The sonic raw materials with which Gabriel Hernandez constructed his album Long, lointain probably wouldn’t fill a shoebox. Hernandez, who makes music under the name GoGooo, built each of the album’s 10 tracks from what essentially amounts to a shared set of related sounds: bell and organ tones, natural and urban field recordings, quiet singing, and overheard voices. And like any other meaningful keepsake, it’s a shoebox that listeners will learn to cherish.
The tracks balance those elements to varying degrees of emphasis, some heavy on song, others heavy on sound. On several, the raw noise captured by Hernandez’s microphone is left virtually unmediated. That’s the case with two that appear close to the end of Long, lointain: “Lueur,” which could be pebbles mixed by hand in a wet slurry, and “Là,” in which raindrops are eventually joined by hand bells (or, perhaps, wind chimes). Those bells are the distinguishing factor between the two tracks, for in “Là” the bells introduce a melodic component, if not a proper melody, whereas “Lueur” is pure field recording. In “Là” the bells strike the ear as music, all the more so because the field recording part of the piece eventually fades and the bells are, briefly at the track’s end, revealed as a separate audio layer, a matter of subtle artifice. The same method informs a track titled “Calme,” in which noises similar to those in “Lueur” are joined late in the work by a slowly played harmonica; it’s an injection of melody that is all the more arresting because it fails to resolve, fails to return to its root note, before “Calme” ends.
Long, lointain, released late in 2007 on the French label Baskaru, is a small masterpiece of such elegant maneuverings between the natural world and composed sound. Consider for the sake of contrast the two tracks on Long, lointain furthest from “Lueur” and “Là” along the spectrum from sound to song: “Prés de L’arbe” and “Partir Loin.” The former opens with a tune strummed and plucked on an acoustic guitar. That guitar line distinguishes it from the rest of the album. The finger-picking is something one might expect not from a sound artist like Hernandez but from some singer-songwriter — except for two things: first, the detail of the recording focuses on the texture of the strings to a fetishistic degree, aligning it with the high fidelity of the field recordings, and second, as the piece proceeds small echoes extend and enhance the guitar playing, making it feel epic despite its meager dimensions. The piece is somehow, at once, as peaceful as a John Fahey koan and as anthemic as a U2 song. After a brief bridge passage of field noise, the guitar returns transformed, the texture amplified, the plectrum activity layered until it achieves a gentle noise.
“Partir Loin,” despite the rough sounds and birdsong with which it opens, is the closest thing to a proper song on the album. It serves as a kind of reward, or dessert, coming as it does at the end of the record. Played out like an introspective organ solo, it’s enlivened by occasional bell tones and small touches of field recordings. In its closing moments, which is to say in the closing moments of the album, those real-world noises rise to the fore, reminding the listener of the variety of materials that were heard earlier.
The remainder of Long, lointain falls somewhere between those two types of music, between the framed field recording and the gestural song. The album opens with “Derrière,” its initial ring — like a call for worship or a ritual in advance of meditation — soon sharing audio-space with lulling swells. “Echappée” dives deeper into belltone, swirling in ghostly noises. “Je Ne Te Vois Plus” has the rough toil of those “Lueur,” mixed with more of those gently swaying bells; the real-world sounds seem more magnified here than elsewhere on the album, yielding a hyperreal experience, the way a hair can look like a snake when plucked from context. “Les Nuages Flottent” is a solo organ piece, performed as if the organist is stuck inside a church while the rain, heard just outside, keeps him from leaving. “Affleurement” returns to the guitar of “Prés de L’arbe” but applies a fair amount of digital effects, extending the tones with a ripe artificiality, which is set in contrast to a clock-tick backing beat and the voices of children at play; the use of the kids’s voices here, and of labor elsewhere on Long, lointain, bring to mind Bob Ostertag’s early work at remixing field recordings, Sooner or Later.
I rarely — which is to say, probably not frequently enough — note who masters a recording, but it’s difficult not to connect the meticulous detail of Long, lointain, along with its avant-folk feel, with the fact that the album was mastered by Greg Davis, who achieved a foundation of rural ambience on such albums as Arbor and Somnia.