Ah, “categories”, how I do have a love/hate relationship with thee.
Once in a blue moon they’re totally, like, my BFF. Many other times, much like the language I just used, they’re a particularly jarring thorn in my side, begging careful attention in order to understand, but ultimately the desire to abandon completely. Especially so when something takes a step beyond the aural plane and lands a foot in the visual, such as Clara Engel‘s Secret Beasts. Then, as has been well documented, I veer towards genres generally relegated to the cinematic over the musical. Let’s try for neutral ground and simply say performance art.
I’ve been here before, trying to convey – in words – the free-form element in a recorded piece of work. That impression you sometimes get that the sound you are hearing, have heard, will suddenly, somehow, go in a different direction than it did last time. Logic dictates that the music, once recorded and in your possession, will forever maintain a single, unchangeable state. But art can, and often will, defy that logic and fluctuate somewhere between memory and sensory perception, allowing you to alter its forms and direction.
It’s interesting to note in this brief documentary that Clara mentions her work remains somewhat unfinished, referring to them as sketches rather than perfected pieces. Perhaps in the absence of that refinement, (for lack of a better word, for what is refinement other than the selective stripping away and/or re-shaping of work), in retaining a more original, unchanged state, the argument could be made that the work is more complete. Or, at the very least, with their forms generally untampered with, they are a little more free to traverse multiple lines – and you can’t err by colouring outside the lines if the lines themselves have not been made finite.
I can, however, outline a few things myself. Secret Beasts draws on contemporary jazz, blues and folk influences, with a sound that is most succinctly delineated as avant garde when taking into account the underlying vocal work, choral arrangements and general ambience. On the straighter edges, the music is brassy, often owing more to Clara Engel’s vocals than the instrumentation, the former being a dominant but not overblown presence, the latter occasionaly deceptively more subdued that you might first realise.
Beneath those two elements lurk the less linear moments, not necessarily requiring but inspiring interpretation on behalf of the listener¹. I’ll keep it concise and defer going into detail on where I went visually when listening to these songs, but I will say that I imagine they’d lend themselves very well indeed to a variety of visual arts – they managed to set me a stage where a veritable cast of different things emerged and…I’m going to use the word behaved over performed – performed infers a more scripted presentation for rather than an action with.
This gives me the idea that had they been ‘perfected’, the songs could well have revealed, rather than inferred, the titled Secret Beasts. The real question, though, is perhaps whether or not those moments where you sense that there is something more or different about to happen, leading you to take that nuance, draw it out from the music and into your own world, comes from the music or from yourself – or more to the point, whose Secret Beasts are you really meeting?
Along with other work, you can find Clara Engel’s Secret Beasts at Bandcamp.
1: I maintain this happens on some level with all music, hence why I also insist that I never talk about what a musician wrote (or played), but rather about what I heard, which are often two different creatures.