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Rafael Anton Irisarri: The North Bend

img  Tobias Fischer

All too often, some of the most important things in life remain unspoken for fear of exposing one's vulnerability or sounding trivial. And yet, we all need them like we need air to breathe: A friend of mine used to work as a carer at a nursing home for the elderly. One of the people she was tending to, an over 80-year old  woman suffering from memory loss, kept repeating that she loved her. Dozens of times every single day, this gently smiling grey-haired lady would remind her of the fact, regardless of the situation at hand, no matter how she was feeling or what had just been said to her. Even scolding her for secretly smoking a cigarette would uniformly be met with a statement of deepest affection. And so, for her entire career at the institution, my friend received the most rewarding compliment one human being can award to another more often than others will hear it during their entire life. And despite the occasionally unbearable workload, despite the bad pay, night shifts and the inevitable moments of doubt, she still today describes the period as possibly the happiest in her entire life.

This quality of focusing on nothing but the fundamental is also at the heart of Rafael Anton Irisarri's sophomore solo-full-length The North Bend. Depicting a process which is as much an outward as an inward one, it has taken Irisarri to the extreme limits of the sonic map, to places of both sacral splendour and monkish sparsity: Elegiac, yet alluringly anthemic string melodies form the thematic core for each of the five tracks contained on the album and as if to evoke childhood memories of spinning a top, they are spelled out again and again like a rosary, a mantra or an incantation, as if the composer were not just trying to console the listener but to convince himself that everything will be alright, will be alright, will be alright.

On opener „Passage“, this principle is run through an array of discrete changes to intense effect: Built like a two-part responsory, with the first part of the melody composed of a yearningly dropping third and the second of an affirmatively rising second, its Leitmotif forms a melancholic ostinato against a sonorously expanding and deflating bass pad and a dream-like harp-sequence. Only shortly afterwards, it  segues into a shorter, rhythmically offset motive, which deepens the trance by ever so slightly rupturing the flow. In the final stages of the piece, a distant organ-theme appears behind clouds of drifting harmonics - a surreal and almost playful signal in a world otherwise marked by an immense and serene calm.

Considering their shared penchant for infinite reverb-spaces, symphonically rich textures and the prominent use of repetition, it is certainly tempting to liken The North Bend to the oeuvre of William Basinski. And yet, the comparison is bound to be a superficial one. With Basinski, transformation is revealed as a Kant'ean process limited by our sensory capacities as well as the fear of the human mind of being confronted with absolute immutability. Albums like Vivian & Ondine or A Red Score in Tile excel at playing tricks on the brain – to the objective observer, nothing at all is happening here, but face to face with infinity, one's imagination starts discovering wondrous connections where, with all likelihood, there are none and perceiving changes where, objectively, none are taking place. With Irisarri, however, repetition is not a tool to suspend time and bring out its spatial qualities, but a technique akin to meditation aimed at uncovering the ultimate meaninglessness of all such categories and of accepting the merciless decay of all things as an integral and necessary part of life. It is easy to see why 20th century-composer Erik Satie should be of seminal importance to him: Just as in the French Impressionist's famous „Gymnopédies“, harmonic progression is gradually cancelled out by the pendular drift of its components. What remains in their wake is a space of grace and beauty, gently rocked by the self-effacing motion of peaceful themes.

Quite clearly, then, The North Bend is anything but a lazy continuation of Irisarri's past oeuvre or a mere refinement of his style – effectively, it opens up a new chapter. The piano, which still constituted the main lead instrument on his 2007-debut „Daydreaming“, no longer even features here. And compared to the concise sketches of its predecessor, his latest work discretely tends towards the epic, especially in the two drawn-out tracks closing out the album. Walking a tightrope between tradition and experiment, these pieces undeniably border the obsessive in terms of compositional minimalism - especially so „Traces“, at ten and a half minutes the longest track of the album. Again, a continuous string melody spans up a blue, cloudless horizon over a warm desert of comforting resonance. This time, however, the variations of „Passage“ no longer take hold. Instead, Irisarri merely contrasts the loop with all but imperceptible motives – a quiet rhythmical scratching here, a single fluctuating tone resembling a bird call there - which he presents one by one, delicately fading out the present element to make room for the next. Defining this as the result of an intimate dialogue with nature, as Jefferson Petry's liner notes suggest, through which an environment is inwardly recreated and emotionally mapped in the mind of the artist, is justifiable. But so is characterising it as the most classic Ambient imaginable, as mood music and, quite literally, pure ambiance.

What prevents it from ever slipping into mere background texture is Irisarri's constant active involvement. The content itself may not be changing, but its constituent elements are – the sparse array of motives is constantly juggled around and kept in motion, their mutual relations, dynamics and colours constantly transforming. The North Bend is an album which counterbalances the outer world's pervasive informational overload and replaces it with a system of processes that are always challenging but never overburdening. It is a deeply human music that wants to communicate and engage rather than stun or impress and it doesn't shy away from exposing its vulnerability. If this should alienate some listeners, then that is a danger Irisarri is prepared to take: When it comes to the questions that really matter in life, you can't repeat these things often enough.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Rafael Anton Irisarri
Homepage: Room40 Records

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