the Arms of Love:
review no. 1
Media Court July 2002
by: Lawrence Russell
Where are you? Gently rocking in the darkness, half-asleep, the shrouded landscape flickering past outside the window. You're on a train, perhaps travelling through the Rockies, snug in a roomette. The muted chatter of the wheels on the rails, metric, polymetric, isometric... coming and going, going and coming. It's music. Are you dreaming? Must be. The stars seem larger, their astrological patterns obviously navigating your journey. Anxiety is a thing of the past. Although you are alone, somehow you feel you are in the arms of love....
This is the ambience of "Dreaming On The Starlight Train", just one of several such quasi-mystical tracks on Ottmar Liebert's latest CD, In The Arms Of Love. Yes, he actually uses a recording of a moving train as part of his instrumental. It's background, almost a whisper, a subtlety in the overall mix of the soundscape... yes, "soundscape", for that's what this CD is. The 13 tracks make up a narrative, which is like a radio play without the dialogue... or a movie without the picture.
This stuff is extremely down-tempo, like the relaxed breathing of a contented dreamer. It's also subtle, almost subliminal at times, something the listener can grow into. You could call it environmental music, a means of establishing space. OL is very much an acoustic painter, his sonic architecture always extremely visual. What's the term? Sprechkunst? The language of music, that quality in the tonality that describes the landscape behind it.
And there always is a landscape, a shifting geography of foreground and background. For the most part, the foreground remains OL's signature flamenco guitar melody, while the background is a synth backwash, with natural sounds merging metrically. Is this good old musique concrete? Certainly a case can be made that all music today is nothing more or less than a sound montage due to multi-tracking and signal filtering. Essentially, music is an emulation of the natural world... and a means whereby we can evoke the spirit world.
Implicit in the act is transcendentalism. Because the contemporary world is so full of industrial noise, we become blase about what we hear. Surf, birds, wind, rain -- they become cliches within our daily frame of reference, become all motion without meaning. What OL has done here is re-articulate the world we have become deaf to. As he's such a sensitive player, he creates that romantic identification with Nature that the poets of old wrote about. This is odd, isn't it, as he's the man who said that words get in the way of the music... yet consider this recent passage from his Internet diary:
It is amazing how the desert explodes after the first big rain. The smell of the moisture hitting the dust is wonderful, sweet and almost overwhelming. Grass grows out of the dust, cottonwood seeds from the Spring suddenly produce 3 feet tall seedlings within a few days....
Is this not the sensitivity of a poet?
documentary and metaphor
So what about these docu-rocku lullabies?
Track 1, "In the Arms of Love". The tone is Mediterranean, with the acoustic guitar triggering synth washes (not unlike Phil Manzanera's ghostly "Lagrima")... guitar is also doubled, so the whole effect is rather like a zither. Deep with sentiment, it's a farewell, the beginning of a journey... in this case, into sleep. Processional, almost funereal.
Track 2, "Sea of Tranquility". The surf underpins the melody, spreads horizon-ally. The water replaces the customary chordal strokes. A pleasant floating sensation gives way to flight. Disembodied, like being in an immersion chamber.
Track 3, "When I Close My Eyes". OL seems to like the key of C. This is a strange piece, extremely slow, close to a stagger, which drops occasionally into the flamenco fundamental like a descending shroud. A bit of menace here, yet it's ambiguous enough that this sleep might not be the big one.
Track 4, "Dreaming On The Starlight Train". This is a thing of beauty. Nice doubling of his acoustic with the electric. In his press release, OL says he got the idea from a train ride he took as a youth from Cologne to Moscow. While it isn't new -- the hynoptic rhythm of trains is a staple of radio dramatists -- OL's interpretation is superb. The hell with planes. Next time, take the train.
Track 5, "Ode 2 the Morning Star". You might be awake or you might be dreaming in the pre-dawn. Birds, bells, a gentle melody emanating like a spiral from the star. Various creatures awake as they sense the light. And you can sense it creeping across the landscape....
So the narrative develops, the lyricism as simple as a haiku. "Twilight Rain", pure onomatopoeia... "A Secret Garden", vaguely eastern, the terraced space of fountains and peacocks, like The Far Pavilions... the beautiful solitude of "Walking Alone". Are there any anomalies? You might wonder about "Querenica", which is almost too familiar, too traditional [although there is some nice octave playing] and you might wonder about the closing stanza, "Waves of Sound", which appears to be a call & response homage to Brian Eno. Maybe you think Eno is a bit cheap as a loopster when matched against, say, Terry Riley. But then, why question OL's influences? Eno has paid his dues too. They are all brothers of the mystic.
journey to the east
OL mapped this integrated foreground/background style in earlier albums, most obviously in his 1996 double CD Opium. While it's an expensive little set, it's well worth getting. Many of the compositions are framed by natural and synthesized sounds. OL's painterly lyricism is beautifully demoed in "Drop of water on a dry stone", which is a pure acoustic representation of what the title describes. Or his electric guitar piece, "Chi wahwah beauty", which seems more out of his familiar desert ambience than Khatmandu. Cocks, birds, bubbling water, people talking in various languages... these sounds drift in and out like life observed through a moving window. This marriage of flamenco lyricism and documentary effect is intriguing, helps move us beyond the professional ghettos music all too often malingers in. Purity is for zealots and the naive.
On learning that free copies are available to hospices and hospitals upon application to Higher Octave* , some might dismiss In the Arms of Love as a Kervorkian serenade. After all, OL admits that his aim with this CD is to put people to sleep in the ancient tradition of the lullaby. But it would be a mistake to think of this suite as a subliminal massage designed to shut down consciousness. On the contrary, OL's music is a channel into the mystic.
"It seems to me the world keeps getting louder, and in response to that I wanted to do something that was quiet," says OL. " (In the Arms of Love) creates quite a contrast to modern life."
Yes. Another impressive piece of work from the acoustic gallery of the New Age maestro. A logical development within the progression of his work, a bit risky perhaps... but integrity doesn't come cheap.
And now... how about some more electro-dance/trance, Ottmar?
*SSRI and Higher Octave will send this CD to daycare centers, nurseries, hospices and hospitals free of charge. Fax 310/589-1525 on letterhead. Limited offer.