Saturday, July 18, 2020

Album review: Anne Waldman, Sciamachy

-Originally published in the Wire magazine, Oct 2020-

Anne Waldman, Sciamachy (Fast Speaking Music, 2020) 

Album review by John Pietaro

      1.         Extinction Aria
2.        Streets of the World
3.        Rune
4.        My Lover Comes Home Today
5.        Face Down Girl

From the opening strains of “Extinction Aria”, the lead selection on Anne Waldman’s Sciamachy, the urgency of the moment couldn’t be clearer:

This is my vision…days on earth/Days when the weather changed course/
When we lost our minds/When leaders failed us/ There was no wisdom.

Waldman’s career extends through decades, from the latter years of the Beats through New York’s New Poetry literary circles. She was a founding member of the celebrated Poetry Project and co-founder, with Allen Ginsberg and Diane Di Prima, of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics of Naropa University. As a performer, she’s fused verse into the spheres of free jazz, world music and post-punk, commanding stages around the world, brandishing raw political activism within demanding, commanding works which spare no conservative ideology.

In the best “downtown” tradition, Waldman has been collaborating with expansive musicians and other artists for over forty years, casting a prideful lineage in her wake. Still, her new album Sciamachy may stand as the highest achievement of her recorded output. Produced by Waldman’s nephew, the saxophonist Devin Brahja Waldman, Sciamchy (which translates from Greek as “shadow war”) boasts old friends Laurie Anderson and William Parker. Her son, Ambrose Bye, served as an engineer and played synthesizer on ensemble selections, so the combination is downright visceral. Further, the international musicians herein carry well the weight of post-modernism’s boundlessness.

The “Extinction Aria” is a powerful exploration of Tibetan and Mayan prophecies as much as socio-political commentary. Initially published as verse in a limited edition set last year, the work’s core is an indictment of the greed, waste, manipulation and warmongering about us. After being recorded live in a studio with the full ensemble, the piece became more relevant than Waldman initially suspected:

Enemy is the creation of a waffling god realm/A becoming in fact/
Becoming isolated/And a kind of ghostly corporeality.

Like so many of her epic poems, Waldman writes here both in overt exclamation and mystical insinuation, threading ancient wisdom to contemporary struggle.

The poet has been performing increasingly with nephew Devin Waldman. In his alto saxophone one unmistakably hears a call to the elders, but such a rite begins even before his horn is released from the case. The younger Waldman’s tone ranges from haunting to infernal within the quintet of synthesist Bye, mesmerizing guitarist Havard Skaset (of Norway where he leads experimental band MoE), British electronics artist/baritone bassist Deb Googe (of My Bloody Valentine), and Norwegian bassist Guro Moe. Regrettably, the band is only heard in full power on the opener and “My Lover Comes Home Today”—though Waldman assured that there are more quintet tracks awaiting release. Individual band members are called in for other selections as well, all to excellent effect. Of special note are the pieces with Laurie Anderson, “Rune”, and William Parker, “Streets of the World”. On the former, Anderson’s electric violin constructs a skeletal soundscape about Waldman’s voice. Poet as well as musician, Anderson’s connection to the words is near spiritual. And on “Streets of the World”, bassist Parker plays the n’goni, a compellingly percussive African lute. Waldman explained that this session was completed in one take, an of-the-moment collective improvisation, but then the poetry was birthed in the midst of tension, too. “The piece was written in the heat of Trump, at various protests around Trump Tower, when I’d move to the side to scribble down words as the inspiration struck”.

In the historic context of poetry as a weapon, Anne Waldman continues to brandish arms that are as healing as they are lethal, decidedly aesthetic and artful, and never concealed.

Anne Waldman: voice and text
Laurie Anderson – electric violin (selection 3)
William Parker – n’goni (selection 2)
Ambrose Bye: synthesizer (selections 1 and 4)
Devin Brahja Waldman – tenor and soprano saxophones (selections 1, 2 and 4), drums (selection 4)
Deb Googe – electronics (selections 1 and 5), baritone bass (selection 4)
Havard Skaset – electric guitar (selections 1 and 4)
Guro Moe – electric bass (selection 1), vocalizations (selection 4)

Recording by Felix X Tigersonic at Smartmix Studio in London, UK; and by Alden Penner and Ambrose Bye at Fast Speaking Music Studio, NYC. Produced by Devin Brahja Waldman.

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