Originally posted at A CLOSER LISTEN
Disappearing In A Mirror follows last year’s Borders And Ruins, both on Karlrecords, and together they form an intense and complimentary diptych of ambient drone sound design. While Giulio Aldinucci‘s earlier record explores the relationship between peoples and territories and the instability of both as imaginary constructs, Disappearing In A Mirror turns inward, applying this logic to the frontier between the self and the world, into a space of more intimate thoughts and emotions, where identity too is revealed to be an unstable fiction. These albums are not negative images of one another, but there is a noticeable contrast between the two even despite their complementary nature. A comparison of the cover art side by side reveals the balance of inverted darkness and light of Borders And Ruins appears much brighter, with a smaller but more concentrated darkness in its sequel. Both draw on sonic imagery of the sacred, letting detailed sound design shine through restrained and at times minimal layers of sound.
Borders And Ruins consists of a series of mutating soundscapes blending electronic tones with field-recordings made while traveling across the continent. Beauty and decay are intertwined, with a feeling of dread never far from the surface. The album’s final song, “The Skype Cloud And Your Smile On The Left” may even be Aldinucci’s most beautiful and melodic composition of his career. While a cryptic tension animates both records, the frightening nature of the sublime resonates more strongly in Disappearing’s regress into interiority, subverting the associations of choral music as sacred into something far darker.
The experience of listening as a collective practice is apparent on Borders And Ruins, possibly inspired by Aldinucci’s project with Francesco Giannico for World Listening Day in 2016, in which the two solicited recordings from public spaces around the world to reflect on recent protests in the form of the occupation of public space. Perhaps as a means of signaling a shift from exterior to interior boundaries, Disappearing In A Mirror noticeably relaxes the use of field-recordings, using electronic means to stimulate different modes of perception. Rather than locating such phenomena within the relationship between sound and architecture, Aldinucci draws on the lessons of years of practice to create these phenomena through “artificial” means, but no less artfully.
Approaching these two records as companion albums deepens the latent meaning which might otherwise remain lost in subtext and abstraction. Fittingly, they are available to purchase as a joint LP set. They are united by a palette of streaked choral glossolalia, anchored by a dynamic low end, and subtle highlights of brighter textures and thoughtful details. But Disappearing gets lost in its own process of introspection, making this disorientation productive creatively, asking the listener what happens when communication breaks down, when even communication with oneself begins to break down. We contain multitudes, after all. Like standing between two mirrors, creating an infinite regress, or repeating a word until it loses all meaning, this turn inward inevitably returns us to the external world. On the finale of Kendrick Lamar’s Damn, the voice that functions as the Greek chorus of the record (played by the singer Bēkon) intones, “It was always me versus the world/ Until I found it’s me versus me.” This is not necessarily a change in kind, but a change in perspective, as one’s inner perception changes to see the world reflected in the self. This sentiment, perhaps indicative of a broader cultural shift accompanying growing societal divisions, also conveys the shift from Borders And Ruins to Disappearing In The Mirror, the realization that it is not so easy to separate the “I” from the world around us as we might think, as the one inevitably leads back to the other.
All of the track titles refer to the overarching theme of the instability of identity. Aldinucci uses the concept of decoding meaning to generate the structure of the music. Disappearing’s opener “The Eternal Transmission” begins with a vocal drone which multiplies into a chord set against a short melodic phrase repeated on a violin, each iteration seemingly loosing or gaining a note as the layers phase. A quietly squealing glissando devolves into atonal plucking, while a low bowed note is sustained alongside a rumble of white noise, pulsing arrhythmically. No single element holds one’s attention for long, and indeed they begin to blur all the more as the distortion increases, lost in transmission. Despite the fuzz, the unhurried pace grants the nearly 7 minutes an air of quietude. “Jammed Symbols” enters with more of a rumble, but settles into a more minimal blur of female choir voices mixed just slightly below a cloud of noise.
The vocals on this record are both sampled and recorded, but in either case Aldinucci draws on very small fragments, often less than a second, and uses this raw material to create new sounds with a combination of advanced granular synthesis and effects. This contributes to the feeling of otherworldly distance, giving the vocals a distinct texture while keeping them from carrying threads of meaning from their original context. “Notturno Toscano” (Tuscan Night) is even more subdued, eight and a half minutes of gentle loops set against a small irregular rhythm low in the mix. Its quiet first few seconds also showcase one of the more recognizable field-recordings (or at least what seems to be a field-recordings) of nocturnal insects, small sounds rustling low in the mix occasionally audible throughout. Aldinucci maintains space between the few elements, while a gentle buzzing crescendos with slight foreboding, ringing out and echoing, fading away and returning again, high-pitch resonances singing a subtle melody above the fray. The variations of the various elements of “Notturno Toscano” were programmed on the LFOs of Aldinucci’s modular synthesizer, which functions across the record as both a sound source and as a processor. But this bears no similarity to the bleepy-bloopy patterns one ordinarily associates with modulars, a testament to Aldinucci’s creativity.
The second side of the record begins with “Aphasic Semiotics,” another lush fusion of choral textures and white noise, the kind of thing one could play on repeat in the background for hours without tiring of it. Aphasia refers to an impairment of cognitive ability and a loss of meaningful language. Aldinucci seems to want to ask how symbols can still convey meaning before or beyond language. The recurring use of the choir cements this concept, the voices stripped as they are of their language. Perhaps this isn’t too far from the concept deployed by Tim Hecker‘s Love Streams, where he employed Jóhann Jóhannsson to arrange a choir with the Latin source text reversed and mangled beyond comprehension. The lovely voices of choral music inevitably recall churches and spirituality, the reverb of a cathedral inscribed in the DNA of the form. But the use of a church choir as a stand-in for sacred elevation can be lazy, a charge Aldinucci evades through a more complicated series of substitutions. He’s explored similar themes before, in 2015’s Spazio Sacro, or more literally in his contributions to the Cathedrals Project. His understanding of the sacred lends itself to include the world around us, from art to anthropology, and he keys in on the ways in which the “mundane” sacred pervades our subconsciousness. The idea of the “sacred” itself becomes just one lens of imposing meaning on the world, a process which fascinates Aldinucci and serves as the the basis for Disappearing. Simple correlations, such as the church choir with the sacred, begin to break down, as the very static and distortion rises up not in opposition to the choir but from within the vocal passage itself.
The mood darkens noticeably on “The Tree Of Cryptography” as the tones become harsher and more dissonant against a plodding bass line. The breakdown of meaning seems to become a source of growing frustration, the imposed hierarchy of organization implied by a tree more a barrier to understanding than a cipher for decoding. A more feminine sounding choir is foregrounded in “The Burning Alphabet,” more mangled than before, evoking the “burning” of the title as fragments cut in and out a film projector overheating. The final track, “Mute Serenade,” also foregrounds lost-sounding feminine voices but juxtaposes them more strongly against somber warbling electronic tones, an enchanting coda to an exploration of fractured identity.
Without realizing it, I’ve included work by Giulio Aldinucci in every mix I’ve made, including those for Secret Thirteen, NTS, and an all-tape mix for our own Lost Children series. This certainly reflects the high esteem in which I hold Aldinucci’s work, but it is also a testament to his versatility as a composer. For Con fuoco, the double compilation of Italian instrumental music I curated in 2010, Giulio gave me an unreleased song called “Chioma”, still working under the moniker Obsil. That track manages to move through so many varying modes, from static noise to digital deconstruction to beautiful staccato melodies, elements that were there all along but through a subtle shift in perspective, as one element moves into the foreground while other recede, completely altering the listeners perception of the whole. It was “Chioma” that convinced me that this was a serious composer and an artist to watch, and the many releases released since, under his own name, have only confirmed this impression many times over. As a composer, Aldinucci is not afraid to try new things, but his movements always feel reasoned and confident. He isn’t a neophyte trying on different styles but an artist constantly moving forward. I highly recommend picking up these two LPs while they last. (Joseph Sannicandro)