Akira Rabelais: Spellewauerynsherde

The music on spellewauerynsherde is as unusual as its title which, redefined, reads 'spell.wavering.shard.'—'spell' alluding to the effect cast by its hypnotic incantatory voices, 'wavering' their shivering quality once filtered through Rabelais' Argeïphontes Lyre software, and 'shard' their fragmentary character. After Rabelais discovered forgotten tape recordings of traditional Icelandic a cappella singing, he found himself so transfixed by the female voices' heartbreaking sound that he decided to digitally weave them into pulsating drones. By exhuming these phantom, siren-like voices and digitally reconfiguring them, Rabelais' haunting recording straddles medieval and modern eras. Don't think that he smothers the remnants with distracting treatments, though, as his approach is far subtler; in some cases, voices seemingly stand unadorned of any added embellishment.

The first piece, 1382 Wyclif Gen. ii. 7, serves as a good introduction to his approach. Solely comprised of intertwining laments, Rabelais plays with their spatial positioning, bringing some to the forefront and just as quickly moving them into a fainter background, while a phantom-like choir shimmers in the distance. The ghostly, labyrinthine choirs and female cries in 1483 Caxton Golden Leg. 208 b/2 become even more trance-inducing over the course of its twenty-one minutes. By contrast, the eerie choirs in 1440 Promp. Parv. 518/2 seem hardly angelic but possessed, their guttural incantations sounding like desperate moans. Rabelais' digital manipulations are most conspicuous in track six as the vocal line is fragmented and looped, giving it a slightly deranged quality, as well as in the concluding piece, 1671 Milton Samson 1122, where blurry waves at a faraway seashore form a backdrop to a singer's mourning tones.

While spellewauerynsherde might seem a singular work, it forms a natural complement to his two previous releases: 2001's Eisoptrophobia, digital re-modelings of twenty piano pieces, and 2003's ...bénédiction, draw, generated entirely from Rabelais' electric guitar. It also recalls Ingram Marshall's Hidden Voices (1989) and Kingdom Come (1997) which incorporate ethnic vocal laments from Eastern Europe and a dirge-like hymn from a Croatian church congregation, respectively; Marshall, though, embeds these voices within orchestral and electronic contexts, whereas Rabelais largely presents the voices alone. Being so unique, spellewauerynsherde lacks broad appeal—how could it be otherwise when it belongs more in the monastery than in the club—but that's a separate issue from the quality of the work itself, and on that level it's remarkable.

September 2004