Paris Transatlantic - Akira Rabelais "Spellewauerynsherde"


In case you're wondering how that title should be pronounced, try "spell wavering shard" – Texas-born laptop whizkid Akira Rabelais' fondness for Middle English is also apparent in the titles of the album's seven tracks, each of which originates in definitions culled from the Oxford English Dictionary, which he describes as one of his favourite books. "1382 Wyclif. Gen. ii.7" (track one) refers to the year in which John Wyclif, who was responsible for the first complete version of both Old and New Testament in English, was excommunicated, and its full title incorporates a quotation from the Book of Genesis. The "Glower" of track two (as printed on the CD sleeve: "1390 Glower Conf. II.20") should in fact be "Gower", referring as it does to the poet John Gower, whose Confessio Amantis was one of the first epic poems in Middle English. "Promp. Parv." (track three, "1440 Promp. Parv. 518/20) is the standard abbreviation for Promptorium parvulorum sive clericorum, lexicon Anglo-latinum princeps, one of the first important Latin / English lexicons dating from, yes, 1440. 1483 (track four, "1483 Caxton Golden Leg. 208b/2") was the year printer William Caxton published the first English version of Jacobus de Voragine's Golden Legend or The Lives of the Saints. 1559 was the year of publication of William Cuningham's The Cosmographical Glasse, a treatise on mathematical methods for depicting the universe, hence "1559 W. Cuningham Cosmogr. Glasse 125". After the sixth track, which revels in the name "(Gorgeous curves lovely fragments labyrinthed on occasions entwined charms, a few stories at any longer swrn to gathered from a guileless angel and the hilt edges of old hearts, if they do in the guilt of deep despondency)" – actually a pretty good description of what goes on in the piece –, the final "1671 Milton Samson 1122" refers to Milton's Samson Agonistes, published in 1671 in a volume also containing the four books of Paradise Regain'd. The quotation "add thy Spear / A Weavers beam, and seven-times-folded shield" indeed comes from line 1122.

Intrigued? Wait until you visit Akira Rabelais' wonderful website (go to:, a veritable treasure trove of similar semantic puzzles, including sizeable extracts from works by Galway Kinnell, Petronius Arbiter, Pablo Neruda, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Bruno Schulz, Jorge Luis Borges, Shinmen Musashi and, of course, a couple of chapters by the original Rabelais, François (1483 – 1553). In an introductory commentary on this album available for consultation on the Samadhi Sound website, his younger American namesake writes: "It's interesting how words and meaning evolve over time. It's like a secret natural history of human thought." The same could be said of Rabelais' work both as a poet, musician and software designer – his Argeïphontes Lyre has been enthusiastically taken up by several notable figures in the electronica world, including Robin Rimbaud and Terre Thaemlitz. While on Eisoptrophobia (2001), Rabelais used his self-designed filters to rework piano music, and ...benediction, draw two years later was sourced in his electric guitar, the raw material here is a collection of forlorn, windswept archive recordings of a cappella Icelandic folk music he came across in a closet in Valencia CA. "I didn't want to abstract it so much that it lost its essential quality," wrote Rabelais of the source material: "I didn't want to damage the fabric of the original language, I wanted to set it, cast it in a certain light." The resulting music is quite extraordinary: a curious and compelling mixture of the medieval and the modern, which, as one critic puts it rather memorably, "despite its resonating sadness [..] grows on you like moss."

On the opening track a single vocal line slips gently into a kind of canonic imitation of itself as a cloud of reverberant resonance drifts in from afar. It's alarmingly simple and direct, yet headscratchingly complex at the same time – try humming along and see if you can manage it. "1390 Glower Conf. II. 20" is, at least at the outset, more straightforward, but Rabelais' filters work in mysterious ways, giving the illusion that time is slowing down, and erasing memory along the way. This curious and unnerving sensation continues in the third track "1440 Promp. Parv. 518/20", and on the centrepiece of the album, the 21-minute "1483 Caxton Golden Leg. 208b/2", time seems to grind to a halt altogether, the voices gathering into an eerie microtonal cloud that recalls the Ligeti choral music ("Requiem" and "Lux Aeterna") used to such memorable effect in 2001 – and Rabelais' music is every bit as mysterious and beautiful as Kubrick's inscrutable black obelisk. After this, the simplicity of the brief (44 second) "1559 W. Cuningham Cosmogr. Glasse 125" is a masterly touch, clearing the air perfectly for track six, the most melodically and harmonically daring of Rabelais' "seven sisters", in which his treatments dimple the surface of the music with wider, more expressive intervals. The closing "1671 Milton Samson 1122", apart from a brief reprise of the song that had featured in track two (transposed a semitone down, and not the same recording, apparently), floats inside the reverb cloud.

"I try to connect to something ineffable and then transmit it in some way," writes Akira Rabelais. As his titles and texts reference a period of human history when developments in human thought and language were inextricably linked with liturgical practice, it's not surprising perhaps to find a Russian icon adorning the CD cover, though in Lia Nalbantidou's photograph – which predates the album and which was specifically selected for it by Samadhi Sound's David Sylvian – it hangs above dowdy wallpaper in a room full of drab furniture. "Organic is what I go for," said Rabelais in an earlier interview. "I don't like sanitized, too-clean sound; it doesn't seem real to me." Real or imaginary, clear or confusing, mundane or ethereal, ancient nightmare or modern dream, Spellwauerynsherde is one of the most original and beautiful musical works of recent times.


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