Marc Barreca: Beneath the Mirrored Surface
Palace of Lights

Bearing in mind that each listener will develop highly personalized impressions in response to a musical stimulus, my own reactions to Marc Barreca's latest collection constellate around two impressions more than any others. First of all, I'm constantly drawn to hear the dozen settings on Beneath the Mirrored Surface as sound paintings, given the analogical qualities that suggest themselves between the sound design and a visual correlate; secondly, I can't help but hear some of the material as a kind of electronic ethno-fusion that has obvious ties to Jon Hassell's Fourth World concept, so much so that a track such as “Vermillion Star” could pass for a backing track from a Hassell recording with his horn stripped out.

Barreca, of course, brings decades of experience to the project: his association with Palace of Lights extends all the way back to 1980 when his Twilight album appeared as one of the label's first releases, and Beneath the Mirrored Surface is his sixth solo outing on the label. As far as the sound paintings idea is concerned, the notion is reinforced by the structural character of his material: similar to a neo-abstract painting, each piece on the recording presents itself as a distinct, circumscribed zone containing some elements that are identifiable and others not. A composition of remarkable complexity results featuring a dazzling configuration of mutating sound; in that regard, it comes as no surprise to learn that Barreca assembled the album's pieces using hundreds of source clips derived from field recordings, world folk material, and acoustic instrument loops that before assembly were converted into MIDI data with Ableton Live and then further transformed using Max/ MSP. Adding to the density of the soundworlds generated, digital synthesizer and sampler tracks were blended into the material to complete the track in question.

The fluid interweaving of acoustic instrument and synthetic sounds makes for a heady, almost disorienting effect when shimmer radiates from the surfaces of constructions speckled with tangy, clangorous noises and silken synthetic washes. A sense of vertigo sets in as the musical ground shifts beneath one's feet and the material pulsates and percolates like some geological force. Sitar-like sonorities and tablas imbue certain tracks with a strongly aromatic Eastern feel, and it's not uncommon for a fragment of piano, guitar, or acoustic bass to appear fleetingly at the surface before rapidly disappearing into the flickering mass. Its incessant percussive burbling aside, “Black Chiton” exudes a strong folk quality due to the prominence of a string instrument whose rustic tone suggests a hardanger fiddle; a rather different effect is created when that sound merges with droning sitar textures during “Eel Grass.”

Development can be discerned within a setting, but for the most part Barreca eschews narrative shape for a kind of uniform consistency that makes a piece feel like a section conceivably extricated from a much longer whole. Each piece distances itself from the next in presenting a slightly different soundworld, yet the album feels cohesive when its contents share a similar fluctuating character. In fact, the pieces are so rich in detail and colour, it's little wonder Barreca titled one of them “Opalescent.”

January 2016