Album: Ghost of New York
Publication: Heathen Harvest
If Maninkari’s “Un Souffle de Voix”, which I also reviewed recently, was about the darkness inherent in the exotic, this first CD in Frank Rothkamm’s projected Tetralogy is a series of five short stories on the darkness of memory in the everyday life of a modern city. Never having been to New York but having heard much about it and experienced it through the prophylactic of television and cinema, to me it’s still as unknown and exotic in its own way as the lands of the eastern hemisphere were in the days of exploration and expansionism. There are a thousand stories that can be told about any city, but conversely there are many that never get an airing, or remain secret. Here, Rothkamm pulls up the floorboards and prises off the wall-coverings to reveal the tales of what’s been hidden away by the years of accretions and alterations - the Victorian parlour spiritualists with their spectral ectoplasmic ejections, the charlatan fakirs claiming supernatural powers, the lonely, forgotten ghosts who wander around empty apartment buildings unable to let go, or the unexpected encounter with a shade of yesteryear just around that corner on an empty street somewhere at night. Add to that the trepidation of a new, scientific century looming on the horizon, and the tensions inherent in the potential friction between the two is bound to produce some creative sparks.
New York has immense history stuffed into its relatively short life, and has been built upon the lives, loves and labours of millions over the centuries since it was founded as the colony of New Amsterdam in 1624. What emerges most strongly out of these pieces are the voices and essences of the recent past, giving us a depiction of a fin-de-siècle city caught between the old certainties and expansionist modernity. We are made aware of a temporal clash between the old and the new here, between those spectres of a vanished age and the new world of electronic media. Flavours and textures chase and weave around each other, following on the heels of one another, a jumbled mass of descriptors fighting for attention in a vast tapestry. Track one, ‘Ectoplasm Rejects’, invites us into a late nineteenth century parlour for one of the popular séances of the time: ghosts assail us from all directions and strangely unintelligible voices whistle and squeak, intermingled and shot through with hints of the new science and all its promises. Dissonances abound, a conflict being waged on the cusp of new centuries and the future. The contradiction evident in the title of the second track, ‘Self-levitation Science’, appears to emphasise that conflict outlined in the previous story – the occult preoccupations of late nineteenth century society giving way to the burgeoning of scientific endeavour in the early twentieth.
‘The Betrothed of Wyoming’ opens with what is probably the closest that Rothkamm has ever come to gracing us with a tune – it appears be a story written by James McHenry, and is an embodiment of the static, aging and ultimately decaying Southern society prevalent at the time at the end of the century before last. As such then, it can be taken as the model for broader society in general. That hint of a tune, though, soon gives way to a pot-pourri of dissonance and fragmentary snippets, an evolution from surety to uncertainty and the dissolution of what had always been. ‘Overcome by Art’, if by art is meant science, further undermines the pre-eminence of the old-established order, but also carries with it a sense of threat, a foretaste perhaps of what that destruction of the old order precipitated some years into the twentieth century. ‘Lullaby’, the final track, is perhaps better termed a lament, the putting to bed of the old century and its verities, once thought eternal. While tinged with sadness, one also gets a slight hint of looking to a future, uncertain though it may be.
In much of Rothkamm’s work, silence plays as much a part as the sounds do – and he invests as much danger and threat in those punctuating silences as he does in his selection of some of the sounds he uses. In essence then, Rothkamm is a master alchemist, shaping the base metal of raw sounds into the gold of sparkling stories. Furthermore, his mastery of his material is such that his stories are accessible and can be ‘read’ with ease, albeit a little imagination is a prerequisite for getting the most out of them. Taking one’s time to delve into his world repays with ample rewards, and as a prime example of the tapestries Rothkamm effortlessly weaves then this is recommended as a good starting point for anyone intrigued by what he has to offer. This particular genre can appear intimidating and/or far too esoteric for most – but as with anything worthwhile perseverance is key here. Scintillating!!
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