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Organum, "Vacant Lights/Rara Avis"

This double CD set reissues what is, in my opinion, the most thought-provoking and satisfying album by Organum, originally released as an LP from the mid-1980s. That it is paired with a frustrating singles compilation called "Rara Avis" makes me stop short from giving it a whole-hearted endorsement. Die Stadt

Vacant Lights works so well because it seems so simple. There are two players, David Jackman (who is the center of Organum) and Dinah Jane Rowe. In what appears to be an improvised live performance, they bow metal (perhaps gongs or cymbals?), roll metal pipes along the ground, and play breathy fragments of melodies on what sound to me like shakuachis, or wooden flutes of some sort. The ever-present coating of reverb that accompanies most Organum recordings adds portense to the spare movements of the players, but it isn't overbearing here as it is on Ikon or other less successful Organum records. What takes Vacant Lights to the next level is that it appears to have been recorded outside, on a city street.

The Organum duo plays along to the sounds of passing cars, city buses, honking, wind, distant urban noise... throughout, they are highly sensitive to their surroundings, treating all sounds as equal compositional elements. At times, they play beneath the city sounds, adding a layer of rolling fog under the environment. At other times, the flutes poke through, but find some aboveground pitch to blend into; eventually, environment and intentional playing become indistinguishable. Two producers (including Nurse With Wound's Steven Stapleton) are to credit for bringing the environment into the recording with such detail and clarity, but ultimately the success belongs to Organum for creating a record that is part field recording, part improvisation, and finally something unique. It's such a simple and well-executed idea, that the depth of music belies its illuson of naturalness and effortlessness. On the other hand, there is disc two.

Because Vacant Lights is only about half an hour long, either the label or the artist decided to flesh it out with Rara Avis, a rare singles compilation. Given the large catalog of tiny-edition Organum 7"s that now go on eBay for hundreds of dollars, this could have been a terific idea. But the second CD is only 25 minutes long, and contains music from one 7", one side of another 7", an alternate version from a different 7", and an unreleased track. All five tracks could have fit onto the end of the first disc. Even if it was decided that it's important to keep Vacant Lights separate for aesthetic purposes (not an unreasonable notion), if they went so far as to include another CD, why not include maybe a bit more than 25 minutes to fill out the disc? I don't understand. The music on Rara Avis, however, is a good survery of Organum's palette in the mid 1980s: metal scraping noise, somber bamboo flute noodling, and deep rumbling gigantic drone, all in compact five minute chunks. It's good music, but Vacant Lights/Rara Avis is a confoundingly flawed package. 



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