[3 December 2009]
Throw the words “bedroom” and “recording” together early in the critique of an artist and an instant lo-fi typecast can begin to form. Throw in Kansas City and Preservation records, however, and all these preconceptions are broken. Australian based label Preservation has been quietly turning heads releasing critically acclaimed records from the likes of Grand Salvo and Saddleback since its formation in 2005. This is Kansas City-based sound sculptor Aaron Martin’s third release through the label with his previous, River Water, containing collaborations with Dawn Smithson (Sunn O)))) and Jasper TX. For Chautauqua, Martin has stripped all this back to focus on a core group of instruments—cello, banjo, and organ—weaving field recordings alongside sounds from home videos into these that result in an entirely unconventional format of bedroom recording, and a form of bluegrass all of his own, with the most bizarre combinations of familiar sounds playing out the melody at various stages through the record.
The record begins with “Lightning in the Meadow Grass” and instantly draws you in with its cathedral organ entwined within a myriad of sound recordings including a bell, a car alarm, and a dog’s bark to name a few. This track sets the bar for much of Chautauqua, with tracks set around a simple but effective structure using layering to build each track over its progression with each element manifesting itself within the composition.
“New Madrid” uses much the same formula, but the strings toward its close demonstrates for the first time that Martin is equally as comfortable using stripped back instrumentation as he is lost in the complexity of structure that creates the wall of sound he builds at various stages throughout the record.
The tracks use repetition to perfection, constantly evolving at least one element to delicately build each piece, giving a distinct depth and richness to the sound, similar in this sense to artists such as the Books and Silver Mt Zion, however in contrast to these the instrumentation on Chautauqua is often more simplistic, allowing the complexity of structure to take over. At no stage does the record seem rushed, yet it never becomes lackluster , with Martin obviously comfortable enough never to race into the more powerful sections of the record. “Orange to Eyeball” is a perfect example of this; Martin delicately builds its composition, beginning with simple strings building layers in slowly, he picks out each element of repetition separately in order to constantly evolve the sound.
“Two and a Half Acres” shows the stark simplicity of the formula by stripping back all the complexity, using a minimal basis of loops building slowly and more subtly than previous pieces with a devastating melancholic effect. The album could quite easily rest on this modus operandi and become stagnant, but Martin’s ability to experiment with it gives the effect of the record being written as two sections: the first, a more atmospheric developmental exploration of sound in space, and the second, exploring more Martin’s ability as a string composer. The album is genrefied as “experimental”, however it would be wrong to cast the second, more stripped-back post-classical instrumental work as experimental, with tracks such as “Sewickley” and “Brach Wheel” consisting mainly of compositional work showing Martin’s immense talents as a cellist and more classic songwriter of sorts than perhaps the record’s initial tracks give an insight to, as to call these classic songwriting would be quite some way off the mark. Martin transcends this change with the more stripped-back pieces of loop-based material, and because of this delicate composition you never quite notice a bold transition between the two, but listen to “Lightning Bolt in the Meadow Grass” alongside “Branch Wheel” and the stark difference is obvious.
After River Water‘s darker turn Chautauqua has moved away from the often more folksy outings to a purer intense ambience much in the way of Fridge and shows Martin to be one of a number of solo artists experimenting with the format, alongside the likes of Alexander Tucker when he himself moves towards his more generative work, with both pushing elements of the pioneering work of Steve Reich in new directions. Chautauqua explores a consciousness through space in sound that is often familiar, yet building this to a heightened poignancy through its myriad of textures and layers that seem to take on a new form the more you turn it up, like a great movie where new elements seem to manifest themselves, even in the seemingly simplest of sections.
Martin sums up the sound he has created with his own track title, “The Slowest Flood”, the perfect way to describe the way in which his compositions gradually engulf the space they present as they progress from start to finish, forming a nu-grass genre all of his own.