Atkinson and Cantu-Ledesma come together, McDonas amps up nuclear angst
Felicia Atkinson and Jefre Cantu-Ledesma
Comme Un Seul Narcisse
In Susan Sontag’s book of essays On Photography, she described the role of street photographer as a “voyeuristic stroller” and “an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno.” With poet Charles Baudelaire’s concept of the “flâneur” in mind—a leisurely urban stroller/explorer—Sontag’s word choices convey a slight aggression, beyond Baudelaire’s “passionate spectator” who can be, somewhat paradoxically, detached yet empathetic.
These ideas come to mind when listening to Comme Un Seul Narcisse, a long-distance collaboration between Felicia Atkinson, a French artist working out of the Alps, and the NYC-based Jefre Cantu-Ledesma, a co-founder of the group Tarentel and of the Root Strata label.
Comme Un Seul Narcisse strikes this writer as being the output of an aural flâneur, armed with a portable recorder rather than a camera, with field recordings edited together with minimal instrumentation and the spirit of electro-acoustic experimentation. The result is delicate and cryptic, with various moments like the sound of broken glass being sifted, electronic chirps, whispered French words, artificial chimes that bounce between the left and right channels, and disquieting low hums.
Instead of an urban landscape, Comme Un Seul Narcisse offers a nature walk among a few disparate synthetic elements, and the soft sound of footsteps along with a few dog barks and bird songs combine mystery with comfort. This is not a guided tour, though—the choreographed steps of a guided tour are far from the wandering, sauntering attitude presented here.
Although gentle and often calming, it is an album that will not appeal to everyone because of its lack of conventional music and melodies. However, this writer finds it compelling and fascinating and is surprised that the sound of, say, fabric rubbing against a microphone can be made to be so intimate and enticing for voyeuristic listeners.
The new album from the master keyboardist and improviser Thollem McDonas, under his plugged-in moniker “Thollem Electric,” has the cheery title Operation Sunbeam, which has a disturbing twist: that’s the name of the final series of above-ground nuclear tests conducted at the Nevada Nuclear Test Site in 1962. The album’s cover art, featuring a ballet dancer in front of a mushroom cloud, is not a Photoshopped composite, but an actual photo used in the ‘50s to promote nuclear testing.
This odd combination of gleeful vibrancy and massive amounts of destructive energy is appropriate for the album, which could be likened to a grinning, uncontrollable madman driving a tank down a city street, flattening everything in his path.
McDonas, who has released dozens of albums and collaborated with everyone from guitarist Nels Cline (Wilco) to jazz bassist William Parker to Mike Watt (Minutemen), is primarily known for his acoustic piano work, but he eagerly introduces electronic instruments into his arsenal. His primary keyboard on Operation Sunbeam is a modified Yamaha PF10 from the early ‘80s, and he uses a variety of effect pedals—distortion, ring modulation and more—to dirty things up or provide a sort of sci-fi sheen.
Operation Sunbeam was released on the label Aural Films, which has a unique shtick: its releases are soundtrack albums for non-existent movies. Clearly, Operation Sunbeam conveys the chaos, mayhem and troubling mutations that might be shown in a cold-war-era mid-20th-century sci-fi flick, with McDonas’ improvisations that harness a dark energy into piercing runs or provide a sort of nauseous uneasiness.
With McDonas’ piano work, he is always one step ahead of the game, crafting skillful runs and vamps that flow seamlessly together; here, the game seems to be different, with McDonas relinquishing a certain amount of control to the effect pedals and their grotesque manipulations, then constantly reacting to each new sound and mood.
While somewhat sinister, Operation Sunbeam is also oddly nourishing and not wearying, as if to say, “Here, enjoy this refreshing blast of wind from this nuclear explosion.”