It’s easy to forget that musique concrète dates back to France in the 1930s. Unlike other forms, its mix of repurposed musical recordings, vocals, ambient sound and electronics still feels progressive and groundbreaking decades later. Imagine what listeners of those early pioneers must have thought. Radio was only just entering the mainstream, and already thought leaders like Boris de Schloezer were encouraging composers to incorporate its sounds.
A new work by renowned Winnipeg composer Matthew Patton lives up to this rich history.
Best known for his Emmy-award winning collaboration Speaking In Tongues with choreographer Paul Taylor, Patton is also curator of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra New Music Festival. The Infected Mass is his debut under the name Those Who Walk Away.
It is a stunning success. Patton has recorded a minimalist musique concrète foundation, and then layered strings and choral vocals over top. The result is like honey in a dark roast espresso. Sweet and warm with gritty undertones. And just like that double shot, you’ll wish it lasted longer.
That’s not to say this a short work. At 49 minutes and change, it’s not that at all. What I mean is that even at this considerable length, you will be left wanting more.
“Before the Beginning” opens the album with a mournful, unsettling wind-like moan. An indistinguishably quiet spoken word loop emerges that you’ll recognize on the disc’s final track, lending a continuity to the work that adds to its power. Mid-track, Patton’s “ghost choir” enters: Una Sveinbjarnardóttir, Þórunn Ósk Marinósdóttir and Margrét Árnadóttir. It’s at this moment that the potential of this extraordinary work begins to reveal itself.
But the real emotional punch doesn’t come until track three: “First Partially Recollected Conversation.”
That conversation is between a pilot and air traffic control. “Air Alaska 261. We are in a dive here.” A bit of static, a pause. “We’ve lost vertical control of our airplane.” So begins a harrowing back and forth as the tower tries to help. The lengthy conversation is set against a field recording that sounds like an airport terminal. “He’s definitely in a nose-down position, descending quite rapidly,” reports a nearby pilot. It’s all over by the four-minute mark. “He hit the water. He’s down.” With that, the tower transitions into rescue-recovery mode, pinpointing the plane’s position and marshaling resources.
We hear a similarly traumatic recording on “Second Partially Recollected Conversation.” This plane can’t turn right, and the pilot reports “having serious doubts that I can make the airport.”
The risk with a work like this is of course that it is perceived as ghoulish. That’s not at all the case here. The emotion of the full work, and the respect with which the air traffic control recordings are presented (they are left to play out naturally as the scenes evolve), ensures the tension remains organic. The recording is a kind of documentary as well as a purely musical composition.
I don’t recommend it if you have a fear of flying. But for the rest of us, this is an extraordinary addition to any collection.