Pasolini in the Era of Field Recording

Soundwalk Collective With Patti Smith, Correspondence Vol. 1

With Correspondence Vol. 1, Soundwalk Collective expand on the approach they developed for their lovely 2016 album Killer Road.

Pasolini pays his respects to Gramsci. Rome, 1970.

Once again, Stephan Crasneanscki and Simone Merli provide Smith with a richly layered bed for her spoken-word performance, editing field recordings together until even the most random sounds seem fated.

Much of the EP has the meandering quality of many Soundwalk Collective releases, reflecting their keen interest in psychogeography.

Following a template created by the Situationists, writers like Iain Sinclair developed a kind of travel literature that foregrounds the subjective nature of geographic experience,  documenting a particular itinerary rather than the objective features delineated on a map.

On Correspondences Vol. 1, this quality is amplified by the productive tension between Soundwalk Collective’s contribution and Patti Smith’s.

“Pasolini”, the first of the EP’s two tracks, has two distinct parts.

It begins slowly, emphasizing Smith’s voice, which tends to be more forward in the mix than was the case for Killer Road.

“He took several deep breaths, for his heart was beating madly,” she begins. “What cord would bind him?”

As the liner notes indicate, this track tries to communicate the experiences of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s last night on earth, which culminated in his brutal torture and killing in the Rome suburb of Ostia.

Gradually, we hear more human voices in what feels like the distance, impinging on Smith’s words. Together with the increasing volume of the ambient sounds in the first part of “Pasolini”, they give the impression that we are approaching a climax.

Almost halfway into the thirteen-minute track, a heartbeat rhythm suddenly starts up.

“Where do I start?” asks Smith, her voice now more hesitant as she slips into the first person.

In the middle, apparently.

Soon, a keyboard bassline with a 1980s feel joins the drum, reinforcing the track’s forward momentum. If Smith were to switch to singing, it could almost be a pop song.

But she continues speaking, now imparting a punch-drunk wryness to her delivery.

If she is ventriloquising Pasolini here, he is a man who has resigned himself to his impending doom yet still feels compelled to comment on his surroundings: “Just another floating dog.”

As we hear moans of ecstasy in the background, joining raised voices, Smith brings this self-reflection to a close.

“I’m altogether numb. I’m dumb. Dumb. Dumb and brittle. I cannot speak. I’m unable. I’m unable to read my lines.”

Now, she switches back to the third person.

“The filmmaker is blinded by the bright night. He has gone underground. He has gone under. He has gone somewhere.”

At this point, the attention shifts away from the director.

“An assassin goes undercover. Fascist or lover, it doesn’t matter.”

The song hurtles to a close as Smith implies a dissolution of subjectivity, a coming together that Pasolini’s passage seems to facilitate.

“Medea”, the EP’s second track, goes in a different direction.

More ruminative than “Pasolini”, it seems to offer an elliptical retelling of the troubling Greek myth, set off by sounds that often seem to be coming from underwater.

“Do you remember me? I was a country girl. And yet, I had the mind of a young god. Do you remember how the words dripped from my tongue, each a gold coin?”

Smith’s voice blurs and slurs in a horror-film manner as she keeps asking, “Do you remember?”. By the end of her vocal, it sounds like her mouth is full of the blood she keeps invoking.

“Medea” ends with a spare choral refrain, mixed so that the melody plays in one channel and the harmony in the other. The lapping of waves along a shore reinforces the peacefulness of this conclusion, although it also recalls Medea’s abandonment.

Both songs on Correspondences Vol, 1 do a great job of complicating our sense of how field recordings can be used.

Although the sounds that surround Smith’s voice were recorded at particular locations in the field, the way they are presented here transforms that indexical quality into something more amorphous.

“Pasolini” and “Medea” are not trying to be documentary in any conventional sense.

From an aesthetic standpoint, the effect is akin to using decontextualised found footage in a film.

Instead of having Smith write words and then assemble music around them, Crasneanscki and Merli presented her with the music first, asking her to make them fit somehow.

Conceptually, this approach leans sharply towards the aleatory. But Smith has such a strong voice, even when she drifts into surrealism, that Correspondences Vol. 1 never seems to be cobbled together from mismatched parts.

It’s a beautiful record that builds on the legacy of their previous collaboration to point the way forward for a new kind of “fusion” music, one which records first and assembles later.

Photograph courtesy of Ansa/Wikipedia. Published under a Creative Commons license.