It’s just over a decade since Spanish label Neu Records was established, and as i’ve explored each new release from them through the intervening years, every single one has seemed not remotely like a regular album, but a special edition. That’s in no small part due to the presentation. From the outset, Neu has made their recordings available in multichannel formats alongside conventional stereo; furthermore, since 2015 each release has come in a beautifully-designed, DVD-size slipcase holding the CD digipack and lengthy accompanying notes exploring the whys and wherefores of the music. In an age when downloads have become so ostensibly attractive, Neu’s commitment to a refined physical product – supplemented with optional digital files – is significant and seems almost lavish. Of course, this wouldn’t mean a great deal if the music lacked interest or the recordings were poor, but in both cases Neu have excelled, exploring an eclectic (albeit, so far solely male) mix of predominately Spanish compositional voices.
If the title of their latest release, Pendular Motion, featuring a collection of works by Octavi Rumbau, brings to mind Steve Reich’s Pendulum Music, that’s entirely appropriate. Rumbau’s music similarly explores the gradual outworking of simple processes, and the centrepiece of the album is his 2019 work for cello and electronics, Five movements on pendulum motion, both the title and mechanism of which deliberately tips its hat to Reich. But there’s more than mere homage going on; if anything, spending time immersed in Rumbau’s soundworld seems less about an emphasis on process than illusion, an illusion that in its own way also derives from the swing of a pendulum: constant movement, moving one way then the other, yet remaining fixed in place; energy being demonstrated, all the while slowly evaporating.
Superbly performed here by cellist Erica Wise, percussionist Miquel Bernat and pianist Neus Estarellas with Rumbau on electronics, an illusory state of simultaneous progression and stasis permeates all four pieces on the album, to the extent that trying to regard them as separate compositions makes little sense, instead becoming discrete sections of the single, cohesive whole (there’s no mention in the notes of Pendular Motion being a cycle, but it certainly makes sense as one).
In the case of the longest piece (or section), En Suspensió for percussion and electronics, Rumbau comes closest to what could be described as a steady state, the music caught in an ongoing procession of soft, ever-changing rhythms and repetitions playing out over a variety of sustained sounds and tones underneath. Every so often these take the form of a thin band of noise coupled to a bass note, in the wake of which the percussion either becomes or seems to become more intensive. The effect is both illusory and elusory, and each time i’ve listened i’ve enjoyed the uncertainty so much that i’ve never wanted to make sure what’s actually happening.
In Five movements on pendulum motion, the nature of the illusion is at its most multifaceted. Part of it, a fundamental part, is the kind of blurring of movement and stasis i’ve already alluded to. In the central movement this is heard in its most familiar, recognisable form as a rapid minimalistic cycling on the spot; it’s admittedly easy to glaze over during this due to how familiar and overworked an idea this is. Far more telling are its other forms, such as the barely-moving dronal landscape in the second movement, where the cello meanders through floating quantities of the most delicate activity, often via actual or alluded to overtones of the harmonic series, suggesting its existence is a direct outgrowth from the deep drone below. It’s an idea established in the opening movement, where the cello rises and falls through sequences of open string / overtone arpeggios, while the electronics, in a form of timbral illusion, imperceptibly evolve into something akin to a peal of chimes.
In the final two movements, Rumbau establishes the most prominent form of illusion heard in Pendular Motion, in which Shepard tone-like pitches appear to be rising and falling in an initially vague, later endless fashion. This is coupled to a fascinating notion of the pulse simultaneously remaining regular while also accelerating, creating a cumulative effect that makes it impossible to grasp exactly what is or isn’t going on. The gleeful shift of tone in the final movement indicates a playfulness at the heard of the music that prevents it from ever sounding like the product of a dry, mathematical process.
This slip-sliding, seemingly infinite process of glissando is at the heart of One paradox 1.1 and One paradox 2.0, the two pieces that act as prologue and epilogue to Pendular Motion. One paradox 1.1, for electronics alone, is almost like a behavioural paradigm for everything that’s to follow, bringing together a fragmentary human voice and an array of arpeggiating bleeps to create a slowly expanding texture where the stability of its pulse and pitch centres is continually challenged. Each time i listen i find myself interpreting this differently: now convinced that there’s a progression, even a development, at play; now convinced it’s all stasis, going round and round without any fundamental change. One paradox 2.0 is a reworking of the piece for piano and electronics, and while it’s more obvious that an equivalent expansion is going on, it’s again undermined by the Escher-like never-ending circling back to where it started from. Due to the increase in material activity in this version, another aspect of the paradox arises from the perception, or misperception, of this expansion, hearing it possibly restarting partway through; likewise, whether or not the texture is becoming busier or simply appearing to do so due to the sliding focus on higher registers is equally impossible to resolve.
i’m aware that everything i’ve said about Pendular Motion indicates equivocality and a music that’s an amalgam of a process, a puzzle and a game. Perhaps that suggests Rumbau’s work is superficial, or even trivial, but an equal part of the paradox is the way it straddles seemingly irreconcilable attitudes of deeply serious and utterly whimsical. As a listening experience, few releases have had me flitting so quickly back and forth between intense, concentrated focus and simply laughing out loud.
Released late last year, Pendular Motion is available from Neu Records as a CD with accompanying book, which also contains a code to download the music in various high resolution stereo and multichannel formats. It’s also available purely as a download, either in high resolution or standard resolution, for those who’ve convinced themselves to transcend things physical.