Album Release: April 6, 2018
Live Premier at MCA Chicago: April 6 & 7, 2018
“For a moment of night we have a glimpse of ourselves and of our world islanded in its stream of stars, pilgrims of mortality, voyaging between horizons, across eternal seas of space and time.” - Henry Beston, The Outermost House (1928)
In 1925, a thirty-seven year old American writer and WWI vet named Henry Beston bought fifty acres of desolate duneland on Coast Guard Beach on Cape Cod—the peninsula’s furthest fingers reaching into the gray Atlantic—and designed and built a small cottage overlooking the ocean. He named it the Fo’castle. For an entire year beginning in September 1926, he lived alone there in the hostile, briny wilderness and dedicated himself to closely observing the multifarious but unforgiving ecology of ever-changing sand and sea and to integrating his mind and body within its clamorous calm. He walked, he watched, he listened, and he wrote. The result was his masterpiece The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod (1928). A seminal work of naturalist literature that remains revered by environmentalists, animal rights activists, and poets alike, it elevates description of the natural world to an incandescent metaphysical pitch.
In 2018, exactly ninety years after Beston’s book was published, composer, harmoniumist, and synthesist Jaime Fennelly completed an ambitious multimedia production he called Bellowing Sun. Commissioned for its world premiere performance by the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, the work developed over the course of nearly three years, gradually accreting into a rapturous, prismatic seventy-three minute composition for a group comprised of Fennelly (Oberheim SEMs, OB-6 synthesizer, and Indian harmonium) and fellow veteran Chicagomusicians Janet Beveridge Bean (Freakwater, Eleventh Dream Day: lead vocals, zither, percussion); Jim Becker (Iron and Wine, Califone: fiddle, vocals); and Jon Mueller (Death Blues, Volcano Choir: drums, vocals). In its live iterations, the quartet performs Bellowing Sun in the round, with the audience encircling the musicians, each of whom plays multiple instruments. The visual centerpiece (reproduced on the album cover) is a large kinetic light sculpture hovering suspended above the players, a monumental zoetrope in the shape of a great, internally illuminated drum, conceived and hand fabricated in collaboration with artists Eliot Irwin and Timothy Breen (nominated for two 2017 Grammys for album design) and lighting designer Keith Parham. This arresting cylindrical form, adorned with patterns, abstract figures, and dyed gradients on its translucent textile skin, rotates to create an ever-changing architectural kaleidoscope of organic shapes and color, a delicate but imposing firmament-tent that simultaneously evokes astronomical objects and microscopic life forms.
A twelve-faceted sonic inquiry into celestial cycles, the rhythms of the natural world, and the illuminating nature of darkness, the accompanying album Bellowing Sun is the majestic culmination of Fennelly’s immersive explorations of the natural world’s sensory dimensions and the dialogues between musical traditions—acoustic and electronic, vernacular and avant-garde. It deliberately situates its questing, edge-of-earth spirit within the context of Beston’s Fo’Castle. The link to Beston is not merely intellectual, but rather experiential and geological. The solitary compositional genesis of the piece, and a significant portion of its early recording (before tracking and mixing sessions with John McEntire of Tortoise), occurred at Bean’s home atop a dune of fine quartz “singing sands” on the shore of Lake Michigan, an environment akin to the Cape. Beston directly inspired certain moments: the gulls he describes frantically “Feeding on the Flats” are mirrored here by a percolating synthesizer that mimics their dance with surf and sand; “Lanterns on the Beach” is named for a chapter about night in The Outermost House; and “Pause to Wonder” draws directly from his gorgeous description of butterfly migrations. But his methodology of extended, observational contemplation of nature, of carefully transcribing a world of witness, pertains most prominently.
Sonically, Bellowing Sun is both kaleidoscopic and telescopic in nature, offering a radiant palette of rhythmic, textural, and tonal complexity, as well as rapid shifts in scale, from the intimately corporeal to the dizzyingly cosmic. Though long associated with his meditative solo work for harmonium, tape delay, and other effects, with Bellowing Sun, Fennelly has ascended to a thrilling new communicatory stratum, departing the solo, interior monologues of his early work and the deeply focused dialogues of the album’s recent predecessor Undying Color (2017) for something broadly communal, massively polyphonic, and unabashedly spiritual in its scope and scale. All four J’s—Jaime, Janet, Jim, and Jon—appeared together on Undying Color, but have since solidified into a formidable, cohesive unit, a true band capable of increasingly expansive arrangements. Though divided into twelve movements, or aspects—zodiacal sectors, perhaps—the piece functions as a heroic, integral whole. Several instrumental components and vocal motifs function as modular and parallactic, originally recorded for different sections but interchangeably transposable elsewhere, much as certain constellations share stars in common. The album’s sequence reveals a dynamic push and pull between contemplative stasis and headlong momentum, imparting a palpably physical mass to the cataracts of sound.
Throughout, Fennelly’s Oberheim synths and sequencers stitch together a colossal quartet counterpoint, driven by a new emphasis on interlocking full-band rhythmic grooves. He relies less than ever before on the harmonium, though it still features prominently, contributing an airy link to the rhythms of human breathing. Bean sings on half of the tracks, including early stunner “Matchstick Grip” and the spectacular closer “Pause to Wonder.” Whether articulating words or intoning phonemes, her powerful, lucent voice elevates the proceedings to a devotional plane whenever it emerges from the saturated field of sound.
The mood is at once ecstatic and elegiac; death and decay are present here. The exuberant kosmische pulse of “Zeitgebers” (the title refers to environmental cues, such as light or dark, that synchronize an organism’s biorhythms) is tempered by the seething dirge of “Vermillion Pink.” Breen cites the elaborate funerary textiles of the Paracas culture of Peru as an inspiration for his paintings on the zoetrope. (“Oculate Beings” is not coincidentally also a reference to the Pre-Columbian coastal society who shared beliefs of regularly communing with the spirit world.) But the degradation of our planet, and particularly the impending end of deep night, provides a melancholy, reverent subtext to the otherwise celebratory tones. In most places on earth, careless and overzealous artificial lighting, coupled with overpopulation, mean that many of us will never see a truly dark night sky, with its vertiginous, multihued clots of seemingly infinite stars, planets, comets, and galaxies punctuating the black. As Beston wrote even back in 1928, “The world today is sick to its thin blood for lack of elemental things, for fire before the hands, for water welling from the earth, for air, for the dear earth itself underfoot …Our fantastic civilization has fallen out of touch with many aspects of nature, and with none more completely than with night.”
In 1978, a decade after Beston’s death, a violent winter storm spun the Fo’Castle out to sea, leaving nothing but the glint of a commemorative brass plaque in the lucent moonlight. Can you imagine the sound of that? Mind Over Mirrors can, and does, with Bellowing Sun. It’s an elemental thing. - Brendan Greaves, Paradise of Bachelors 2018