The description “folk music from another planet” has been used to describe the output of musical creators as diverse as Meredith Monk, Captain Beefheart, the English art rock duo Renaldo and the Loaf, and the proto-New Age jazz-fusion ensemble Oregon. In fact it’s an expression that even I was tempted to use when I wrote about recordings of the ancient Mayan-inspired compositions of Jeremy Haladyna and in fact did when I wrote about the fascinating sonic explorations of a Taos-based duo called Untravelled Path. But it’s always struck me as a somewhat disingenuous explanation for oddball sounds since, after all, who’s to say what music from another planet would sound like? It might sound completely bland. And certainly people on our own planet have been making pretty strange sounds for millennia. Yet it’s the first thing that comes to mind yet again as I ponder how to describe Avatar Woman, a collaboration between Providence-based singer-songwriter Azure Carter and her life partner, multi-instrumentalist Alan Sondheim.
Carter’s magnum opus has been an ongoing performance/video piece called The Fairyland Around Us based on unpublished naturalist writings of Opal Whitely (1897-1992) who is mostly remembered for her mysterious and controversial childhood diary. Sondheim, though no relation to the iconoclastic Broadway composer-lyricist, has been an iconoclast of both music and words for almost as long as his more famous namesake. Back in the late 1960s, ESP-Disk issued two LPs of his experimental improvisations on a wide range of string, wind, and percussive instruments. In subsequent decades, he became even more devoted to experimenting with written language, becoming one of the pioneers of cybertext; one of his more radical techniques involves blurring poetry and computer languages. The 12 songs featured on Avatar Woman are admittedly somewhat less ambitious than some of Carter and Sondheim’s individual large-scale projects, but they are no less adventurous. Although all of the songs herein were composed by Carter, they sound the way they do largely because of Sondheim’s unusual performance approach to a potpourri of instruments from around the world—including violin, viola, oud, pipa, sarangi, electric guitar, electric saz, dàn môi (a Vietnamese jaw harp), and something that was totally new to me, a cura cümbüş which is a small banjo-like instrument that was developed in Istanbul in the early 20th century.
On “Buried,” Carter’s extremely pretty sounding vocals on a ballad are prevented from being at all soothing by the presence of a truly off-kilter sarangi accompaniment—this has nothing to do with raga. Toward the end, the voice completely slips away and all that’s left is a reverb-laden double-stop. On “Dark Robe,” Carter’s voice sounds far less innocent; there’s an almost eerie creepiness to her tone quality as she sings about death stalking her against a backdrop of mostly plucked strings and occasionally drones from two saxophones played by Christopher Diasparra and Edward Schneider. “Surely,” in which Sondheim again accompanies Carter on a bowed string instrument, reminds me somewhat of G.B. Grayson’s performance of the creepy murder ballad “Ommie Wise” from Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, although half way through it sounds like Albert Ayler sat in on the session. The almost tender “Among the Ferns”—similarly arranged for voice and bowed string, but this time no saxophones—is based on poems by the Edwardian socialist and LGBT activist Edward Carpenter. For “World,” the electric saz strums madly as the voice and a saxophone weave melodic shards around it.
In the alternate universe I often wish I lived in, “Making Boys” would be a Top 40 hit; in the real one I do live in, it sounds like what might have happened if Jacqueline Humbert sang Robert Ashley’s songs with Eugene Chadbourne. Sondheim’s erratic bowing offers the one element of variance in the hypnotic, austerely minimal “Blood Tantra”—I write this as a compliment! The dàn môi gets pulled out for “Avatar Man with Dream Woman”; much more flexible than most jaw harps, the instrument is capable of a very wide range of sounds, all of which seem to get used here. In fact, pun intended, the conclusion made my jaw drop. The saxophones return on “What Remains,” which is perhaps the most song-like track in the entire collection thus far; at times it’s almost hummable, almost. “Marriage to Language” contains my favorite lyric of the entire album: “Perhaps I understand what you’re saying but don’t understand why you are saying it.” The dàn môi returns for a reprise of “Buried”; the different instrument and different key almost make it sound like a different song. I could actually image folks in an arena singing along to “Credo,” the album’s closing track. Carter’s melody is positively anthemic, and Sondheim’s resolutely primal tonal electric guitar accompaniment rarely upstages it. Then again, I live on that other planet where this stuff is folk music.