(New Album Review) Loren Chasse- The Animals and Their Shadows
Even when held up to the light with the rest of the Jewelled Antler collective (a group of musicians and sound artists who came together in 1999 in the Bay Area to help share and release each other’s work), field recordist, educator, and musician Loren Chasse is someone with a wholly distinct vision. Comrades Steven R. Smith and Glenn Donaldson have mostly stayed firmly on the pathway of mystic drone-folk, their sort of an American West Coast answer more to Florian Fricke than Robbie Basho, while Chasse, sometimes on his own (either under his birth name or under the on-hiatus moniker Of), sometimes collaborating with Christine Boeppele as Ov or sound artist Jim Haynes as Coelacanth, has always soldiered into realms even more free, dissolving the psychedelic free-improv approach seen on his albums with Thuja into unusual field recordings to create stuff less in the mode of music per se and more in that of purely imaginative soundscapes.
What is Loren Chasse’s art about? It’s not easy to explicate. In his own words, it’s about being a more observant listener to the world. And on a release like 2014’s wonderful Characters at the Water Margin (off Unfathomless), a series of field recordings made in Washington along the coastline of the Olympic Peninsula, one can see how strongly this philosophy relates to the sound art he’s putting out; on a surface level, the pieces on that album have a serene, passive ambience to them, since, on a surface level, the album is a series of only slightly manipulated recordings of a man playing with organic debris at the cusp of the Pacific Ocean. But what is the work as a whole truly about or for? Peer a little more deeply into it, regard the sounds as having a deliberative quality, and you begin to get the sense of a sonic storyteller, of sounds bringing vague characters and their histories to life. It’s abstract, but representational. Looking at Chasse’s work, I’m sometimes reminded of one of my favorite artists Morris Graves (another West Coast guy) and his weird, ghostly birds looking deep in thought within a void haloed with sticks, flowers, and thorns.
It’s a kind of psychedelic magic realist vibration that Chasse taps into, something of the past but not necessarily indebted to a musical idiom based in long-standing tradition. When it comes to sound art with a compelling narrative quality, Chasse is consistently one of the most imaginative and exploratory folks out there in the field. This year saw him put out two physical releases: The Sodden Floor on cassette from Notice Recordings and The Animals and Their Shadows on CD from Semperflorens. Of the two, The Animals and Their Shadows is much less musical than the ultra lo-fi, less field-recording-based The Sodden Floor, and for those curious about what it is that makes Chasse’s work so special, this is honestly what ought to make it all the more welcome a place to drop in.
The sound of The Animals and Their Shadows is summed up best by the title of a piece featured on it: “Biomimicry”. Sounds obtained through unconventional means become the chatter of seabirds, the howls of grey whales, the patter of feet racing through the undergrowth, the whispering of leaves in the wind. Chasse aims for the extreme registers but keeps everything on a small scale, not using electric instruments or relying much on the processing kinds of sound manipulation but instead treating objects as instruments and plying acoustic instruments with objects to create collages of sawing, sighing, indistinct sounds that together form a living picture. One reflects that Chasse may be perfectly comfortable with the rough recording aesthetic hewing things together here and on many of his other releases perhaps because he wants to keep the origins of sounds obfuscated as much as possible, keep us seeing everything holistically. Even when one can eventually recognize in the midst of these collages a classroom of tittering young kids, you can’t help but reflect how similar this sound is to ones we may not normally associate with it, simply because of the context it’s been put in. On the albums two standout pieces, “When the Flower Throwers Wither” and the title piece, deep gonglike bellows, the soft rain of sand, and tactile clicks, creaks, and crumbling footfalls call to mind the communing of life. Chasse has expressed admiration for writers like Sherwood Anderson and Knut Hamsun, and in the diversity of these small yet not small voices he’s temporarily brought to life, one can surely see the effects that he’s going for as mirroring their empathic stream-of-consciousness style, in which ghosts live as visibly as we do alongside us. It’s among his best, and definitely one of the most strikingly original sound art releases of the year.
An excellent video-piece on Chasse that aired on San Francisco’s KQED Television in 2003:
The Animals and Their Shadows can be purchased from Aquarius Records’ catalog.