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Colleen
Captain Of None Joseph Burnett , April 2nd, 2015 09:14

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Sometimes, despite my immediate inclinations, it's a good thing for an artist to draw back from minimalism and gravitate towards a musical form that's more approachable. I make no bones about my love for the slow, extended, lengthy drone works of string composers such as Tony Conrad, Charlemagne Palestine or Pauline Oliveros, who make tracks often over an hour in length and dwell unflinchingly on the subtle textures and nuances that certain -often, but not always "traditional"- instruments produce. French artist Cécile Schott, aka Colleen, has never, to my knowledge, recorded an hour-long drone piece on her favoured viola da gamba, but her music up until recently was doggedly restrained, especially on 2007's Les Ondes Silencieuses; a bleak, shadowy and stripped-down esquisse of the modern chamber music scene. It was a beauty, disarming in all the ways bound to enchant me, and reminiscent of someone like Richard Skelton, so it's with some surprise that I find myself utterly seduced by the markedly different Captain Of None, which follows on from the indicators laid down on 2013's The Weighing Of The Heart in opening up her previously austere approach to produce something that is more intricate, melodic and light-handed, but no less singular.

It's doubly remarkable in that, compared to Les Ondes Silencieuses, the pallette Colleen works with is, on the surface, more reduced here, with no reeds or bells and her viola played solely by plucking, not bowing. Apart from a few homemade percussion sources (apparently including chopsticks, of all things), Melodica and a delay pedal, Captain Of None is crafted entirely out of Schott's viola da gamba and her voice. Pretty much every track feature flurries of plucked viola notes that cascade out of the speakers like falling snow, the loops masterfully interlaced and juxtaposed until they form a beatific curtain or blanket of sound. Schott first introduces her voice on 'I'm Kin', it's warm tone adding an extra layer of comfort as she wistfully intones oblique lyrics relating to Greek mythology and romance, her every word stretched and enhanced by delay. Alongside the gentle viola, her singing perhaps inevitably evokes Liz Harris of Grouper, and although Schott is clearer and less elusive, she shares a lot of the American's natural melancholy, the lyrics on 'Lighthouse', for example, delivered in a breathy, yet multi-layered, whisper that sounds fraught with repressed emotion.

Her use of the viola da gamba, a medieval instrument usually associated with chamber music and royal courts is, if anything, even more remarkable. Inspired by dub, Schott frequently stretches out her sounds with echo, reverb and delay before looping them over themselves, subtly altering their DNA so that what should be fragile pizzicatos now fill the space with clusters of enticing detail. This fascination with dub reaches its apogee on 'Eclipse', where her voice is stretched in a way that would make Lee Perry sit up and take notice, whilst she plucks low notes out of her viola until it sounds almost note-for-note like a four-string bass guitar. Other influences include African music, and never is this more apparent than on 'This Hammer Breaks', a thrillingly percussive ride on which looped hand drums (I'm unsure at this point whether these are approximated by banging the viola or with one of her improvised percussion devices) build into a locust storm of energy redolent of both Malian folk, the primordial dance music of the DRC's Konono Nº1 and traces of Ghanaian highlife. It's the most frenetic track on the album, coming to a thrilling close when Colleen dissolves it into a mass of whistling electronics.

Captain Of None has essences of pop and song, but despite its bright textures and playful use of traditional instruments and sound sources, it also hides a contemplative core. Colleen essentially provides a journey to this mysterious, elusive heart, one that requires an open mind and sense of adventure. It may not be as immediately sonically challenging as her earlier, more austere work, but it is no less valiant and genre-defying. In fact, it probably pushes the envelope quite a bit further.

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underlander
Jul 1, 2015 10:51am

To those who interested here's her recent performance on KEXP https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R1FF9kAl6D8

And a funny but somewhat insightful comment from YT: She makes the xx look like a bunch of Nickelback groupies.

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