Beauty, tranquility, and poise aren't the first descriptors that come to mind when you think about Debacle Fest, Seattle's foremost experimental- music event.
Now in its ninth year, Debacle typically generates images of sinister synth expositions, grim noise assaults, wild rock spasms, feral jazz workouts, and severe drone opuses. But if you pay close attention, you can discern pulchritudinous sounds, too. In 2016, this element comes to the fore more than ever with Mára (Vashon Island vocalist/keyboardist Faith Coloccia, who's also in Mamiffer with husband Aaron Turner) and Benoît Pioulard (transplanted Seattle troubadour/ambient soundscaper Thomas Meluch). Both are among the biggest draws of Debacle's 26 acts; their approaches are more about the hush than the harsh.
Mára and Benoît Pioulard's music operates at the intersection of beauty and sadness. On releases like the former's Surfacing and the latter's Noyaux, they maximize the allure of melancholy moods expressed with exquisite gentleness, shaking you to your core with a thoughtful caress. The shock of the new often comes adorned with abrasive, jagged contours. These two musicians opt for a deceptive smoothness, for shimmering layers of aural mystique. They lull you into blissful states, but their music still requires an active imagination to apprehend the timbral and lyrical complexities. Residual traces of folk music, drone metal, European art song, and the oneiric ambience of Brian Eno and William Basinski filter into Mára and Benoît Pioulard's recordings, but they're emulsified into a beauteous blend of elements that sounds archetypal.
When asked to reflect on this perceived conjunction of beauty and sadness, Coloccia and Meluch respond with great thoughtfulness. "There are these fleeting moments of clarity, usually during sadness/loss, where time seems to stop, and light becomes crystal clear," Coloccia says. "There is a sense of beauty, maybe spirituality. I try to re-create this, and usually during these moments I hear music, often repetitive. I find beauty in this way very subversive. Beauty, fragility, vulnerability in music are easily overlooked or passed over. People sometimes have a preconceived notion of prettiness or beauty as being simpleminded, or weak, submissive, childlike—unless these ideas are presented in a 'normal,' commodified way. I see beauty as harsh and powerful when paired with the guts of vulnerability. If I can find beauty/spirit in sadness or trauma, loss, etc., then I can make something out of nothing. If you can find spirit in horror, then there is hope of living and empowerment/liberation."
Meluch observes, "I read a pretty striking quote recently that said something along the lines of 'Beauty is finding the god in anything,' which to me is a way of getting at that profound level we're programmed to stay just outside of most of the time. So then when you have those occasional moments of transcendence, you can really lock into the core we all share. Not to get all new-agey on you, or avoid the question, but it seems that the degree to which you're aware of the inevitable passing of all things entails the level of sadness you'll feel, kind of like the Portuguese saudade idea, feeling a nostalgia for something that has not yet passed, but will. The things I make are almost entirely of their moment, as in the outcome of a particular project or session is guided largely by the circumstances of the phase of my life I'm in—so it's always seemed vital to capture those mercurial things in order to feel some sense of narrative or continuity in life."
As vocalists, Coloccia and Meluch favor understatement and a kind of glacial cool. Coloccia says she's only recently really begun to sing and vanquish stage fright. "I was always afraid to have a voice, be noticed, attract attention. I wished to be invisible, hide behind ideas, people, art, thinking, and instrumental music. There came a point in my life where I felt in order to survive and grow I must 'write myself into the world' and find/have a voice, be my own witness. I have had people in my life make fun of my voice, say I could not sing. I have found that with singing, I have found my body, and occupy it, I have found a sense of self among opinions and now I give space to voice and feel confidence. I rely on intuition, and what I feel needs to happen for singing.
"There are feelings I have about singing that correspond to my thoughts about fetal memory/matrilineal egg memory and inherited memory," she continues. "When I sing, I feel like I am giving my mother a voice, I am giving my grandmother a voice, generations of quiet women are now singing through me, all the way back to my great-grandmother, who probably sang by herself while doing dishes and raising babies; maybe I am giving my future child a voice."
Meluch says that his vocalizing began as a way to express the copious amount of words and "sarcastic poems I wrote in my notebooks as a teenager, and was too self-conscious to start a band with a singer who might have to sing them him- or herself. Other than that, I've spent the last 15 or so years essentially ripping off [late Broadcast vocalist] Trish Keenan and her delivery and harmony styles, because I have no other training."
Adventurous musicians typically face the conundrum of either rebelling against musical convention or working within familiar tropes, but Coloccia says she wants "to challenge and question the musical traditions that exclude difference and welcome 'sameness.' I would like to challenge hierarchal ideas of musical superiority, boys' clubs, intellectualization and exotification of musicians and artists, obsessions with fame, 'power,' youthfulness/newness, and artists as commodity. I would like to challenge music that assumes that there is only so much room available for a select number of women, skin colors, and difference, music that fosters competition between friends, and music that thinks it has to speak in the language of the dominant hierarchy in order to be noticed, understood, and heard. I would like to challenge those ideas and values, while also creating what I perceive to be great and interesting sounds. I am interested in new ways of hearing, communicating, and making."
Meluch isn't so much concerned about dispensing with convention as he is with creating what he considers great-sounding music. "I have always tried to document sounds that I haven't heard before, or at least to combine familiar sounds in unexpectedly harmonious ways," he says. "Everything I've done—some commissions aside—feels like it comes from a totally honest place that I remain really excited about, which is more than I expected out of myself at this point, say, 10 years ago."
What is the importance of nature to Coloccia and Meluch's music-making process? "Living close with and in 'nature' on Vashon is important for having time/space/silence to create, although it is not a requirement," Coloccia says.
"I am also very inspired by other environments such as cities, industrial areas, abandoned towns, etc. I am beginning to see notions of civilization, humanity, technology, and destruction of the world, as actually being part of the pattern of nature—like possibly Styrofoam is nature the same way a tree is or a human breathing is. There are rocks that have formed out of plastic, sediment, and old fishing line in the ocean and they are now being classified as true rock formations. There are single-cell organisms adapting, living in nuclear materials. I am inspired by this aspect of nature, the ability to adapt and endure, the ability to utilize materials at hand and what is available in the environment. I practice this in making music and art. Many of the piano recordings for Mára were made on hand-held battery-operated cassette recorders during power outages, so in that way nature did dictate part of my music-making process."
Meluch says, "It's the guiding force, you know, this great mystery? My favorite maker of anything is Terrence Malick, simply for his ability to contain—sometimes in a single image or turn of phrase—the immense glory, fragility, doom, and hope of simply being a creature on this planet. It's a real privilege, and I try my best not to take it for granted, you know, the world sings to me and I sing back."
Listen to Mára at sigerecords.bandcamp.com/album/surfacing, and to Benoît Pioulard at pioulard.bandcamp.com.