Monday, 25 May 2015

The 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

I was leaning against the railing on the Victoria Embankment, the River Thames behind me, a little tipsy. It was December, our office Christmas party had recently come to an end, and in this corner of London I had chosen to stand while I waited for my wife, who had the key to the hotel room. It was dark and cold here, at the mercy of the winter breeze coming from the waterway. I hoped that I might be let indoors soon.

It was at this moment that my phone received a message.

“Hey Simon, did you see Rob’s tweet?”

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Like many others, I first came across the music of Rob Dougan (then Rob D) through The Matrix, the 1999 sci-fi/philosophy/kung fu mashup movie by the Wachowski siblings. The soundtrack, along with the film, struck a chord with me in my teenage years; one song, in particular, changed everything. That song was Clubbed to Death (Kurayamino Variation), which featured during the 'lady in the red dress' scene and was, in the words of my school friend Emily (who was not known to mince her words), 'orgasmically good'.

A full album, Furious Angels, followed in 2002. It could not have been more different to what one might have expected. In Clubbed to Death and the titular track there was the recognisable fusion of classical music and beats, yet elsewhere the music was a very different beast, erring more on the side of classical than dance and with added deep, husky, immersive vocals and themes of darkness and despair. Rather than an album of radio friendly dance tropes, as many of my friends had hoped for, it was a masterpiece of thought, obsession and detail. For many it was difficult to penetrate: for me it instantly became my favourite album, and it has stayed that way ever since. It has been with me as my revision jam (along with Lisa Gerrard's Whale Rider soundtrack) through A Levels, a degree and a PhD; and it has been with me through good and bad jobs, good and bad times, through seven house moves, a wedding and many adventures. I wrote of it in 2006 in a blog post called A Turquoise Chord, describing how, as an album, I feel it tells a story (and not necessarily a happy one), of how the presence of a track of thirty-three seconds of silence is absolutely essential, and of Drinking Song, a moment of nakedness for the story's protagonist as he reaches his nadir in the narrative and pours out his soul. Rob himself once said kind things of my review. He has, since that time, also said kind things of my travel writing via Twitter.

And then, nothing.

It has been 13 years since Furious Angels. There was a single new track for the second Matrix film, and an accompaniment for a short film for the jewellery designer Solange Azagury-Partridge, but otherwise silence. Internet forums and fan sites discussed a new album, but none were forthcoming. Rob himself turned his detail and dedication to, among other things, the La Pèira vineyards.

And then, in December 2014, that message. It had come from Michael McGarrity, owner of fan site robdougan.org, drawing my attention to the following:



After so long, it was a startling tease. Further correspondence with Michael, who has been in contact with Rob for years, suggested new music might be imminent, perhaps over Christmas. I was to be travelling then, so I asked him to keep me in the loop in case I missed any announcements. None came. Finally, in May, the message came: there was a new EP, The 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, including five new orchestral pieces recorded in 2014. Again I was travelling, without means to listen. I would have to wait until I returned home in a week. Then I would set aside time to listen properly, to absorb whatever was on offer. After 13 years, the music deserved my full attention.

I returned home. I purchased The 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time. And then the dishwasher broke. I did not feel the music deserved to be first experienced with my hands covered in stagnating water, feeling around among bits of old food trying to reach submerged filters and valves. Then the bins needed doing, or other jobs got in the way. My next opportunity: my walk to the train station - but it was not to be without event, and after an initial taster, a natural lull in the music was punctuated, with perfect timing, by the station announcer: "Please do not leave baggage unattended. Any items left unattended will be destroyed."

My point, in a roundabout way, is that I wanted to find a moment of quiet from everyday life to invest in these new five tracks. In the accompanying booklet to the new release, Rob explains some of the reasons for his 13 year silence:
"Circumstance – and circumstances – (both fell and clutch) meant that there was never the money, nor the peace, nor time to record."
As someone who likes to write, but who has lost his mojo of late, and as a fan who desperately wanted to set aside time to listen, yet was unable owing to life's distractions, I understand the need to find that peace, and how difficult it can be to find. Yet my trials are but nothing compared to following up a Grammy-nominated and much-loved masterpiece. And how do you follow up a piece of work into which you have poured your soul? How do you live up to the expectations of fans who have been waiting for so long? Rob continues:
Also it’s possible to be so precious about following up something you held dear yourself, that you can lose your way, or take too long, or run out of steam. So this was a chance to release something before that happened.
I realise now that, as one of those fans calling for a follow-up I have only been adding pressure to the situation. The solution: this EP. Furious Angels was re-released as the album plus accompanying orchestral tracks, stripped of vocals and some electronic tinkering. This time the orchestral tracks are coming first and, over time, we will be allowed to see their evolution into an album. A mechanism to counter the expectation: take the fans with you for the ride. It is an exciting prospect.

Although this means that I cannot spout rhetoric of a story I have conjured that fits the music - the album is not complete, and though the orchestral versions are complete in themselves they are not necessarily the final songs - the tracks are not without imagery. 'Vale' (Ave Atque Vale), for example, takes me to a black-and-white Parisian café, the scene of a love story told retrospectively, twists of intrigue and mystery and longing and heartache in there also; A Drawing-Down of Blinds-Valedico takes me into a fantastical dream, a gentle sunrise ahead of a magnificent journey that entails an epic battle, with dragons and fire and chain-mail and swordplay and flying and forces of good fighting forces of evil and light penetrating the darkness when all seemed lost and oof I think I need to sit down for a bit.

What of the name? The 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time is Catholic liturgy that included, in 2014, Psalm 63 ("My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord my God")? Will there be themes of spiritual longing? And what of Rob's announcement of the EP on Twitter with the words "Nature repairs her ravages, but not all", a George Eliot quote that continues "To the eyes that have dwelt on the past, there is no thorough repair"? What is to be made of these themes, if any? Tease.

Elsewhere it's just as much fun to wonder how the music itself will change. With Frescobaldi's Toccata it is possible to see how verses might be introduced, and with 'The Return' we are offered two versions - with and without percussion - two glimpses of what tinkering might occur. My own hope, upon early listening, is that - should the version with beats be used - a vocal only prelude be added, like a calm before a storm. Where the music goes, however, is not up to me.

With the recent release of Jupiter Ascending, it is my opinion that the Wachowskis, without whom I would likely never have heard of Rob Dougan, have retained ambition but suffered ever poorer discipline. Not so the musician their breakthrough film introduced to so many. The 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time is only five songs, but every one has been sculpted, crafted and refined, created with care and attention and, consequently, oozes quality. More than that, the pieces are intense and, satisfyingly, just as radio-unfriendly as the bulk of Furious Angels. Rob is doing what he wants to do, and he is doing it his way.

More music is promised soon, although with no time frame, and an album will arise from the orchestral recordings in due course. I shall wait another 13 years if necessary. I am impressed.

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The 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
by Rob Dougan

Available for purchase from robdougan.com

Furious Angels
by Rob Dougan

Available from all good record stores (and Amazon)