BELLA UNION 31st May 2019
This is the second collaboration between Patti Smith and the Soundwalk Collective. The New York doyen of cool; Patti is a poet in her own right and a big fan of other poets including of course Rambaud and Baudelaire with their systematic derangement of the senses. Here she works with the poetry of Artonin Artaud, not a well-known poet and imbues his work with a gravitas I would not have given it on reading from the page.
Backed by a semi-ambient, sparse yet sonorous soundtrack, almost filmic, the poems and prose take on a weight of place. A seriously disturbed artist, Artaud was unsurprisingly a fan of Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire and Edgar Allan Poe. Adding that to a laudanum addiction and mental health issues makes him ideal for Smith’s attentions.
Ever the shocker, Patti seems to aim to be the sweariest rock priestess granny ever, scattering one piece with swearing and obscene images. Are they part of the pieces she celebrates or are they hers I don’t know, but it works. After the opening Spanish introduction, Patti’s voice declaims about stinking land and dead vaginas, backed by a sawing violin and a steady tump, tump of a drum. It sets the scene for a rich soundworld and trippy words. Based on Artaud’s account of his time in Mexico exploring peyote, Patti imbues the work with a sense of the mystic sacred, in that way she does.
The Soundwalk Collective recorded this in Mexico, aiming to draw on the sleeping memories that the landscape holds (in the next album they will present the sounds of Ethiopa to accompany the words of Rimbaud after he left France). They travelled to key places, a cave, a village, a route. Patti then took the recordings into a studio in New York, read passages, sang and improvised. It is not always clear whose words are whose and it doesn’t really matter – the lesson psychedelics teach is the oneness of everything. As Stéphan Crasneanscki, the founder of Soundwalk Collective says: “On an atomic level, there is no separation between you and any other organism: trees, leaves, flowers, but also stones and sand. There is no duality. Everything is embedded, everything has a soul, and the soul is timeless.” As the set draws towards a close, Patti sings one of her own poems, one written about the last few hours of Artaud’s life in an insane asylum in France.
This is enormously pretentious and will divide people in the same way that Luis Bunuel or Alexandro Jodorowsky’s essentially Mexican surrealist work does. Is it overblown indulgence or is it transformative art? I’d say it is both and there lies the appeal.
A fascinating listen; this will never be background music and is an opportunity for Patti to introduce you to someone you didn’t know. Turn the lights down, pop the headphones on and take a journey inside the head.