There’s been talk recently of a resurgence of religion in what Jürgen Habermas has called the ‘post-secular society’. In this debate, it often seems that the longing to believe in something is mistaken for belief itself. But doesn’t longing mean that its object is not there? One might look to Indie Rock and Folk for examples of non-committal neo-spiritualities (take the mysticism surrounding Animal Collective), ditto for immersive group experiences that seem to take on ‘transcendental’ qualities. Just think of the over-popular cliché of the ‘congregation’ of dancers in a techno ‘temple’ where the DJ is kind of a high priest who administers the 4/4 sacrament from his DJ ‘pulpit’. What has all of this got to do with the minimal techno composer Hendrik Weber, better known as Pantha du Prince? He adds a religious spin to club culture, but in a different way.
For his new album Elements of Light (Rough Trade, 2013), Weber focuses on the sound of the ultimate spiritual instrument: bells. In Shang Dynasty China (1600–1027 BCE), they were already being used in religious rituals. Symbolizing transition, they served to communicate between this world and the world beyond. Long before Christian believers, Buddhist monks were called to prayer by tolling bells. Their sound also acted as a magic charm against storms and evil spirits.
Weber composed Elements of Light on his laptop and with the help of Norwegian composer Lars Petter Hagen, who orchestrated the score for live instruments, recorded it with the six-member ensemble from Oslo, The Bell Laboratory. Weber inscribes the work quite deliberately into a spiritual tradition, which is manifest both by the religious significance of its title (recalling the link between light and the divine in Christian and other religious traditions) and already in musicians’ dress: we see them posing in monk’s robes. Yet Weber is obviously a product of an enlightened tradition that cannot simply be renounced, even if one might not approve of some of its implications. It seems as if he is seeking access to the spiritual without relinquishing the analytical. This ambivalence between faith and knowledge is also reflected in the titles of the five movements of his new album, long, flowing sound textures of bells, percussion and electronic elements. He has called them Wave, Particle, Photon, Spectral Split and Quantum, using the terminology of physics to describe elements of light.
Listening to the album one hears a 64-bell carillon: a collection of variously sized bronze bells which is usually installed in a tower and which is played by hand on an organ-like keyboard. The keys, operated with considerable force by the carillonneur, are connected by wires to the clappers and hammers that strike the individual bells. Once the bells are struck, the development of the sound, with its overlapping and frequency modulation, can no longer be influenced. The carillon can be played but, unlike computer-generated sounds, it cannot be fully controlled.
Like the Romantics, who emphasized the passive receptivity of awed vision, Weber tries to approach the miraculous via such elements of unpredictability. His last Pantha du Prince album Black Noise (Rough Trade, 2010) was already permeated by romantic tranquility, including found sounds obtained by attaching contact microphones to natural objects, and field recordings made in woods and meadows. But the resulting acoustic treasures were later distorted and morphed in the studio; the distilled electroacoustic spirit got the club treatment.
Black Noise also made use of digital bell sounds. Working with actual bells on the new album signals an increased quest for authenticity. But contrary to the obscure murmurings in music writer Christoph Gurk’s promotional text for Elements of Light, the album neither features ‘invocations of supra-individual orders’ nor does it create a ‘world in which the author’s intentions play only a very limited part’. Rather than a mystical birthing of sound, the album is most definitely a man-made composition. Its acoustic material may be a little unruly, but the musical author is still on hand to organize it. Calling the carillon ‘one of the roots of aleatory music’ is also an exaggeration. If nothing but chance had prevailed here, Weber’s techno-bell-symphony would surely be a lot more difficult to listen to. In fact, in its non-ambient passages, Elements of Light seems not so far removed from common house albums: The bass drum kicks in time-honoured 4/4 measure, and most of the time Weber manages to avoid the album’s hypnotic minimalism à la Steve Reich from bordering on kitsch. But after the bombast and bluster of the concept, the posing and the costumes, the music itself seems almost incidental. And that is less than it deserves.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell