Review of Scott Marshall’s
“Gurdymania III: Lightbringer”
Scott Marshall’s CD album “Gurdymania III: Lightbringer” is a gift in its ability to stir the imagination with overpowering, stark, dark impressions. Yet, it also contains heartening, lilting tunes that invite the listener to dare continue dancing in the midst of life’s prevailing oppression. Life as it always comes to us is mirrored in this fascinating CD.
The back cover contains a photo of Scott holding a Hurdy-Gurdy and, immediately upon looking at it, I was struck with how such massive hands could perform with the kind of intricate and fast-paced dexterity required by the instrument. These are not the hands I would want performing delicate brain surgery on me, yet the technical precision, coordinating chords, wide-ranging tempos and smoothly flowing melodies combine to form seamless musical impressions of the highest order.
The album cover, designed by artisan Claire Jennings, is reminiscent of a Salvador Dalí painting displaying images akin to those that appear in dreams and nightmares. Against the blackness of space is a circle representing, presumably, the planet and surrounding atmosphere. Encased inside the circle (of life?) are weird images of multi-headed white horses, some of the heads with tongues of fire, the proverbial huge snake possibly symbolizing the satanic, a hefty egg with its shell cracking, various humanoid figures in black, one seemingly walking surreptitiously away from the brightness of the “Lightbringer,” which brings a stream of starlight down to earth, a fireball in the sky with an owl in its center (symbol of wisdom fleeing the planet?), and one image that carries a connotation probably not intended but is difficult to resist. The coincidence of recent Russian attacks on the nation of Ukraine and a “six-legged,” elongated black bear stalking the planet in the cover’s depiction is noteworthy. The number “6” or “666” in Christian legendry is an indication of imperfection, just shy of the number “7,” which is regarded as perfect completion. The bear since the 16th Century has been the symbol of Russia, representing both positive qualities of strength and sheer might, and negative qualities of ferocity and awkward clumsiness. How ironically enigmatic that a shadowy six-legged bear on a CD cover emerges in the present context of unimaginable horror inflicted by a rabid, Russian “bear” on children, women and men in Ukraine!
The remainder of this review will consist of one person’s subjective impressions and visualizations evoked by listening to each of the 13 selections of the CD. That, of course, and 65₵ (American) will get you a cup of senior coffee at McDonalds. It is good that we live at a time when objectivism and science are more heavily relied on than in more legendary times. That, however, does not deny the possibility for whatever cosmic energies motivate personal intuitions to be harbingers of truth. Perhaps, an extended conversation among admirers of Scott Marshall’s artistry would yield in a more interesting collage of surrealist impressions.
1) Wychfinder: An online word search defines “wych” or “wyches” as brine springs or wells. Variant spellings, however, also include “witch.” Either way, most of the composition until the very last portion remind me of the scurrying, hurrying preoccupations of humans with getting that which cannot assuage thirst (brackish water) or which, if found, will deviously bring harm. The entire piece is in minor tones, not the kind that sooth, but that reflect self-defeating pursuits. That is, until we get to the closing measures when the strident tune and rhythm begin to fade, making way for two-part chords highlighting how at the end (of the song or life) comes the awful angst at having failed to pursue one’s authentic passions. I wish I could observe how Scott manages to play fluid dyads at the same time as keeping the melody going.
2) Hypersleep: An ethereal quality pervades this piece, created, I think, from a couple of strings locked against the wheel of the instrument. Yet, changing chords also contribute to the sense of wandering in that mind-space that goes wherever it will, the floating melody augmenting the same sensation. Transportation into a realm beyond conscious awareness where whatever connections we have to the Cosmos intermingle, flowing in, around, and through Oneness.
3) Spacewitch: A profundo bass drone begins this piece with the melody barely audible, but almost immediately exploding into the foreground, accompanied by some double-stringing and a steady bass pounding. The minor tones suggest something ominous is intended. The technical prowess of combining a steady beat of a pounding heart underlying dyads and melody with one hand while the other is turning the crank leaves me in awe. The starkness of this piece suggests something akin to the Bible-thumping preacher trying to scare the hell out of us. Sad, the preacher ignores the reality that we are already, all the time, in hell—and heaven. The Oneness of life includes all experiences, the struggle between what we perceive as good and bad is constant. How else would we recognize the difference if life were comprised of only one without the other? Remember Plato’s Cave?
4) Carnac Street: Knowing nothing at all about Carnac Street, free association is set loose to imagine any scenario I want, and the scenes that come to mind are those of the nouveau riche gathering in public places filling up the air space with swivel heads endlessly chatting about ways to increase wealth, the values of some stocks and investments over others, and similar self-aggrandizing endeavors. The prevailing din is undisturbed by a flute-sounding obligato above, as if a higher voice is attempting to break-in, or blend-in with a more expansive understanding of life. But, it fails, and the ceaselessly senseless dissonance fades into mindless obscurity. The flute sounds are particularly intriguing if produced by the Hurdy Gurdy. I apologize if my mind-wanderings misrepresent the intention or character of Carnac Street.
5) Lady Pajot: A delightful gigue easily evoking the image of a dancing Lady Pajot! The only online references to “Lady Pajot” I could find were of a yacht by that name and, interestingly, an 1850s Hurdy Gurdy rebuilt by Samuel Palmer in recent years. Another obscure reference mentions the name Pajot in connection with women in France who were resistance fighters against the German invasion during WWII. Perhaps all three connections can apply to this upbeat composition, whether of a boat skipping over the water, or women banding together in complete abandonment of self to resist oppressors, or a musical instrument that can capture the authenticity of dancing in the midst of life’s complexities. The piece features, yet again, the technological prowess of octave coupling and harmonious triad chords while keeping the lilting melody flowing. It sets the feet to wanting to dance.
6) Mindmeld: Both the beginning and conclusion of this piece feature an airy, whooshing or whispering quality that hints of otherworldly realms, say as when one is asleep and the mind is free to explore wherever it wants. Underneath is a rolling rumble intimating, perhaps, a universal Om, a symbol of ultimate reality or essential truth. Also present are higher-pitched skipping sounds bouncing around as if synapses are leaping in the brain. The rhythm comes to the fore, sometimes steady and other times syncopated, produced by something attached to the strings, a piece of paper perhaps. Again, flute sounding notes (amazing coming from a stringed instrument) resonate above the rhythmic round of the mind’s meandering through both inner and outer space. Realizing the blend of so many different tonal images, a task that the dreaming mind regularly accomplishes, it would be an absolute thrill to see as well as hear this piece performed, hands replicating brain function.
7) Hop Garden/Whitechapel: The name suggests what in years past were called “beer gardens” in America, places where friends would gather weekdays after work or on Saturday nights to booze-up, dance, engage in both lighthearted and soul-searching conversation, leaving behind the immediate pressures of eking out a living or dealing with other irksome realities. The dancing melody throughout and an interweaving countertheme arouse images of untamed celebrating and freedom of movement unconcerned about appearances. Suddenly, the music stops, except for the barely audible drone that is joined by worrying whooshing sounds. Then the music and its rhythm return, but those themes seem upturned. Is the celebrating inverted the way old-time photos that included negative black-film images provided another perspective? The minor tones of the entire piece may lend another clue that despite images to the contrary, loneliness, sadness, and the tough realities cannot be danced and drunk away. Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes comes to mind.
8) Tithe to Hell: A high-pitched string is locked to the wheel (rather than a bass drone sound) and another plucking single string maintains a steady beat throughout this piece. All while a repetitive melody line or catchphrase busily moves within the tonal framework. One imagines a scene of two workers with sledge hammers steadily pounding a girder into the ground in perfect rhythm, while other workers scurry about in other supportive construction roles. The humdrum of repetitive manual labor, perhaps for minimal compensation, is a hellish cost of having to eke out a living for most of the world’s people. Curiously, Scott Marshall’s massive hands suggest that he is not unfamiliar with heavy labor.
9) Lightbringer: Claire Jennings’ surrealist depiction on the CD cover provides clues for living into Scott’s tonal snapshots of being. The subtitle of “Lightbringer” appropriating the Hurdy Gurdy as a messenger conveying enlightenment amidst chaos may also indicate the intended meaning. A soft, rhythmic two-tone see-saw effect begins this piece, creating the up/down movement of waves descending into clearer view. Quantum particle waves, of course, animate all life, flowing in, through and around all that exists. Might it be that they connect everything, urging toward more awareness of life’s Oneness. The melodic arpeggios become more pronounced as the music proceeds, and then an abrupt halt. Silence. Suddenly the silence is broken by a bursting fortissimo featuring at first the same see-saw notes that later evolve into a triad that repeats to the conclusion. Meanwhile the full instrumentation capability of the instrument is opened in a sforzando effect as if making a grand proclamation. The stars of light breaking into a maddening world are there, as much as the invisible quantum particles. We belong to the whole cosmos, its resources for authentic, joyous living close beside us. The power of music is to capture both the depths and heights of living and, thus, be enable to continue the song and dance.
10) Egg of Doom: Unabated pathos are the first words that came to mind hearing this piece. Those televised images of women and children refugees tramping along war-torn country sides in an attempt to find safety in a neighboring country immediately surfaced. The plucking of a steady bass three-note melody in a minor key is joined by first a solo string that is joined by another and then another forming a minor harmonic trio overlaying the bass theme. Thus, it is when our self-defensive or protective shells crack and we are overwhelmed by darkness, and then fade away into the embrace of a mysterious Cosmos.
11) Magick People: A quick googling of “Magick” introduces the occult, a world view highlighting resources inherent in more mystical forms of knowing. Such sources are not outside our bodies waiting to be tapped through appeals to some high in the sky deity, but reside within us, a part of our nature since the Big Bang. Magick people are tuned into the Cosmos that resides within them, and they within it, and through such practices as yoga or meditation, become able to let go of the ego and join the flowing dance that is life. Magick people meld into all life experiences in a sense of wholeness and harmony with all that is. The underlying drone of this piece or OM is joined by celestial tones of hyper awareness of an amazing, dancing Oneness.
12) Wicca Man: What first jumped out at me in this piece is that rumbling basso profundo note; reminding me of a sound that I thought could only be produced by a 64’ tone of a pipe organ. Before the earth-shaking rumble enters, there are modulating chords intermingling in a playful way. The chords are joined by a flute-sounding string carrying the primary motif as the deep bass tone becomes more pronounced and is sustained to the end. Again, attempting to visualize the dexterity required by such a composition leaves me overawed. The title of the piece refers to another spiritual way of life that has sources in ancient, pre-Christian wisdom as well as modern ideologies. It is sometimes referred to as a nature spirituality or pantheism, which may be simply another way of recognizing that all life is inter-being and flows mysteriously in, around and through the entire Cosmos in fluid harmony.
13) Planet Lucifer: Those of us raised in the Christian tradition have been indoctrinated about detestable Lucifer. However, there’s one place in the most biblical translations where his name should appear, except it was replaced by “morning star” or “shining one” in later translations (Isaiah 14:12) instead of the proper noun. (The King James Version retains the name.) As with the other fallen angels in Christian lore, Lucifer, daring to preempt God’s place, is relegated to the personification of evil. Quite an immature, jealous two-year-old tyrant understanding of God we have there! Perhaps, we would do well to listen again to Sister Mary Corita Kent, former Catholic nun, whose painting, poetry and other writings in the Sixties captured the hearts of many, when she said, “Evil may be not seeing well enough.” The opening treble chorus of the piece reminds one of the dawning of the light of a new day, and then as the brightness becomes more intense, the full capacity of the Hurdy Gurdy is engaged, as if an organist has depressed the toe stud engaging the powerful Sforzando capability of the organ. Again, the three-tone theme heard earlier in #9, “The Lightbringer,” predominates, but this time is carried by the bass strings. Accompanying the treble arpeggios that began the piece are added strings sounding more like a trumpet and other orchestral instruments. Behold, the biblical adjectives applied to Lucifer, “morning star,” “shining one,” are joined by Marshall’s “Lightbringer.” The two-horned black figure with wings on the CD cover also bears light to the planet, if of evil we will be a little more careful in our entrenched judgmental attitudes. After listening to this piece, this reviewer found himself breathless and silent, as if having coming close to cosmic awareness of life as it’s intended. All life consists of what human experience can only perceive as good and bad, but perhaps the perplexity lies in our perception.