There is something inherently psychedelic in the repetition of a signal unto itself. It fucks with your perception of time by repeatedly superimposing past moments onto the present, while at the same time making the near future predictable under the assumption that the repetition will continue until it decays. Repetition also plays with your memory by repeatedly calling up the associations of earlier parts of the piece (an effect made especially potent by long delays). Looping also performs this effect, to the point where the loop can become the basis for a part or the foundation for a song. But how much repetition is too much? On Ulau Tau / Spirit of Sun, the one-man project Tuluum Shimmering tests these limits using a variety of percussion and wind instruments, sometimes producing nuanced layers but often pushing the patience of the listener to its breaking point.
Words like “meditative” and “trance-inducing” often get thrown around at repetitive music. Some of it is genuinely trance-inducing, hypnotizing the audience with layered drones and repeating phrases. However, on Ulau Tau / Spirit of Sun, the repetition of individual parts seems less to provoke an altered state in the listener and more to provide a skeleton for the lengthy pieces to hang on. The skeleton subtly shifts from time to time; the melody that begins Side A on the bamboo xylophone is not exactly the same by the end of the track, but it’s very close. Despite these shifts, the xylophone melody is too simple to carry the song and quickly becomes tired. While the repetition is obviously conscious (it lasts for an entire side), the repeated melody is foregrounded for the entire piece and never fades into the miasma of textures that forms behind it. Other elements of the piece are occasionally interesting, but their ephemeral melodies hide deep in the mix and rarely develop. These might function as a test for careful listeners, checking to see that we are paying attention, but the payoff for that effort is small on Side A. From a distance, the flute and piano parts seem like an oasis in a desert of simplistic percussion, shimmering in the heat of the sun. Approach and they disappear like a mirage: most of the piano and flute parts are deceptively simple melodies or carefree key-twinkling, rarely withstanding investigation by the curious ear.
In the near-endless repetition of parts, Tuluum Shimmering seems to suggest that the listener slow down to the song’s leisurely pace. This kind of listening is fine for background music, and Ulau Tau / Spirit of Sun succeeds at evoking a calming mood, a sensation akin to what it must feel like to finally settle in on a desert island. But instead of rewarding deep listening, the scenery falls apart at the seams upon inspection. The voices on Side B are not layered choirs, but looped and delayed vocals. The instrumentation, though almost all of it non-Western, does not feel curated so much as accumulated. In particular, the electric piano juts out of the mix, clashing with the more organic textures of the percussion and flutes. It’s these jarring elements that collapse the environments that Tuluum Shimmering attempts to build throughout the 20-minute-plus track lengths; the palm trees become painted cutouts, the beach a green screen.
The vocals on Side B finally do allow the listener a few moments of deep engagement. The delayed wash exists somewhere between a chant and a chorus of spirits. Unfortunately, Tuluum Shimmering doesn’t allow this moment to develop, preferring to repeat it again and again. Maybe Ulau Tau / Spirit of Sun’s poses of rootless “world” music are a kind of admonition against the pace of the hypermodern culture of the Western world. With mass culture spewing out hit after hit and experimental music looking for novelty at every turn, the suggestion is well-taken. But awareness of all that has come before doesn’t make me wish to repeat the past; it’s the possibility of newness that excites me. Repetition, though at times a powerful tool for creating structure and enforcing memory, prevents the new day from dawning, preferring the old, already explored re-presentation of the past. But however it tries, music will never truly escape the forward march of time, and repetition’s clinging to what has come before can only gesture, exhaustively, at what is old and soon obsolete.