Let’s have done with this notion of ‘abstraction’ in music, shall we? Music. Is. Never. Abstract. It’s concrete, physical, irresistibly and incontrovertibly material. As Vladimir Jankélévitch put it in “Music and the Ineffable” more than 50 years ago, “It acts upon human beings, on their nervous systems and their vital processes… This power which poems and colors possess occasionally and indirectly — is in the case of music particularly immediate, drastic, and indiscreet.” And not just in relation to humans either. Music’s materiality extends to tables and windows and dogs and goldfish too. Admittedly, its material effects will be importantly different in each case. Presumably the table is largely indifferent to what Adam Harper would call its ‘non-sonic variables.’ But the fact remains: Music is never ‘abstract.’
I point all this out here because ‘abstract’ is a word that gets thrown around a lot where Oren Ambarchi is concerned. Here it is on the front page of his own website, in an endorsement from The Wire. Ambarchi’s work, apparently, focuses mainly on the exploration of the guitar, “re-routing the instrument into a zone of alien abstraction where it’s no longer easily identifiable as itself. Instead, it’s a laboratory for extended sonic investigation.” The words “disembodied” and “stripped down” tend to crop up a lot too. As do references to water, air, the ether, and transcendence. It’s as if Ambarchi’s music were less there somehow than the work of other musicians, less concrete or present than Dylan or Kanye or James Ferraro or sunn 0))).
Well I call bullshit! There’s nothing ‘abstract’ about Ambarchi’s approach to the guitar at all. Exactly the opposite, in fact. As I’ve argued elsewhere on this website in relation to Colin Stetson’s saxophone work, the use of extended techniques evidences precisely an attention to the materiality of sound, the materiality of the instrument, not an abstraction or a distancing from it. Ambarchi’s guitar playing, in other words, is not dis-embodied. It’s an exercise in re-embodiment: an attempt to see, hear, and feel the guitar otherwise, to make it move us in new and different ways.
Take “Knots,” for instance, the epic 33-minute centerpiece of Ambarchi’s latest release, Audience of One. It’s an extraordinary track. And it’s extraordinary, moreover, precisely in its materiality. It comes on like a storm: momentum, pressure, volume, and force all gathering, all push, push, pushing at you: irrepressible. Played on the right sound system, at the right volume, in the right space, the tones throb and surge through you, swell suddenly, and then recede again, only to come on yet more forcefully next time. And then the enormous apex: roaaaring, ear-splitting, pounding, Pounding, a Colossal Squall! Toward the end particularly, high pitches and thunderous crashes intervene right at the threshold of pain.
The liner notes tell us that this tempest has been rustled up by means of acoustic and electric guitars, autoharp, percussion, viola, igil, cello, voice, french horn, and ‘spring’(!), but it’s precisely an in-ability to fix so many sounds here conclusively to a source (all except that relentless tap-tapping of the cymbal, that is) that strikes the listener most. And this is not experienced as a process of abstraction, but as a resolution of diverse instrumentality into sheer sonic force.
What is being ‘expressed’ here? Nothing… or nothing in particular anyway. For Nietzsche, writes Jankélévitch, “music does not express sadness-in-general, or joy-in-general but rather indeterminate Emotion, the pure emotional force of the soul: music exalts the faculty of feeling… music awakens in us affect per se, affect that is unspecified and unmotivated.” This is what “Knots” does. Above all, Ambarchi renders us as vibrant matter: Affected, Stirred, Moved.
Next to “Knots,” the rest of the record feels like a sort of necessary supplement. The quiet before and after the storm, it prepares and relieves us. The first track, “Salt,” with vocals from Paul Duncan of Warm Ghost and trademark glitch from Ambarchi underneath, is a little insipid, a little saccharine for me. And final track “Fractured Mirrors” is an artful cover of an original by Ace Frehley of Kiss. An attempt by Ambarchi, perhaps, to place himself in relation to the trad-rock guitar tradition? Maybe. But next to the material force of “Knots,” such speculation feels a little incidental somehow… peripheral… immaterial… even abstract.