Deborah Martin & Steve Gordon: Ancient Power
Deborah Martin& J. Arif Verner:
Deborah Martin & Erik Wøllo: Between Worlds
While ambient-electronic producer Deborah Martin has issued a number of exceptional solo albums, she 's also an avid collaborator; in fact, her discography lists as many joint projects as solo releases. And while her own albums certainly reveal deep connections to other cultures, the collaborations bring that dimension even more explicitly to the forefront. That's never more apparent than on the earliest of the three releases covered here, 1998's Ancient Power, which Martin produced with Sequoia Records artist Steve Gordon (Sacred Earth Drums). The project grew out of their association with Edgar Perry, a White Mountain Apache of the Eagle clan in Whiteriver, Arizona who not only shared with the duo his tribe's history and culture but appears on the recording, too. Complementing the instruments played by Martin and Gordon—she's credited with Taos drums, deer claws, turtle rattles, acoustic guitars, Ocarina, keyboards, stones, wood, and percussion, he with native flutes, guitars, rainstick, mandolin, drums (Taos, tongue, and Udu), and percussion—are the vocal and instrumental (Ceremonial medicine bell, Taos and tongue drums) contributions Perry makes to two of the eight tracks.
The recording's Native character is evident from the outset when the “Spirit of the Mountain” uses flutes, shakers, tribal drums, and breathing choir to conjure Ancient spirits and a timeless aura; at the same time, synthetic mist is sprinkled over the material via Martin's keyboards, a move that in turn lends the material a contemporary ambient sheen. During “Coming of the Wolf,” the lonely warble of the Native flute and muffled pound of the Taos drum reinforces the earthy quality established by the opener, with this time long-time Spotted Peccary associate Howard Givens adding keyboard textures to the mix. One comes away from Ancient Power not only captivated by its rich sound design but impressed by Martin and Gordon's sincerity. While the material exudes an understated, modern-day ambient character in its sound design and sensibility (boasting arrangements heavy on acoustic guitars and synthesizers, “Earth Dweller” and “Moon Over Cloudless Sky” could just as easily have appeared on a Martin solo album like Under the Moon as Ancient Power ), it also pays respectful homage to Perry and his tribe in the seamless manner by which it so genuinely integrates elements representative of Native culture. It's perhaps significant that the album's longest setting, “Wind of Spirits,” is the one that most prominently features Perry, whose vocalizing and drumming helps transform the piece into an especially potent incantation.
Similar to Ancient Power, 2009's Between Worlds finds Martin (vocals, synths, Taos drums, percussion) and collaborator Erik Wøllo (guitars, synths, programming) engaging deeply with the heritage of the American Indian. In this case, the recording again includes Perry but this time buttressed by contributions from Red Eagle (mouth bow) and Alfredo Way and Leno Edwards (Apache drums); Perry, Way, and Edwards are also credited with Apache Crown Dancer songs on three of the album's twelve pieces. Contributing in a rather different manner, Steve Roach adds synthesizers and atmospheres to five tracks, while on-site location and field recordings from Apache Springs Ranch, Red Eagle abode, and the White Mountain Apache Indian Reservation bolster the atmospheric dimension of the project. The title, incidentally, derives from the American Indian belief that a bridge can be effected between the worlds of spirit and form through ritual, healing, and magic; using that as a guide, Martin and Wøllo aspired to create material that would bridge those worlds.
To perhaps an even greater degree than Ancient Power, Between Worlds splits its focus equally between the ethereal quality of ambient-electronic production and the ceremonial spirit associated with American Indian traditions. It's not unusual for tribal rhythms, nature sounds, and vocal chanting to appear alongside swirling synthetic atmospheres and plangent electric guitar melodies (“A Healing Way,” “Distant Voices”), though there are also moments when a stately Native theme is voiced by synthesizer as opposed to acoustic instrument (“Canyonland”). A broad sonic palette is present throughout (witness the dramatic contrast between the synthesizer and earthy mouth bow on “Anasazi,” for example), and a strong sense of tribal ritual pervades settings such as “The Thunder and the Water” and “Winds of Time” when flutes, vocals, and percussion conjure moods of slow, incantatory awakening.
As one might reasonably infer from its title, 2007's Anno Domini doesn't share the other releases' connections to Native culture. Instead, Martin and fellow Spotted Peccary artist J. Arif Verner present a work in a more sacred classical-ambient style featuring Latin vocal phrases wrapped in ethereal synthetic textures; as such, one imagines the project as potentially appealing to listeners with recordings by John Tavener and Arvo Part in their collections. In Anno Domini's seven meditations, male and female voices intone softly against multi-layered backdrops fashioned from guitars, synths, and percussion. In contrast to the earthiness of Ancient Power and Between Worlds, Anno Domini for the most part feels as if it's emanating from some pure, celestial realm where shimmering atmospheres, gleaming synthesizer washes, and ambient guitar textures emerge alongside hushed vocal murmurs. It's at once a quietly epic recording in its dramatic reach, yet also one rendered intimate by the solo vocal performances, many of them by Martin. Whereas her own abilities, for example, are put to effective use in the title track, “Dona Nobis Pacem” features a vocal turn by the late Rev. Chester Head. No clarification is included to indicate where the fifty-minute recording itself was laid down (mixing and mastering were done by Howard Givens and Jon Jenkins at the Spotted Peccary Studios), but it wouldn't be hard to imagine a church might have been Martin and Verner's location of choice for the project.