Ritornell is the sub-label of Mille Plateaux, which itself is a sub-label of Force Inc. While each of these labels are centered generally around presenting variations of techno and other electronic musics, Ritornell’s music is usually at the far fringe of those “popular” genres, releasing music that is as “difficult” as music can get. To be honest, I generally prefer Mille Plateaux releases, as they tend to be more focused on rhythms and sound textures than Ritornell’s often noise-induced, aberrant and occasionally maddening ventures into the unknown. But Random Inc’s Jerusalem: Tales Outside the Framework of Orthodoxy is an exception beyond exceptions. This is one of the most moving, most intelligent, and most rewarding disks I’ve purchased in the past year.
Random Inc. is Sebastian Meissner. He is a well-known figure in the Force Inc. universe, having previously released the glitch-fest Selected Random Works (under the name Random Industries) for Ritornell, and having released several other disks on the many Force Inc. labels as member of the deep techno unit, Autopoieses. However, none of those other works quite prepared me for Jerusalem. This is, essentially, a digital reworking of source material culled from historical sound recordings made by Jewish and Palestinian musicians in and around the city of Jerusalem—a city that is more famous today for its bitter struggles between Jews, Moslems, and Christians than for its historical significance as one of the birthplaces of those three religions. According to Ritornell, the digital reworking of these various musics was designed “to create an utopian moment in which this two music cultures, at least on this CD, can co-exist in their own environments.” Meissner took certain crucial moments from each tradition and fused them together with digital processing and a host of digital effects to demonstrate both the similarities that the cultures share and the chaos that the city itself is forced to endure decade after decade.
This historical approach to music is an interesting idea, but I was reticent to purchase this disk when it first came out because, well, interesting ideas (especially ones with such an overtly political objective) aren’t usually all that interesting to listen to. But, as I said, this disk breaks the rules. It’s an exciting work, absolutely full of life and energy, with each song blending into the next, each sound shaped and reshaped in an infinite variety of ways. I never thought I’d say this of a Ritornell release, but Jerusalem is a beautiful piece of work.
The disk begins with digital static, which soon gives way to a reed instrument playing a familiar tune—a tune familiar, at least, to anyone who has heard any Middle Eastern music, especially the great music from Armenia (one-quarter of Jerusalem is controlled by Armenians). I’m not sure exactly what instrument is being sampled here, but it sounds like a duduk. The instrument, however, isn’t the point—the point is that what we hear is a fragment of a loop, a excerpt that repeats over and over again while, around us, a wall builds, noisily gaining force and surrounding this very simple sample. Then, as if traveling a thousand years in a brief second, the sample fades and a Who-like (circa “Baba O’Reilly”) synth melody—a melody very similar to the reed tune in both structure and shape but is entirely electronic—takes its place, building and overwhelming the digital noise that keeps peeking into our ears, waiting to overwhelm us. This is track two (there are no gaps between any of the disk’s 28 tracks). Just as we are familiar with this new development, we hear the reed again—only it’s not the reed we heard at first, but a digital copy, a synth emulation of that reed (at least, that’s what it sounds like to me). This emulation joins and shares space with its synth shadow, and the two sounds create an unlikely harmony that spreads out, while the digital wall of noise is forced into the background (wailing to itself?). And then they slow down, and we hear the initial reed loop again, floating back into the static from which it came, until the reed sounds disappear altogether and we move into another track, a rhythm track this time, with a different wind instrument and a number of clicking cymbals and beating drums. The digital noise fades here, but the rhythm instruments sound like the same kinds of “clicks” we hear in static, so perhaps the digital noise, too, has its emulation.
I could describe all 28 songs on this disk if I had the inclination. But this is a good sampling of what you’d hear throughout. It is not really Palestinian music; it is not really Jewish music; it is not really even digital electronic music. What it is is a story—a story of a city that is overwhelmed by hatred, determination, fear, death, and suffering, and yet a city that has endured for thousands of years and continues to endure, even thrive, despite all these problems. Meissner has done a remarkable job on this disk; he has digitally reworked many types of music and has digitally altered the sounds and shapes of these musics severely, yet, in the end, all we hear is an incredible fusion of sounds and ideas and emotions. It’s Meissner—and Ritornell’s—finest hour.