Eternal ragas for the infinite now: that is how Important Records describes The Headlands, a collaborative project involving Barn Owl, The Norman Conquest (Norman Teale), cellist Theresa Wong, and Ellen Fullman. And certainly the record, made in the gym at the Headlands Center for the Arts north of San Francisco, where Fullman was previously an artist in residence, is in love with the distortions of time that only thick, swarming fields of sound can produce. There has always been for me an aura of magic residing in the Marin headlands and this music is both an evocation and extension of that.
Ellen Fullman’s Long String Instrument is “an installation of dozens of wires fifty feet or more in length, tuned in Just Intonation and ‘bowed’ with rosin coated fingers” that produces a chamber of buzzing drones, sounds akin to lights rapidly flickering through a watery surface. The player must move along it to produce the desired sounds and Fullman, who began developing the instrument in 1981, also came up with a unique form of notation to choreograph these movements. It produces sounds that uncannily seem to both surround and provide a revolving spine that binding the contributions of the other collaborators together.
The Headlands is ritual music for rituals yet to be invented. It is heavy, nebulously spiritual, dense and bottomless. It is inhabited by specters of Buddhist emptiness, by a stasis of movement with cosmic implications. “Light” is made of sounds that conjure light but they compose a void. The pieces stretch out horizontally, a great weight falling forward along a linearly coursing time before reaching nodes of uncanny weightlessness, dreamily so, as on opener “Levitation,” or, more often, disturbingly so.
“Foghorns” does bring to mind its bellowing namesakes, but even more, in the haze of feedback produced by Barn Owl’s Evan Caminiti and Jon Porras, it evokes the physicality of the fog itself, and buried somewhere within the murk shadows of the endless forms of human experience for which fog may serve as a metaphor. Boundaries break down in a shifting space where mercurial sonic events rise and draw the attention before falling back beneath a billowing canopy of gray. The breakdown between figure and ground, horns and fog, is like being still while the ground beneath and the landscape, seen obscured always, are in perpetual motion.
This is not the stuff for casual listening. Its intensity is of the variety that may fascinate, move, and desirably disquiet the attentive listener, but as background it would consistently invade whatever you were trying to do and end up plainly disruptive and disturbing, submerging daily rhythms of doing in layers of fluid, delimited consciousness. That it does this is worthy of admiration. As is the fact that there is truly something magical and unknowable at work in the sonic space carved out by each of the four pieces on The Headlands, something gray and green, of trees and water and the little figures uneasily at home amidst them.
Deaf Center – Owl Splinters
Ellen Fullman and Monique Buzzarte – Fluctuations
Barn Owl – Ancestral Star