Staring back

Darkness, an absence of light, is an obvious, unavoidable presence in the visual realm. We live in a world of light, so when it’s removed we see its lack. It’s the most visible form of negative space. But darkness is a rich and diverse idea/feeling/aesthetic/domain. In music darkness exists by inference: it is often associated with slow, sonorous, and even frightening sounds. The ‘dark ambient’ genre, for example, may include sounds comparable to the audio track of a horror movie as well as sounds that are more recognisably musical. ‘Dark folk’ is usually applied to music that combines the melancholic and dysphonic practices of industrial music with materials drawn from traditional musics, although it is also used to market folk music with a depressive or gloomy vibe. That’s how I came across Voice of Morrigan, and their sole release Orgetos, by browsing the ‘dark folk’ category on the Cold Spring Records catalogue, some years ago. The record was sold by Cold Spring, but released by the label Dying Art Productions, a Chinese ‘dark music’ label. This release no longer appears on Dying Art’s Bandcamp page, and there is virtually no trace of it, or of the artist, online. There is, you might say, a darkness surrounding it, an absence of light.

The music itself is not typically ‘dark’. Timbrally, the sound is predominantly bright and penetrating, and the album is a collection of dance tunes. They are Breton dance tunes, played at a mid-tempo by one or two bagpipes (whether in a duet or multi-tracked I don’t know). I would guess they are binioù-bihan or veuze, the smaller of the three common types of Breton pipe, as the binioù-bras is essentially a Scottish Highland pipe, and these sound much more sweet-toned. A whole album, then, of a single or double voice, playing traditional dance tunes, with little or no percussion (a dull, steady drum-beat occurs in places), and no sense of the party ambience in which such music would ordinarily occur. The effect is somewhat akin to a lone candle burning in the midst of a large, unlit space. The darkness in this music is defined as a negative space, a great absence that surrounds the plaintive voice of the pipe, and emphasised by the melancholy affect of the minor-pentatonic modalities.

It’s a short album, around thirty minutes in length, and if it had been longer I might well not have found it suited the repeated listening I’ve given it over the past few months. The darkness it creates, the emptiness defined by the singularity of the sound that is its sole inhabitant, is profound. The playing is not aggressively virtuosic, which is the usual marker of quality in contemporary instrumental folk recordings, particularly single-instrument recordings; instead, it’s steady and expressive, drawing out the human qualities of the pipes, never attempting to fill the space around it, never setting fire to the tempos, or cramming in the ornaments, in the way that is more associated with the Gaelic than the Brithonic traditions. Those human qualities are key to the pleasure I found in this record: it serves as a sort of consolation, a reassurance that although we live in the midst of an illimitably vast, unknowable void (which we do—ask any physicist), we have felt something, we have lit a small candle, and we have stared back into the blackness.

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