Simon Wickham-Smith – A Hidden Life and other works

4 out of 5

Label: Tanuki Records

Produced by: Simon Wickham-Smith (?)

I don’t listen to audio books; I don’t do podcasts. The concept of listening to narration just… tunes me out, regardless of how interesting the concept may be.

A 45-minute minimalist “opera” kind of triggers that same reaction, but it’s Simon Wickham-Smith, so I’ll give it a listen. A Hidden Life is Wickham-Smith’s adaptation of his book, The Hidden Life of the Sixth Dalai Lama, a translation of a text written after the Dalai Lama’s (Tsangyang Gyamtso) generally documented death, and extending Gyamtso’s already unique practices – he drank, he partied – into the realm of myth.* None of this is my topical wheelhouse, but what matters more to me is my experience listening to this opera, and while audio narration may not be for me, and while SWS’s catalogue is interesting but sometimes hit-or-miss in my opinion, A Hidden Life has cracked some code: for 45-minutes, I’m riveted by, essentially, people talking.

Which is a dismissive summary: there’s singing, but it’s slow, and kept to a repetitive melody and limited pitch. And there’s background, provided by Wickham-Smith – an electronic burble – but it is very much a loop, and very much just a gentle undercurrent, no more. But there’s something about the combination of this, and the delivery, mostly carried by Robert Ashley’s odd, lilting cadence, giving further shape to what I was expecting to be flat. His passages are broken up by the singing (Laetitia Sonami and Joan Stango are also credited), which can be seen as a sort of Greek chorus between Ashley’s storytelling. Sure, it’s an opera, but it’s more like drone accomplished with voices, and though I’m not apt to go out and read more about the Sixth Dalai Lama, I found myself listening the whole time, and not just zoning out to the pleasant burble. I think this effect could’ve been enhanced even more had Simon allowed his electronics to add some nuance in the occasional pauses, but I can understand keeping it as the most minimalized layer, to keep the focus on the text.

…But if we were thirsting for some of that, there’s a B-side to this cassette where Wickham-Smith delivers four (mostly) immersive, penetrating bits of atmospherics. Laude is sort of like the background to Hidden Life, given more freedom; Koimesis is a stand-out, an electronic hum and buzz that gets flits of some bleeps and bloops as it builds in intensity over its 11 minutes. Cellules starts off fascinatingly: seemingly organic, half-blown wind instruments, and then it, too, sinks into electronics, with more of a unsettled / off-kilter bent. Close is the most pared down of these tracks, excepting some (comparatively) shocking flashes of noise; it’s tonally in line with the rest, I just wish the final track had been one with some more build-up instead of doing the opposite – going out on a whisper.

A very surprisingly – to me – immersive, mesmerizing listen, presenting a new form of “music” I never would’ve expected myself to enjoy, and supported by several solid drone workouts.

*(This is cribbed from wikipedia and the content of this tape, bear in mind, so many apologies for whatever I’m assuredly incorrectly summarizing)