. Schnack has clearly gone to considerable lengths to do so; but unlike many musicians that use such techniques, he doesn’t make them the point of what he does. In fact he seems at pains to wear them lightly, and his music never sounds ‘clever’ or contrived. You can at times, if you know what you’re listening for, tell that he’s producing notes by tapping on the fretboard, but the dazzling speed and intricacy to which that technique lends itself is not something that interests him as a composer; instead he exploits its potential to free up a hand for something else, such as tapping out a rhythm, permitting him to develop more expansive arrangements than a more conventional approach permits. Having said that, he arranges with his ears, not his hands, and he is not averse to letting a single melody line or a very simple arpeggio carry the arrangement; his precise and expressive attention to detail in the areas of dynamics and phrasing comes into its own at such moments, and he will have any attentive audience in the palm of his hand.
Schnack is a man with diverse musical interests, all of which have influenced his writing and playing; speaking about these influences, he says
‘it has definitely given me a set of tools to work with, and my music is all the better for it. But at the same time, I was starting to forget where I came from in the first place. I grew up listening to metal and hard rock, and that shit stays with you. I would’ve never thought in a million years that I’d bring my metal influences to the acoustic guitar, but that’s exactly what I ended up doing.’
This is not to say that he’s playing a lot of thrash riffs (although they do sound great on an acoustic), or that his orchestrations use overtly heavy textures (apart from the righteous distortion he employs on the title track); it’s more in his potent minor harmonies and his dramatic dynamic narratives that these influences come to the fore. The classic quiet verse/ noisy chorus formula sounds like a cliché considered in the abstract, but there’s a reason it endures, and Schnack employs a variety of dynamic gradients with a profound understanding of how they combine with the melodic content to produce aesthetic affect. In fact, it’s probably his use of dynamics, along with his immensely expressive control of tempi in his phrasing, that makes his music so compelling.
And compelling it certainly is. The emotional power of a melody can be considerable, purely in terms of a specific sequence of notes arranged in a particular rhythmic geometry, but when it is performed with total focus on the delivery of those notes, each one considered individually, perhaps delayed by a millisecond, or articulated with a few percent greater or lesser emphasis, or a part of the phrase rushed to increase its urgency, then it can act on the emotions of the listener in a way that goes far beyond that basic affective content. Ernesto Schnack considers each note as carefully as an actor considers each word. The emotional impact of a piece of music depends to a large extent on the sense of communication that it engenders; whether it is right to describe a direct emotional connection between artist and audience is a thorny theoretical and philosophical question, but for our purposes the important issue is that all of the songs on Worldbuilding are able to give that impression, by virtue both of their nuanced delivery and of their unmistakeable sincerity. There is a melancholy to the album, a big beating heart of raw emotional power, that drinks deep at the well of minor modalities that rock inherited from the blues; it is sometimes a delicate and lachrymose melancholy, such as that evoked by the beautifully still waters from which ‘Stoneheart’ develops, and sometimes it is an epic sweep of historical grandeur, such as that heard in ‘The Savage Myth’. World building, as a focus of fictional activity, always involves some sense of nostalgia, in the original sense of the word, the ‘pain of home’, the longing for a place as much as a time. Tolkien’s work is dripping with it on every level, his every setting filled with the crumbling ruins and forgotten lives of millennia, but it is present in the basic urge to create another world; world builders rarely wish to create a utopia, but they create settings in which agency is possible, of a sort that seems unfeasible in the prosaic everyday world. This desire is evident even in the unforgiving and unsentimental milieu of G.R.R. Martin’s Westeros, which Schnack specifically cites as an inspiration for his work. And it is evident in Worldbuilding. Critics like to speak about the coherence or otherwise of an album, the sense that its songs compose a single larger work; and some albums of course are informed by a single overriding concept. It is unusual to describe a collection of instrumental compositions as a ‘concept album’, however, and such conceits are usually founded on lyrical themes as much as musical ones. But Worldbuilding does indeed, as its author intended, possess a unity of purpose that goes beyond the idea of coherence; between them, these ten compositions articulate an affective landscape, a history, a language, an epic narrative vista. There is no way to enter a ‘secondary world’ except via the stories that it plays host to; Ernesto Schnack’s beautiful music offers entrance to a world as fully realised and powerfully atmospheric as many of those well-known from fiction. I found his record both aesthetically immersive and profoundly moving, and I think it’s a considerable artistic achievement, brilliantly conceived and stunningly well-realised.