Pneuma - Who Has Seen the Wind? [Songlines - 2019]Pneuma's Who Has Seen the Wind? is an odd, singular album on nearly all levels, defying classification with its unique instrumentation choices and sleepy, surreal pacing. All the members of the group play clarinets aside from vocalist Ayelet Rose Gottlieb, and the only other timbres used are the mystic drone of the shruti box and some faint electronic loops also sourced from clarinet.
The result is a dream-like reverie of vibrantly colorful melodic meanderings. The music has very little momentum or concrete rhythm to speak of, emerging from stillness and returning to it when suitable. Its patient thoughtfulness matches well with later evening and night hours.
This record exists somewhere in the gulf between free jazz and atonal 20th century avant garde classical music. The smokey yet luminously smooth and clear tone of Ayelet's voice accompanies a non-linear weave of percolating rhythmic and melodic fragments. The music has a meandering, whimsical quality which initially suggested to me it was improvised. However, certain moments also possess a complexity that it is doubtful could be achieved on the fly, with arpeggiated clarinet harmonies snaking their way around the assymmetric, labyrinthine figures of Ayelet's vocal phrasing, which shifts unpredictably according to the wording of the texts.
It creates the feeling of perceived randomness associated with atonal 20th century composers such as Schoenberg, who delighted in dissonant illogical patterns. It is also similar to Schoenberg in the way the music is attempting to sketch a tonal expression of the subtleties of a poetic text. Rather than the austere ugliness of Schoenberg, however, Pneuma's interpretation of this style is closer to some of Schoenberg's post romantic contemporaries like Alban Berg, allowing sweet melodies to bloom in the crevices of the sound.
The lyrics are taken from various classic literary sources including James Joyce, many translated Arabic and Asian authors, and even Tom Waits. This is a good decision, in my opinion, as it gives the words a tremendous density, providing a great deal of food for thought in the variety of perspectives. The tone of the recording is deeply existential and philosophical, and these classic texts are a large part of it.
Like Ayelet's voice, the tones of the clarinets are rounded and clear, with perfect intonation. Their finely tuned call and response forms the real meat of the record. In keeping with the records uneasy, unresolved feeling, each phrase seems to ask an unanswered question. Though many of the figures are rapid and rhythmic, and filled with strange tonal leaps, they dance through each with an agile delicacy. There is tremendous musicianship here, though it is never put on full display.
Pneuma's Who Has Seen the Wind? is a worthy effort, a thoughtful and puzzlingly existential creation. Fans of free jazz and pure avant garde should be able to immediately embrace it, what with its technical perfection and classic references. Cynics of these chaotic genres may also find more depth than expected in this particular experimental recording, which is filled with an uncommon amount of emotion and melody. Certainly, this recording will not possess enough rhythmic energy for some, but it is a masterpiece of a kind.Josh Landry