Murcof: Utopia

In another's hands, the fusion of classical and tech-house musics might result in something tasteless and vulgar, some modern-day equivalent to Switched-On Bach for example. Luckily for us, Murcof (Tijuana-based Fernando Corona) is the perfect candidate for the job, as evidenced by his acclaimed debut, 2002's Martes, and now Utopía. Admittedly, Murcof fans might be disappointed, as it's not a full set of new pieces but instead a collection of seven remixes (Sutekh's and Fax's already issued on Utopía Remixes), two tracks from the Ulysses 12-inch (“Ulysses” and “Urano”), and two unreleased pieces “Una” and “Ultimatum.” Five of the remixes revisit Martes material, which might make Utopía seem in theory like a step backwards but in practice that's hardly the case when the musical results are so fresh.

Corona supposedly incorporated samples of works from Holy Minimalists like Górecki and Pärt into Martes, and, while the sampling credits aren't included on Utopía, one presumes that their works are among the source materials. Just as those composers' works are sparse and typically melancholy, so too are the samples Corona favours here. (In other words, don't waste time look for uplifting, celebratory quotes from Beethoven's “Ode To Joy.”) At its most extreme, the ominous sawing tones that end “Urano” could be the soundtrack to some horror film's corpse exhumation—music to slit your wrists by.

The album's long at seventy-six minutes but interest is maintained throughout by the diversity of the remixes. Corona's beautiful ten-minute epic “Ulysses,” a magnificently realized fusion of classical and electronic musics, opens the disc with dark, portentous swells of strings and a single repeating piano note. He spends the opening three minutes shifting dense masses of strings about before adding a wavering industrial drone, a softly clicking beat, and mournful violins. Halfway through, a soft, propulsive microhouse beat appears, along with choir and horn accents. What distinguishes the piece above all else is the masterful integration he effects between electronic and classical elements. It's a combination that has the potential to sound hopelessly awkward but he introduces the electronics in such a nuanced manner that the fit seems natural. “Urano,” his other ten-minute piece, is more impressionistic by comparison. Alongside sawing cellos and masses of moody strings, sprawling clicks gradually congeal into a microhouse beat until the piece shifts gears, transformed into spacey ambience featuring warbling, high-pitched tones that resemble ghostly choirs. The unreleased tracks are fine, too, if not as epic in scope as those already mentioned. “Ultimatum” perhaps offers a portent of things to come with its combination of funky click-house beats, serpentine bass lines, and minimalist string accents.

The remixes are all strong with one exception. Three stand out as most successful, as each strikes a perfect balance between imposing the artist's unique signature while retaining a requisite amount of the Murcof original. Helge Sten's “Ulysses - Deathprod mix” is a brief but moving meditation featuring deep, cavernous whorls of sound, while Cécile Schott's poignant and delicate “Muim - Colleen mix” (apparently her very first remix) eschews beats for a spectral combination of strings, woodwinds, and piano. Radically different in approach but no less effective is “Memoria - Sutekh's Trisagion mix” from Seth Horvitz. Cellos open the piece mournfully but Horvitz quickly hijacks it into rollicking, whirring click-hop territory with Murcof's dark orchestral fragments laid overtop. Corona 's Mexican collaborator Ruben Tamayo (aka Fax) gives “Ulysses” a pulsating, clicks'n'cuts club mix that builds slowly in intensity without ever betraying the spirit of the original. Jan Jelinek imbues his “Maiz - Der Abschied von Dawson City mix” with acoustic bass and a textured array of whirrs, crackle, and plucked strings, while Geoff White adds congealing, crawling beats and guitars to his “Mo - - aeroc mix,” a bluesy techno-funk treatment. Jelinek's and White's remixes are fine, but too little of Murcof's material remains in their versions. The singular misstep is the “Maiz - Icarus mix” from Ollie Brown and Sam Britton where Murcof's delicate material is smothered by the group's incessant noise of whirrs and stumbling beats; the two might take a lesson from Horvitz on how to artfully incorporate sonic detritus purposefully as opposed to arbitrarily.

Of course the collection lacks cohesiveness—how could it be otherwise with the seven remixers adding deeply personalized takes?—but in this case that lack becomes an enhancement. What Utopía loses in consistency it gains in variety and breadth; in fact, it's conceivable that seventy-six minutes of Murcof alone might have ended up sounding too one-dimensional or perhaps oppressive, given the sombre moods Corona favours. Instead, we not only get material from Murcof, some of it stunning, but also a wonderful and varied set of remixes from all-stars Jelinek, White, Fax, Colleen, Deathprod, and Sutekh.

August 2004