Vol. 37 Issue 4 Reviews

Felipe Otondo: Tutuguri

Compact disc, 2013, Scd28070; available from Sargasso, P. O. Box 221, Baldock, SG7 6WZ, UK; telephone: +44 (0) 1462892181; http:// www.sargasso.com/.

Reviewed by Ross Feller
Gambier, Ohio, USA

Otondo CDComposer Felipe Otondo studied acoustics in Chile where he also began composing and performing music for experimental theater productions. If this compact disc is any indication, his music has certainly benefitted from this unusual combination of disciplines. The liner notes for this disc contain quotes by Conlon Nancarrow and Antonin Artaud, effectively mapping the conceptual and aesthetic territory covered therein. Otondo’s music combines a keen sense of cyclic, irregular pulsation with an awareness of hallucinations, and extreme or marginal states of consciousness that are represented timbrally. The music on this disc is theatrical, but in an abstract, non-narrative sense.

In the first piece, Irama, separate pulse patterns, each distinguished with a different synthetic timbre, are gradually overlaid. These patterns are altered through sudden changes or suspensions of tempo. The result is that one simultaneously hears different time scales, a device that Otondo, perhaps, borrowed from Nancarrow. This piece is also characterized by extended speed variation techniques, but unlike those found in traditional musique concréte here the materials are all synthetically derived.

According to the liner notes, the title refers to the “time interval between two successive sounds or actions. The term can also be used to refer to rhythmic relationships between any of the subdividing parts in gamelan performance as well as tempo in general.” One of Otondo’s stated purposes in making this piece was to “investigate distinctive rhythmic features of traditional gamelan music using the unique timbral explorations of contemporary electroacoustic music” through the exploration of what he calls “micro-rhythmic” materials. With respect to his goals for Irama, Otondo is largely successful. One hears large gong-like sounds that sound and function much like their counterparts in gamelan music, as well as clearly defined rhythmic cycles of different, yet related, lengths. These attributes, along with the use of resonance and decay to suggest virtual space, are present to some degree in all four works on this disc.

Teocalli, the second piece on Tutuguri, was inspired by a short story by Julio Cortázar in which a man riding a motorcycle lands in the hospital after an accident. While there he hallucinates about being a fugitive from a group of Aztecs who are looking for victims for human sacrifice. The story oscillates between the hospital environment and the jungle. The composer utilizes the concept of a parallel narrative form, switching back and forth between two distinct types of musical texture. Source materials were derived from field recordings taken in Mexico City, and from interviews with Zapotec-speaking women from various locations in Mexico. The vocal samples seem to not merely have semiotic purpose but also serve melodic and even harmonic duties. Hence, they are integrated into the musical fabric. Sudden changes of texture employing manipulated samples and the aforementioned resonance treatment, effectively keeps the listener off-balance. This binary oscillation makes for an intriguing listening experience especially if heard with the program notes in mind.
The third piece, Ciguri, was partly composed from another piece of Otondo’s entitled To Have Done with the Judgment of Artaud, which was commissioned for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. This composition explores the inharmonic timbral character of various bell sounds that are placed within expanding and contracting time frameworks.

The piece begins with fast, reiterated attacks of the bell timbres (using frequency modulation synthesis) that gradually build in volume and timbral density, culminating with larger, thicker bell tones. At this point, high frequency sustained resonance takes over the focus. Eventually these sustains are juxtaposed with other bell tones sounding like an mbira (African ‘thumb’ piano) but one made out of hollow metal tubes rather than flattened metal tongs, and Tibetan prayer bowls being struck with small sticks. Otondo’s pairing of slowly evolving textures with slowly moving spatialization works well in this piece. Ciguri ends with a long fade-out of the high frequency resonance in a particularly ‘pure’ form that is almost painful to hear. This is not unlike the experience of listening to raw sine waves and seems appropriate given the work’s connection to Artaud.

Sarnath, the final work on this disc, was created as part of The Buddha’s Footprint project using field recordings made by Francis Booth from Buddhist pilgrimage sites in India. According to the liner notes “(this) composition explores the use of textures and rhythmic passages to create different types of sonic environments linked to intense and subtle states of mind experienced through meditation practice.” Like the other works on Tutuguri this piece features irregular pulse patterns, sudden changes of texture, frequency modulation synthesis, and long decays. The use of field recordings adds an additional layer of significance that foregrounds an ambiguous space, though one can certainly discern that this space is outdoors or outside. By slowly layering natural and artificial sounds Otondo once again achieves a kind of hallucinatory effect that ultimately sounds like it emits from the internal world of a theatrical character. Of course this is a standard technique of the film music composer but here, given the largely abstract and unidentifiable nature of Otondo’s sonic palette, the result is much more suggestive.

Tutuguri presents us with thick, compelling electroacoustic textures and fast, irregular paced pulse patterns that blend well with each other, even though they are part of various novel combinations. This technique reminds me of the Russian Formalist Victor Shklovsky’s term ostranenie, wherein common things are presented in unfamiliar or strange ways in order to enhance the perception of the familiar.

As I mentioned, the four pieces on Tutuguri share many attributes. Additionally, they all have similar durations. Three of the works have lengths around nine and a half minutes, while the other piece lasts ten and a half minutes. There is a kind of conceptual tidiness that one might appreciate, while at the same time hope for a drastically different time scale to mix things up a bit, unsettling the reified sense of consistency or familiarity one might have after listening to these pieces.

Otondo’s sense of musical drama or theater is palpable, largely realized by his consistent employment of opposing timbral and rhythmic materials. His music clearly evinces attention to timbral detail, recording techniques, and mixing practices that are well balanced and pristine. Otondo reuses similar concepts and techniques but treats them a little differently in each piece. Overall, this is a highly successful disc that will be of interest to listeners interested in well-crafted compositional approaches to electroacoustic music with a flare for the dramatic, featuring a very personal and intriguing style.