Sontag Shogun - Tale

You don't hear a lot of piano at the vanguard of contemporary music. Where the piano once served as the most mainstream instrument for much of western culture, I often wonder if the itinerant lives of most composer-types today guide them almost intuitively away from those imposing masses of hardwood and cast iron resting in the corners of their professional lives. We place so much collective value on portability, even in our relationships with the arts: recordings should be accessible from anywhere at any time, musicians should tour to share their work in a fluctuating variety of venues, and their instruments should easily tag along in car trunks or overhead compartments in airplanes. Pianos, then, are sometimes for the concert hall, but mostly for home, keeping their secrets from a past where the instrument was more prominent.

However, those same attributes that might lead some to regard the piano as a sort of phone booth of the musical instrument world in terms of portability hold emotional capacity in abundance. As a non-portable instrument in a globally-connected world, the piano can't help evoking stability in space, continuity in time, a kind of grounding force. Piano is home, indeed. The piano speaks to gently fading memories, unshakable nostalgia, longing at great distances, and to the weight of returning, forever changed for having been gone.

I'm as swept-along by the portable/mobile/always-busy routine as most folks, and these elemental forces concealed at the piano were almost forgotten to me until I had the privilege to welcome spring with Sontag Shogun's "Tale." This album is flawlessly arranged to evoke deep feelings with the subtlest of gestures: field recordings/environmental sounds, ambiguous dialogue samples, space transmissions, and synth pads intermingle, dilating time and geographical distance, peering through layers of reverb and delay. But no matter how remote any individual detail within this complex soundwork might feel, everything is ultimately married to a species of pianistic permanence. Stylistically, the music flows in many directions, including contemporary classical, experimental improvisation/sound-art, big-budget cinematic drama, and tuneful, almost indie-pop forms at times (and sometimes the music is moving in several directions simultaneously), but the piano writing anchoring it all reminds me a lot of Arvo Pärt's best work: steady and reverent, pressing toward the sacred but in a universal style.

The record has a very literary vibe for me. There's the album title itself, of course, but on the macro level, it works with the kinds of extreme contrasts needed for dramatic structure: memories versus the present, isolation versus togetherness, dreams and imagination versus stark realities. Song by song, these opposites intertwine with a real sense of purpose and movement, forming what feels a bit like a captivity narrative in which the "natives" we're struggling to understand are ultimately our own memories, and our own sense of place in contemporary culture as viewed through travel and geographic distance. It only seems right, then, that this album is released through Sontag Shogun member Jeremy Young's Palaver Press, where "Tale" is part of a larger body of work combining print, sound, and visual media.

My favorite section within "Tale" falls toward the end of the album, with the wonderful back-to-back pieces "Beyond Wynd Gey" and "The Musk Ox." These pieces roughly demarcate what feels like the climax through the denouement of the larger narrative of the album: "Beyond" feels more tense and ominous then earlier parts of the record, with lots of electroacoustic elements drawn into a dense, complex mix. Starting with metallic drones, tapping sounds, wind, and voice fragments, a synth and tape manipulation section slowly reveals the piece's piano theme, which goes through lots of sampler permutations and blends with backwards electronic sounds and a chorus of speed-manipulated voice samples. "Musk" follows with gorgeous melancholy piano work suspended in an incredibly detailed mix, subtle vocals swelling in and out. This is probably the richest, most satisfying piece here, feeling like those first hesitant steps after a good cry. I also found "Let the Flies In" particularly notable as almost the opposite of more open, unpredictable pieces like "Beyond." It's the closest thing here to a "pop song" in terms of structure and having formal vocals with lyrics. Subtle background ambience with rich stereo panning underlies pianos joined by organ pads, and there are lots of beautiful harmonized falsetto passages that I really dig, featuring guest singers Liam Singer and Cheryl Kingan.

You can pick up "Tale" on Bandcamp, but I'd recommend spending some time browsing the Palaver Press site while you pick up a copy instead. The upcoming "audio-lit" project described there, which will publish new fiction along with new music, sounds really exciting. You'll also find an event calendar there that will keep you informed of upcoming Sontag Shogun performances, which are reputed to be fantastic immersive experiences that include the ensemble's own video loop collages.

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