March’s arrival has got a lot of us thinking back to life before the pandemic. We were in a kind of holding pattern, this time last year. We had a sense something bad was coming, but no real understanding of what it would mean to our little part of the world. I remember thinking back to the severe acute respiratory syndrome virus of 2003, and wondering if COVID-19 would be as bad. I took my social and professional life for granted. I took everything for granted, to be honest. Embarrassingly so.
A day before their North Texas community locked down, Ernesto Montiel and Miguel Espinel met for their weekly rehearsal. They had much on their minds, besides the emerging pandemic. Montiel’s father, Ernesto Montiel Guillen, had passed the day before. For a variety of reasons, his family was unable to be with him in Venezuela.
Their decision to record the Mar. 21 session was a good one. This 63-minute improvised electroacoustic work, simply entitled “Pa,” is an emotionally detailed homage. Not just to Ernesto, but to a moment in time fraught with tension and anxiety.
“It was the first creative act I committed in a world where my father no longer was,” writes Montiel in the album’s notes. “And given the nature of our methodology of work, free improvisation, the performance was absolutely permeated by my feelings.”
The duo incorporates amplified sounds and signal processing in their work. “Pa” is largely percussive, but so heavily treated that it fills the room like a harsh ambient sound sculpture. An excitable reviewer might describe this as the future of improvisation.
It is certainly the future of something. The work’s combination of relatable sentiment and creative optimism is exciting. “Pa” will make you feel like you’re listening to something important, a vital piece of art that captures where we are and where we’re going.
We admire works like this, at least in part, because of the way they reflect our time. We live in a world struggling to mitigate potentially catastrophic risks. The artifacts of right now – industrial waste, inexpensive audio tech and young adults with time on their hands – all combine to make possible a new music that reflects the last three-quarters of a century or so.
Its reliance on primarily abrasive sounds raises a fundamental question about sound art of this kind: Is it beautiful? Have its makers crafted a new aesthetic? Or is it a truthful portrayal of an ugly world; a purposeful reflection of what little we’re left to work with?
Monte Espina’s “Pa” is both of those things. It won’t appeal to a broad audience of course, but it is both a pleasing and fascinating listen. One we can be grateful for, as a document of a time in which we all shared in feelings of personal loss and isolation.