Alain Amouyal is a former French dentist/music therapist who turned to full-time composition in 1999 and whose extraordinary muse and the music it produces has spoken to me perhaps more than any other since I first encountered it almost six months ago. Although Amouyal has also released discs of solo piano and full orchestral arrangements of his music (to be reviewed here shortly), this pair of CDs, the tracks drawn from his "Catharsis" set (10CDs, one piece per disc, so you have a more than decent representative sample included here), strike me as the most singular, idiomatic and fully realised expressions of his art that I have so far heard.
The magnificent music on these discs, with its improbable origins in music therapy, was, in the composer's own words, "improvised on Roland XP50, then revised on Mac with Sample Cells for timbral and orchestral arrangement". The effect is, without exception, stunningly effective, with Amouyal's "Catharsis" music, as suggested above, assuming the mantle of a purgative, redemptive and ultimately healing force; there are some very austere, bleak, dark moments in these pieces but I can guarantee that you will be touched and even changed having heard them and will want to hear them again, as they are truly life affirming. The composer's "Æva" appellation gives us a clue to his inspiration and then to the roots and ultimate strength and relevance of this music. His work is primarily informed by the "myth" of the "eternal couple", as exemplified superbly but not uniquely by the "legend" of Orpheus and Eurydice, but also taps into a unseen stream of other connections/relations that have spoken incisively and decisively to this listener, on numerous and various occasions since his late teens - Carl Jung's ideas of the collective unconscious, folk/ancestral memory and, above all, the archetype; Joseph Campbell's fascinating and entertaining popular expositions of the same; the incomparable Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek, following in the footsteps of Halvorsen and Tveitt, speaking about and acting upon his ideas of the musical ties that bind the Nordic, Near Eastern, Indian and Oriental worlds together; my fellow Sheffielder Bruce Chatwin's nomad soul and especially his legendary encounter, like Thesiger and Newby before him and Bealby since, with pre/non-Islamic, Celtic looking, wine-drinking people in the Hindu Kush, descended from or claiming common ancestry with the ancient Greeks.
I treasure these discs and look forward to acquainting myself with the full set. On a very personal note, it is not an overstatement to say that the music they contain really has helped me through what I imagine will come to be regarded as my annus horribilis, with bereavement, subsequent depression but hopefully, now, recovery. In terms of the music, I find many resonances with various ECM projects (especially records like Garbarek's All Those Born with Wings and Eleni Karaindrou's soundtracks, including, unsurprisingly, the recent Trojan Women), the Nordic melodic/melancholic element in Touch's catalogue (Biosphere, Hilmarsson etc.) and also some of the music from the monumental Axiom Ambient project (e.g. Peace in Essaouria and, even more so, Cosmic Trigger). Above and beyond that though, if truth were told, it sounds like music I have always known, and is very often simultaneously futuristic and archaic, both of these observations no doubt relating to its archetypal/universal qualities. The Orpheus connection is inherent, with its reference to modes and pentatonic form, perhaps recalling the "Greek" inspirations of the still underrated and underexposed John Foulds and, even more authentically, Mikis "Zorba" Theodorakis's serious masterpiece Passion of the Sadducees. The soundworld could, on one level, be described as "ambient" but it is pared down rather than minimalist (i.e. not repetitious) and the very antithesis of lush - absolutely not background music. Those rightly enamoured of Alan Hovhaness's Armenian inspirations may also find it very much to their liking but the only "modern" French music it actually reminds me of at all is Koechlin's masterly Jungle Book sequence and, perhaps some of genius Breton harpist Alan Stivell's more impressionistic, less folksy moments. Beyond that, I am also brought full circle back to the plangent melodies of the mediaeval trouveres of Amouyal's part of the world, the Languedoc, who provided the soundtrack to the Cathar "heresy" and the crusades which destroyed it (Paul Hillier's Proensa (ECM) is an ideal introduction).
The individual pieces on the two discs are generally quite long, ranging from 10 to 26 minutes, and progress at almost always a slow or medium pace; despite this, Amouyal's sense of development within a piece tends to be excellent and totally focussed, but I would single out Calling out and Journey on the Spiral for special mention. In the case of the former, the only piece I am aware of carrying the same appellation that bears any musical resemblance is Vaughan Williams' wistful valedictory, Gaelic devotional inspired musing. Here the mood is also hushed one, but there is a deeper sense of sorrow, especially when the sound of the Greek lyra is invoked, yet it is still a meditative and ultimately cathartic listening experience. I am even put in mind, at times, of the harrowing but transcendent instrumental soundscapes Brian Eno and David Bowie conjured up on their series of late-70s Berlin-recorded albums (e.g. Subterraneans from Low). Voyage is an absolute tour de force, to borrow from the composer's own language, and encapsulates Amouyal's vision in this series perfectly, an epic but non-histrionic musical journey from dark into light (I cannot think of a more appropriate way of describing it). This is music that begs and deserves a hearing - it touches me on so many different levels and has the potential for a very wide audience and almost universal appeal. It is categorically not an easy listen, the only oasis of real calm in these particular selections being the piece Coeur Éclairé itself, a still epicentre around which the other pieces plumb the depths and scale the heights of intense and varying emotions. If most modern composition, electronica, art music etc. tends to merely wash over you, then Alain Amouyal's alternative take may be just the wake-up call you need. I cannot recommend it highly enough.