O/Modernt’s new album, From the Ground Up: The Chaconne, presents an exhilarating mix of variations on the chaconne theme, underpinned by links between ground basses as musical starting points and breath as the ground of our being, themes explored below by Hugo Ticciati
When I am asked about the role mindfulness plays in my practicing life as a musician my response circles around the two pillars of breath and repetition. As such, the question is particularly relevant to O/Modernt’s new album From the Ground Up: The Chaconne: a sonic exploration of both repetition and breath.
The simple act of breathing invokes a rhythmic ebb and flow while the compelling repetition of ground basses invites the listener into a very particular musical zone. In traditional works built on a ground bass, the primary objective of the opening measures is to firmly establish the ground, making both performer and listener fully aware of its shape. As the work progresses, however, the ground recedes until it becomes an element in the background – almost autonomic, like breathing – whose purpose is to provide us with a kind of stabilising terra firma. At that point we can respond more to the filigree, the captivating musical overlay that’s built on the repeating bass.
Depending on the style of music and the performance, we can then be coaxed into shifting our focus – sometimes responding to the overlay more or less exclusively, and at other times listening to the ongoing bass line with renewed appreciation. This is a similar process that takes place when repeating a mantra – each repetition taking you deeper into the words, into your breath, while simultaneously leading to an expansion of your awareness. Can the repeating ground bass be experienced as a mantra of musical mindfulness?
With a little semantic play on the word ‘Ground’, I ‘misread’ in the liner notes Heidegger’s aphorism ground means being – being means ground to include a third term: ground means breath means being – breath is the ground of our being. For me the word‘ground’ invariably refers to the ground of our being and to questions about authenticity and identity: Who are we? How are we as individuals grounded? As in many contemplative disciplinesI believe becoming more aware of the involuntary mechanism of breathing facilitates a profound awareness of the present moment and as suchis a way of becoming more grounded: a sense of identity through repetition that can readily be transferred to the role played by the repetitions of musical ground basses. The focus of the album is therefore as much on the idea of being grounded as it is on the ground bass in music.
The varied mixes and juxtapositions of works on the album are intended to make us more alive to aspects of music that we might normally remain unaware of, living as we do in an overcrowded aural landscape that’s all too often saturated with music that isn’t really meant to be heard at all. O/Modernt, Swedish for ‘Un/Modern’ was born from a desire to explore how musics from different epochs and geographical locations can come together, intertwine and enrich one another.
So with the ground bass and breath as our repetitive guides, we begin a journey from early vocal and instrumental works from Italy and Spain, where the chaconne (originally a sexy South American dance) made its European debut; making our way through Bach’s Ciacconafrom the Partita in D minor (BWV 1004) and contemporary works, including Inside One Breath, a new piece by Johannes Marmén that takes the dynamics of breathing as its subject; and finally reinventing ourselves to remixed and looped grounds by Purcell, overlaid with Sam West’s readings from Shakespeare and Baba Israel’s extemporised beat poetry. Three improvisations, Ground, Breath and Being– showcasing the art of harmonic singing – weave together the continuous heterogeneity of the story.
I encourage you to embrace the musical frictions as they breathe new life into works from other times and places, not as exotica or manifestations of bygone eras but as expressions of the present. With John Cage, let us ‘invent the past, revise the future’ and breathe the present.