Filipe Otondo - Night Studies [Sargasso - 2018]Felipe Otondo is a Chilean composer of electro-acoustic music who studied composition in England and is currently teaching at the Universidad Austral in Chile. Most of his previous output has involved performances of music theatre. This relatively short CD, his first recorded collection according to the sleeve notes, is constructed as an aural journey through real and imaginary nocturnal soundscapes. The sound palette is formed of sampled percussion (Javanese gamelan orchestra) and field recordings made at several global locations. As if to emphasise the meeting of cultures and locations, each of the three studies is prefaced in the sleeve with a short literary quote on the subject of night. The first from Chilean poet and novelist Roberto Bolano, the second from Carmelite friar John of the Cross and finally the well-known English author Virginia Woolf.
The first study begins in hushed fashion with the sampled gamelan's rhythmic and tonal variations seemingly submerged or in the distance. Quickly, the soundscape opens up and we're treated to a complex arrangement of field recordings and delicate layers of percussion. On one side deep glowering gongs, time stretched and modulated into drones, hover above the sounds of cars passing through the night. Then a more urgent rhythm starts up driving away the drones but leaving tinkling tones from the hammered keys or other metal instruments sampled from the gamelan orchestra. Otondo's composition displays that style of counterpoint in electronic music pioneered by Stockhausen that layer sounds in such a way as their addition and removal serves to reveal or obscure other tonalities and timbres.
The second Night Study makes good use of granular sampling and processing techniques to transform the sounds of the gamelan orchestra into rumbling, throbbing waves and sudden atonal bursts. Otondo injects a good deal of tension into the restrained use of these techniques, never crossing too far over into artifice, which maintains these composition’s overall organic feel. When he does let go, what occurs are subtle tonal shifts and gear changes in the percussive intensity. Field recordings are used even more sparingly here. If they appear at all it’s as a kind of dynamic seasoning, adding a extra spacial level into which the percussive and tonal play is staged.
The final Night Study is prefaced by a quote from Virginia Woolf: “Melancholy were the sounds on a winter's night”. Although I wouldn’t describe any of the music on night Studies as melancholic, Otondo does succeed on this final piece of adding a certain mystery or yearning which could be compared to that yearning for the lost object characteristic of melancholia. The field recordings return, adding a clearer stage setting upon which the hammered tones of the gamelan instruments are at times wrought into bell and chime like sounds. One might visualise a metal wind chime hanging outside a remote house, a light breeze in the air as traffic passes in the distance. A person lies awake listening to the sounds of the night, transformed by their imagination into wild and mysterious spectres of times past. Passages of frantic percussion are suddenly broken by harmonic drones opening up the composition for the passing of a car. These are liminal dreams where the normal rules of time and space are suspended. And like a strange dream Otondo’s Night Studies linger in the mind long after it has ended.