Sounds Heard: Untravelled Path—Work in Progress
Back in the autumn of 2005, a mysterious recording from a duo I had not been aware of before called Untravelled Path arrived in the mail. It was provocatively titled Sweet Heresy and the disc and its packaging offered only scant information—only the duo’s first names were listed and tracks were untitled and identified only by instrumentation, all of the homemade variety. But something about it called out to me from the piles of music I’m surrounded by and I felt compelled to listen to it. The more time I spent with this unearthly music—which was inspired by various world music traditions yet ultimately beholden to none—the more I wanted to know about it. Luckily in addition to the duo’s first names and the names of their instruments, a URL was provided. So I began surfing around their website and soon found out that Untravelled Path was the work of Mitsuko and Arthur Fankuchen, who are based in Taos, New Mexico. I read their philosophy of making music, which eschews specialization, aims to be different from the rest of the music around them, and is created specifically for dissemination via audio recordings rather than in live performance. I also learned quite a bit more about their instrumentarium, which includes a very low bowed monochord, a 48-keyed lamellophone even more elaborate than the largest Zimbabwean mbiras, and various end-blown bamboo flutes—all of which were built specifically to create music outside of the realm of standard 12-tone equal temperament.
This was truly adventurous music that deserved some attention in NewMusicBox, so I briefly jotted down my impressions about that recording—this was back when we were posting single paragraphs about recordings every week day. Soon thereafter I received both a very nice voice message and a letter from Mitsuko and Arthur thanking me for my words. And six years went by.
Then a few months ago, I received a second disc from Untravelled Path with an extremely unassuming title, Work in Progress, together with a note from Mitsuko and Arthur explaining to me how their music had evolved in the intervening years. In addition to the instrumental music they perform on their own hand-made creations, they also now sing—although to use the word “song” for the four vocal tracks on Work in Progress does not quite accurately describe these free-form mini-epics fusing words and music which last between 5 ½ and 7 minutes. (The CD booklet includes all of the lyrics.) The album’s nine tracks alternate between instrumental and vocal pieces.
The disc’s opener, “bbqq” (all the tracks now have titles, although the titles for all of the instrumentals are named either after specific instruments or are acronyms combining the instruments used), is an eerie soundscape in the spirit of Untravelled Path’s earlier work which I had described back in 2005 as “uncompromising, slow, and inward.” Single lamellophone pitches occasionally punctuate the long, low tones of the bowed monochord, which sounds like the breathing of alien life forms. “Dynasties Fall” introduces Untravelled Path’s new vocal gambit—Arthur’s quasi-sprechtstimme comes across as a latter day Harry Partch with the requisite accompanying plucks. The lyrics, though couched in poetic metaphors that seem more otherworldly than Partch’s corporeal concerns, reveal the duo’s anti-authoritarian, anti-establishment political agenda, e.g.
one more time those who never work
come home from vacation,
turn around, go out to grab a bite to eat
that’s cooked by someone else.
Next, “qdss” pairs various scrapes with the haunting shakuhachi-esque sounds of the Fankuchens’ homemade end blown flutes which they call shoki, their only appearance on the present recording. In “I’m a Little Worried,” Mitsuko sings a subtle microtonal melody over a series of stark, pointillistic instrumental utterances which punctuate her phrases. These musical punctuations, which function similarly to the cadences of a harpsichord continuo in a Baroque recitative but ultimately sound nothing like them, serve to further emphasize the message of her lyrics:
the too proud dude in the tailored suit,
stuffed from a power lunch, tired from a hardtrip on business class,
at home in jeans and a bandana, plays blues on his concert grand,
and dreams he’s right down there with the struggling masses.
he’s so much smaller than the humble glowing bloom.
if it’s humans like these who now truly hold the reins,
if such “masters of the universe” really are the ones in charge,
well I’m a little worried.
The ensuing instrumental, “bowus–quartus,” uses the “boardus quartus” lamellophone melodically, albeit for an extremely slow-moving melody that hovers over the sustained growls of the bass bowus. Isolated lamellophone and plucked bass tones accompany Arthur’s vocals in “Dark Clouds,” another missive about the ills of our society. Although the accompaniment retains its austerity throughout, the lyric ends on a positive, poignant, and downright romantic note:
twenty years now our shared life has grown in magic,
where she ends and I begin, we long ago forgot.
A portentous tremolo opens “bowus—bowus,” which stays predominantly in a very low register throughout. Mitsuko returns again for the final vocal track, “Hand in Hand,” which is almost a love song, albeit one of the strangest ones you’ll ever hear in your life. In the concluding “quartus—quartus,” various thuds in a variety of registers float in sonic space, conjuring the infinite.
Last month Arthur and Mitsuko wrote to me describing the reactions of people in their community to Work in Progress—grocery store cashiers, bank tellers, gas station attendants, postal clerks, etc., folks who are fall outside the usual “new music demographic,” to whom they gave free copies of the disc. According to them, everyone listened to the disc again and again, while driving or working, one even listened in a hot tub. They believe that “maybe we’ve created some of the very first New Music for the 99%.”
I, for one, am totally a fan of their work. But I hope they don’t wait another six years before making their next recording.