Stories for Ocean Shells by composer and cellist Kate Moore and cellist Ashley Bathgate is a deeply compelling record. Music of a deep-voyaging kind, it has the power to so completely immerse you in its world that silence at the conclusion of each piece is explosive.
First track, ‘The Open Road; No. 5, Whoever You Are Come Forth’ is an incredibly haunting piece, and despite its connection to Walt Whitman, the music brings to mind for me a great landscape, huge rolling steppes to infinity, to an infinity of sadness and trouble. There is a little bit of Muzsikás in the lilt of this piece, and their masterpiece Maramaros: The Lost Jewish Music of Transylvania. So great a melancholy rolls about this opener and its inner landscapes that I find it very moving indeed.
Title track ‘Stories for Ocean Shells’ is a different character. It has an eerie off-kilter sensibility that recalls those great albums last decade from bands like Stars of the Lid or Set Fire to Flames, where a kind of repetition or undulation worked and worked on the listener to create only a kind of fragile peace. A calm does pervade but it is always challenged by different small cacophonies and intensities. ‘Stories’ is over nine minutes long, but it is gone in a fierceness that shifts you out of the normal frames. In the last three minutes there is an ongoing quietness, but with febrile undercurrents, so that by the end a mysterious and challenging bowing says all is not calm, this is being maintained by great strength of will.
‘Velvet’ is an even longer piece, and similarly the cello weaves and wends across the duration, with a very strong sense of travel and consistency of movement again, but circled by dissonances and interventions that swoop around like crows. I have Herrman on the brain at the moment, but sometimes in the sharpness of these high interjections I’m reminded of his panic. It’s in lots of ways quite a challenging piece to listen to, because it pairs beautiful melody and steadiness with harshness and some frantic murmuring and rotating. At points it reaches a sliver of tension, like Philip Glass music shattering into internal chaos maybe, so that you think it will spin off and explode, but the music resolves, finds itself and on we go, speeding towards an extraordinary sudden stop, silence, and then something not unlike Bach escapes – ghostly, turning, quiet. It reminds me of that devastating Bach chorale in Berg’s legendary Violin Concerto, a spook in the works that gets me every time. ‘Velvet’ is actually bloody amazing.
‘Dolorosa’ is another intense piece. It has an incredible filmic quality, particularly in the haunting use of voice – and as the title suggests, you’re left with an understanding of very powerful appeal, of prayer. There are vocals here, and they’re whispered in places, so that the hymn-like introspection is very clear, but with an anxiety at the edges. In lots of ways it feels a deeply unsettling work – there is comfort, but obviously, agony. In the last minute the piece fades away in this gasped supplication, to silence, to a sense of a tick-tocked time-up from the accompanying vibraphone. It’s very special.
Perhaps my favourite comes next, the extraordinary ‘Homage to My Boots’. Something about it reminds me very strongly of the first time I heard the soundtrack to Paris, Texas. It has that kind of dislocated queasiness of time and space Cooder creates in that cramped and enormous soundtrack. As uneasy as ‘Velvet’, at one point ‘Boots’ has the quality of delay, a spinning drone, repeating like chopper blades. There is an intermittent urgency that is dizzying but half way through when it switches to the barest of laments the impact is incredible. We return again to the soundscape – for me anyway – of desert, of longing. While there is certainly movement, landscapes to walk into for sure – as the title would suggest – there’s something under the surface, something pulling all the time, some unquiet that will not cease. At the end there is a patch of silence, and then a drone-like building and pulsing as if something unwelcome is passing overhead.
No, actually, closer ‘Broken Rosary’ is my favourite. It’s that kind of record; new favourites every hearing. Every time I listen to this one – and we’re back in the otherworldy universes of Bach’s cello pieces somehow – it feels that in the depth of this music, its anguish almost, there is a powerful rumination at work. Great sweeps of anxious notes are swooping and sirening over the top of this revolving cello sequence. Like actual sirens, maybe, or some kind of keening. And then is it rain, static we hear in the background? Is it not the beads of the rosary, rolling, spilling over the floor and escaping our reach, the lost thread and order? Perhaps. But on the cello ploughs its hopeful course – we will get this fixed.