Chubby Wolf – The Last Voices

by 5:4

The next piece i’m exploring in this year’s Lent Series is The Last Voices by Danielle Baquet-Long, who released her solo work under the name Chubby Wolf. At 84 minutes long, it’s by far her longest piece, and the more i’ve spent time with it over the years, the more i’ve become convinced that it’s one of her best. It’s one of a number of works that her husband Will Long has made available since her death in 2009, each of which has testified further to the depth, scope and subtlety of Baquet-Long’s skill and talent. Her loss remains a profound one.

The way The Last Voices harnesses time is fascinating. It’s tempting to ponder whether the piece ultimately does anything or goes anywhere – but that immediately prompts a necessary follow-up consideration: how do we define ‘doing’ or ‘going’? The opening minutes of the piece act as something of a paradigm for everything that follows. It’s like listening to a half-focused or blurred ‘tonic’ chord gently oscillating on its axis. As such it sounds resolved yet not exactly final; there’s a prevailing impression that there’s more to come, though equally a sense that if the music were to stop right now it would sound completely natural and make perfect sense. As time passes, it consolidates the feeling that something fundamental – in both musical and non-musical senses – is omnipresent, yet Baquet-Long has allowed considerable scope for the music to move and roam, to explore and grow, never sounding constricted. This movement is generally, though very loosely, articulated in what could be thought of as extended exhalations, punctuated with brief gathering points to draw breath that also allow a moment or two for the preceding resonance (sonic and internal) to be savoured.

The effect all this has on time is to make it feel elastic, telescoped. There are sequences where the flow of time seems practically to slow to a crawl, each passing moment stretched out into something impossibly longer, entering into a strange but beautiful place of stillness. And there are passages where time progresses almost implausibly quickly, minutes slipping by like a torrent, as if the piece were bending spacetime and the act of listening causing us to slip silently through it, unaware of the effects until later.

Another important characteristic of The Last Voices is its relationship between pitch and noise. Throughout, the piece moves freely between these poles, regularly positioning itself at the boundary of the two, where agglomerations of pitch start to become perceived as noise, and vice versa. Often, it’s hard to define the precise nature of what we’re hearing, though in general (as one would expect) the pitched elements have a smooth surface while the more noisy elements are rougher, even slightly granular. But when pitches start colliding, beating and pulsating against each other while slow-moving sound shapes pass behind them such clear-cut descriptions become less meaningful. Furthermore, here and there we hear the ephemeral possibility of the semblance of a chord progression – but these are gone almost as soon as they appear. The Last Voices exists in an ever-changing hinterland of obliquity and purity.

The most vague passages are in some ways the most engrossing. At these times (the first significant one appears around 10 minutes in) it’s as if the ostensibly rather passive creative impulse shaping the music is suddenly revealed to be utmost active, its temporary absence causing us now to drift without knowing where we are or where we’re going. Some such passages are open like this one, others feel more enclosed, such as one around 16:20 where it’s as if we were down within a dark ravine.

Throughout, there’s little sign or indication of what the original sounds were before Baquet-Long transformed them. One of the things i find interesting about this palette of abstracted sounds is how while to a degree it distances us from reality (i.e. the sound sources) at the same time it brings us closer to reality too, highlighting pitch as the foundation of all sounds, no matter how brief or transitory. As such, the music finds a balance between seeming gentle, comfortingly familiar, and unsettlingly strange, even alien.

What all of this adds up to is a soundworld of profound complexity – despite its apparently simple demeanour. i never tire of getting lost within it, allowing it to become the limits of my perception, floating according to the whims of its wonderfully unfathomable sense of direction while ever conscious that, both literally and musically, i’m never straying too far from home. But then, perhaps that’s the final point here: perhaps everywhere the piece goes is home.

In an act of remarkable generosity, The Last Voices and everything else in the Chubby Wolf back catalogue is available as free digital downloads from the Chubby Wolf Bandcamp site.

If The Last Voices piques your interest, for further listening i would recommend Ornitheology (which i reviewed 10 years ago) as another brilliant example of Baquet-Long’s long-form music; the first part in particular, ‘On Burnt, Gauzed Wings’, is just stupifyingly wonderful. The best of her smaller-scale work is to be found on Los que No Son Gentos, Maudlin & Elusive and Seasick.

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