A quick glance at the line-up of NOUS reveals that this ensemble consists of the crème de la crème of the New York experimental music scene. Headed by composer Christopher Bono, NOUS has a core membership of Greg Fox (Guardian Alien, Zs, Ben Frost, ex-Liturgy), Shahzad Ismaily (Yoko Ono, Laurie Anderson, Bonnie Prince Billy), Thor Harris (Swans, Angels of Light, Amanda Palmer, Shearwater), Greg Mcmurray (itsnotyouitsme, So Percussion, Tyondai Braxton). Being joined by a wide range of special guest musicians, the prospect of this line-up is phenomenal, but the true genius of this project lies elsewhere and is perfectly encapsulated in the double entendre that serves as its name.
In the philosophical tradition, the word nous is used to describe the faculty of the mind that is concerned with distinguishing what is real or true. Text-book definitions often equate it with “the mind or intellect”, in informal British it means “common sense”, but in French the word denotes the plural personal pronoun, meaning we or us. As its name implies, NOUS is a project that has a highly intellectual concept, but which is ultimately very intuitive in nature.
At the project’s genesis we find New York-based composer Christopher Bono inviting 12 musicians to join him for an intensive week-long recording session at the Dreamland Studios located upstate. For seven days the musicians involved themselves in meditation to dissociate themselves from the influence of their egotistic minds, collectively entering a creative space where spontaneity and ritual play an increased role. As Bono writes on the NOUS website:
“…the approach cycled between indeterminate and free improvisation, guided conceptual visualizations derived from esoteric graphics, meditations from different philosophical or esoteric traditions, mantric, chant, poetry and language experiments, and concepts derived solely from general musical or movement related guidelines.”
The result is a musical triptych of which NOUS II is the second installation.
Improvisational music is, not unlike meditation, about the breath. Without sheet music or composition, playing together becomes about breathing together and finding each other’s rhythm. The album’s first song Look Again at that Dot directly manages to impress the listener with a carefully build cacophony, making it apparent that improvisation is something the members of NOUS do exceptionally well. Skeptics might point out that it is a question of how elaborate Bono’s lead sheets were, but generally speaking there is very little of that caution and hesitation that comes with improvised music. In fact, the more one listens to NOUS II, the easier it becomes to forget that these songs were conceived and recorded in just seven days.
In spite of its unprecedented approach of gathering a diverse line up of renowned musicians and having them record improv jams guided by meditation, NOUS II does not present the listener with a whole new style of music. However, it does succeed in merging a broad collection of eclectic genres, ranging from minimalism to neo-shamanism, into a coherent unity. The fun of listening to NOUS II lies not so much in the discernment of which genre is represented where, but more so in distinguishing how tracks ebb and flow through different dynamics and how some songs are structured deliberately, while others have their moods change spontaneously.
For example, Look Again at That Dot starts out with a sequencer-driven synth line over an amen break-like drum groove, from where it slowly floods with more instrumentation following along the groove. Building up to the aforementioned cacophony, which is amazingly well-synchronised, this section concludes with a big drum break that segues into a more relaxed drum groove. Meanwhile, the lush strings of the American Contemporary Music Ensemble string quartet expertly soothe the listener’s ear before the characteristic synth line from the intro materialises from the sonic residue, slowly guiding the musicians towards the end of the song.
As the double meaning of its name implies, NOUS II is not about being forward-thinking for the sake of being forward thinking. In spite of its lofty concept, which is both intellectually and spiritually well-grounded, NOUS II is a record full of joyful experimentation that is permeated by love for humanity. Perhaps that spirit is best captured by “Uthando” (love in Zulu), which takes us back to the end of the last Ghost Against Ghost album, to a song called “Guerison” (healing in French). An interesting association, considering that love and healing do not often entail the use of a lot of nous in the philosophical sense but all the more in the French sense of the word.
Healing love, or forgiveness if you will, often takes place in spite of what is true or what is real, but it will always concern two individuals coming together in harmony. NOUS II is a beautiful implementation of that harmony into music, an odyssey into the human mind and spirit that ultimately leads to the heart where it finds its true essence.
This album is… ***captivating.
NOUS II will be released on December 6 through Our Silent Canvas and will be available as LP and in digital formats. Digital pre-orders are available at the Our Silent Canvas web store. Vinyl pre-orders will be available at a later date.