Astral Spirits

As I was born and raised in the Eternal City, allow me a silly digression on the Roman vernacular. In 1832, native poet Giuseppe Gioachino Belli wrote a sonnet entitled “Sto Monno E Cquell’Antro” (“this world and the other”). Over the centuries, this expression has turned into the ironic Roman translation of “everything/everyone, and even more”. The same principle may be applied to Thollem McDonas‘ attitude towards artistic cooperation. Without compiling the usual ever-lengthening list of musicians who have shared creative vibes with him, we can safely declare that Thollem has really played with “sto monno e cquell’antro”. Astral Spirits has long since started a documentation project regarding Thollem’s activities as an improvising journeyer, related to the year of grace 2019. It’s an impressive series of recordings featuring a reasonable quantity of delivered-from-mental-schemes characters, a plethora of instrumental gamuts and variable levels of renown defining the involved participants. Such an operation, let’s face it, represents a reviewer’s terror given the impracticability of covering the entire scope of what has been/is being released. It is therefore appropriate to choose among the abundant fruits; my personal symbolic pick is a duo recorded in the Baltimore home of Susan Alcorn, the master of pedal steel guitar whose name, musical education and curriculum speak for themselves.

To match the pedal steel’s fluidity, McDonas elected to use a Waldorf Blofeld synthesizer: a digital/analog hybrid which, avoiding excessive technicalities, warrants a flexibility of timbral control quite superior to the slight remoulding of presets typically exercised by pseudo-experts. We’re naturally acquainted with Thollem’s all-encompassing pianistic philosophy, having praised it innumerable times on these pages. Still, the incisive reactivity that he reveals as an electronic keyboardist is in any case surprising. Five unnamed tracks describe a sonic universe of everchanging gravity; fluctuating harmonic essences alter their connotations according to the specific moment. Identifying theoretical “tonal centers” is verboten; in truth, there’s no need for any. Alcorn’s initial approach is mildly cautious, expressed as it is via extensive echoing and hints of melodic charm even in the most oblique figurations. Yet, as the minutes elapse and the scenarios keep drifting, she pulls out claws of dissonance with dramatically galactic traits, combining fragments of chordal (stellar?) explosion with the distorted lunges and dynamic leaps of McDonas’ synth. For the audience, it’s a matter of knowing how to adapt one’s responsiveness to the continuous surprise of sudden change in a context of timbres not necessarily meant for sugary gratification. Each new listen discloses previously unnoticed facets, as well as making us perceive the sound mass as an indivisible entity with two brains and two souls. Rather nonconformist, to say the least.

Back to the original joke, with this joint effort Thollem and Alcorn have definitely confessed their little care for the aesthetic/acoustic conventions of this world, while improvising a soundtrack probably better suited to the “other”. Whatever your current spiritual orientation, enjoying these experiments is downright galvanizing. The urge to probe those depths is tangible, and that’s what I’ve been doing for several hours today. Sometimes, the impossibility of classification is a genuine gift. Do not hesitate in accepting it.

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