ALBUM REVIEW: Snowdrops – ‘Volutes’: chamber duo expand the post-classical palette with true beauty

BOUTIQUE London-Istanbul imprint Injazero has been curating some of the more beautiful and fragile sound work being done in the interstices between modern classical and post-rock for a few years now, with artists including the adored by those who know him, Canadian multi-instrumentalist, C. Diab, who brings scorch and flame to a field often glacial in its aesthetic; and the medieval synth polyphony of Ukraine’s Heinali.  

And new to the roster is the French chamber duo of Mathieu Gabry and Christine Ott, who record together as Snowdrops; the label has just released the delight of their debut album, Volutes, eight tracks composed for strings, mellotron, piano and that half-forgotten, notoriously difficult to master early electronic keyboard-theremin hybrid, the ondes Martenot.

What’s that? You may well ask: for an underrated instrument it certainly is. To précis: the ondes Martenot was patented by Maurice Martenot in 1928, the same year as the theremin was patented in Russia. Maurice had been a radio operator in the First World War, and had become enamoured with the musicality generated by radio tones; he sought to bring those tones to a controllable device.

Broadly similar in action to a theremin, the user wears a metal ring, which is then slid along a wire to create tones; later examples brought keyboard for user simplicity. Being built to order, they weren’t the sort of instrument you could pick up to have a bang at. 

Cutting-edge composers such as Olivier Messiaen and Edgard Varèse, and more than 100 classical pieces exist with the ondes Martenot in mind; in more recent proponents include Daft Punk and Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood, beguiled by the retro-modernist and unique tone it brings. (Want to find out more? The Wikipedia page is a decent resource on a recherché instrument).

Snowdrops formed some five years ago to investigate the possibilities open at the experimental edge of the classical duo. Christine Ott has performed alongside celebrated film composer Yann Tiersen, Tindersticks, and French post-rock experimentalists Oiseaux-Tempête, giving a broad set of sensitivities. Earlier works have overwhelmingly been for the big screen, including the score for 2018 Venice award-winner Manta Ray.

Christine Ott and Mathieu Gabry, aka Snowdrops

For this then, their debut album outside the world of visual supporting cast, they bring this set for piano, strings, mellotron, other diverse electronics and the ondes Martenot, which rare sonic device Christine specialises in; and on this album they’re joined by the talented Anne Irène-Kempf on the viola. 

The album was trailed by a single in the shape of “Ultraviolet”, which you can hear below; it’s an odyssey of autumnal mellotron and the eerie, ringing swoop of the ondes Martenot wheeling in the air above. It has a sweet, raw, high quality, speaking, like the theremin, of its relatively simple construction (at least in terms of all the circuitry and digitisation modern electronics have); but that haptic quality, the physicality of the interaction, makes for a true and bold sound. Listen as Christine begins to swoop it through the unfolding strings that are building in; it’s a summer dawn of a song, all verdant scent and rising rays. It’s a worldly piece that gently nudges against the otherworldly: in that this world too can produce moments of rapturous astonishment. Stunning.

The album is bookended by two “Commas”, namely “variation 1” and “variation 2”: this particular punctuative naming suggesting the album as part of a wider flow of music, not fully separated by periods or capital letters; an act in conjunction with what came before, what’s to follow, a statement of part of an overarching whole. The opener contemplates in slow and resonant viola beauty, each note a breath, marking a meditative time; so slowly, so slowly, a counterpoint adds harmonic warmth; about halfway through the ondes Martenot begins to sing so high, as further instruments make themselves known. It’s breathless, breathtaking; it’s perhaps what Stars of the Lid would’ve been creating had they been active in the 1930s. Yep, that blissful. 

“Variation 2” takes the same melodic root and lends it a sleepier feel, with the mellotron down an octave, snatches of a piano that gradually foregrounds in a pretty staccato, it slows and lets us arrive on the other side safely. There’s something of the stillness of dusk about it; those deepening blues, the day announcing itself over yet only lazily relinquishing its grip, giving you time to amble home before night proper. 

…. Which is getting ahead of ourselves somewhat, when we have other delights to bathe in. “Trapezian Fields” swings in another direction, with a gentle piano earthing electronics singing and circling in freeborne delight, like swallows on thermals. It’s an emotionally quieter piece than “Ultraviolet” and “Comma (variation 1)”, for which, once you’ve heard them, you may be oddly thankful; music that moving should be handled carefully. “Trapezian Fields” is all about the piano, its slow grace keeping the course straight and steady, luxurious, as strings begin to wrap and twine.

“Éloge De L’Errance” – which translates as ‘Praise of Wandering’ – sees the piano shifting in impressionistic melodic currents akin to Harold Budd. The flute-like tones of the mellotron brings a pastoral woodiness, which is apt, given the title. There is a folksiness about this pocket odyssey; at just under five minutes, one of the shorter on the album. Darker atmospheres scud across toward the end, when the strings groan and lurch a little.

“Inception” begins in muted pizzicato and mellotron sustain, slow tides of tonal warmth washing and, just, wavering, in the way of that other odd, tape-loop employing, instrument. There’s a subtle Chinoiserie to this passage, The piano brings focus and a mantric foreground precision, while the deeper melody grows more complex; strings thread into the softer clouds of chordal harmony on the horizon.

The piano picks up a slow swingtime against the lamenting viola, wrapped protectively against the privations in cosy reverb, and crackling tronica interjections. In the middle passage, the viola is allowed to roam mournful and free over an almost sitar sustain, with folky qualities in the melody. Gradually it gives way to the ondes Martenot, which skies in microtonal swoops; other electronics pulse in with a more contemporary edge, the whole picking up speed even as it slowly slides to quietude. Now that’s a journey from which “Comma (variation 2)” is a necessary decompression into a calmer place. 

Snowdrops have taken the post-classical palette to another place again with their use of two of the more overlooked pioneering electronic instruments, and produced a work that at its least, is intensely transporting; and in its two twin peaks, “Comma (variation 1)” and “Ultraviolet”, close to too beautiful, heartbreakingly so; but wonderfully.

Snowdrops’ Volute is out now on digital, CD and vinyl via Injazero; order your copy here – but save me one, chaps, would you?

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