First layer: Blood and hate and keening grief. In the mid-17th century the Duke of Savoy pursues a brutal campaign to suppress communities of Waldensians living in the mountains of Piedmont. The Waldensians are followers of Peter Waldo, a Bible-oriented group excommunicated in 1215 because of their departure from various Catholic teachings. Despite repeated persecution, they have been able to establish small mountain communities. In 1655 an attempt at forced conversion meets with rejection, and is followed by an orgy of rape, torture, and murder that shocks Europe. 1700 men, women, and children are burned alive, dismembered, variously and gruesomely massacred.
Second layer: Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughtered saints. Later the same year, John Milton protests and commemorates the massacre in his sonnet “On the Late Massacre in Piedmont”. The sonnet expresses outrage on behalf of those “Slain by the bloody Piemontese that rolled /Mother with infant down on the rocks.” It strides from a call for God’s justice to imagery of resurrection, with future faith and resistance to tyranny growing from the “martyred blood and ashes” so liberally sown across the mountainsides. The sonnet puts the widely felt horror at the atrocity into words, yet also removes us a step, the cries of terror and agony now modulated into measured and metered form, pain become poetry.
Third layer: The Ashes of Piemonte. 358 years removed from the original event, Wil Bolton and Lee Anthony Norris team up to release a melancholy album of drifting ambient meditations inspired by Milton’s poem. The actual violence is now even further removed, leaving only a rippling watercolor wash of elegiac regret. Lingering synths envelop pensive guitar, piano, gentle field recordings, water, bells, birds, more water, cavernous fragments of voice, creating an indeterminate meld of mood and locality. Somber notes chime with gentle dismay, reverberate, and decay. Some of the structure of Milton’s composition is reflected in the sudden arrest of motion at the end of Faraway, and in the buzzing fecundity of the closing track with its emotional upswing. The bold angles of Milton’s actual declarations have melted into brooding ambience.
It was Bolton’s name that drew me to this – his albums Time Lapse, Chimes for a Wall Drawing, and Angel in the House, are three of my favorite releases from the past few years. Winter’s Fire is great listening too, with added complexity due to the implied narrative frame. It’s not too often that an ambient album is so ambitious in relation to the ideas it engages (Daniel Thomas Freeman’s The Beauty of Doubting Yourself springs to mind as another stellar example). It invites a slightly different kind of listening, in which the sounds no longer stand just for themselves, but aspire to utterance. Can an ambient treatment of Milton’s reflections on the massacre of Waldensians work?
Some days I am not so sure. The music is excellent, but little of Milton’s outrage survives the translation into pastel washes of sound. The connection with what went before invites critical questions that the music alone might not have raised; a title like “Under the Shadow of Religion”, for instance, sounds a questionable note, for both Milton and the massacred Piedmontese were arguably a good deal more religious (and clearly a good deal less violent) than those persecuting. Most pertinently, sometimes while listening I find myself questioning whether zombie movie dialog (Zombi 2 is sampled) and drifting synths can do any kind of justice to the real-life suffering at the root of this story. Has it been falsified by the medium? Is “cinematic” the right response here? Has the blood of the martyrs been reduced to the elegant melancholy of sophisticated mood music?
Perhaps. But then there are other days when I hear it differently. The music is finely wrought, and if it aims to trigger reflection rather than depict history it succeeds. The brief moments of dialog, set in their new context, evoke isolation, loss, and misplaced pride in the power to control. The faintly monastic vocal sounds and their abrupt halt evoke a forgotten human reality lurking beneath the ashes of historical memory. The track titles and structural gestures back to Milton have me seriously pondering the fate of 17th century Waldensians as I walk to work; before listening I had given them no thought at all. The slowly enveloping seriousness of the music, its gently mourning timbre, can serve not as gloss but as aids to meditation, to empathy. The sonic detail invites attention. The final track is titled “Sacred Micrology”. Micrology can mean attentiveness to petty differences, pointing us back to violence over what may by now seem like arcane doctrinal disputes. But it also refers to the study of the microscopic, which is exactly what music such as this is engaged in, a careful distinguishing of small textures. Can this attention to detail draw us into actual attentiveness to the human past, to bygone “moans…redoubled to the hills”? Some days, I think perhaps it can.
The music is, let it once more be noted, beautifully done, and can be enjoyed in its own right. It is also a brave experiment in rooting ambient textures and field recordings in something with historical weight rather than generic evocation of place and mood. Does it succeed? Find out for yourself; the process of searching for meaning in these sensuous sound sketches has rewards of its own either way.
David Smith currently lives in the Midwestern United States, where he teaches, writes, and enjoys a very wide range of music, with regard to which he claims no expertise whatsoever beyond that of a dedicated and appreciative listener.
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