Some years ago I happened to catch the documentary Rivers and Tides at a friend’s house, whose focus was the work of the nature and landscape artist Andy Goldsworthy. Most of that doc has faded in memory, but one key moment stood out for me then and has continued to prove its relevancy in my on-going interest of the arts. Goldsworthy discuses his process throughout the film, but in one particular scene he describes how over time he came to not consider a sculpture completed until it was pushed to the absolute brink of collapse. Only when he felt that his work might crumble to the ground if he added one more leaf, or twig, or rock, was he able to assuredly walk away and take in what he’d created. It was at this point that he could say, in full honesty, that a work was finished.
In the context of experimental music — specifically minimalism and drone — I’ve come to appreciate artists who utilize a similar, albeit inverted, approach to their music as Goldsworthy did with his sculpture. Rather than adding in as many elements as possible, great works of minimalism seem to ask: how little can I get away with before this becomes uninteresting? Passagen, the latest from Matthias Urban, follows this line of thinking, if not so much so as to potentially alienate less committed listeners with its impressionism— by the end of its second of six tracks the total running time is already 28 minutes and not much has changed compositionally.
The album’s opening movements are indeed stark, as bare and devoid of landmarks as the surfaces of the cymbals from which they were conceived. How Urban was able to produce these gently undulating, metalloid drones remains a bit of a mystery (I’ve purposely read little on the album, and the only clue the CD provides is one photo adorning the the back cover that looks like a still from the music video for Björk’s “All is Full of Love”). It appears a finely tuned system of motors and springs, perhaps also in conjunction with electromagnetism, has been used in various ways to bring out the tonal properties of Urban’s chosen instrument(s). However its done, it’s done to great effect.
Experimedia head honcho, Jeremy Bible, has expressed his admiration for the album, noting that it’s joined him on “many a foggy early morn forest hikes & meditations.” I too, took Passagen on a walk recently (something I don’t do enough of these days, regretfully), getting to know its finer details as I roamed suburban streets into the late night hour. The experience brought me back to when I was first getting to know David Jackman’s work under the Organum guise, often struggling to hear where the music ended and the din of the outside world began. I’ve always considered Jackman’s music as meditative, but for whatever reason now become easily exhausted by it. As of this moment, Urban’s “Studie I (Stabil)” has started again for the fourth time around, and I think of Passagen as the great drone album Jackman never made, as if Urban set out just to expand upon a vestige buried deep inside Organum’s catalogue. Ultimately, this somewhat selfish analysis gives little credit to Urban’s artistic career, and to what he has created here: a uniquely physical and affecting tribute to the almighty drone.
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