Massimo Pupillo Our Forgotten Ancestors

Massimo Pupillo’s Prayer for the Survival of the North Is a Haunting Ambient Masterpiece

Massimo Pupillo’s Our Forgotten Ancestors takes the Sámi peoples of the Arctic Circle as its theme and inspiration for an instrumental tour-de-force.

Our Forgotten Ancestors
Massimo Pupillo
Glacial Movements
20 October 2023

When he is pouring forth another recorded work to add to the 80-plus albums in his discography, Massimo Pupillo seems to live his life across the world’s stages in a ceaseless round of solo shows and collaborations from Damo Suzuki to Mike Patton, Thurston Moore to Thighpaulsandra. Likely best known for his work with the Italian instrumental group Zu, he has also worked with choreographers, dance groups, opera stars, and composers; built a sound installation with photographic artist Roger Ballen; arranged an album of the music of Moondog; and will soon release a record with Malcolm McDowell too.

On Our Forgotten Ancestors, Pupillo merges his expansive talents with the focused vision of Alessandro Tedeschi’s label, Glacial Movements. The record label seeks to summon sonic visions of the Arctic and Antarctic environments to develop and preserve an archive of aural impressions of the Earth’s remote poles while drawing attention to the significant threats they face. The LP moves in appropriately ambient domains without ever lapsing into background sound stasis.

Opening “Beaivi” (a sun deity) eases back and forth across crystalline flutes, eventually settling into a cycling melody that rises, ends, and returns. Then, it gives way to “Seite” (a sacred landscape of naturally formed stone used for sacrifice), essentially a duet for xylophone and synthesizer with gently beat notes creating a center around which the synth rushes. Each presents a single specific sonic concept, encompasses it, and then ends with no sudden drops or unsettling leaps from one place to another.

The same holds true on Our Forgotten Ancestors’ other sub-four-minute compositions like the deep drones of “Noaidi” (a Shamen), or drone/glitch combo of “Horagelles” (the Thunder God), or the return to flute melodies on “Joik” (fittingly, a word translating as a traditional song.) Given the ice-floe slow pace of movement across the album, these pieces fulfill the role of lengthy interludes.

All the titles are from the language of the Sámi people inhabiting northern parts of Scandinavia over into Russia. Subject to enduring discrimination amid genuine efforts by several countries to improve their record, the Sámi are mobilizing to an ever-greater degree to protest the pollution scarring their remaining lands and to defend what remains. Pupillo has chosen to dwell on the nomadic people of the north as his source of inspiration, with the visual image on the front cover being that of an Inuit woman in Greenland, taken by a Norwegian explorer on an 1888-1889 expedition.

While a song like “Ulda” (beings who, in Sámi legend, live underground and steal children) might indicate mystical and magical realms, would such a place truly be any stranger than that woman’s feelings encountering the gentleman who took her photo? Fridjtof Nansen was a driven young gentleman who earned a doctorate and acted as the League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees before being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. His life was likely neither imaginable nor comprehensible to the woman he chose to depict. Her people lived north of the Arctic tree line, the northernmost point at which trees would still grow, pursuing a nomadic life that was being vaporized by the insistence of nation-states on defining boundaries to be controlled.

Our Forgotten Ancestors swells to more epic proportions after this initial run, where the songs remain compact except for “Ulda”. “Akhàt” (“ÁkhÁt” translates as Mother Earth) moves from sparse circling plumes to spirals of sound rising to the sky below solemn strings, then the chime of bells made to drag intriguingly. “Mano” (properly “M-Ano”, the moon as a female deity) has an elegiac quality worthy of a classical concerto or opera piece. At the halfway mark, a hiss of artificial static intrudes like the pollution caused by modernity; it becomes a recurring motif haunting the song. Or maybe it’s rainfall? The hush of skis through snow?

The next pairing is the two ten-minute epics, “Sámi” and “Sàiva”. The former moves from the cover of shadows to the distant glimmer of stars, on into a moonlit landscape set against what sounds like tribal horns that grow ever more triumphal until matched to choral voices. “Sàiva” translates as a lake with a double bottom, which, in the Sámi tradition, indicates it is potentially the gateway to a netherworld, which, in turn, leads on to the world of the dead. In keeping with its theme, the sound has an aquatic softness during the initial descent, matched by more aggressive bass – a rare feature on Our Forgotten Ancestors – hinting at potential dangers. Just after its mid-point, the song passes from the drip of cavernous spaces into a new passage in which notes bubble continuously until they, too, pop and dissolve against the soft clatter of footsteps or distant hammering, which proceeds even as the bass rises and becomes omnipresent before we’re left with the twittering of insects at night.

Our Forgotten Ancestors constitutes a prayer, an attempt to find peace amid unsettling moments, so it is only appropriate that it concludes with “Màttaràhkkà” – the mother goddess crucial to reproduction and renewal. For the first time, a recognizably human voice intercedes with a brief chant. The album moves from the first moments to the last without ever leaving this meditational air of contemplation and ritual. What is impressive is that the individual pieces remain distinctive, sufficiently so to be enjoyed as isolated miniatures, while painting anew with the core palette that makes everything echo.

This ability to extend the familiar is in keeping with the poem that accompanies Our Forgotten Ancestors, one that speaks to a past where lives were not run to the movement of a clock, instead consisting of a more fundamental experience of time as a continuous present built on cycles that were ever-shifting, unpredictable at times, but ultimately reassuring in their longevity. The musical results reminded me of Dirk Serries’ ambient guitar work under his Vidna Obmana identity or of the impactful minimalism of Deathprod or William Basinski, but there’s far greater compositional complexity here with minimalist lulls always giving way to the grander whole.

The title, Our Forgotten Ancestors, nods to our shared lineage with the nomadic survivors of the north, that it is we who have forgotten ourselves. It also nods to the generational forgetfulness that allows us to deny the scale of our blessings in terms of peace, opportunity, longevity, and changes that would have felt miraculous to our forebearers. Humans are ultimately poor at perceiving incremental change and are calibrated to recognize more easily and credit cataclysm when the more gradual shifts create so much of our lives. Of course, this is not to say that modernity means happiness or does not contain the seeds of crisis. The figure on the cover smiles, or maybe grimaces, while a child peaks out over her shoulder: our response to the strangeness of life must always be equivocal and temporary, but there’s always hope and the promise of the future, too.

RATING 9 / 10