CD Reviews

Mathieu Ruhlmann – This Star Teaches Bending

November 7, 2013


Following on from my vague pondering from a couple of nights ago, here’s another CD that raises the issue of CD liner notes and their value to the listener. In 2012, the mother of the Canadian musician Mathieu Ruhlmann was diagnosed with a rare lung condition and given six months to live. Ruhlmann, I would imagine after a period of some reflection, recorded the sounds of the medical apparatus used to help treat his mother, and coupled with other recordings made in the environment and surroundings pertaining to her illness he sculpted these together to make the five tracks here. The album title, and each track title reference various Paul Klee paintings created in the last year of the artist’s life after the too was diagnosed with a terminal illness. Listening to the music with this knowledge firmly in place, the stark, often very quiet music here feels powerfully moving. It seems impossible to separate the sounds from your knowledge of what created them. The question I find myself asking however, is would I think differently of Ruhlmann’s work here if I didn’t know the context they are borne out of?

The five tracks are mostly made up of buzzing sounds, electronic interference of one kind of another or across much of the album short little interruptions, often unidentifiable, spread around a lot of silence. There are also recordings of footsteps, that sound like they were made in a long hospital corridor, and, really quite incredibly, a recording of a stomach, one assumes Rhulmann’s mother’s, rumbling away after three days of fasting. The way these quiet, sometimes quite jarringly sudden sounds are placed, in a seemingly quite matter-of-fact manner around the empty spaces of the CD makes for music that is quite harsh in its brutally abrupt form, and yet also very slow, subtle and seeping in intense anticipation. It is of course impossible for me to separate the music from its context. Try as I might, I cannot listen to this album purely as a set of sounds linked together here and there. This is powerful, heavily emotional music, but how much feelings towards it have been altered by what I read in the liner notes I will never be able to tell. I had read about the release online somewhere before it arrived here, so there was no chance of a “blind” first experience of the music before I read the liners, as I usually try and achieve.

What I do know here, is that understanding this album fully, given the context it was recorded in, I find this an exceptional, really very powerful and (excuse the patronisation here) brave piece of work. Whether I would have felt the same about it without knowledge of that context ultimately doesn’t matter. The album presents itself to be understood in a particular way, and so that is how we hear it, and we respond to it accordingly. Like any form of abstract art, some explanation is required to apply meaning, or sentiment to the work itself. Clearly, without knowing the background, this is still a bleak, harsh listen. With the addition of the back story This Star Teaches Bending takes on a deeply affecting, often quite troubling character, but spending time with it is also a highly moving and extremely rewarding experience.

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