The first release on the new Belgian label Aspen, mono no aware is clearly the product of a carefully refined aesthetic. From the Cy Twombly-like cover art provided by Ante Timmermans to the peculiar lineup listed on the back — among other instruments listed are baritone guitar, banjo, alto clarinet, hardanger fiddle and euphonium — it is evident before one even hears the album that this is going to be a unique and thoughtful experience.
Mono no aware (pronounced: moh-noh noh ah-wah-ray) is a Japanese phrase translated as the pathos (aware) of things (mono), or, more poetically, as “a sigh for the impermanence of life.” It’s a lofty theme for an album, one that the group assembled here tackles with complete sincerity. And what a group it is.
With each successive release, Linus, the longtime duo of Belgian improvisers Ruben Machtelinckx and Thomas Jillings, seems to expand its lineup a bit further. For mono no aware, Linus is augmented by fellow Belgian Neils Van Heertum on brass and Norwegians Nils Økland and Ingar Zach (Dans Les Arbres) on hardanger fiddle and percussion, respectively. Solos are de-emphasized throughout the album, the ensemble sound remaining paramount.
By treating the ensemble, rather than the soloist, as the locus of musical interest, the group is able to tease out an amazing array of textures and moods. On “truth,” for instance, Machtelinckx’s classical-sounding Alberti bass accompaniment is counterposed to the scratchy beauty of the hardanger fiddle to gorgeous effect. Elsewhere, the music has a ghostly hovering quality, with the beautiful, veiled tone of the euphonium carrying the bass register all by itself. Subtle electronics are introduced at various points without altering the fundamentally acoustic, chamber-like quality of the music.
As in much contemporary creative music, the lines between composition and improvisation are blurred. This balance is struck not only within each song but in the album as a whole; four of the nine tracks are improvised, while the remaining five are composed by guitarist Ruben Machtelinckx or reedist Thomas Jillings. The music is frequently quiet, austere, and atmospheric, but not exactly ambient. Rather, it seems to sit somewhere at the interstices of post-rock, free improvisation and folk music. This is creative music at its most accessible and inviting, recorded with almost ASMR-inducing intimacy.
Does the album ultimately succeed in evoking the awareness of transience for which it’s named? I suppose just about anything could teach us about transience if we’re paying attention. In an age of information overload, the more pertinent question seems to be: what’s worth paying attention to? I don’t have the answers, but the sublime music featured here is a good place to start. (Dusted)