Willie Reviews Benjamin Lew’s “Le personnage principal est un peuple isolé”

Willie Reviews Benjamin Lew’s “Le personnage principal est un peuple isolé”

 

This new compilation of works by Belgian artist Benjamin Lew from the early 1980s once again revives his synthesis of electronic solo compositions and orchestral arrangements. It’s a modern kind of furniture music that is dotted with complex rhythms, and it is utterly unflappable. Stroom and Crammed Discs grace us with a heavenly collection of Lew’s musical designs. RPM’s review:

 

Somewhere in the cool and tossed-off liner notes of Benjamin Lew’s Le personnage principal est un peuple isolé, the artist describes himself not as a musician, but as a producer of something like Erik Satie’s “musique d’ameublement,” or furnishing music. And though Lew’s efforts contain the spirit of background music for a grand hall, you can’t help but wonder if a deep-voiced man whispering into your ear the words “Little birds sit on your shoulders” would make for conversational lubricant and disappear into the wallpaper or send shivers up the guests’ spines. We must conclude that Lew’s half-electronic, half-orchestral compositions are in a league all their own, but are able to reign in excessive emotion all the same.

Le personnage principal est un peuple isolé, compiled by Stroom and Crammed Discs, celebrates the early 1980s work of Benjamin Lew and his collaborators, all part of Brussels’ artistic community at the time. The album sounds like a direct ancestor of Brian Eno’s ambient experiments in the late 1970s and the classical crossover achieved by his short-lived label, Obscure Records. Jazz and classical instrumentation fit together in a sound achieved by what appears to be a two-part process: first, Lew’s compositions on the synthesizer give him straightforward musical statements that might have been jazz themes in a different life. Lew (by his own account, a musical amateur) gave these recordings to a friend, who transcribed them into sheet music. Then, the music was reborn in the hoots and wails of saxophones, cellos, and percussion of all sorts.

 

Benjamin Lew - Profondeurs des eaux des laques

 

Lew guards against excitability in his “furnishing music.” The jazz theme at the start of “Face a ce qui se derobe” enters with a bang, but then runs in place. It won’t go anywhere or explore even similar harmonic material; once it is wound up and set off, the expectation is that it etches itself into the track and becomes one polyrhythm of many. “Moments” is a kitschy, heavy waltz fit for a somber country wedding or a dispassionate ballroom. It’s built on home synthesizer sounds but accented by a live band coloring within the lines. The main clarinet sound cannot escape from the mess around it, and it’s a distinctly aristocratic mess. By the end, so many competing leads have entered that is has no choice but to fall apart. Still, the album wouldn’t be nearly as effective if it didn’t have some of that same nonchalance. Lew claims, “I only started listening to music after I had stolen a couple hundred records from a store in Brussels.” To commit to the music’s importance or even any type of interest would ruin the distant gaze. The effort in orchestration alone on this album is incredible, but the cool refusal to acknowledge it is… cool.

One interesting departure from the distant mode is “Etendue,” a piano concerto for the age of the sound collage. The opening ringing note over a chorus of indistinct voices teases a cadenza, but from there on out, the piece is taken over by the voices. Clips of laughing and talking jump out and cover the soloist, taking space from the piano, which becomes improvisatory. It allows some of the widest emotional range on the compilation, and the tape loops inspire some nice back and forth.

“The Wheel” is a kind of meta commentary on the album’s methods. Over a swirling synth, the singer soberly describes the cycling of the seasons. After winter is spring, and after spring is summer. “Through wintertime we call the spring / And through the spring on summer call. And when abounding hedges ring / Declare that winter best of all / And after that there’s nothing good / because the springtime has not come.” It is sing-songy and medieval in execution. And it does not seem to want anything, merely stating the comings and goings as they are. To offer anything beyond comment (opinion, say) would be to overstep the medium of music. This musical statement, again, could just as easily be made with dance, literature, or conversation. The tendency to avoid critical conclusions is refreshing.

This compilation is a small release, relatively. A set of now-historical recordings is reaching the ears of a new generation of listeners, and these are recordings that wear the mark of their age. But they contain the soul of a certain place and a certain moment. When you play them now, they become contemporary again, and their furnishing qualities can decorate your home just as they might have in the clubs and bars of Brussels. Place “Ces personnages” on your buffet and impress your guests with your worldliness. But be careful: don’t draw attention to it. Let it seep into their ears and influence them unconsciously, then look out onto a placid sea of guests and smile.

Score: Music for poring through old volumes of medieval medicine in your study

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