Having each followed their own distinct trajectory of exploration for decades - interweaving rigorous experimentalism with transcultural conversations - and building upon roughly 20 years working as a duo, Jessika Kenney and Eyvind Kang return with Azure, their third full-length with Ideologic Organ. Among their most riveting outings to date, comprising five new compositions recorded in Seattle during the spring of 2022, this remarkable body of sonority culminates in a singular gesture of contemporary minimalism that slowly unfolds across the album’s length.
Emerging from the Pacific Northwest, Jessika Kenney and Eyvind Kang have retained a strong presence within the context of North American experimental music since the mid 1990s, each producing some of the most grippingly original music to have appeared over the subsequent years.
Kenney is a vocalist and composer internationally regarded for her spellbinding timbres and her in-depth study of oral traditions. Her work takes the form of sound installations, talismanic scores, music for film, electronics, and choir. She released the groundbreaking experimental gamelan album Atria (Sige) in 2015, and has collaborated with Lori Goldston, Holland Andrews, Niloufar Shiri, Tashi Wada, Alvin Lucier, Sarah Davachi, Melati Suryodarmo, Ensemble Nist-Nah, Sunn O))), and numerous others.
Kang, a multi-instrumentalist, composer and arranger, works across genre and discipline, bringing subtlety, fluidity, and emotional intensity to each of his varied projects. In addition to creating a striking body of solo works that has traced its way across the last two and half decades - most recently including Sonic Gnostic (Aspen Edities, 2021) and Ajaeng Ajaeng (Ideologic Organ, 2020) - he has played on albums by Bill Frisell, Joe McPhee, Sun City Girls, Ikue Mori, Laurie Anderson, Blonde Redhead, William Hooker, Animal Collective, and numerous others.
Since beginning to work together as a duo in the early 2000s, Kang and Kenney have collaborated on sound installations, music for orchestra, choir, and mixed ensembles in addition to releasing numerous widely acclaimed full-lengths: Aestuarium (2005), The Face Of The Earth (2012), Live In Iceland (2013), At Temple Gate (2014), Reverse Tree (2016), Seva (2017), The Cypress Dance (2020).
A hypnotic return to the duo’s unique expression of “unison music", Azure is among Kenney and Kang’s most pared-down efforts in more than a decade. Its five compositions are underscored by allusions to the natural world and drifting temporalities, producing a profound calm that rises in arcs of tonal color.
The album’s opener, Eclipse, is a composition built around the phrase “eclipse…inside the eclipse”, drawn from Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s book, Dictee. Leaving aching silences between each utterance - Kenney’s sparse vocal interventions enmeshed with Kang’s delicate viola d’amore tones - the piece’s collective elements produce a remarkable tension bubbling within its spacious calm.
The title track, Azure, takes its name from a pun on the Persian "az u" or "from her/him/them”, and is a meditation on the closing rhymes of ghazal 413 from the Divan of Hafez, such as mâh az u, râh az u, and âh az u, “the moon from them, the path from them, the sighs from them”. Imbued with sorrow and release, across the piece Kenney’s vocals and Kang’s viola d’amore weave and dance against a shruti drone, calling forth echoes of lost moments in far off worlds.
This is followed by three pieces that incorporate traces of wide-ranging techniques into their forms. Ocean is an experiment with different intensities of pulsation, with inspiration from ring modulation’s use of two simultaneous frequencies, which assemble an enveloping expanse of intoxicating harmonics and vibrato. For Forest Floor, Kenney’s long-tone vocalizations play on the meanings of ‘tan’ or body, and ‘nur’ or light, and the town names of ‘Chegel’ and ‘Khotan’ from ghazal 327 from the Divan of Hafez. Dancing at the boundaries of sorrow and joy, her voice, paced in perfect harmony to Kang’s viola, seems to propose alternate realities of what ecstatic music might be.
The album’s final piece draws upon Glenna Cole Allee’s book, Hanford Reach, incorporating photographs and words spoken within by interviewees living or working in the tribal territories of Wanapum, Yakama, Cayuse, Umatilla, Nez Perce, and many others on or near the Hanford Nuclear Site in the state of Washington. Among the album’s most dynamic and powerful efforts - drones and pizzicato tones playing counterpoint to Kenney’s soaring vocals - the duo, inexplicably, imbues strong impressions of that landscape.
As Suzanne Kite states in the album’s liner notes, with each of Azure’s discrete expressions Jessika Kenney and Eyvind Kang “ask our ears to hold/stop/wait/listen closely to the edges of knowability, while the world continues around our sounding bodies… [they] draw our ears so closely that if we are not careful, the listener’s breathing could interfere, our blinking could interface with each tone, and we would blindly intercede into what is a landscape being formed before our ears. Azure pushes us to ﬁnd a deeper rhythm, to move, grow, and form our listening bodies towards each composition.”
Azure is available via Ideologic Organ as a vinyl LP, mastered by their original sound collaborator Mell Dettmer, cut by Andreas Kauffelt at Schnittstelle and pressed at Optimal, CD, and digital download, with sleeve photos by Glenna Cole Allee / Text by Suzanne Kite, and a live photo by Kali Malone.