Paul Jebanasam - Continuum [Subtext - 2016]Paul Jebanasam’s recorded output is regrettably small. This, the follow-up to 2013’s Rites - an album of liturgical music for the post-dubstep age – is only Jebanasam’s second full length record, released as its predecessor was on his own Subtext label. Like Rites this new work is a concept album and this time round the scope is on an even grander scale than before.
According to the label blurb “Continuum emerges as a crystallised vision deploying sound to explore the spectrum of life, power and energy present in the universe. Creating a speculative soundtrack to a timeline stretching from the primordial emergence of organic life through to the unknowable trajectory of the universe, it explores the magnitude of science’s reach and the precarious role of humanity within this vast evolving system”. Immediately one is struck by the ambition of such a project which would seem to involve a collective representing of more familiar experiences of living things with almost unfathomable cosmic processes. The question comes to mind as to whether contemporary composition is even capable of exploring these ideas. After all even the concepts of theoretical physics and mathematics which have developed as an explicit attempt to grasp such objects are basically unintelligible to a general audience. Clearly then in order to make this record possible there has to be a more or less total aestheticization of the ideas involved.
The track titles are enigmatic to say the least. They appear to be long mathematical formula although there are gnomic phrases scattered throughout; depart as...air...somewhere..waiting...for..you, and eidolons beginning...to...see to wait...that...I..do not countless. Whatever their deeper significance they will certainly give media players around the world a few glitches. The record cover which shows the interior of the plasma reactor of the Joint European Torus (JET) - an experimental apparatus for investigating fusion energy - is a fine choice of image to accompany the music within. The first track begins with a kind of explosive burst of energy from which harmonic drones slowly rise and around which other electronic textures circulate. Could this be both an idea of the birth of the universe and what goes on inside a fusion reactor? As the composition takes shape there appears an almost kinetic interplay between more slowly developing melodic sounds and the chaotic textures which burst forth periodically. Although the music is essentially "textural" it is not atonal, as time and again out of the static bursts and processed electronics appear dramatic sweeps and harmonies.
The second piece mines a more familiar vein of contemporary composition and ambient music revolving around grainy processed string or synthesiser chords which lend the sound a kind of far off fragile grandeur. Imagine Samuel Barber projected across light years and picked up by an alien satellite, or the Caretaker's Patience (After Sebald) but on a grander scale. This is, despite the pretentions towards grand scientific systems and notions of progress, very emotionally resonant music. If Jebanasam is drawing us up to the stars it is not by stimulating the rational faculties but more by tugging at the heart strings. His Subtext label mate Roly Porter's similarly cosmic Life Cycle of a Giant Starand recently released Third Law appear almost cold hearted by comparison.
The final piece returns to the opening track's dramatisation of cosmic processes. This time there is more of a rhythmic element with fast pulsing electronics up front with again the spectral melodies and sweeping glitches in behind. Again it's extremely kinetic music with the bass driven elements displaying the Bristolian producers connection to his city's urban music scene. After around ten minutes the noisier elements move to the back allowing the almost choral refrain which has haunted the record from the outset to find full expression. A movement of release or of the universe returning to itself? It's hard to tell but it's undoubtedly a very satisfying end, successfully combining cutting edge electronic processing with good old fashioned melody.
Jebanasam is far from being the first composer to attempt to capture grand cosmic processes by applying the seemingly limitless possibilities of modern music technology. Stockhausen, Ligeti, Parmegiani and in particular Iannis Xenakis are obvious touchstones. Any comparison with compositional forms of this sort is resisted however by the presence of so much pathos in these three tracks which renders the theoretically vast scope of the project as more of a wide eyed gazing up at the stars. Like his colleague Roly Porter as well as a host of other records released recently in the same field (Ricardo Donoso chief among them), the influence of Hans Zimmer’s bombastic cinematic syrup is all over this. Blasts of noise over processed glissandi, dramatic orchestrations of light and shade, softer textures suddenly disrupted by dissonance and discord like the jump-cut in a trailer for an action movie. Yes the length of these pieces allows Jebanasam to develop the ebb and flow of the various elements to a degree that far exceeds the instant gratification expected by the Hollywood dream factory, nevertheless there is clear presence of that ubiquitous striving for the “EPIC!” that characterizes modern widescreen entertainment. This certainly isn’t a criticism of the quality but I rather think that Jebanasam’s celestial events are more Wagnarian than he perhaps realizes. This is grand science as a revelation of the universe and man’s destiny within it; a mythos so to speak, and thus we find the record maintains more in common with Rites than it first seems.Duncan Simpson