Having each followed their own distinct trajectory of exploration for decades - interweaving rigorous experimentalism with diverse touchstones of cross-cultural expression - and building upon roughly 20 years working as a duo, Jessika Kenney and Eyvind Kang return with Azure, their third full-length with Ideologic Organ. Among their most ambitious outings to date, comprising five new compositions recorded in Seattle during the Spring and Summer of 2022, this remarkable body of sonority draws upon the traditions of Persian ghazal, Korean poetry, Dhrupad, Javanese music, free improvisation, and numerous others, culminating as a singular gesture of contemporary Minimalism that glacially unfolds across the length of the LP.
Hailing from the Pacific North West, Jessika Kenney and Eyvind Kang have retained a strong presence within the context of American experimental music since their emergence during the mid 1990s, each producing some of grippingly original music to have appeared over the subsequent years. Kenney is an experimental vocalist, composer, and teacher, focused on the transformative powers of the voice and sound’s relation to mystical experience. In addition to her collaborations with Oren Ambarchi, Tashi Wada, Avey Tare, Alvin Lucier, Sarah Davachi, Ensemble Nist-Nah, Sunn O))), and numerous others, she is known for her performance of Indonesian vocal music (sindhenan) and Persian vocal music (radifs), as well as her own compositions drawing on elements of both. Kang, a composer and multi-instrumentalist who is highly regarded for his unique approach to the viola, has worked extensively across numerous fields, appearing on albums by Bill Frisell, Joe McPhee, Sun City Girls, Wayne Horvitz , Ikue Mori, Laurie Anderson, Aki Onda, John Zorn, Blonde Redhead , William Hooker, Animal Collective , Lou Reed, Oren Ambarchi, and numerous others, as well creating as a striking body of solo works that incorporate elements of his Icelandic, Danish and Korean heritage.
A hypnotic return to Kenney and Kang’s unique expression of “unison music”, Azure is among the the duo’s most paired down and minimal efforts in more than a decade. It’s five composition are underscored by allusions to the natural world and drifting temporarily - “like a haze of light across the sky. The morning followed after watching the moon, then the sea” - producing a profound calm that rises in arcs of tonal colour. The album’s opener, Eclipse, is a composition built around the phrase “inside the eclipse”, drawn from Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s novel, Dictee, and follows the Korean American writer’s suggestions of method and technique. Leaving aching silences between each utterance - Kenney’s sparse vocal interventions mirrored by Kang’s delicate viola tones - the piece’s collective elements produces a remarkable tension, bubbling within its spacious calm.
The title track, Azure, takes its name from a pun on the Persian «az u» or «from them”, and is a meditation on the closing rhyme of ghazal 413 from the Divan of Hafez of Shiraz, az u (from/of them), râh az u, âh az u, “the moon from them, the path from them, the sighs from them”. Imbued with sorrow and release, across the piece Kenney’s vocals and Kang’s viola weave and dance against a shruti drone, calling forth echos of lost moments in far off worlds.
This is followed by three pieces that incorporate traces of disparate cultural traditions into their forms. Ocean is an experiment with different intensities of pulsation, inspired by Korean sung poetry and Kagok playing, the Indian Classical techniques of Dhrupad and gamak, and ring modulation’s use of two simultaneous frequencies - in this case one being agreed upon and the other improvised - which assemble an enveloping expanse of intoxicating harmonics and vibrato.
For Forest Floor, Kenney’s long-tone vocalisation play on the meanings of ‘tan’ or body, and ‘nur’ or light, ‘Chegel’ and ‘Khotan’ from ghazal 327 of the Divan of Hafez, and the Javanese names of pitches and associated body parts. Dancing at the boundaries of sorrow and joy, her voice, paced in perfect harmony to Kang’s viola, seems to propose alternate realities of what ecstatic music might be. The album’s final piece, draws upon Glenna Cole Allee’s book, Hanford Reach, incorporating words spoken within by by interviewees living or working in the tribal territories of Wanapum, Yakama, Cayuse, Umatilla, Nez Perce, and many others, on or near the Hanford Nuclear Site, in the state of Washington. Among the album’s most dynamic and powerful efforts - drones and pulsing tones playing counterpoint to Kenney’s soaring vocals - the duo, inexplicably, imbues impressions of the Pacific Northwest with numerous creative touchstones that blur perceptions of both culture and time.
With each of Azure’s discrete expressions, Jessika Kenney and Eyvind Kang ask us to hold/stop/wait/listen at the edges of knowability, allowing the world continues around us, as they draw us into realms of audibility where breathing and blinking might meld with each tone and join the sonorous landscape being formed before our ears. A startlingly gesture of contemporary experimentalism and minimalism, Azure pushes us to find a deeper rhythm; to move, grow, and form our listening bodies towards each composition.