On the face of it, Codiaeum Variegatum is the musicalization of a species of toxic plant and its chlorophyll life. Striped with earthy drones, vegetal fluctuations, and frigid climates, its interleaving of bio-acoustics with subtle electronic manipulation and field recordings charts the growth, survival, and eventual decay of a plant that thanks gardeners for their hard work via the medium of eczema. With titles that read as descriptions of the different properties and phases that constitute the plant, the six instrumental pieces on Anne Guthrie’s latest would appear to form one of the unlikeliest concept albums ever conceived. And yet, despite how anal and esoteric this all sounds, the album creates a unique and consuming soundworld, one whose organic/inorganic layers evolve through nature’s tranquility, desolation, restlessness, and eventual hostility.
That is, on the face of it, because no one — not even an artist as ingenious as Guthrie — can make music from the perspective of a shrub. Shrubs don’t have “perspectives,” because shrubs don’t possess any of the five senses that inform the development of a viewpoint, a consciousness. Even so, an installation like “Branching Low and Spreading” evokes the nearest human equivalent of some slowly germinating, herbal existence, its photosynthetic breaths of cello amassing a lowlying density as they pulse over continuous samples of benign wildlife and breezy weather. Every cut on Codiaeum Variegatum exploits this marriage of naturalized instrumentation and instrumentalized nature, in the process inviting a very pacifying, or at least dependable, sense of extra-musical harmony, a sense that music can and does situate us in the quotidian world we inhabit, rather than uproot us with alienating dreams of an idealized utopia.
In fact, this calibration of Guthrie’s palette — French horn, cello, viola, electronics — with her found sound assumes nigh-on masterful dimensions for much of the record. On “Strongly Leaning with Irregular Crown,” her gusts of horn symphonize with the peeved harping of a farmhouse chicken, and toward the culmination of “Long Pendulous” thinned streaks of wind indulge in a duet with similarly rarefied elongations of brass. These merged stratifications of texture and tone, where the grain of flexing cello all-but crumbles into the subsoil of chattering birds, trickling water, and rustling foliage, generate an enveloping impression of depth and balance. More conceptually, they also represent the truth that the codiaeum variegatum, like all plants, is very much embedded in its environment, is indeed simply a point at which that environment condenses into a refracted manifestation of itself.
Which brings us to what the album is “really” about. Glancing at her back catalog, in particular 2011’s Perhaps a Favorable Organic Moment, it becomes apparent that Anne Guthrie has harbored a fascination with how pieces of music can be reconfigured and reconstituted with a migration of context. Organic Moment disfigured Bach’s “Cello Suite No. 2, Prelude 1” and the Scottish folksong “Anne Laurie,” and “Strongly Leaning with Irregular Crown” does a stellar job of naively contorting what could have once been “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” or maybe “Baa Baa Black Sheep.” In all three cases, the target is the “autonomy of the artwork,” the idea that a song, novel, or film is a self-defining, unchangeable entity that encloses both its meaning and form within itself for eternity. Even though there is only the above example of butchery on Codiaeum Variegatum, the record nonetheless chips at this once sacred notion through other means. At most of its various junctures, the more traditionally musical parts of the album passively mirror their non-musical backdrop, and at bottom this insinuates that, just as the variegated croton is a function of its habitat, so too is music.
And if the album’s figuration of plant-life is in turn a reflexive figuration of itself, then its often turbid incubations can be stretched into a some kind of inside commentary on music and its criticism in the 21st century. A shifting ambience like “Persists into Winter,” with throaty exhalations of horn that can do nothing but attune themselves to the mood of their surrounding wasteland, is a perfect complement to a cultural space where the formal properties of a composition are becoming increasingly irrelevant to its interpretation and appraisal1. This is no exaggeration, because in our virulently capitalistic age, we’re incrementally abandoning a pre-war, pre-commercialized focus on strictly musical parameters such as harmony, melody, rhythm, timbre, and phrasing, which are peripheral to the construction of a consumerist identity. Instead, the significance of a song is projected onto it by virtue of its increasingly non-musical signifiers and connotations, just as the gelid resonance of “Persists into Winter” is to a large extent the artifact of an unrelenting gale and of remote footsteps, just as the uncanny meditations of “Rough Above with Uneven Base” are dampened by underlying showers of rain.
In other words, the musical score has been eclipsed in the production of “meaning” by its tokenistic reflection of encompassing socio-political domains, and as a consequence of the mass production-consumption of pop by a musically untrained audience, critics such as Yours Truly don’t describe or address music directly anymore, but rather talk around it, about the social landscape it vacuously symbolizes.
All of which makes the coagulated atmospherics of Codiaeum Variegatum highly relevant to its era. As it progresses toward the close of 39 bucolic minutes, the initially clear dichotomy between biological instrument and mineral bedrock is folded in on itself, with the final third of its running time dominated by a morphing, cloudy sump of notes and soundbites that are as restive and disturbed as they are serene and immovable. This fusion ultimately depicts (post-)industrial music as being in a vegetative state, as being a scarcely animate receptacle for whatever truths its “soil,” “water,” and “air” pump into it, and once again it reduces music to another inextricable species of everyday object, as something thread into the fabric of our social, economical and political lives, rather than being located along an isolated and illusory plane. And if it’s possible to neglect or even forget this timely reminder when immersed in the living dioramas Anne Guthrie has sculpted here, it’s only because Codiaeum Variegatum is perhaps the most absorbing album about the life and times of a shrub you’re ever likely to hear.
1. You need only glance at the titles of latter-day musicological tracts — The Sociology of Rock (Frith, 1978), Music as Social Text (Shepherd, 1991), Feminine Endings: Music, Gender and Sexuality (McClary, 1991), Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (Rose, 1994) — to understand that most musical appreciation and criticism is less concerned with music’s structure, mechanics, and aesthetics, and more with how it can be sucked into a discourse on social conventions and creeds.