Gemer Gothic Route by UŠAMI

UŠAMI | Gemer Gothic Route
mappa (CD/DL)

Gemer Gothic Route is a new compilation by the adventurous avant garde label Mappa of Slovakia. For this compilation, Mappa is intending to use a place, specifically the Gemer Gothic Route, a tourist route connecting the two counties of Spiš and Gemer in Slovakia. Along the route there are many gothic style churches of which the various musicians are commissioned with recording at. Mappa has chosen the idea to highlight a place as an inspiration for the music that will be either captured through field recordings, composed or improvised pieces. This is a fascinating idea and the results are in many respects the same as how individuals view religion and the church in general. Some tracks are darker in tone and emit an eerie ambience and others are more pretty and respectful. The idea of this recording project is novel, however some of the ideas are hit and miss. 

The disc starts with what will become indicative of the album as a whole. A wonderfully diverse sound collage that has a few missteps within it to make it an uneven affair. Rybnik by Stanislav Abraham is a 10 minute audio documentary of his time spent in a church in Rybnik. The track starts so beautifully with bells intermingling with field recordings of nature, water flowing, insects buzzing, birds singing. The track immediately transports you to another place and time, an eerie drone plays underneath the bells and light percussion flitters in and out. There is all at once beauty, mystical happenings but also a menace underneath the soundscapes. Footsteps come in, heavy church keys ringing, a chest opening. What is going on? Close your eyes, let the sounds take you away. Your mind invents scenarios mostly of foreboding. And then while you are floating away in a dreamlike state, scenes and visions of a crowded social gathering give way to more intensely eerie settings. Listening at home in the dark with candles lit, I have to look over my shoulder more than once. What sounds like choirs, not in the forefront but in the shadows, maybe in the crevasses of memory, hidden and repressed, relegated to echo, give the listener an amazing sense of the power of these ambient scores.

So far a wonderful sonic adventure and then at a little over the halfway point in the track all of the emotion and experience and feeling of something coming, of dread and the beautiful moments of ambience are stripped away to the solitary sound of harmonium and organ reed pipes. The clunky nature of this part of the song breaks everything the listener had been building up to. Abraham had built this beautiful story and then has it all crash down with the almost goofy addition of the harmonium. Why!? Things were going so well! Some type of reed instrument along with some more field recordings do not save the track. The mood is crushed. Abraham even states in the notes for the song that his intent was never to add his own playing to the track, intending to capture the sound aura of the place and its when he does EXACTLY THAT the whole song falls apart. Better to listen to your first impulse.

Sound artist and field recordist Jonáš Gruska takes the helm for the next three tracks, deciding to play instruments found in his visit to a church in Kraskovo. For the first two of his tracks, Kraskovo I and Kraskovo II, Gruska tackles an old organ found in the church. As the organ needs two participants to play it, Gruska cleverly placed rocks found in the vicinity of the church on the keys, while he pumped air into the organ. These tracks work well as a statement of avant intent creating an unsettling experience and audio document. The first track is more cacophonous and adventuresome, while the second provides a chilling drone that gets under your skin over time. The hypnotic nature of the non moving rocks on the keys of the organ and Gruska pumping the air gives the tracks an otherworldly quality. His work in the brief Kraskovo III is probably the most affecting track out of the three. Quieter and subtler than the preceding two tracks, it was recorded in the belfry of the church. The quiet beauty and intimacy of the bell ringing provides an exact contrast to what sounds like the chair Gruska is sitting in, perpetually grating and creaking. These tracks work in theory, but I don’t know well they will hold up in repeated listenings. 

The tracks that work the best on this album are the next three, a collaboration between the sound collective Skupina and the sound designer Ladislav “Mirvis” Mirvald. The collaboration is a fruitful one in both idea and the finished product. Skupina/Mirvis ambitiously set out to record the acoustic response of the three churches they visited. This involved, “recording the silence of closed spaces disrupted merely by natural external sounds of the landscape…” The “silence” was later replayed in the space of the church to be repeatedly recorded within several-hour process. The result of the process is an acoustic response of the place.” The idea is fascinating and inspired and the results are just as rewarding. Štítnik is a stunning piece of ambience consisting of ghostly reverberations, horror soundscapes and doom. Voices make an appearance in the middle of the track which is telling since these are the acoustical responses of the church itself. Dobšiná is another stunner, drones float in and out of what sounds like muted keyboard tones. Its ominous and well…just plain frightening.

Throughout history, religion and the church, especially in Europe has had much evil precipitated in its name. It is not out of the realms of believability then for these apprehensive sounds to emit when taking recordings seemingly from the voice of the church itself. Brdárka is held together by drones that sound like flattened church bells. What seems to be shimmering waves of electronics pulsate over the drone creating such a sublime atmosphere that is strangely both soothing and creepy. The duo recorded 30 minutes of audio of which there is roughly 12 minutes represented here over the span of the three tracks. I want to hear a whole album of THIS. Good albums start well and end well, and the best tracks are in the middle in my estimation and in this case, the best tracks are absolutely in the middle. 

Composer, improvisor and scholar Lucie Vítková’s track Rybník is a slow builder working with field recordings of reluctant cicadas, some clumsy percussion, harmonium and voice. Recording in a 14th century church Vítková supplies sometimes playful, searching chords and mournful vocals over her nature field recordings. While the vocals are sincere and pretty, the track seems stuck and never really gets anywhere. What started off promising just sort of meanders off into obscurity. 

The album ends on a very high note with the stunning ambience of Žíp from the AVA: Moving Spaces collective. At 14 minutes it is the longest song on the album, but the hypnotic flow of the music suspends time. The track is constructed from improvisational sound collages recorded in the surrounding village as well as the church itself. Recordings of crickets in the nearby meadows create a soothing percussive quality that gives way to the sounds of the lively nature of the village, dogs barking, roosters crowing, thunder rumbling, rain giving way. As far as getting to know a specific place and that place telling a story Žíp works the best out of any track on the album. Its  slow and prodding, it takes time to take you to this place. But the ride is well worth it. 

As a whole the sound mapping idea of the Gemer Gothic Route is a brilliant concept with uneven results. While all the tracks mean well, occasionally they don’t follow through with the results the composer or improvisor intended. At times the album contains sounds that are beautiful, inspiring, creepy or horrific. The most rewarding tracks are the ones that create a feeling of emotion within the listener. Field recordings work best when they tell a story and take you away to the place the recordist or composer was at. An auditory story without words or pictures. Just sound and imagination to take you there. Some of these tracks were successful and others not so much. As a label, Mappa is releasing some very daring and exciting sound documents. They will keep pushing boundaries and getting better. There were some uneven moments but as a whole Gemer Gothic Route is a winner. 

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