ALBUM REVIEW: Aaron Cupples – ‘Island Of The Hungry Ghosts’ original soundtrack: a sonic film in itself

ISLAND OF THE HUNGRY GHOSTS is a feature-length documentary which, so its makers claim, “moves between the natural, human and spiritual worlds”.

The island in question is Christmas Island, an Australian ocean territory some 960 miles north-west of the mainland, and at 220 miles actually much, much closer to Java and Sumatra. It’s about 50 square miles in size, so a relative dot in oceanic terms; but it’s its ecosystem that raises its importance to a fastness of global ecological attention.

It’s inhabited by migratory crabs which travel in their millions from the jungle towards the ocean t full moon; a biorhythmical ballet that’s played out for hundreds of thousands of years.

Enter humanity in the shape of Poh Lin Lee, who lives with her family in this seeming idyll. She’s not an ecologist, but a trauma therapist, who counsels the asylum seekers held in the high-security detention centre which the island also co-hosts. An uneasy combination.

And then there’s the local islanders – the island supports a population of a shade under 2,000 – who carry out “hungry ghost” rituals for the spirits of those who have died there without a burial. In the ritual, offerings are made to appease the souls who wander the jungle looking for home.

It’s an intriguing triptych which gives the producers’ summation justification. It shows, rather than tells; invites parallels in this little island microcosm. We’ve embedded the minute-long official trailer below as a taster.

But it’s the business of music we’re really about here; step forward Australian sound engineer, producer, composer Aaron Cupples, who composed the soundtrack for Island Of The Hungry Ghosts, and which sonic accompaniment has been picked up by leftfield Berlin imprint Pan for issue at the end of this month.

Hailing from Gippsland, Victoria, Aaron’s mostly flexed his musical potency either in collaboration or behind the scenes, until now, with artists as diverse as Spiritualized, Blanck Mass and Broken Social Scene.

Aaron Cupples, photographed by Brigitte Hart

Aaron says: “Drawing on discussions with director Gabrielle Brady, I began to perceive the island itself as the protagonist, with its own ancient rhythms and cycles set against the transitory human stories it endures.

“It was my intention to give voice to the island through the score. Imagining what this might sound like, emanating from deep within the landscape, I settled on a handmade long-string instrument.

“This single 13-foot long wire was tuned, bowed, and electromagnetically oscillated to create slowly evolving textures and deep layers of resonance.

“From this foundation, the score introduces rhythm inspired by traditional Chinese festival drumming and chanting of Buddhist nuns recorded on Christmas Island by sound recordist Leo Dolgan.

“Working closely with him, the score is intentionally kept dark in timbre to allow a merging with the intricate nature recordings, which often play simultaneously with the score.”

And it’s that fine and nuanced appreciation that drives the record, which opens not at dawn, but at “Night”, and in field recordings: luxurious environmental susurration, birdsong. Eventually, oh so slowly, this is knitted by a gradually oscillating hum, clean and warm. Do you need more for an evocation? I don’t think so.

That tone pulls us into the equatorial forest for “The Understorey”, opening out, picking up a swell, a breadth, an uplift, that’ll call the work of A Winged Victory For The Sullen’s Adam Wiltzie to mind; finding an inner steel, an undercarriage of bone chatter, bleeding across the octaves with overtones and resonance. I hope it’s not my cultural imputation but there’s a didgeridoo-like element, all wood grain, more respiratory, before it slowly recedes.

So far, so very pretty indeed. But as we move into the meat of the album, we shift into much rawer and more unsettling sound. “Blowholes” captures the Pacific at its timeless work, as found elsewhere on the 7″ Oceanus Pacificus by Chris Watson. The much deeper venting from the belly of the geological phenomenon of the title are quite chilling; an almost sci-fi roar of air with whistling tones; Delia Derbyshire would’ve loved this.

There’s just the one generative bass tone lending some manmade structuring, which itself becomes the motif of the following “The Long Walk”, thrumming away eerily. Listening to this on review stream only whets the appetite for the resonances and overtones of a decent record deck. That tone multiplies into an almost anaesthesic oscillation, an eerie ringing pressing down on you and suggesting a stillness arrived at through only suppression – of fear, of the past, of something beyond your vision. Pitch bends redouble that sonic overwhelm.

“Trapped Air” is a brief interlude allows some circulation of air, being sparse, built of hollow percussive strikes with those drone tones never far away.

“The Hungry Ghost” follows, and that percussion gains some glitter, higher sparkle; an almost gamelan feel, the islanders, once outside the holding centre and its vicus, mainly being composed of Malay and Straits Chinese origin. My god, it howls, the unquiet spirits given voice in ceremony, in haunted connection, building and building to a rattling polyphony – cacophony is far too pejorative for a music this trancing, calling forth these lost souls.

“Fire & Jungle” once more builds from environment recordings of a storm, air currents howling, before a stillness descends, traumatised birdsong caught in the mid-ground. Here the merest suggestion of a calming tone leads eventually out from the climatic bustle.

“The Protester” is blissful by comparison with some of what precedes; a moment to collect the thoughts, gather the wits, although as with “The Understorey” that tone gradually unfolds with a more abrading thread inside: a fuzz, burr and flash coiling off as it drills in.

On an island that small, you can never be far away from the great body of the water, the Pacific, and on “Ocean & Prayers” here it is again in all its churning, roiling magnificence, the titular prayers joining as a slow chatter, whispering and hissing, reminding me very much of “9:25” from Global Communication’s ambient classic 76:14. Aaron’s deft intervention here is all, it seems, in the splicing, the spatial arrangement. The knowledge of how to let Leo’s sound sourcing tell the story with the lightest guiding touch.

In closing, “Sand Return” is the most straightforwardly standalone piece; we’ve embedded that for you too, and it plays well within the established pocket of respirating surge, decay, surge, decay, that seems to interact so beautifully and amniotically with the human body, layering in minor-key tones, tremulous and subaquatic and theremin-like tonalities, eventually even resolving to guitar, lending quite a Sigur Rós feel.

Only in this parting song is there a musical cohering, but that’s no criticism; that’s the hand of the composer finding much to beguile in the island and its sounds itself. It’s grandiose, grandstanding, and bullseyes a cathartic rapture.

There’s always that caveat with a soundtrack that this is music in service to another artform. But, then, does Island Of The Hungry Ghosts stand on its own two feet? Hell yes. It’s a sonic film in itself, in which it’s difficult to tell where the layering of Leo’s environment recording ends and Aaron’s generative interventions begin; which is as it should be. It wholly lets the soul of the island through and onto your record deck. If you’re a fan of labels like Touch, Kranky, this is so a record for you. Bravo, Aaron.

Aaron Cupples’ Island Of The Hungry Ghosts will be released by Pan on digital download, stream and vinyl on January 29th; you can pre-order your copy from the label here.

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