While probably best known for making the earth tremble beneath heavyweight drones from the likes of SunnO))), KTL and Gravetemple while also rocking hard in both Thorr’s Hammer and Goatsnake, Stephen O’Malley is also the guiding hand behind the Ideologic Organ imprint of Editions Mego, releasing a treasure trove of avantgarde, experimental and electronic music both old and new. So it was with these latter activities in mind that Frédéric Blondy, artistic director of l’Orchestre de Nouvelles Créations, Expérimentations et Improvisation Musicales (ONCEIM), approached him to compose a work for the ensemble to perform.The resulting piece was recorded in the ancient environs of the Église St Merri in the heart of Paris (itself home to some of the less raucous events of the city’s annual Sonic Protest festival) by Augustin Muller of the neighbouring IRCAM, and appears on Demdike Stare‘s label DDS. Making use of sustained acoustic tones and the sort of brisk percussive jolts which brought such a strange interrupting presence to SunnO)))’s collaborative album Soused with Scott Walker, Gruidés (Cranes, as in the birds depicted by Jean-Luc Verna‘s evocative LP sleeve illustration) is all the more remarkable when bearing in mind that the performance these long drawn-out passages of acoustic drone and held tones are incredibly difficult for the musicians to play, especially the woodwinds.
Without benefit of effects pedals or electrical amplification, the orchestra instead have to summon up the equivalent of a sustain pedal and amplifier feedback purely through physical effort and their own skill and training. The results are almost literally breathtaking when taking this into account, and the quality of the recording is such that the acoustic presence of the church itself becomes part of the sound, reverberant and filled with a palpable sense of place and space alike.Listening to Gruidés is a somewhat different proposition to the greater part of O’Malley-involved music, to be sure, but there is the same weightiness, a similar sense of brooding drama, of tension held and constrained — as found on the likes of SunnO)))’s live LP Dømkirke (also recorded in a church) or Monoliths and Dimensions — and then eventually released like an arrow from a bow pulled taut. Likewise, its deceptively simple layers of texture and intonation demand complex levels of attention, and at those moments when the work spreads out and evolves into a brighter uplands is like having a small-sized TV image suddenly flower into a widescreen projection; then later into broader pastures still as the percussion sets up a fragmented counterpoint to the encroaching discords.
As the conclusion billows and envelops — perhaps somewhat like the smoke machines deployed to engulfing effect during many of O’Malley’s stage performances — the soundscape attains a panoramic grandeur that surges into a slow-motion release of the last half-hour’s accumulated sustains and (almost) fulfilling an unspoken promise of catharsis as it does so. Why almost? Because that terminal fade, neither too fast nor over-abrupt, could just do with heralding more.