In my last post I gave you a glimpse of ten islands strung out like opalescent pearls across a monochrome ocean, the Archipelago album by Hidden Orchestra. It was a deliberately tantalising glimpse and, before we go off to explore the rocks in that necklace, I’d like to take a moment to examine what made a simple listing of track titles and personnel so intriguing.
First, there’s a certain mystery in the titles themselves – just one or two words suggestive of a mood or taken from a strange language. ‘Vainamoinen’ sounds as if it might be Scandinavian; ‘Vorka’ could be Orcish, Klingon or Vogon. But we also have the quite conventional ‘Hushed’ and the downright prosaic ‘Overture’. There is oddness here, but not everything is weird in this new land.
The name of the band presents another puzzle. Why is the orchestra hidden? What hides it from our view? Perhaps it doesn’t really exist. After all, there are only four musicians listed; that’s surely not enough for an orchestra. And yet those four individuals play a bewildering array of instruments – everything from the traditional (violin, piano) through the unlikely (ukulele, zither) to the barminess of the didgeridoo and the obscurity of the kantele (described in the album notes as a zither-harp). Nor must we forget the ‘field recordings’ credited to Joe Acheson. Does that mean we will be treated to bird song or the wind in the willows? Or are we, perhaps, going to hear the grass grow?
If we let our eyes drift over to the list of guest artists on the starboard side we find the album contains “performances and improvisations” by a further ten musicians. This suggests we may be sailing far too close to the treacherous waters of the avant-garde classical composers like John Cage or at least encroaching on some of the freer outposts of jazz. The first entry in that column does nothing to alleviate our nervousness. It says, simply, “Su-a Lee, cello and saw”. We can but hope that that refers to the sound of a large handsaw singing under the caress of the cellist’s bow rather than the grating rasp of sharp metal teeth on the naked wooden body of her fragile instrument. It’s an unsettling item.
Fortunately, next on the guest list is the Scottish harpist and folk singer Mary MacMaster who was already known to Crotchety Man. That she is listed as playing the clarsach and electro-harp is no great surprise as they are simply regional and modern forms of the traditional harp. Then come several ordinary-sounding instrumentalists bringing brass and woodwind into the mix: trumpet, saxophones, clarinet and French horn. One player has a kaval to his name, which turns out to be a type of flute common in Turkey and the Balkans, but flutes are not uncommon in an orchestra. It seems we haven’t ventured too far from familiar waters.
Finally, at the bottom of the “also featuring” list we find George Gillespie who “tap dances on Reminder”. That short note opens our eyes like a slap across the face with a wet fish and sends a shiver of electric fear slithering down our spines. We are all at sea and there seems to be a madman in our midst. Heaven only knows what kind of music this crew creates.
It is the questions that the sleeve notes raise that tickle and tease. But, like a dissonant chord, a teaser is only good when it is resolved. Here, then, are some answers to those perplexing questions.
The hiddenorchestra.com website provides the following definition:
Hidden Orchestra is an imagined orchestra created by composer/producer Joe Acheson.
The releases feature a wide variety of guest musicians from different musical backgrounds, recorded separately, and combined by Joe in his studio to create an ‘imaginary orchestra’ that doesn’t really exist.
Dark orchestral textures, with field recordings, bass, and layers of drums and percussion.
And that sums up the project nicely. But it still doesn’t tell us much about the waters we are in. If we were to climb into the crow’s nest and look around would we see the smooth white beaches of classical symphonies, the foaming surf of modern jazz or thunderous waves breaking on heavy rocks? Does our tillerman have a steady hand or does our captain have a wild and beefy heart?
The answer to all those questions is “No”. Archipelago is an album of 5-minute portions of orchestral sound liberally seasoned with fresh sea-salt beats. Sometimes it carries soft flecks of jazzy foam or the cry of seagulls but we are miles from Davis and the Charlie bird flies over a different sea. Our ship rolls a little on the waves and heaves with the swell but there are no sharp rocky outcrops to imperil the passengers or crew. Our course changes frequently but never abruptly as the helmsman guides us deftly round beautiful headlands of melody and into quiet bays of harmony.
I would classify Archipelago as 21st century classical music but Joe Acheson’s compositions make no concessions to common popular music styles whatsoever. In an attempt to define their genre Wikipedia calls it IDM, world music, Electronica, Reggae, Dub, Post-Rock, hip-hop, DnB and jazz. Crotchety Man would remove the reggae, dub and hip-hop from that list, downplay the DnB and add classical at the front. I’m even tempted to coin a new term for it: orchestral beats.
The Hidden Orchestra has all the variety of texture and timbre of a traditional large orchestra – it has strings, woodwind, brass and percussion – but the composer uses them sparingly. There are no massed strings, no ranks of woodwind, no tiers of brass. Each individual instrument has a unique and separate voice. There are also a few sprinklings of electronic effects and natural sounds. There’s no need for extensive use of synthesisers if you can call on someone who plays the saw.
I can’t recommend Archipelago highly enough. It is utterly exquisite and I make no apology for the teaser trick. If I should die tomorrow I would like something from Archipelago to be played at my funeral. Flight would be appropriate, I think. Celestial harp and plaintive cello combine with the round hollow sound of a clarinet and the profound notes of a double bass to create a sense of calm contemplation while a light tune both remembers the sunny days of the past and looks forward to a still brighter hereafter.
And, if that doesn’t float your boat, try this mesmerising live version of Seven Hunters.