Colleen: Les ondes silencieuses

At first, one is taken aback by how sparsely arranged Les ondes silencieuses is compared to Colleen's The Golden Morning Breaks. Whereas the material on Cécile Schott's second full-length often swells rapturously into multi-layered form, the nine settings on Les ondes silencieuses typically are pared to a minimal essence with a song sometimes given over entirely to a single instrument (in this regard, the album is closer in spirit to last fall's Colleen et les boîtes à musique EP and her early 2006 Mort aux vaches live release). The Paris-based composer's sensitivity to an instrument's tone declares itself throughout, whether it's the somber moan of the viola da gamba (in the melancholic overture “This Place in Time”), the shimmering gleam of the harpsichord's smaller kin, the spinet (in “Le labyrinthe”), or the crystalline, harp-like pluck of the classical guitar (in “Sea of Tranquillity”). That she should have developed such a intimate connection to the viol, a 17th-century, seven-stringed instrument that resembles a cello but is fretted like a guitar, isn't surprising, given that she fell in love with the instrument's rich sound over fifteen years ago. She first heard it in Tous les matins du monde, a film about acclaimed 17th -century viol player and composer Marin Marais, and eventually commissioned a viola maker to custom-build one for her in 2005.

Dense layering in “Blue Sands” draws a connection to The Golden Morning Breaks despite the fact that all of its bowed, picked, and percussive sounds are generated solely using the viol. But in general, the album sounds almost entirely natural, with the electronic enhancements deployed in its construction rendered virtually invisible. Even further, the material itself, less loop-based in structure, now hews to a more conventional compositional arc, with gorgeous miniatures the result. Schott acknowledges that a 2006 Japanese tour deeply affected her, specifically in sensitizing her to how powerful the principles of simplicity and space can be in presentation, visual or otherwise. Such qualities manifest themselves repeatedly throughout Les ondes silencieuses. The lovely and wistful “Sun Against My Eyes,” for example, aligns a clarinet's simple melody with a delicately strummed and picked classical guitar backdrop; during one stirring passage, Schott sustains a single clarinet pitch, building tension and defying the listener's desire for resolution.

Throughout Les ondes silencieuses, Schott demonstrates attention to space; in many songs, musical statements are followed by pregnant pauses that allow notes to resonate and then slowly fade into oblivion. By their very nature, instruments like the viola da gamba and the spinet reinforce that compositional quality. The shimmering sustain of the spinet's notes as they bleed away, for instance, is a critical component of “Le labryinthe,” while the viol's notes, its beautiful groan as expressive as a human cry in the title piece, are suffused with emotion. Similarly, the Gamelan-styled “Echoes and Coral” is comprised of nothing more than the percussive strikes of crystal glasses and the spaces between the strikes that allow the sounds to elongate and then vanish.

Like the music itself, Schott's choice of title is multi-leveled: ‘ondes' translates as ‘still waters' (or ‘waves,' as in ‘sound waves'), and thus refers to a natural element that exists in a perpetual state of stasis and motion (‘les ondes silencieuses' is also a French term used to describe infrasonic precursors to earthquakes heard by animals alone). Song titles are also evocative, with “This Place in Time,” for instance, alluding not only to the physical capture of a moment but to its evanescence. The title's water-connection is often borne out by the music too, specifically by the rocking motion of the viol's lines in “This Place in Time” and the title piece, and in the melodic cascades that suggest the gentle ebb and flow of water elsewhere. A meditative, plucked viol theme lies at the beautiful center of “Past the Long Black Land” while alongside it Schott layers bowed cries that see-saw like an anchored ship. The viol's deep groan during “Le Bateau” also suggests a galleon's sway.

The album could conceivably be deemed classical but only by instrument association, as it's not classical in strict compositional terms; Schott herself has described it as ‘minimal acoustic.' While not inaccurate, that label too seems ultimately inadequate. More than ever before, she's reduced the material to a timeless essence that challenges easy categorizing. All labels aside, one surrenders willingly to the charms of this poignant and rapturous music.

July 2007