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Alessandra Novaga, "I Should Have Been a Gardener"

cover imageNew albums from Die Schachtel do not surface very often these days, but just about everything they choose to release is at least enticingly unusual. That trend happily continues with this latest album from Milanese guitarist Alessandra Novaga, who follows her 2017 homage to Rainer Werner Fassbinder with this tribute to yet another iconic cinematic auteur in Derek Jarman. As someone currently obsessing over Andrei Tarkovsky's writings about art, I can say that Novaga is a definite kindred spirit, as I Should Have Been A Gardener obliquely celebrates Jarman himself rather than presenting itself as an imagined soundtrack for any specific film. In fact, I actually wish it was a bit less oblique, as the album only reaches its most memorable heights on the final piece when Novaga’s slow-moving and sublime guitar work is entwined with an old interview with Jarman himself. While that surprise posthumous cameo is certainly welcome, it is not necessarily his presence that elevates that piece into something more transcendent—it is more that Novaga's lovely and understated playing is most effective when it interacts with other textural layers. Almost the entire album is a modest, quiet pleasure though, which I suppose is entirely befitting for a tribute to a man who would have cheerfully devoted his life entirely to gardening under different circumstances.

Die Schachtel

Living as we do in the internet age, it is sometimes easy to forget that the world was once full of vibrant and distinctive regional scenes and that sometimes it only took a handful of visionaries to ignite a highly localized explosion of creativity that would resonate for decades.Naturally, one of my favorite scenes is the one chronicled in David Keenan's England's Hidden Reverse and it is extremely hard to imagine much of my favorite music existing if there had never been a Throbbing Gristle.The same can be said of Derek Jarman's immeasurable influence, as I was already well aware of him as suburban American teenager in the '90s despite never having seen a single one of his films (and ever having met anyone else who had either).I have since seen some of his work, of course, but Jarman seems to be the rare artist whose life, views, and friendships made an even deeper and long-lasting impact than his actual art.Or, perhaps more accurately, Jarman's life was his art every bit as much as his films were.Novaga clearly appreciates that aspect of Jarman's legacy on a deep level, as she views I Should Have Been A Gardener "as a distillation, pulling from across the unique life, death, work, political commitment, and diaries" of Jarman.In fact, Novaga seems to draw far more inspiration from Jarman's famous shingle shore garden than she does his films ("flowers blooming between the stones - hovering in the stark space between an endless sea and post-modern shadow of a nuclear power plant.").Appropriately, the album’s warm and ghostly opening piece ("April 21st") featues a field recording of slow footsteps on stones as its foundation, which makes for a hauntingly beautiful elegy.It is also an intriguingly unusual one, as the simple melody and subtle harmonies of Novaga's nakedly unadorned theme feel almost secondary to the way that they quiver and linger over the crunching backdrop like faint rays of sun on a rocky beach.

If I am being fully honest, I have to admit that my first impression of this album was "this sounds like an unedited recording of Novaga just improvising at home."In my defense, it may very well be that, as it seems like Novaga's set-up was about as minimal as can be for a solo electric guitar album: almost every piece sounds like it was played straight through an amp enhanced solely by subtle delay, reverb, and chorus effects.Occasionally, there is a hint of distortion, as in "Father Forgive Me," yet Novaga's guitar almost always sounds exactly like a guitar.That is a real curveball in the sound art milieu, as nearly all of my favorite experimental guitar albums are devoted to ingeniously pushing the boundaries of what the instrument can sound like.The fact that one approach is extremely prevalent does not preclude or invalidate other approaches, however, and I genuinely admire Novaga's alternate path of purity and quiet simplicity.Essentially, Novaga shifts the focus away from pushing the boundaries of the instrument towards the actual notes being played and the subtle, tender moods that they evoke.The way Novaga plays those notes is an especially compelling aspect of this album as well, as she builds her pieces primarily from slow, simple melodies that leave a hazy vapor trail in their wake (with no apparent enhancements from underlying drones or layered arrangements).Moreover, her compositional approach is a very loose and impressionistic one.That looseness can admittedly dilute the initial impact of these pieces, but their impression steadily deepens with repeat listens and the album casts quite an appealing (if fragile) spell when Novaga hits the mark.To my ears, she achieves that feat most decisively with the quivering harmonics of "Poppies in the Morning" and bittersweet chord swells of the aforementioned closer (the title piece).In their own way, both pieces are perfect distillations of understated, dreamlike beauty.

My feelings about the remaining two pieces are a bit more complicated, as both "The Wound Dresser" and "Father Forgive Me" diverge from the poignantly lovely mood of contemplation that the rest of the album achieves so beautifully.On "The Wound Dresser," Novaga is atypically adventurous harmonically and takes an even more abstract approach to composition than usual, resulting in a shifting series of moods that sometimes approaches a pointillist, slow-motion, and tumbling approximation of jazz."Father Forgive Me," on the other hand, feels like a strangely disjointed dirge, as the subtly distorted central melody alternately blossoms into an odd trilling motif or erupts into a Richard Bishop-esque flurry of vaguely Middle Eastern modality.In theory, that sounds appealing enough, but it is a bit jarring to watch Novaga jump from her usual elegant lightness of touch to such abrupt transitions.To be fair, that more aggressive and unpredictable aesthetic might suit the piece's specific inspiration perfectly, but it is nevertheless not among my favorite of Novaga's sound paintings.Still, my overall impression of the album is quite a favorable one now that I have fully immersed myself in it, as it is quite a moving and sensitive tribute to a man who absolutely deserves one.Moreover, it forced me to re-evaluate my somewhat calcified ideas about what makes a good experimental guitar album (a very unexpected side benefit).Novaga has carved out a very appealing niche for herself with this record, assuredly abandoning almost all of the expected technological enhancements and shortcuts to conjure a suite of songs that feels refreshingly human, direct, and undiluted by artifice.

Samples can be found here.