Listening to Robbie Basho and Peter Walker’s ragas from the 1960’s, after a few years of trying to get into real Indian classical music, threw me off a bit. Compositions for solo wooden guitar seemed as far away from pieces that were supposed to be played on sitars and tabla as possible. Recently though, I turned my face eastward to see what was happening Sweden-side and discovered probably one of the most brilliant albums of this year by Jerry Johansson, a two song effort titled Next Door Conversation released by Kning Disk. Johansson composes for sitar, tambura, santour and string quartet and it’s got me convinced that if someone could compose Western new-classical music for Eastern instruments, that Westerners could also reinterpret Indian Classical ideas for Western instruments. And I’ve been finding the droning song cycle to fit more comfortably into this category than most indie/experimental subgenres. So the Charalambides’ music distinctively has been making more sense to my ears as I continually give it more attention.
Christina Carter of the Charalambides has released several albums of solo material, either through Kranky or on cd-r, but Electrice is the most addictively gorgeous album she’s conceived. Electrice is four songs in the same guitar tuning (so right there, she abandons even the traditions that Basho and Walker had set in the folk artery) and in the same key. These songs are supposed to sound the same, but they are not the same. They invoke the ancient lost voices and “fragmented-through-the-recording-process” words of delta blues ghosts but through the music of composers that may have never existed. This eternal collaboration is channeled through the use of multi-layers and overdubs, not fancy flashy harmonies and tons of instruments though.
She creates echoed, bassy electric guitar drones that she strums over, leaving only enough space for the hollow ambience of the small room where she recorded to creep in. Her voice howls like packs of wolves to a star-spangled sky. Carter sings short verses bookended with minutes of psychedelic droning, and then hums and moans as if these non-word segments were verses as well.
Electrice is not a raga. But ragas, like any piece of music, have isolated parts that individually help to narrate some idea in full, over the course of the entire work. The songs on Electrice cannot be separated like radio singles or remixed or reordered, they each help to tell the story of this atemporal bridge Carter is trying to build. The first line she utters is “My words will not die another death” which is coupled with the last line of the album, a rhetorical deconstruction of language and verbal expression in itself, “are you words my words?”
On Electrice, Carter doesn’t rely heavily on the weight of her lyrics to carry the album, but these lines acknowledge how important it is that they are tied with unchanging, orbiting (as opposed to evolving) music. That they are bound together, her language and her voice, her non-words and her guitar’s non-words, is the value system that this album is abiding by. And this is what ties Carter’s work to Indian Classical music. When a tabla player sings the words assigned to different types of percussive slaps, he is bridging his voice with the voice of the instrument and acknowledging that simple fact that the person cannot be removed from the story that the song cycle tells. This is an album that I feel very close to.