Net Nuggets 32: Tomb Music

Cam Butler: «Nocturne (reprise)» [128kbps mp3 via http://www.cambutler.com/]

I know this place in Oslo where unashamedly morbid people go; a haven for folks pretentious enough to think—at length—about death. To wit, fucking and birth!

It's a mausoleum, by and for sculptor/painter Emanuel Vigeland, erected pre-emptively as a shrine to his own memory. (Athough it was originally intended as an exhibition space.) An egg-shaped urn containing the artist's ashes is strategically placed over a low door, so that visitors have to bow before the artist upon entering or leaving the always cool premises. The walls and ceiling are the canvas of a painting of countless people all in a heap, fucking, giving birth, being born, dying or already rotting in the middle of the frenzied orgy, beside, behind and on top of you.

The confronting adornments enveloping the visitor makes Vigeland's dark, womblike tomb bear little resemblance to a resting place. They depict neither the intimidating doomsday tableaux nor enticing salvation scenarios evoked by Christians, Vigeland's employers throughout most of his consequently limiting and unsatisfying artesan's career. Perhaps not surprising, then, that after a professional life of decorating churches and illustrating hymns, the artist let loose his almost blasphemously sensual, bohemian-cum-pagan brand of fatalistic mysticism inside his own private space, to which he finally would have to answer to no one. (Unless there is a Jehovah, in which case he might very well find himself fucked, still.) The paintings—or should I say, the one large painting, as all the motifs merge, much like its many pictured orgiasts—conjure hubris and inevitability rather than the Christian stick'n'carrot of hope and damnation: A woman holds her newborn triumphantly up at the sun, oblivious to the carcasses she's stood on to reach up to the sky.

One of the first things people notice upon entering the chamber are the unlikely acoustics, the tiniest, little sound ricocheting madly from wall to wall until the room is filled with a thick, reverberating echo that's almost tactile. In the mausoleum it's as if sound were something you breathe in as much as hear. This is why a strict code of silence, quite literally, is enforced inside, with no talking allowed. This hushed not-quite-silence of impending sound becomes symbolic of the inescapable nothing- or emptiness underlying this and everything; the cosmic static Christians and Muslims want to prolong forever while Hindus and Buddhists want to cut it short, once and for all.

These acoustics have attracted various artists and producers, and after several albums were recorded there the custodians of Vigeland's museum have welcomed and even arranged concerts inside, with an über-intimate capacity limited to about 30 people only. On 14 April, Australian composer Cam Butler and an improvised backing band of three local strangers dubbed «the Shadows Of Love» played the mausoleum (to a ridiculous crowd of nine). For the occasion, Butler (electric guitar, loops) was accompanied by cellist Kjersti Birketvedt, violinist Morten Eike and drummer Gunnar Motland. They had to play ever-so-delicately to avoid upsetting the acoustics and the very room
itself, rousing old Vigeland from inside his little egg. Butler's elegant and unassuming compositions, springing from melancholy, but subdued enough to avoid pomposity or sentimentality, came over graceful because of the patience and careful interplay the surroundings demanded of them. The music on Butler's 2008 CD Dark Times (Symphony No. 2), which tends towards the epic, is quite different from what Mr. Butler, Ms. Birketvedt, Mr. Eike and Mr. Motland played in the dark and sexual womb-tomb. Because of the volatile fifth instrument the acoustics amounted to, the drummer only lightly tapped the skins and cymbals with his fingers, never resorting to sticks. (No bombastic battery in the live performance.) And instead of a grandiose chamber orchestra overstating the emotions, the one violin and one cello were enough to provide the melodies, while not being too loud to drown out the subtleties, aural, musical, emotional or otherwise. Vigeland's mausoleum proved the perfect vehicle for Butler's compositions.

All his miniature symphonies that evening hung in the balance between hope and hopelessness, avoiding the falsity of hope and the self-indulgence of despair, allowing you to come to terms with what is instead. A subtle form of transcendence, as if on your deathbed you release your fear and regrets, yet obviously do not harbour any hopes. It's not indifference, but the kind of peace that could be mistaken for it, if not for the calm at its core. It's this calm that Butler and his Shadows Of Love conjured in the centre of that mausoleum, as if juxtaposed with the strife depicted all over the walls by the person supposedly resting in it.

But then, what do I know about dying? Or peace? It's just wishful thinking, which is hope after all—which is bullshit. Still, Cam Butler's music allows you to dream, and that's something. A moment of inspiration and a little existential ambition in all this pointlessness!

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