Those Who Walk Away: The Infected Mass

Haunting, unsettling, and disturbing are but three of the words that come to mind while listening to The Infected Mass, the debut recording by Winnipeg-based composer Matthew Patton under his Those Who Walk Away alias. Though the year's still early, it's safe to say that this “emotive requiem of minimalist composition” will be unlike anything else released in 2017. Seven indexed tracks are identified, but the work unfolds without pause as a forty-nine-minute soundscape that blends ghostly strings, choral voices, field recordings, and airplane cockpit voice recordings into a mesmerizing whole. Recorded in Winnipeg and Reykjavik, The Infected Mass couples playing by five Winnipeg-based string musicians with four from the Iceland Symphony Orchestra acting as ‘ghost strings' and a ‘ghost choir'; the composer subsequently sculpted the material into its artful final form by weaving layers of samples and field recordings into the strings' fabric.

Patton brings an impressive CV to the project. A graduate in Music Composition from the Manhattan School of Music, he's been mentored by James Tenney and John Corigliano, collaborated with choreographer Paul Taylor, dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, and film director Guy Maddin. Patton's also curator of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra New Music Festival and teaches new music at the University of Manitoba.

The composer himself acknowledges there's something deeply unsettling about the recording: “There is something very genuine and at the same time very wrong in what I am doing. The recordings are very disturbing; as we listen to these cockpit voice recordings, real people are about to die.” Certainly the listener experiences some degree of voyeurism in eavesdropping on the voice transmissions, knowing that the people on board are moments from death. Yet as perverse as this aspect of the project might seem, Patton sidesteps charges of insensitivity when it's revealed that his own brother perished in a plane crash. That terrible detail allows The Infected Mass to be regarded as a creative exercise in catharsis and a way for Patton to purge himself of the anguish wrought by his sibling's death, and in handling the material with restraint, the composer tempers the horrific potential a less sophisticated producer might be tempted to exploit.

From the moment the ambient hum introduces “Before the Beginning” and a muffled voice repeatedly mutters “Oh my God” (at least so it appears), the work is permeated by tension, and dread is pervasive, too, especially when the cockpit recordings surface and the rumble of the airplane slowly increases to signify the impending cataclysm. As the work progresses through its seven parts, the murmur of the wordless choir reinforces the material's hymnal character, amplified breathing intensifies its visceral impact, and keening strings deepen its elegiac tone. The controlled panic audible in the pilot's voice during “First Partially Recollected Conversation” (“We're in a dive here ... We've lost vertical control of our airplane”) gives the piece an unforgettably chilling power, and as the background hum builds to a climactic windup, it's almost impossible not to think of the 9/11 planes plunging into the WTC buildings and the terrible escalation in volume that attended the aircrafts' approach. As perhaps should be obvious by now, The Infected Mass exudes an aura of profound sadness reminiscent of William Basiniski's Disintegration Loops while at the same time an austerity typical of Arvo Pärt.

March 2017