David Shea is an American avant-garde composer and occasional turntablist who has released records on experimental labels including Sub Rosa and John Zorn’s Tzadik, but who has clearly found an even more suitable stable in Lawrence English’s Room 40, on whichRituals see the light of day. The bulk, if not all, of the material(s) on Rituals was recorded in English’s native Australia, and from field recordings taken in the bush to the very psychological fabric of the album, it’s a work imbued with the spirit of that distant continent. From simple sources (found sounds, instruments, voices), Shea interweaves and juxtaposes each element into a rich sonic tapestry that instantly makes Rituals a challenging and invigorating experience.
A title like Rituals of course suggests a spiritual dimension, and Shea takes inspiration from the Buddhist and Taoist traditions of east and southeast Asia. He opens the album with a more “western” (for lack of a better word) single voice incantation pitched somewhere between Popol Vuh’s Hosianna Mantra and the devotional folk music of Armenia, that almost imperceptibly transforms into an extended chanted period seemingly recorded inside a Buddhist temple. The incantatory vocalisations are melded together and then buffeted by all-encompassing drones on harmoniums, horns and strings that suggest a primordial force.
The vibrations become almost painful when played at high volume. All this comes within the first few minutes of “Ritual 32,” the album’s potent opening movement. As the voices recede, a piano takes over, playing out a circular, low-key melody in the post-jazz tradition of Keith Jarrett circa The Köln Concert. As with Jarrett’s masterpiece, what could have easily been puerile noodling is masterfully kept in check to be elevated into something affective and emotional, whilst lingering moments of decay evoke the minimalist piano works of Michael Nyman and LaMonte Young. By the time the voices return, “Ritual 32” has become an otherworldly experience as opposed to a mere composition, and the transition into an almost gamelan-esque final coda seems perfectly appropriate. Shea claims that a ritual “puts the experience of listening at the centre of the works,” and this has rarely been more true in music than on this opening masterwork.
Far from overshadowing what follows, however, “Ritual 32” merely sets the tone for an album that maybe errs on the side of excessive lengthiness but always stays true to its composer’s philosophy of sound and desire to create a work that’s truly immersive. Field recordings dominate “Emerald Garden” and “Wandering in the Dandenongs” in very different ways. On the former they are surrounded by clusters of abrasive white noise, movie-soundtrack eerie synths and austere moments of contemplative drone.
In the latter the harsh environment of the Australian outback is recreated initially with the fidelity of a Chris Watson piece, although Shea quickly shows his interest in the music of Luc Ferrari as all preconceptions of field recordings are destabilised.Lo-fi flutes and recorders kick in around five minutes in, joined by other primitive instruments such as hand drums, whilst the sounds of birds and insects are amplified, as if the listener has just stumbled onto some bizarre, substance-fueled campfire ritual during which perception itself is rendered unreliable and more than a little treacherous. Less imposing than the similarly-lengthy “Ritual 32,” “Wandering in the Dandenongs” achieves similar results by simply being unfathomable and oblique.
Throughout Rituals there is an insistence on focusing on the very impact of music upon the physical realm, as if this could somehow make for a crossover into domains far beyond human perception. It’s no surprise to see Australian multi-instrumentalist and prolific composer Oren Ambarchi crop up on two tracks (notably the emphatic incantatory closer “Green Dragon Inn”), not to mention Lawrence English on another, because both have attempted similar experiments in traversing planes through sound. I’m no spiritualist, but Shea makes a compelling case on Rituals, his deep, resonant, vibrating assembly of tones, drones and sounds reaching deep into the listener’s body, causing it to tremble with cymatic force.