Colleen: Les Ondes Silencieuses

Colleen: Les Ondes Silencieuses

On her latest release, Colleen strips away the electronics and loops of her previous efforts and invests more heavily in the sound of “real” instruments. The result is an album that is restrained and filled with silence. Repeated listens reveal delicate patterns and instrumental variety; though anyone seeking an easy ambient soundscape in which to lounge should look elsewhere. Simple and deliberate, Les Ondes Silencieuses (“The Quiet Waves”) is nevertheless puzzling. The music neither takes an obvious compositional path nor relies on an easy appeal to the emotions.

Celine Schott grew up in the suburbs just south of Paris. Her first release as Colleen was made on her home computer. That album, Everyone Alive Wants Answers(derived from CDs borrowed from her public library), was an engaging collage of electronics and real instruments with a focus on looped sound. Not a radical thing in 2003, but The Wire took notice — rightly so, as the record was equal parts lovely and raw. Gigs followed, with Schott emulating the album by manipulating pedals with her toes while playing “real” instruments.

Her follow-up, The Golden Morning Breaks,wherein Colleen kept the loops but ditched the samples in favor of natural sound, was one of the most sublime releases of 2005. Further gigs saw her on bills with the likes of Keith Fullerton Whitman, Murcof, A Hawk and a Hacksaw, David Grubbs, and Dirty Projectors. In 2006, she released the live album Mort Aux Vaches (limited to 500 copies) and a 14 track EP, Colleen et les Boites a Musique, constructed entirely with sounds from music boxes. The EP was quite flashy and immediately enjoyable, but Les Ondes Silencieuses will prove to be the more substantial and enduring collection.

“This Place in Time” is as unfussy as the rest of the album. Without stretching for any particular feeling or mood, Colleen takes us to a place of deep contemplation with her viola da gamba (a relative of the Spanish vihuela –a plucked guitar-like instrument– and similar in playing posture to the viola and the Moorish rabab). Her previous use of loops gave her music a well-defined structure. In deliberately losing that device, she gambled with intensity. The risk has paid off. Much of Les Ondes Silencieuses is unpredictable, and the compositions are more open and travel further from their points of origin than do the compositions on her previous albums. “Le Labyrinthe” exudes the air of a piece transcribed from medieval times, probably because the spinet sounds like a lute. The sense of getting hopelessly lost is conveyed, along with a sudden mid-level panic. I was rather glad when it ended.

There is excellent contrast here, as the next track, “Sun Against My Eyes”, combines clarinet and classical guitar, conjuring outdoor images of peaceful landscapes uninhabited by anyone except the listener and perhaps a few animals. (The phrase “Les Ondes Silencieuses” can also refer to the behavior of certain animals prior to an earthquake). Colleen’s clarinet work is strong and direct, and in one passage just past the two minute mark, there is a dub-like echo on a note which I enjoyed immensely. The seventh track, “Sea of Tranquility”, seems to be a companion piece to “Sun Against My Eyes”, and the instrumentation is wonderful on both. The simplicity is mesmerizing. Notions of reflection and balance come to mind — the ebb and flow of water, or planetary effects on the Earth, along with an odd illusion of time passing and yet standing still.

“Le Bateau” features viola de gamba, plucked and bowed, the same theme rocking back and forth as if bobbing on the waves. “Blue Sands” has fretwork which reminds me, pleasantly, of the fluttering guitar on the first two Leonard Cohen records. “Echoes and Coral” repeats the theme from “This Place in Time” using crystal glass (is it crystal or glass? crystal glasses? lead crystal?) as a solo instrument. These simple compositions are uncluttered and solemn. Colleen’s work is naked here, with nothing to obscure the essence of her music. Her use of silence creates both calmness and tension.

A visit to the official Colleen website lists all the concerts she has performed and, among other things, some of her favorite books, films, and music. They include the magnificent Russian film Andrei Rublev (with its vast time span, crawling pace, and the most horrific –- but blink and you could miss it — scene ever created), Jonathon Coe’s novel The Rotter’s Club, the early 1970s group Medicine Head, the electronic experimentation of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, as well as Joe Meek, Delia Derbyshire, and Joy Division.

Les Ondes Silencieuses is clear, gentle, and lovely. It has a glacial and elegant quality, yet grabs and keeps our attention as easily as a seasoned orator using a soft, confident tone to quiet a room full of people. Colleen retains her adherence to acoustic and non-rhythmic composition, and this appears not to be hampering her musical progression. Back on her website, Harry Partch also gets a mention, and the idea that Colleen may have to design and build the instruments she requires for her journey into sound (as Partch did) is not beyond the realms of possibility.