The Extreme South: Último Sosiego By Benjamín Vergara & Amanda Irarrázabal

An album of improvised music for trumpet and double bass draws on the emotional resonances of Chile’s southern tip

A charred lump of rock stares out from the cover of Benjamín Vergara and Amanda Irarrázabal’s record of trumpet and double bass duets, Último Sosiego. Or does it? The black stone is partially submerged in unfamiliar sand, flicks of orange suggesting rust or a volcanic encounter. Beyond a cursory glance, questions start. What seemed to be a snapshot is actually composed, an original painting on filter paper by UK-based artist Mihee Kim Magee called ‘Untitled + II’. The stone is a piece of collage made from Korean paper and black ink. The painting, according to Magee, doesn’t depict anything specific. Their process is abstract. The layers in the image didn’t come from meteorology or geology.

In Magee’s artwork, the border between abstract and figurative is slender. It plays with your mind and hints at things that are recognisable. It’s an effect Vergara and Irarrázabal, respectively based in Valdivia and Santiago, Chile, achieve with acoustic instruments. Último Sosiego makes my ears listen like they’re hearing an environmental recording, despite these pieces being in-person improvisations recorded in a studio. I focus to notice details and minutiae, to decipher and identify what the acoustic instruments might be evoking. In Irarrázabal’s double bass playing I hear pebbles sifted, rattled and clashed. The first sound from Vergara’s trumpet is a woosh of air, like a gush from a fissure in the earth’s surface. Other times he arrives as a deluge, a downpour of soaking tone. As the album’s centre piece, ‘mapamundis, un papel arrugado’, draws to a close, the double bass creaks and warbles in Irarrázabal’s hands. Wood, string, flesh mimicking a voluble gang of primates. 

As they explain in an artist statement for these four improvisations, Irarrázabal and Vergara entered the studio with the intention of drawing from the “endless life that creates the extreme south territory of Chile, in particular Valdivia and surroundings, and that gives an important meaning to the Chilean soundscape.”

The album is more than texture and environment. There’s humanity and intricate relations in their soundscape. Vergara switches between lulling drones and melodic interventions. On the title track, he counters Irarrázabal’s fervid swell with lines bruised, jaunty, and not a million-miles away from tunes you’d expect in the music to a New Orleans’ funeral procession. Midway through ‘nuevo merengue’, double bass decelerates from a frenzy into a walk. Trumpet follows the stride. For a few minutes the duo almost swing. It slows further, as if dusk is descending, so that in the final moments Vergara tip-toes around snores and yawns from the double bass.

While Último Sosiego is their first recording together, apart the duo have furrowed distinctive paths expanding the horizons of what their instruments can evoke. Vergara brings ghostly melodicism in the trio Nichunimu’s radiophonic swirl. His 2023 record under his own name, The Impossibility of a Single Sound, collects slow detonating trumpet solos where clicks, creaks and gusts from the instrument are an intrinsic part of what makes the lamentful recordings so moving.

On Fauces, Irarrázabal’s 2022 duet with violinist Miriam den Boer Salmón, she tears the materials of the double bass into focus through clanks and thwacks, or bows out scurrying motions in higher frequencies. The power her visceral playing affords is even more startling in service to the songs on her 2020 album Caudal. Here, fierce technique adds drama to her vocals. Moving from the conventionally harmonic into eruptions of vibrant sound to generate remarkable dynamic and emotional range.

Together, Irarrázabal and Vergara mix a deep use of unconventional techniques reminiscent of “A” Trio with the playful experimentation of Art Ensemble of Chicago. The Chilean duo breach the boundaries tradition and expectation have ossified into their instruments, building on top of these expanded possibilities for the sake of expression rather than abstraction being a goal in itself. What makes Último Sosiego so entrancing is the palpable feeling Valdivia means something different to each musician. Through their playing, you sense they both notice and attach importance to different things when processing their surroundings. Where Irarrázabal channels bristling activity and constant change; Vergara is contemplative, drawn to gently mutable cycles. These distinctions, and what emerges from their resolution, points to the contingent, shifting, personalised traces of a given place. The sense that anywhere becomes somewhere thanks to the moods that emerge in collaboration with it and its inhabitants.

What can someone who’s never been to Valdivia learn about it by listening to this record? Último Sosiego is figurative at the affective level. Through instinctive interaction between the players rather than composed pieces, it relays the elements of a place that act on the emotions and the body, not just the senses. It doesn’t seem to be about trapping specific sounds, but the remainder that can’t be captured by a documentary audio recording. A place’s vibrancy, how it makes its inhabitants feel.

There’s a similar connection between place and sound in Meredith Monk’s Facing North. That record originated in a residency Monk took in rural Alberta, Canada. The vast, snow-covered landscape left a mark which Monk strove to convey with her collaborator, vocalist Robert Een. “I tried to evoke the elemental, bracing clarity of the northern landscape. I realised then that ‘north’ is also a state of mind,” Monk said around the time of ‘Facing North’s’ creation. From broad strokes of organ to exploratory vocalisations, Monk and Een paint a picture of a place layered with movement and stasis, shifting moods and variable affect.

In Irarrázabal and Vergara’s improvisations, a state of mind is broadcast from southern Chile. It’s most potent in Último Sosiego’s closing track. Double bass squawks and scrapes, while the trumpet exhales fluctuating tones, as though Vergara is testing how the air moves through his lungs. The agitation gradually eases. What seem like two untethered, unconnected voices start to howl – not in unison, but definitely in relation. It’s far more symbiotic and entangled than call and response. Spooky, beautiful and fierce all at once, it’s charged with a complexity that can only be glimpsed in a balancing act between the familiar and the abstract.

Like Monk, Irarrázabal and Vergara show that communicating a place’s vitality and the imprint it leaves on the psyche isn’t limited to the sounds that can be faithfully recorded from it. Trying to capture what makes a place a place through free-improvisation might seem unusual, but as an act of transmediation, is it any stranger than, say, trying to express music through writing? Through bold approaches to their instruments, Irarrázabal and Vergara sink into their surroundings and grasp the moods that seep through them. Mapping the ways sounds move us, and the way they move through us.

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today