In less than a month it will be the 73rd anniversary of Virginia Woolf’s death. On March 28, 1941, the famous writer committed suicide by drowning herself in River Ouse near her home Sussex, in the west of England. She’d filled the pockets of her overcoat with stones to counteract any possibility of her floating to safety.
At 59 years old, it was an end that came too early, a life punctuated by luminous and transcendent work, yet marked by debilitating struggles against mental illness (specifically what is now called bipolar disorder). Yet since then her life and her work have been celebrated, discussed and analyzed non-stop. There have been biographies and monographs galore, films and stories, adaptations and works inspired by Woolf and her books.
Musicians, too, seem to have taken Woolf to heart. Seattle indie-rockers Modest Mouse took their name from a line in a Woolf short story, “The Mark On The Wall.” Other acts and work in music related to Woolf include Patrick Wolf’s “To The Lighthouse,” The Smiths’ “Shakespeare’s Sister,” and Marissa Nadler’s song “Virginia.”
The latest in this illustrious line of Woolf fans is the Italian experimental musician Marie e le Rose. Her latest album, recorded under her MonoLogue alias, is a beautiful and sensuous album of ambient electronics inspired by Woolf’s 1928 novel “Orlando,” made in collaboration with con_cetta, a k a Giuseppe Cordaro.
Woolf’s “Orlando” is a mock biography of a young aristocrat who lives for 300 hundred years, without seeming to age much past 30, and who transforms from a man into a woman part-way through the book. It’s a whimsical, elegant and profound book and, despite Woolf’s own opinion of it as a fairly lightweight thing, has been acclaimed as one of her most accessible and enjoyable fictional excursions.
MonoLogue and con_cetta’s Orlando meanwhile, sits firmly in the pantheon of “ambient” music. It’s reflective, immersive, instrumental, and you could draw an imaginary line from it back to the cassette of 18th century harp music on a hi-fi turned down way too low in Brian Eno’s hospital room in 1975.
But it’s the attention to detail that marks this album out from the hundreds of other, more insipid releases that clog up the web under the “ambient” tag. Each track is meticulously built up from field recordings–manipulated found sound and more conventional instrumentation–resulting in a glistening, immersive listen, an album that seems to stop time in its meditative beauty.
Take, for example, the delicate piano figures in “Tepid Conviction.” Marie e le Rose lays down a series of changing, broken , melodic fragments that gradually develop and resolve themselves into a kind of haunted waltz, while underneath and around we hear slivers of radio broadcasts and recordings of children’s voices. Every now and then a scuffling, grinding noise appears underneath all this, like the run-out groove of an old record or some aged machine.
Additional highlights include the clattering zither sounds in “woe and lamentation,” the moment in “Ecce Homo” where the glacial synth fades out, to be replaced by field recordings of a quavering folk song, or the beautifully resonant steel drum that marks out a hesitant melody in “Half Before the Fire (song in the key of you),” which is the piece that brings the record to a close.
MonoLogue and con_cetta halve the album’s 10 tracks, and there’s a similarity of style in both musicians’ contributions. The MonoLogue pieces tend to have a shimmering warmth–best experienced on “You or I (and now it’s hard to leave out without feeling lonely),” a track which feels like lying in a garden on a stiflingly hot summer afternoon while a piano plays in a far-off room.
She is also at the helm for the album’s centerpiece, the 13-minute-long epic “Procrastination of a Construction.” A masterpiece of restrained power, the track sees a faltering xylophone opening quickly, morphing into a full-on, single-note drone that’s held for the next 10 or so minutes, its tone subtly shifting and shading, surrounded by a patchwork of incidental clicks, clatters and percussion.
con_cetta, in contrast, opts for a more pared-down approach, expunging melody for texture, as on “tethered to heart” where a rippling piano opening slowly dissolves into a long slow synth wash. Sometimes his approach is so minimal as to be barely present, as on the airy breeze of “it’s too melancholy.” For the album’s opener, “all sorts of petty tyrannies,” however, he goes in the opposite direction, conjuring a lush and ominous soundscape that brings to mind Angelo Badalamenti’s theme for “Twin Peaks.”
During an email conversation about the record, Marie e le Rose described the album as both as tribute and soundtrack to the novel. In reality, the record and Woolf’s book have a tangential relationship; it’s hard to match the songs to chapters or sections in the novel. Probably the most direct link is through the sumptuous artwork of the limited issue vinyl edition (just 65 copies sold within a day of release).
But that really doesn’t matter. Marie e le Rose and Giuseppe Cordaro have used Woolf’s “Orlando” as inspiration for an accessible, enchanting and mesmerizing album that is both rich in detail and emotionally affecting.