The Expansive Harmoniumby Michael Blair
Elder Ones, Holy Science
Mind Over Mirrors, Undying Color
The surprisingly adaptable and expansive sounds of the harmonium—the small, portable organ that makes noise accordion-style, by way of air whooshing out of a hand- or foot-operated pump—feature prominently on two new records. In the opening seconds of Holy Science, the début recording of Amirtha Kidambi’s Elder Ones ensemble, Kidambi’s harmonium counts off the notes of a dense minor chord and, backed by the buzzing drones of a bowed bass, slowly plunks through a progression of three other pitches before starting all over again. The sustained notes clearly don’t come as easily as they would on a piano, a synth, even an accordion—Kidambi plays them deliberatively, with a kind of heavy but charged mournfulness that lets in as much air as her hand-cranked pump draws out. Much different are the bright, electronic-sounding drones of “Restore & Slip,” the opening song of Mind Over Mirrors’ sixth album, Undying Color. Jaime Fennelly, the harmonium player behind the project, uses a foot pedal to free up an extra hand, and he places contact microphones above the keys to capture sounds that are then processed and phased to create sustained, stereophonic drones out of the whirling air of the pedal. Where Kidambi moves slowly from chord to chord, Fennelly hunkers down on a single, shimmering tone, as analog oscillators shuffle the backbeat across the background.
These two records each work in their own way and come from their own places. Kidambi grew up in the Bay Area singing and playing the harmonium at home in the South Indian bhajan tradition, and she cites the universalism of Alice Coltrane, who made her own bhajan albums, as an inspirational guide in linking diverse musical and spiritual approaches. Kidambi’s ensemble, which includes bassist Brandon Lopez, saxophonist Matt Nelson, and drummer Max Jaffe, mix the spontaneous free improvisation of creative music with Carnatic melodicism and deep-pocket R&B grooves. Kidambi sings a distinctive lexicon of phonemes rather than straight-ahead lyrics—a system she developed working with the saxophonist Darius Jones—and also mines her training in the Western classical avant-garde and her collaborations with postmodern opera and theater composers like Robert Ashley. What emerges are songs that constantly move from one state to the next—sometimes adding complex instrumental melodies, other times removing them in favor of solos; sometimes tightly grooving on a drum-and-bass backline, other times circling around a harmonium drone—but often building to an ecstatic release of sound.
Fennelly came to the harmonium later on, as a member of the New York experimental group Peeesseye, alongside guitarist Chris Forsyth, and percussionist and vocalist Fritz Welch. In that group, Fennelly’s harmonium often contended with bursts of feedback, noise, metal-style drums, and other chaotic and unfiltered sounds. But as Mind Over Mirrors, he has refined his foot-pedal harmonium tone, making it the rich center of the music, while adding analog synthesizers, a ring modulator, and, for 2015’s The Voice Calling, the singing of Haley Fohr of Circuit des Yeux. Undying Color is Fennelly’s first release to feature a full ensemble of musicians, with the voice of Fohr as well as the fiddle and flute playing of Jim Becker, the drumming of Jon Mueller, and the singing and percussion of Janet Beveridge Bean, among others. Fennelly has mentioned the influence of the fife and drum music of Otha Turner—a comparison which not only underscores the presence of added layers of syncopated rhythms, but also accounts for the melodic, songlike way they mix with the dueling drones of the harmonium and the voice. These songs don’t seem to evoke the rhythms of the natural world so much as recreate them in textures and tones, taking in the landscape of the interior world and then throwing it back outside—or, as David Berman of Silver Jews might put it, they “live where the indoors and the outdoors meet.”
Both records share a distinctly spiritual urgency, one that looks to the sounds of the past as inspiration but not necessarily as scripture. The sounds are often shockingly forceful and propulsive for what we think of as drone-based or devotional music. By choosing to make acoustic sounds with their own bodies—laboriously pumping an old reed organ back and forth and up and down—Kidambi and Fennelly make a strong case for how the instruments and sounds of our past can create new meaning for us today. The drones their harmoniums make are vulnerable and sometimes unsteady—puffing in air in a way that is not guaranteed to sound the same each time. It’s a link that Kidambi makes clear on “Dvapara Yuga,” a meditation on the death of Eric Garner and the first piece to be written for Holy Science. The connections between breath, sound, and memory also play out throughout Undying Color, as Fennelly’s drones whirl around in simultaneous states of celebration and grief. On Mind Over Mirrors’ “600 Miles Around,” as the harmonium and synthesizer drones saw back and forth and Bean sings of things “falling to the ground”; or, on Elder Ones’ “Kali Yuga,” as Kidambi’s voice and Nelson’s saxophone breathe in and out together, creating overtones that pulsate with anger and resolve—these moments remind us how strong the noises we make can be at times when the world around us is falling apart.
MICHAEL BLAIR is a writer from St. Louis, Missouri and a member of the Yo La Tengo cover band the Electric Tie Rack Preservation Society.