A powerhouse of a debut.
With essential releases by Annea Lockwood, Ian William Craig and its own label head, Sean McCann’s Recital label has become a touchstone for drone and collage works, especially those that veer into narrative-driven sets of field recordings and blur the line between music and sound art. Their latest release, Nour Mobarak’s debut full-length, veers even further into the realm of personal reflection and story-telling-through-sound. Father Fugue is both an emotionally and artistically challenging record, one that asks the listener to ponder the value of family as the nuclear structure dissolves in a child’s adulthood, as well as the purpose of art as a communicative device.
The record’s first side comprises a titular four-part suite that combines field recordings, Mobarak’s vocal improvisations and a series of conversations between the composer and her father, Jean Mobarak in a variety of languages. The latter’s memory is endlessly lapsing, to the point where the topics and coherence of the conversation are frequently lost – saying nothing of the younger Mobarak’s efforts to further alienate convention with jump cuts, abrupt endings and other disorienting collage effects. This double confusion puts the listener not in the position of a pitying outsider trying to comprehend the perils of aging, but rather it tries to make tangible the simultaneous sorrow and joy of the communication breakdown between Mobarak and her father.
Many of Mobarak’s improvisations on the second section, “Oaxacan Shower,” take place in her bathroom, finding the composer singing as she’s showering or brushing her teeth. Against the discussion with her father, this section of the Father Fugue offers two versions of domestic life: the familial connection, now firmly in the past and threatening to be lost to failing memory, and Mobarak’s current independence, making music as she goes about the mundane activities of her daily life. It’s equal parts mournful for what’s lost and hopeful for the future, something akin to the feelings offered by the conclusions to Kurosawa’s Ikiru or Varda’s One Sings, the Other Doesn’t. Where one life ends another begins, and Mobarak uses the unique qualities of stacked and panned sounds to bump these conflicting timelines against each other until one is undifferentiable from the other.
Father Fugue comes with a 24-page booklet transcribing and translating, which is helpful when truly unpacking Mobarak’s conversation with her father, as well as the vocalizations and field recordings in the mix’s right channel, which are given a verbal representation in the columns outlining the text. Some of the French sections are especially worth reading along with, such as a beautiful section where Mobarak and her father play Scrabble on “Neurodiversity.” The last few minutes of this track contains a section of complete lingual play, where all four languages touched on are mixed together into one hodgepodge of speech as Mobarak’s father tries to teach her Italian and Lebanese atop fragments from previous conversations.
The album’s second side features more traditional avant-garde art song material, though the same level of care that went into the epic Father Fugue suite appears in these 11 short pieces. As was prevalent on side one, Mobarak’s vocal skill is top-notch as she lilts around a variety of melodies, screams and spoken passages. Tracks such as the toy-piano-driven “Annabelle” and the echoing balladry of “Dafne” offer more refined moments that near full-fledged compositions, but in between these lie strange little bits of pure experimentalism in the extended shouts on “Monte Albán Scream” or the digital noise/country folk mashup of “Winter Warm-Up.” Mobarak showcases more traditional artistry on this fast-paced song cycle, but it’s hard to not have this feel like a bit of a step down from the sheer profundity of Father Fugue’s title suite. The album is nonetheless a powerhouse of a debut, one that shows Mobarak’s comfort in a post-20th century viewpoint, where the combusted fragments of postmodernism are reassembled into something with unprecedented feeling and meaning.