U22 | Loren Chasse | Characters at the Water Margin
9.the rope to the shore : excerpt
format : CD ltd to 200 hand numbered copies
all copies come with an additional art card on 300gr satin paper
release year : 2014
length : 53’42
1. whistling across the oars
2. arrangement for two phases of the moon
3. ovoids for a tumbling pattern
4. setting a dry thing upright
5. striking cedar tongues
6. handfuls on an edge of foam
7. a shell comb and a cinder ring
8. a pause from sifting brings the wind at last
9. the rope to the shore
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These recordings were made at the edge of Washington state’s Olympic Rainforest, where the Hoh River meets the Pacific Ocean. The point of entry to this landscape, named Oil City on the map, is no more than a place where the road widens before coming to an end at a trailhead. Just north of the road, through the trees, and on the homestead of the late Captain Hank who one day disappeared at sea, is the ghost of an oil rig and some comings and goings along a plank road. Early 20th century settlers had been ambitious to start an oil industry here but it never took off. Chalá-at–or Hoh–legend describes a race of upside down people who once lived on this shore and went about their domestic lives rather inefficiently until a transformer-god, K’wati, set them upright. Can it be inferred, then, that the Chalá-at also listened at ground level?
Massive cedar, Sitka spruce, and Douglas fir logs pile up here on a dense litter of granitic pebbles and driftwood, all worn smooth by the sea. The surf resonates in countless hollows across this implied architecture. Elevated walkways bridge the sea wrack and lead to secluded rooms with makeshift furniture and fire rings on floors of stone and sand. A dense rainforest rises steeply behind this beach. Human passage between Oil City and the mouth of the river, and at the jut of rock on the way to Jefferson Cove, is strictly regulated by a fearsome tide. The animals of this seashore, though rarely seen, have upon each and every surface left a shadow scattered.
(Loren Chasse, January 2014)
: reviews :
The photographs that comprise the artwork for Characters at the Water Margin, of the Hoh River and of Washington State’s Pacific coast, teem with secluded life, the same life that Loren Chasse presents in his music. It’s an unusual sort of life, easy to miss despite its ubiquity. Gnarled tree trunks, stones worn into smooth ovals, driftwood piled into broken lattices; by definition these are dormant and inanimate things, but Chasse listens and composes with a heuristic ear. Along and above the Olympic Peninsula’s jagged shoreline, small commotions lie in wait, accompanied by the constant pulse of the ocean. Tucked away at the foot of a national forest, in the wreckage of a glacial waterway, they are all but invisible. The circumstances of their appearance depend on close listening, on the slowing down of time, and on a willingness to hear the depth of music that subsists in the tiniest places.
The “character” in Characters at the Water Margin is ambiguous. Does Loren Chasse think about this album in terms of its material qualities, like hard and soft and smooth and rough? The sounds he focuses on, largely tactile and granular, definitely support that view. Or is his subject a place and a time in the personal sense, as if coastal Washington were a character in a story or the identity of a person that lives not too far away? The liner notes and album art, as well as the music, support that interpretation too.
The answer is probably both. Field recordings near the mouth of the Hoh River are the material for and the subject of this album, and Chasse blends the two indiscriminately. The foamy rush of ocean waves, the rough crack of dry timber, and the chalky mineral sound of granite and shale pop out in these songs, as does the manner in which Chasse has altered and layered them. Even within the same song, his recordings are sometimes clear and sometimes opaque, either finely detailed or muddied by the movement of wind, a lack of visual context, or by the muffled quality of the recordings themselves. The mix remains sparse almost the entire time, however, and often borders on the silent. The idea is to listen closely, to hear all the little details in whatever way they are presented. That includes hearing Loren Chasse in the background, interacting with and observing his surroundings.
Those interactions include some amount of post-production, though it is hard to say whether or not Chasse could have affected the album’s most unnatural sounding noises, like the mysterious electric hum at the beginning of “Handfuls on an Edge of Foam,” on site. Guessing whether this sound or that sound occurred in studio or in the field obscures the point anyway. The presence of the ocean, of the wind, and of flora and fauna is constant. Location matters. What is heard and how it is heard are equally important, but not just in a “guess how he did it” way. Like characters in a novel, the elements in Characters at the Water Margin amass an emotional, or at least a imaginative, power over time. The obviously drummed rhythms on “Ovoids for a Tumbling Pattern,” the cold spray of salt water, and the intermittent call of seagulls all point to and away from themselves, as do the odd spells of static, distortion, and amplified ambiance. At times the music is relaxing, almost meditative, its impressive emptiness an opportunity to shut the rest of the world out. At other times it is alien, as when the shifting rocks and squishy soil suggest the presence and movement of an unimaginable creature.
And it is always colorful. The tide doesn’t simply rise and fall, the ocean attacks the land in concentrated surges. The trees don’t just rustle when the wind blows, the hollow branches of old wood sing when the air slides over them, and grains of sand and silt fall in avalanches, unearthing a hidden network of debris and corroded artifacts. With the ear pressed so closely to the ground, even the dirt moves and breathes like a living thing. From this perspective the smallest event acquires significance and the world grows that much larger.
Recorded in the Olympic Rainforest of Washington state, at the confluence of the Hoh River and the Pacific Ocean, Chasse‘s work is a fine example of exquisite on-site recording though one of those that inevitably, for me, raises the question of its value in disc format as opposed to the (admittedly unlikely) experience I might have for myself at the same location. Chasse chooses quite well–it seems to be an especially rich, varied and fascinating soundscape, with massive tree boles and limbs having piled themselves on what he describes as “a dense litter of granite pebbles and driftwood” (as can be seen in the fine accompanying photographs), the layering and spaces between creating wonderful sonic caverns within which water, stone and air act together to generate an amazing aural environment. And he records all this decidedly well. I really can’t complain except–I’m not sure to what end. Most intriguing, for me, are the moments, as on the third track, “ovoids for a tumbling pattern”, where what I take to be the percolation of water through rocks sounds for all the world like West African drumming. These micro-environments–something heard off and on throughout–strike me as the most interesting portions, perhaps because I get the feeling they represent events I might have missed were I there. Hard to say. These are quibbles, to be sure and more, quite like things I’ve written before about efforts in many such similar circumstances. As beautifully realized field recordings derived from a striking place, “Characters at the Water Margin” is excellent and well worth hearing by aficionados of the genre. I’d simply preferred to have been there myself, making my own discoveries.
Until now, I have undervalued that buoyant, weighty click of pebbles knocking together. The crumple of stone skidding against stone, no doubt dry and perfectly smooth if I could touch them; that placid grey that remains indifferent to the constant upheaval at the hands of the surging tide and Chasse’s own intervening limbs. I hear weight and curvature.
Characters At The Water Margin was recorded on the edge of the Olympic Rainforest in Washington state, at the point the Hoh River meets the Pacific. Naturally, the dialogue between land and water is at its most intimate and argumentative on the very border. Sometimes the sound of the waves hangs like a distant drape (presumably as I’m further down the Hoh, amidst the more polite tug of the river current), while at other points I feel like my whole head is riding upon the crest, the liquid content of my skull forever sloshing forward and back. I hear stones and hollow wood trying and failing to resist, rolling over themselves again and again.
The rainforest manifests not as a landscape, but as implications of debris and detached artefact. The start of “Striking Cedar Tongues” sounds like marimbas in sporadic rainfall – a stuttering congregation of tuneful, reverberant plonks – while “Ovoids For A Tumbling Pattern” feels like eavesdropping on an island ritual of palm and wooden blocks, as if I’m crouching underwater somewhere nearby, silently entranced by the rhythm. Elsewhere, a shell comb against igneous rock sounds like foam sucked through a thin straw, while a frantic rabble of squeaks (what I presume to be water pushing driftwood together) sounds like hundreds of rodents escaping at once. I hear both the landscape as it is, and the subtle interference of Chasse’s indulged curiosity – both he and the ocean seem caught in an instigative duet, rubbing landscapes against one another. The resultant audio is thick and immaculate.
What are the characters of the water margin? Creatures of sea, sky and land, converging on a single location; anthropomorphized pebbles, waves and debris; stalwart watchers on the bluffs. Loren Chasse gives all equal weight on his new disc, recorded at the convergence of Washington’s Hoh River, Pacific Ocean and Olympic Rainforest. As one might expect, this resonant location lends itself to deep and varied sonorities.
A parabolic story lends the recording additional weight. According to legend, the location was once home to a race of “upside down people” who were set upright by a local god. Chasse playfully wonders if the inverted folk once “listened at ground level”. This is how children listen, as they are not only close to the ground, but tend to sprawl and roll on it, especially at beaches. They also tend to notice things adults do not: tiny skeletons that their parents urge them to drop, smooth stones with rings around them, beach glass weathered by salt and surf. They hear the sound of pebbles receding with the tide, the cries of gulls, the wind in rusted cans. They duck their heads underwater and click stones together; they speak and hope to be understood. Chasse captures the sounds that children and Chalá-at cherish. Characters at the Water Margin is less an amplification of sounds unheard as it is an underlining of sounds ignored.
The crinkling of “setting a dry thing upright” is crisp and wet at once, like an air bubble in seaweed. Walking the wrack line, one finds treasure and sets up tiny shrines. The gulls echo in the distance, oblivious or uncaring. “striking cedar tongues” possesses the timbre of light bongos, preserving the taps of weathered trees as they tumble in the tide. The short and unusual “shell comb and a cinder ring” sounds like a conversation between found objects, which it may well be. Meanwhile, the other characters of the water margin scurry below the surface; they bob in the waves; they bury themselves in rot and attach themselves to rocks. Even the dead characters teem with life.
A Closer Listen
Now here’s a name I haven’t heard in quite a while, Loren Chasse. His last work before this one ‘The Footpath’ on Naturestrip, which didn’t make it to these pages, I think. That was in 2008. What Chasse was up to in the meantime I don’t know. Maybe other, non-musical activities required his attention. Here he has a work of nine pieces of sounds he recorded at the ‘edge of Washington state’s Olympic Rainforest where the Hoh River meets the Pacific Ocean’. This point is called oil City, but the oil industry never took off. I must admit I have no idea what I am hearing here. Yes, there might be the sound of water, maybe birds, but what else? That is hard to say. It sounds like Chasse has been rumbling through the woods, shuffling logs, pushing stones and such like. Likewise I have no idea to what extent there is something done after these sounds are recorded. Is there anything done post-recording? Some kind of sound processing? Digital and/or analogue? Hard to say. Very few moments I thought it was, and then perhaps not at all. Nowhere, never. All of these things I was thinking about while playing this release. Lots of questions, but altogether it make up for some truly fascinating music. It’s partly like an audio diary, of someone exploring an area full of lumber, small creeks, birds and searching for a hide out, to spend the night. Setting up camp, listening to wildlife somewhere, nocturnal humming and crafting a boat. I might be all wrong actually. It makes up quite a fascinating release altogether. Quite intense, quite unsettling even, but also quite beautiful. Great stuff.
Frans de Waard