Simon Wickham-Smith was born on the south coast of England in 1968. He studied English Literature at King’s College in London, graduating in 1990. In addition to making music – which he has done prolificly – he also became a Buddhist monk in the Tibetan tradition. He is a scholar and translator of Mongolian and Tibetan literature.
Track 1. Sandokai (2001) [18:38]
I searched my memory far and wide when I first listened to this music, the first track of Simon Wickham-Smith’s CD love & lamentation; Sandokai. I was swept away in this tonal torrent, which is brutal as well as sweet, tempting and rough; dangerous and somehow hypnotic; a forceful flow of lethal beauty that seems to sweep you behind time and matter, intensely persuading and elastically dreamy. After a long search inside me I came to a place in my youth, around 1962, and a Japanese movie I’d watched on television: Mothra. I didn’t remember much about the plot, but I knew it had mystical, mythical bearings, and that it had something to do with a dreamland deity in the shape of a butterfly coming to save some small female humanoids who had strayed from the Beyond, having been caught by scientists and/or militaries of Japan. The real conflict, as I recall it, or as it has colored my mind, was one between the materialistic, narrow-minded but seemingly successful and also cruel and remorseless modern science, and the shamanistic world of myth and religion. I was much affected by the atmosphere of the movie, anyway, watching it in the Swedish countryside at the farm where we lived. There was a song being sung in the Mothra movie, by the young humanoid girls, and the Mothra, when it approached in the distance, also emitted a sound – and these sounds were beautiful, mystical and hypnotic, sounding very much like the music of Simon Wickham-Smith’s Sandokai.
Sandokai has a subtitle; The Harmony of Difference and Equality, and Wickham-Smith explains:
“The Sandokai […] is a prayer written by the eighth century Japanese Zen teacher Sekito Kisen and recited daily at Sōtō monasteries. The basis for this piece was a tape given to me by a nun of a recital at her monastery. […] I wanted to create of this sample a prayer without borders, a follow-up to an earlier work, Ave Regina Caelorum […] in which I used the Latin plainsong of a prayer to the Virgin Mary in much the same way.
This is indeed magic, alluring music, and quite original, to that. I’ve never heard anything quite like this, although the methodology used by Wickham-Smith is commonplace. Maybe his basic material – the tape he was given – already was permeated with some kind of far-reaching alien beauty and magic, but his handiwork with the machinery and the concept he must have harbored probably were decisive.
The Mothra atmosphere is very strong in my mind, and if I should compare this very original music to just one other work out of my huge collection of sound, it would – though quite remotely – be Over de Dood en de Tijd by Dutch composer Gilius van Bergeijk, which also drifts out into a gray zone between here and now, where some of the most interesting things concerning disappearances and appearances gleam and glitter, at the periphery of perception and mind. I have fallen helplessly in love with this work by Simon Wickham-Smith.
Track 2. The Kin-kindness of Beforehand (2003) [12:29]
This is a more traditional sound-poetic text-sound composition, but cleverly and soothingly applied, i.e., alluring, again – as well as both elastic and dreamy!
The Kin-kindness of Beforehand is an offspring of the composer’s project Multiple Tongues, in which he had digitally manipulated voices speaking in several languages. In Oxford Wickham-Smith met the American poet Rachel Becker, who read him a series of her poems, which he recorded and then permuted in various ways for this composition. Initially, the poet was discontent with the result, and of course, if she had expected a more coherent, straight usage of her writing, she would have been surprised, but I think the composition – viewed as sound poetry and text-sound art, is interesting and enjoyable; inspiring. I can’t help but recall another instance when a composer asked a poet for her collaboration, resulting in a negative reaction from the poet at the result, initially. This was when Swedish composer of electroacoustic music, Rolf Enström (1951), collaborated with Swedish poet Elsa Grave (1918 – 2003) in the work Slutförbannelser (Final Curses) (1981), in which Elsa Grave’s reciting of her own work Slutförbannelser (1977) is cut up and heavily permuted, but slowly regaining coherence and clarity as the work progresses. It was a case of the same unpreparedness on the part of the poet. It’s easy, as a sound artist, to loose track of how most people regard sound, and perhaps especially their own voices, and not least, in the cases with these poets, who perhaps felt protective of their poetic works of art, which were crunched and wrenched in the composers’ sound tools. In the end Final Curses became one of the classical standard works of sound art of Scandinavia, and till this day I regard it as one of the best text-sound and electroacoustic works I’ve heard. I wouldn’t allot that much praise for Simon Wickham-Smith’s and Rachel Becker’s The Kin-kindness of Beforehand, but it’s a good work of art.
Tracks 3 – 5. love&lamentation (2004) [15:52]
Yes, the title is supposed to be written like that!
No matter what this might be considered, Simon Wickham-Smith has impressed and pleased me just as much with this composition as with the starter of the album; Sandokai. This bit is in part reminiscent of Sandokai, in its dreamy beyondness and forceful, laidback urgency, but it shows more variation. There are numerous layers of sound to explore in this listening experience. This love&lamentation composition is one of the most exciting and rewarding pieces of music I’ve traveled in a long, long time. Wickham-Smith’s CD from Al Margolis’ POGUS label has been stacked in the urgent pile of music-to-review for a long time – I think at least a year, because life is crammed with to-dos – but when I finally permeate my space and time with this music, I am as defenseless and happy as I feel when browsing the precipes of Lapland on my hikes through the rock deserts in late summer, taking in the treacherous, breathless views of ascensions and descents ahead.
The dreaminess, in the latter stage of the first part of love&lamentation, is merged with a heavily, but somehow still withheld, rhythmic textural force not unlike some backwards-in-time stages of John Lennon’s and Paul McCartney’s Tomorrow Never Knows from the, at the time, revolutionary Beatles album Revolver (1966), while also letting a distant wavy chant provide a soaring invokous backdrop. Simon Wickham-Smith manages to conceive and achieve this merger seamlessly, until you realize you’re spinning around in an electronic centrifuge of disposed analogue sonic matter that lumps together in multi-colored bands around your head. Your self, elusive as it may be, is inserted into a motion inside a motion inside a motion, and although it messes you up, your confusion is one of beauty and elegance, down the vertigouos spin of numerous heres and nows.
The composer talks about his composition:
“love&lamentation started life as a setting for voice and electronics of part of the biblical Book of Lamentation, but it quickly became clear to me that the literal setting of words was not going to convey the melancholic intimacy that I felt needed to be expressed.
The sonic modality of the last part of the piece – also the final track on the CD – makes its persistent entry into your perception in sincere, beautiful, gleaming fragments of repetitious insistence. The circling little figure is presented in dust and smoke, like a young god of old Greece playing his lute in brittle, golden traces across the habitat of amnesia, through the halls of the sub-conscious, through the state of hovering, homeless mind of the passage from drowsiness to sleep. The highly disguised and painted-over chant of the inhabitants of the Isle of Lewis [Eilean Leòdhas] seeps through the veil of forgetfulness, and as the music recedes, I feel I’m standing in some kind of thousand-year-old cathedral, looking at a faded textile up on the wall, partially lit by rays of light coming down diagonally through the dusty air of a whole culture’s tradition.