The Pyre is a dark and dense album.
The Pyre, in its complete form, is a dance piece by Gisèle Vienne. Its narrative concerns two people, a dancer and a mute boy, as they work to understand expression, the human body and representation. On stage, the dancers are joined by an LED light sculpture that responds to cues and triggers from the piece’s multi-channel score. The final act is a novella written by Dennis Cooper, given to each audience member to read at their leisure as they leave the theatre. Moving beyond the work itself, photographer Estelle Hanania has documented The Pyre and is using it as part of her forthcoming book on Vienne’s work. Out of this massive, far-reaching multimedia art piece, Shelter Press has taken the score, mixed it down to appropriate headphone specs and released it on vinyl.
While stripping away the wealth of surrounding context and mixing the surround sound down to measly stereo might be committing a cardinal sin, there’s plenty of intrigue within The Pyre as a purely sonic experience. KTL is the duo of Peter Rehberg, founder of the crucial experimental label Editions Mego, and Sunn O)))’s Stephen O’Malley, meaning the dark drones and digitized noise presented here come from two of the most historically-excellent minds in this style. There’s a delicate control of dynamics and mixing that allows the score to explore varying extremes, spanning the breadth between barely audible hisses and chimes to dense layers of synthesized sounds. While many of these choices lead to atypical experiences, the novelty of the odd sounds is backed by a meticulously subtle approach to development and harmony.
Sonically, the score resembles the work of Mego affiliates and contemporaries like Jim O’Rourke—especially his Steamroom series—or Fennesz. There’s no credits to figure out what exactly O’Malley and Rehberg are playing, but there seem to be a lot of synthesizers, treated guitars and computer-generated effects. It sounds like they bow a lot of things, and some of the clanging and ringing sounds in the second half have a loose quality to them, as if they’re swaying in the wind. The mix of all this makes The Pyre a dark and dense album, less concerned with clear cues than it is creating distinct textures through slow-moving structures.
The first track, “Escapade,” is the most spacious here. KTL focus primarily on the tinniest of frequencies, each bouncing off of the next as they all cycle around a static strummed harmony that progressively sours in relation to its shifting surroundings. The subtle anxiety of The Pyre’s opening remains throughout, though “Escapade” is the only instance where it takes center stage. KTL go on to compound this unease with more varied sounds and feelings, going as far away as the dreamy, almost nostalgic shimmers of the first half of “Glass X.” That track’s second half introduces percussion and more defined rhythms, a focus that takes a more central role through the end of the score. “HIT” goes so far as to include big, booming toms, a destructive sound that interrupts the whispered 20 minutes that precedes it. Each drum hit threatens to drown out the fragile drones in the track’s background, but give the music room to breathe over high-volume speakers and the effect is overwhelming and glorious.
After the bombast of “HIT,” “SuperMellow” reaches for the opposite and lives up to its title. Panned far right is a marching bass motif while bouncing around elsewhere are synthesizer drones and echo effects that recall a classic dub sound. Whether intentional or not, it’s one of a few moments where a clear reference point appears; otherwise there’s a slightly agnostic, insular feel to the music, though, again, KTL have lost a visual and textual element here. Only those privy to the piece’s European run of shows a few years back can attest to the ideological changes the music makes when presented alongside the complete piece.
The Pyre isn’t KTL’s first collaboration with Vienne and hopefully not their last. Her work obviously brings out the best in O’Malley and Rehberg’s practice. The collaboration between text, visuals and sound forces the composers to re-evaluate the primacy of their work, privileging full communication and intersection over individual expression. It’s a testament to KTL’s skill, then, that their stereo-distilled version is still a rewarding drone record, one that gives listeners enough to sift through before Shelter Press releases Hanania’s book later this spring, hopefully answering some of the questions this fragment of a piece asks.