Sounds From the Almond Spire:
Samuel Andreyev’s
Songs of Elsewhere

As the great Marv Sandeye once observed, there is no excellent beauty that isn’t at least slightly odd in some way or another—an adage well-suited to the work at hand, for the beauty of Songs of Elsewhere is both excellent and, in its genial way, just that little bit odd.

Now, this peculiarity does not arise, as some might presume, from its having been performed by a band of philharmanic telepaths. After all, sensitives of every sort—from transaurics to audiokinesics—have been paraded in and out of studios since at least the days of Perez Prado’s Mexico City recordings for rca over half a century ago.

Nor does it result from the oneiric scoring techniques of its creator, revealed to me in secret by the composer himself one extravagantly stormy afternoon at a sequestered table in Toronto’s storied Thwakata’s Eats. No, composing in sleep is nothing new: while it may not be common knowledge, the wave of somnolent songwriting began to swell in the early ’60s when the words-and-music duo of Dion McGregor and Michael Barr dreamed up ‘Where Is the Wonder?’

Some might suppose that recording the vocals with the singer immersed in a bath of sheep’s milk dyed fluorescent chartreuse would be enough to place these tracks somewhere outside the ordinary. May I remind them of certain rituals practiced by the renowned vocalists of the past. Caruso was said to have recorded ‘Una Furtiva Lagrima’ with one bare foot on a torpedo ray and the other on a mound of ermine fur. Yma Sumac, legend has it, twirled upside-down in a snakeskin harness during her Voice of the Xtabay sessions (hence that unearthly tremolo). Sammy Davis Jr. did about half of his Decca recordings smeared in avocado from the waist up. Anita O’Day sniffed wood between takes. And Elisabeth Schwarzkopf sang Strauss’ Four Last Songs from within a custom-built orgone box. So you see, the methods of our singer of Elsewhere are as typical as could be within the pantheon of great songsters.

What, then, makes
Songs of Elsewhere other-than-usual? When I posed this question during one of the album’s more philosophical mixing sessions, a look of otherworldly aspect fell across the features of flautist Brian ‘Brian Taylor’ Taylor. Ater a full minute of transfixed contemplation which silenced the room, he stood—like a newborn fawn testing its hooves—and wobbled out of the studio. We didn’t see him for two days, but on the third he returned, his usual earthly and amiable self. ‘I think I figured it out,’ he proclaimed, waving a sheaf of Masonic-looking diagrams. ‘It crossed my mind that if the score were analyzed according to certain alchemical and cabalistic directives, it might reveal some sort of underlying design. When I thought of the line ‘Everybody’s letters burn’, I knew that it had to be a clue to the work’s esoteric significance—there was just something gematric about it, but it also hinted at what you might call an alphabetic crucible. So I translated the lyrics using sacred numerology and then I deciphered the chordal and melodic structure of each tune by applying formulæ revealed in the Auralchemicus Hermetica of Torvig Blassphernis, from 1691. As near as I can figure, what Songs of Elsewhere really is—well it’s a kind of arcane blueprint for an interconnected series of fourteen geomantic gazebos meant to be construced on the east shore of Lake Huron, a few miles south of Kincardine to be exact.’

There was an impressed hush, which I quickly and perhaps tactlessly shattered. ‘That’s very interesting, Brian,’ said I, ‘but it hardly makes Elsewhere unique. I mean, look at all the examples out there of architectural works which have a cryptophonic origin. Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao is an architonal interpretation of the bandoneon melody in Astor Piazzolla’s Allegro Tangábile. Gaudí’s Güell Colony Crypt is a structural translation of Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night. There’s even an entire village in Cornwall constructed from early Van der Graaf Generator albums. Do you need to hear more? The Kansai Airport Terminal in Osaka—that’s strictly Aphex Twin. The Banca Popolare di Verona, in case you can’t tell by looking at it—Led Zeppelin. There are five or six malls in Ohio alone that are construced from nothing but Gustav Mahler. That doesn’t mean these gazebos of yours are of no interest. They’d probably be quite remarkable if they were built. But I don’t think they’re enough to make Elsewhere odd.’

‘Yeah,’ admitted Brian, ‘I guess you’re right—I just thought…’

‘Hey!’ interrupted Mike Smith, on hand for a contrabass overdub, ‘Maybe it’s just where we are that makes it a bit strange: a subglacial echo chamber with walls made out of petrified bark—that’s not a typical recording studio.’

He was referring, of course, to Jeff McCulloch’s modern hi-tech recording facility beneath the Wellesley Glacier in East Toronto. Once again, I couldn’t help but put things in perspective. ‘Relatively speaking, Mike, doing an album in such a setting is acually not that strange at all. To wit: Claudine Longet recorded Sugar Me in the dungeon of the Chateau de Langeais castle. Leonard Cohen recorded New Skin For the Old Ceremony in the Aluminum Dome at Henry I. Kaiser’s Hawaiian Village Complex (or was that Martin Denny and Hypnotique?). Eydie Gorme, incredibly, recorded almost all of Cuatro Vidas in the hot springs at Myvatn, Iceland—she had a whole latin band down there. And Ornette Coleman, Andy Williams and Brian Eno have all recorded—though not at the same time, I regret to say—in the Grotta Azzurra or Blue Grotto of Capri. And did you know that beneath the Catskills—’

‘Okay—enough of this!’ Samuel Andreyev had risen from his chair at the mixing console and was waving his hands in the underground air. ‘You wanna know what makes this album odd? I’ll tell you what makes it odd. It’s the only album in existence by someone who dares to tell the truth about the world. I gave everything on this album and I didn’t pull any punches. What you’re hearing are the sounds of a man tearing open the envelope!’

‘Damn,’ muttered a quizzical Ed Zych, sound editor extraordinaire, as he stared at the multilayered waveforms on the screen of his Mac, ‘I thought we edited those out.’

Well, there was no arguing with Mr. Andreyev’s viewpoint, and it was only fitting that he, the creator of this metabaroque song cycle, should have the last word. Yet I must say that what lies behind the oddity of his Elsewhere may really be something more obvious than anyone had conjecured. To me, the simple fact is that nothing else sounds quite like this music: from the brutally delightful opening riffs of ‘Ladle Days’, performed with laudable fervour by the Bellini String Quartet and bassist Mike Smith, to the mysterioso bass flute solo by Brian Taylor on ‘Lame Drops In’; from the ethereal theremin phrases of ‘Life Story’ (courtesy of the mæstro) to the spectral yet hyperlucid woodwind evocations of ‘Phantom Bays’—listen to Senya Trubashnik, Becky Sajo, Carley Mellan and Graham Martin bring the scene to life; from the crepuscular percussion of ‘Song of Night’—that’s Jamie Drake and his temple blocks in full exotica mode—to the languid dolour of Rob Carli’s alto saxophone on ‘International Chimney’, this music is distinct.

And of course there’s the voice—a voice of luxuriant desolation reverberating from an almond spire—the voice of Samuel Andreyev.

So I think the venerable old Marv Sandeye can rest comfortably in his grave, knowing that his maxim still holds true: Beauty is Strange wherever it be found—but nowhere moreso than Elsewhere.

Steve Venright
15 April 2002