Simfonica – “Letters In Time” (2017) review

October 4, 2017

Simfonica – “Letters In Time” (2017) review

Simfonica – Letters In Time (TM
Studios TMS001)
Just released is a fascinating
new audio DVD by Trevor Midgley, known to John Peel and Dandelion record fans
as Beau and before that on the BBC as one of The Raiders. This new release of
electronic music as Simfonica follows last year’s Song Of The Volcanoes on Cathedral Transmissions, which soon sold
out though still available in download format.

    It is rare in music for a follow-up to go
further than the last release, but here it does regarding concept and artistry.
For music shops (if they still exist) and libraries (ditto), it can be
conveniently filed under the categories of Ambient, Electronic and/or
Experimental, but also Modern Classical because every note is played by him—nothing
is sampled—recorded in Mr. Midgley’s own TM studio in Norfolk, England. This
project combines various forms of aesthetics in a rare audio-visual work of
In Time
might also be extended to include….And Space. Each of the four pieces
is inspired by momentous moments in fairly recent history that shaped the age
we live in. The erudite Trevor Midgley’s albums as Beau regularly feature
historical events, especially those touching the human condition rather than
the syllabus spoon-fed to us at schools. The locations are France, America
and England
twice, but that’s less relevant because these subjects involve universal themes
and transcend mere location.
    J’Accuse (I Accuse) starts visually with
the text from Émile Zola’s open letter, on a newspaper’s front page, to the
President of the French
Republic in January 1898.
He is speaking out for justice and truth regarding a scandal that tore France apart in the 1890s and beyond, as the
backdrop was the lost war with Germany
in 1871 reverberating into the First World War in 1914. Just about every family
in France
was split by the state’s accusation that Jewish career-officer Captain Dreyfus
was a German spy. The case of framing him started in 1894 before he was sent to
solitary confinement on Devil’s Island. After publication,
Zola had to flee France and
lived in Wimbledon and Surrey incognito (his
helper and English translator, Vizetelly, had also been imprisoned earlier for
publishing Zola).
    Dreyfus wasn’t pardoned until 1906, after
the real culprits in the military had finally been arrested. The anti-Semitic affair
didn’t end there. A Parisian left-wing newspaper in the 1950s published a
statement by a chemist who claimed a chimney-sweep told him he’d been paid to
block Zola’s chimney at his Paris
flat after returning from his country residence at Meudon. Zola died of smoke
inhalation that was originally presumed to be accidental in 1902. The DVD artistically
plays with images such as contemporary press cartoons and court scenes swirling
into abstract, sometimes psychedelic images suggesting the chaos that the
scandal caused in society at the time along with far-reaching consequences
fifty years later and since.
    A pointing finger suggests it could happen
to any of us: the mechanisms of the powerful used against others is as relevant
today as then. A state can do (and does) whatever it wants to its inhabitants
irrespective of rights, truth or justice. Look at modern-day whistle-blowers,
the descendants so to speak of Zola or William Cobbett. Simfonica also accuses!
The drones have swashes of musical colour perfectly fitted to both imagery and
meaning. Not feeling like 17 minutes, occasional subtle sounds like a period
funfair add to the atmosphere in what is a haunting, fugue-like embrace of
symbol, time and ultimately universality engendered by one place and moment.
    The concept of significant letters symbolic
of then and relevant now is continued with From A Birmingham Jail, reflecting
on a 1963 letter by the civil rights activist Martin Luther King. Lake and swamp scenes move into the forest where trees
stand like sentinels reflected in the water, then replicate prison bars with
King inside looking out. A sound reminiscent of Pan pipes is joined to subtle
percussion, as if Nature too has its menaces. A rally crowd appears, ethereal
as ghosts among sigh-like voices, a moving element even more pronounced on A
Soldier’s Declaration, an anti-war letter from a serving officer among the
carnage. Written in 1917, it was afterwards printed in The Times.
    This is the First World War poet Siegfried
Sassoon’s letter to the generals and government criticising them for not ending
that “evil and unjust” industrial slaughter of 18 million during its 1,568
days, the screen reminds us. They had the power to end “the continuance of
agonies” which they do not share and cannot realise, wrote Sassoon there, so
why was it continued? The white silhouettes on the battlefield are like a
painting or photograph appropriately in negative. The music ‘phases’ like out
of life into death or back again if wounded, colours are as if smoke spread
over the scene. The bleak music wouldn’t be out of place as accompaniment to looking
across the battlefields now, those scarred ghost-filled landscapes that once shook
with the horror.
    The final piece reflects on Oscar Wilde’s
letter known as De Profundis to Lord Alfred Douglas in 1897. Douglas’
father, the Marquis of Queensberry who couldn’t spell very well, was
instrumental in getting the poet imprisoned for two years hard labour. The
vicious sentence wasn’t cut by even an hour, breaking the Irish-English poet
who died not long after in Paris,
where he’s buried. The electronics sound like a slow choral lament but also
stellar wind among the images of the moon and universe with its Hubble-recorded
light swirls. It might be a trope nodding to Wilde’s court retort that the
stars are for everyone even though one might be seeing them while standing in
the gutter, where Wilde’s bourgeois accusers placed him.  
    Lonely but also awe-inspiring, it’s as if
time has been slowed when experienced by a voyager jettisoned out in the
cosmos. Its hypnotic pulse can be felt in the soundscape; a glimpse of Reading
Jail is projected with starlight in a cell. A military or judicial drum-beat towards
the end is as if recalling the first track’s subject, returning full-circle
like history itself sometimes uncannily reminds us.  
    The near hour-long ambient tripping
combined with clear messages, the interplay of sound and image within contextual
ideas, provide a very moving total experience. In fact this is a surprisingly
rare concept in music, at least in non-classical orchestral music. The marriage
of haunting sounds and thought-provoking visuals is here actually more a ménage
à trois, an experience broadened by textual history. The modern idioms of sound
and image create a most interesting (and poignant) fusion that encourages
repeat plays, as well as being a catalyst for further exploration by the
sharing experiencer of what is a unique artistic project.  
    Every DVD also comes with an audio download
code for a variety of formats at https://simfonica.bandcamp.com/releases
as well as Amazon and eBay. Further information at http://www.trevormidgley.com/Simfonica.html.

– Brian R. Banks
© Copyright http://www.psychedelicbabymag.com/2017

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