What is it that holds music together? How loosely can it be structured and/or organised, and at what point does its integrity irrevocably break down? When does intense earnestness become perceived as affectation? When does patience cease being a virtue and become a problem, even a handicap?
i found myself pondering all of these questions, and many more besides, as i’ve been spending time in the company of Lukomoriye, the most recent disc of music by Russian composer Alexander Knaifel, released by ECM. The nature of those questions indicates a problematic and perhaps ultimately negative listening experience, so i should stress at the outset that it wasn’t actually like that at all. Knaifel’s music was new to me, and for better or worse i’d forgotten the information from the press release that had whetted my appetite, so i hadn’t really known what to expect. In a nutshell, Lukomoriye is probably the strangest thing i’ve listened to this year, and possibly the most fascinating too.
In hindsight, it’s unexpectedly helpful that the accompanying booklet doesn’t go into the usual kind of detail about the compositional thinking behind the eight works on this disc. There are, in fact, no details at all apart from the texts associated with each piece, and one tiny but crucial nugget of information literally relegated to a footnote, which i’ll come back to shortly. To say that what one finds on Lukomoriye is music of extreme quietness would not exactly miss the point but could potentially be misleading. This is, without a doubt, very quiet music, but of a markedly different order than that inhabiting the work of, say, Jakob Ullmann or some of the Wandelweiser composers or the world of lowercase.
In some respects the opening work on the album, O Comforter, Knaifel’s 1995 choral setting of a prayer to the Holy Spirit, is different from the majority of what follows. There are no challenging issues of integrity or coherence here, the choir maintaining a consistent, unwavering solidity throughout (which in retrospect, for all its softness seems almost deafening compared to the other pieces). But behaviourally speaking the nature of the choir’s slow homophony is revealing: it’s almost as if each voice is waiting for someone else to move first rather than choosing to initiate movement themselves. This makes the work’s gradual chord progressions feel not simply painstaking, but almost painful. It communicates something that typifies this album as a whole: a sense of necessity – a burning need and/or desire to express these things – yet from a place so completely overwhelmed that the actual act of expression becomes agonisingly arduous. It’s as if the music were emerging from exposed nerve endings: excruciated music we might call it.
There’s something unequivocally uncanny about this merging of desire and discomfort, of inundation and yearning, and in the album’s most inward works, focused on or around a piano, it’s informed by that nugget of information i referred to, where texts by Lewis Carroll, Pushkin and from the Psalms are performed by the pianist such that they are “intoned by not audible”. A more jaded outlook might hurl accusations of pretension at this, but to me this feeds further into the abiding sense of excruciated music, where every sound made and word uttered is a strenuous but utterly essential risk, a risk taken, above all, from a place of engulfed rapture.
There are various means by which Knaifel extends this uncanny sense, most notably in the way ostensibly untouched acoustic sounds have been subtly treated. The recording was made in St Petersburg’s Smolny Cathedral, which is presumably a fairly reverberant space, but there are various occasions when this has been artificially extended, as in the opening notes of A mad tea-party where slow, tentative pitches are drawn out way beyond what sounds remotely natural. This Child seems to feature a pre-recorded piano in addition to the ‘live’ one, the former existing at something of a distance, and something similar is true of Confession, where some piano chords seem to have lost their attack, undermining the veracity of the piece as a straightforward ‘performance’. Perhaps there’s some clarity about this to be found in the title work, which features the most overt reverb extensions of all, and which bears the subtitle, “of a magic piano”.
However one interprets the ‘magic’, the sense of something other, acting both as the impulse for and part of the active ingredients within each piece, is inescapable. Disembodied whispers that abruptly break out and just as abruptly vanish; regular punctuations of tinkling bells, at once ritualistic and child-like; the extreme delicacy of each piano note, giving the impression the instrument was made from the most brittle glass and could shatter at any moment; the incessantly halting delivery that stretches the connective tissue of many of these pieces to incredible extremes – all of these are an integral part of the stupified lyricism of Knaifel’s excruciated music. Even its occasional forays into more forthright expression, such as a fervent bass melody in O Lord of all my life and robust piano chords a couple of minutes into A mad tea-party sound like part of the same thing, brief instances of flaring passion, bursts of undeniable energy yet seemingly impelled from without.
i’m still coming to terms with Lukomoriye. First contact was about as strange as any i can remember, and thus far while subsequent listenings have brought familiarity, they’ve also only heightened that remarkable sense of an ineffable music burning with the most miniature but infinite of flames. i can’t help feeling that, intellectually, i haven’t yet grasped what these pieces are, but emotionally, i think i understood them instantly.