Rosalind Hall, “Drift”

Australian sound artist Rosalind Hall plays saxophone like no other person I’ve ever heard. More than likely, listeners to her solo debut Drift will never realise that’s what they’re hearing at all, so far removed is it from what is recognisable as sax or even, for that matter, brass. Thanks to Important Records and their cassette-only sister label Cassauna, Hall’s astonishingly evocative, often barely perceptible music is now available more widely, having previously been confined to gallery pieces in her homeland, ensemble performances and duos, and the recesses of expansive noise compilations.  Drift is a sublime set redolent in places of Leyland Kirby’s work as The Caretaker, Grouper circa A I A and, in its deeper, darker passages, even Lustmord or Sleep Research Facility.

True, a lot has been done to the saxophone to make it sound like it does here, but you still have to blow it, right?  Strung to a selection of peddles, a laptop or two and with a mic crammed in its maw, the saxophone as played on Drift requires only the meekest of breaths to resonate with enormous depth. Eyes closed and body swaying as if in reverie, Hall appears to treat the instrument as an extension of her respiratory system as opposed to something that needs to be wrestled with, despite the occasionally startling sounds she is capable of coaxing out of it.  Add a few field recordings, a little processing and even a bit of Velcro, and you’ve got yourself a thoroughly entrancing hour of music.

Helpfully, Hall has provided a breakdown of each of Drift‘s three long tracks alongside the release. Described as a “free fall album,” it consists of two tracks previously performed at Australian art festivals in 2016 and one presumably making its debut. The opener, “Burden,” actually sees the saxophone take something of a background role, playing on the archaic term applied to the drone elements of certain instruments (i.e. bagpipes, zithers and sitars) to also express the weight felt by the artist during the past few ill-disposed years. Over the top, processed recordings of electric fences, fireworks and cicadas act as antagonists, and gongs a la Köner deepen the sense of unrest.

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The most ethereal work here is the centrepiece, “Drift.” Inspired by hypnagogia, the track crests and troughs appropriately, opening and closing like hot, heavy eyelids.  Incredibly, Hall’s saxophone is the only instrument present here, abetted by obscure tuning methods, a reverb attachment and some wizardry with the attack and release settings.  The track’s intention is to hang over the listener with a kind of supernal permanence, entering and leaving the consciousness at leisure.  The effect it has is almost narcotic in its command and, at just 13 minutes, tantalising in its brevity; I found myself returning to nod out to it repeatedly like an addict might their favoured intoxicant.

Originally composed for use by Sisters Akousmatica at Melbourne’s Liquid Architecture event in 2016, “Descension” takes up the entirety of the tape’s flip side on its own.  Sonically it runs like a combination of its two predecessors, adding “Burden”‘s supplementary elements to “Drift”‘s wearied bliss. It features Hall’s saxophone, modified accordingly, being played like a keyboard.  Samples enter the fray too, with drones extended and pitches shifted to, as the accompanying info puts it, “enhance certain harmonics and textures.”

However you choose to apply that knowledge, “Descension” opens rather tentatively, surrounded by obscure rustles and knocks that grow in presence the deeper the drone mines.  Indeed, the experience of listening to the track is evocative of some kind of subterranean exploration; the emergence of rasping breaths from the darkness is discomposing, and what sounds like the scraping of strings mimics the momentary appearance of an unwanted follower in whatever dim light source it is you’ve chosen to bring with you. The intensity is ramped up thus throughout, the end arriving when the drone breaks up and you’re left alone with the stalker picking over your corpse in whichever dank chamber it calls home and you’ve had the misfortune to discover.