November 25, 2011

Vital Albums: The Door in the Wall

offthesky - The Door in the Wall

I was an easy recruit. I stumbled across a new label called Wist Rec and one of its early projects, the Book Report Series. The series consists of releases of music inspired by literary works selected from among the Penguin Mini Modern Classics. Each release takes the form of a 3” CDR attached to a copy of the book upon which it was based. A translucent dustjacket mingles the names of musician and author. This combination of book and music is, according to the Wist Rec site, intended to “allow one to glean new, immediate connections between differing art forms,” and each release is limited to 100 copies. This was already intriguing. Add the twin facts that one of the works chosen was a short story by H.G. Wells that I remembered particularly admiring some years ago, and that the artist who would be covering this work was one already responsible for well over 200 tracks in my music library, and it was an easy decision to order The Door in the Wall by offthesky.

What I remembered was a story about a young child who one day discovers a door in a wall in a backstreet and, upon entering, finds himself in a kind of paradise, a place of light, tame panthers, delightful games, and kind strangers. But then, through a small act of rebellion, he is cast back out into the world. At various later points in his life he sees the door again, but is always kept from entering by the things with which he has made his life busy – the pursuit of status, success, and power. Eventually (not to give too much away) his story ends in circumstances whose import for the green door and its hidden paradise remain ambiguous. That was what I remembered, and so what I expected, without thinking about it very much, was perhaps a gorgeous swell of lambent clarity, something (as Wells says of the garden) “clean and perfect and subtly luminous,” coupled with a descent into yearning, the kind of thing that offthesky’s delicate acoustic/electronic atmospheres might pull off rather nicely. Expectations often frame perception. When I first listened to the recording, I was a little disappointed. The soundscape begins murky, distant, almost muffled. As it progresses the piece becomes increasingly discordant and, towards the end, frantic. Not quite what I had in mind.

Then I sat down to read the story with the music playing on headphones. It took about one and a half plays of the track before I was done reading – no, I chided myself, it’s not a literal soundtrack. As I listened and read, the label’s hopes for the release began to be realized – I found the conversation between sound and page putting both in a different light, each adding dimensions to the other. Paying attention now, with the help of the music, I began to realize how much anguish there is in the tale, how much the luminosity is veiled with doubt, regret, and grief. The initial setting is a little claustrophobic, a “focused, shaded table light,” a “shadowy atmosphere,” and the story of the green door begins with a confession: “I am haunted by something – that rather takes the light out of things, that fills me with longings.” The story of the hidden garden paradise comes to us second-hand via a narrator who heard it (with skepticism) of an evening from a friend who began recounting events from his childhood and is now driven to sleepless distraction by his inability to reattain the lost luminosity he describes. True, the garden shines forth briefly in the narrative, but for the most part the story is not about the garden but the door, and it is a story not directly about beauty, but about “the haunting memory of a beauty and a happiness,” about “the garden that has haunted all his life.”

As the child grew into a man, life grew more complex – politics, romantic liaisons, academic ambitions took over from childhood visions. But the purity of those visions keeps their surrogates from satisfying, and when, years later, the door returns, he confesses that “with it has come a sense as though some thin tarnish had spread itself over my world. I began to think of it as a sorrowful and bitter thing that I should never see that door again.” By the end of the tale, after he has failed to enter through the door on several occasions, he is tormented by lost peace. “You say I have success – this vulgar, tawdry, irksome, envied thing. I have it,” he says. “My soul is full of inappeasable regrets. At nights – when it is less likely I shall be recognized – I go out. I wander…alone – grieving – sometimes near audibly lamenting – for a door, for a garden.” The music helped me to notice how much of the story is told through this lens of lament, and of awareness that the absence arises from abject failure to choose to enter through the door that has been presented.

The story, at the same time, helped me to hear the complexity of the music. The soundscape that begins the piece is urban rather than pastoral, echoing, indistinct, with dislocated snatches of children’s voices. A piano joins, melancholy, muffled, as if heard through a fog. Strings hint momentarily at transcendence, but become accompanied by, and then attuned to, and then taken over by an emerging background drone. The drone, faintly industrial, begins simply grey compared to the piano melody, a background tone. For the first half of the track the piano’s voice continues, but now contends for attention with the developing drone. As the piece progresses the droning becomes ever more complex, more insistent, more piercing, more layered, and busy, and stressed, reminiscent by turns of bagpipes, sirens, a tortured saxophone, a crackling conflagration, a concatenation of pieces held together by straining. At a certain point it tips over into decay, begins to oscillate and break up. Amid the falling shards the piano returns, and the childish echoes, finding their place now alongside a single drone, a single remaining tone, somber yet resolute, as if the chaos has found its way back to a determined center. It fades into silence.

The more I listen to this piece in conversation with the story, the more it moves me. It is an accomplished tone poem, and a splendid piece of music, and it offers a telling aural reading of Wells’ tale. Through its own emotional pull it adds vividness to the tale of regret and harried self-deception. The story in turn elevates the music from an interesting soundscape to an aural narrative of failure to receive a peace freely offered. Each alone is worth the time spent; together, each further dignifies the other.

There is a second track on the CD, The Sea Raiders, that accompanies another of the three stories in the book. It too is worth a listen, though here both story and music seem to me more straightforward, and I will not delve into them further here. It seems there are still physical copies of the release left for purchase; if you miss out, then a combination of the download soon to be available from bandcamp and accessing the story online or from your local library will serve instead. Either way, this is a door you should open.

Filed under Ambient, Analysis and Opinion, Drone, Electronic, Reviews, Vital Albums