Click here to [close]

Monday, February 20, 2023

Susana Santos Silva - All The Birds And A Telephone Ringing (Thanatosis, 2022)

By William Rossi

Whether with her work in Fire! Orchestra, Gustafsson's NU Ensemble, Hearth, her countless collaborations or as bandleader with her quintet and Impermanence, trumpeter and composer Susana Santos Silva seems to somehow always be involved in a lot of my favourite contemporary music lately.
It was with the release of her wonderful album "All The Rivers" that I started to really pay attention to her solo career, captivated by her lyrical, inspired and inspiring improvisations reverberating throughout Portugal's Panteão Nacional. An album where the environment she performs in plays as big a role as the notes coming out of her instrument, a fascination with her surroundings that I feel foreshadows some of the ideas she completely embraced on this new offering.

This album is a tactile, visceral tapestry of samples and field recordings accompanied (but not always) by all the different sounds she's able to bring out of her instrument. I despise the word "cinematic" in music reviews, so, since I almost caved to the temptation of using it, I'll settle with saying that this album feels like flipping through a very personal diary, just managing to glimpse at a few excerpts of what's written on it as you turn the pages. It tells a story, but it's fragmented, and though you can't quite piece it together you can definitely feel its emotional impact. 

It's amazing just how a few sound cues can instantly transport the listener to different places and times: "The Way Home", for instance, with just a few samples of creaking wood, squeaking metal and the distant sound of waves crashing puts the listener on a ship swaying in the wind, Santos Silva is removed from the scene, her trumpet just a foghorn in the distance.

The people recorded at a train station on "Always Arriving" go about their daily business, their chores, their travels without having any idea that a ghostly trumpet is echoing around the platforms, halls and tunnels of the station; Santos Silva is never the center of the pictures she paints on the album. Often separated, her playing almost always feels overdubbed (at least to me) after the fact. This means that this album is much more than environmental improvisations: overdubbing allows for more possibilities, both storytelling and music-wise, and maintains the "purity" of the field recordings as there's no risk that they be influenced by her presence. The samples aren't a gimmick and aren't window dressing, they're as important as the playing and it's they that anchor the listener to the places the music takes them. This is just speculation on my part as I can't know for sure that the playing is overdubbed, but this is what makes the most sense to me.

The only piece that radically deviates from this ethos is “As One Comes to the World", consisting of 9 minutes of Santos Silva playing her trumpet with its bell underwater, expanding her sonic palette not with samples but with the direct interaction of the instrument and the environment foreshadowed by her past work, that here reaches its logical conclusion: pure symbiosis.

"All the Birds" sounds like childhood: its gorgeous and warm drone hums along something very similar to the sound of a VHS rewinding (that I suspect might actually be Santos Silva on her trumpet), lulling the listener into a stupor for a few minutes until the drone is stripped away, leaving nothing but the distant chirping of birds and Santos Silva's understated playing, short breaths and squeals trying to imitate the noises coming from above.

"And a Telephone Ringing" is the sound of living in a city (or in my personal journey through the album, the sound of adulthood). Noises recorded in what seems to be an apartment block's stairwell, maybe an atrium or a patio, of people going by as Santos Silva's frenzied Irish flute plays the part of an ever-ringing telephone that nobody but the listener can hear and that nobody will ever pick up. This is an example of the importance of keeping the music and the field recordings separate that I alluded to earlier: had she been playing the flute in that apartment block at the time of recording the people might have stopped by to listen to the music, interacting with it and interrupting their daily routines, and the piece wouldn't have been able to tell the same story it tells now.

The album ends with "For Reasons a Human Cannot Divine", my favourite piece and the most lonesome. Santos Silva's lyrical playing I loved so much on "All the Rivers" is back, this time not accompanied by the echoes of the Panteão Nacional but rather alone in a field. You can almost feel the grass move in the wind while the birds sing above. The playing is commanding but relaxed, perfectly in sync with the sounds of nature around it. Rain starts to fall, thunder cracks, man-made noises (trains, cars, heavy machinery) begin to approach as the playing becomes more and more urgent, but in the end it all ultimately dies down, leaving nothing but the birds' singing (and maybe a telephone ringing).

By its nature, this is an album with countless possible interpretations and your experience with it and its "wordless storytelling" will surely differ from mine, but if you allow it to transport you to its meticulously painted vignettes you'll be able to write your own story that I'm sure will be as emotionally rewarding as it was for me. It's a special and personal release, yet another high mark and turning point for the career of this rising star of the free improvisation scene. Santos Silva's music is alive, ever-versatile and with innumerable possibilities ahead. I'll be listening closely and I suggest you do the same.

Listen and download from Bandcamp. (check out all the videos that accompany the music on Bandcamp)

"what a magical thing to be able to contemplate the world!
your eyes become one with what you see, 
your breath merges with the breath of the wind, 
your skin is not anymore your skin but the skin of what you touch, 
what you hear is what you are,
i breathe in what is there and when i breathe out i give myself as I am". 
(Susana Santos Silva)