Christine Ott: Time To Die
LP | CD | DL
Released 9th April 2021
Pre-order now available from Gizeh Records
From portentous darkness to fragile, shimmering beauty. Eight astonishing compositions that push the boundaries of modern music. Christine Ott’s Time To Die is an epic album that will live long in your mind. For Louder Than War, Gordon Rutherford talks about hearing things that people would never believe.
Like some dystopian, futuristic version of High Noon, Ridley Scott’s 1982 masterpiece, Blade Runner, ends with a showdown. Cop versus Replicant, playing out the black hat/white hat roles. Spoiler alert: things look bleak for Harrison Ford’s character, as he clings to the edge of a skyscraper’s roofline. The Replicant, Rutger Hauer, stands over him, triumphant. Then, in an uncharacteristic volte-face, Hauer grabs Ford by the arm and pulls him back on to the rooftop. What follows is one of cinema’s most moving and memorable soliloquies. In the finest moment of his long and illustrious career, Hauer delivers his “Tears In Rain” speech, climaxing with three words, “Time To Die”.
Those three words bring us to Christine Ott and her fourth album. The album is named Time To Die and the opening title track pivots around that Rutger Hauer monologue, here narrated by Casey Brown, framed by a tempestuous and ominous maelstrom. “I’ve seen things you people would never believe”, intones Brown. Massive timpani hammer out a portentous beat as a belltower chimes in the distance. Mirroring that Blade Runner finale, the music is atmospheric and dramatic and you can almost feel the rain lashing into your face. It is a jaw-dropping introduction to the album.
You get a sense that Christine Ott isn’t one for conventionality or working in straight lines. It’s evident that Time To Die (the track) is a follow-up to the closing track on her 2016 album, Only Silence Remains. That particular piece, the beguiling Disaster, also features a Casey Brown spoken word passage inspired by Blade Runner’s powerful images. Seems logical and linear enough, except since Only Silence Remains came out, Ott has released another solo album, Chimères (pour ondes Martenot), plus an original soundtrack, Tabu. Moreover, last year, the French composer, pianist and multi-instrumentalist sprang to the attention of UK audiences as one half of chamber duo, Snowdrops, whose album, Volutes, was one of The Guardian’s ten best contemporary music albums of the year. Therefore, whilst Time To Die is a follow-up, it’s one that has come about in a relatively circuitous route.
Let’s return to that solo album from last year, Chimères (pour ondes Martenot), because it also gives an insight into Ott’s originality. The ondes Martenot is a quite unique instrument. This quirky curiosity, invented in the 1920s, is part-theremin and part-synthesiser. It is claimed that the instrument is so challenging to learn that fewer than one hundred people have mastered it. Ott is one of them (Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood is another) and her proficiency on this strange instrument with a totally unique sound demonstrates her penchant for experimentation and avant-garde. Let’s be clear – this is not an instrument that you will hear on many other albums this year, although it doesn’t have such a prominent role on Time To Die as it did on Chimères, which was recorded using multi-tracked ondes Martenot.
The instrument is to the fore, however, on two tracks in particular – Comma Opening and Pluie. On the former, the ondes Martenot brings an otherworldly, spectral feel to the stunningly moving piece. However, this particular track is interesting, not only because of the musical content, but because it carries yet another thread from Ott’s recent past. This is the third version of this composition that has been released by Ott in the past twelve months, with the predecessors coming on Chimères and Volutes. There is very little to find fault with on this album, but if I was being critical I would highlight the fact that there isn’t really quite enough of a differential between this version and the previous ones to merit another inclusion. Notwithstanding that, if this is your first exposure to any of the Comma triptych, you will not be disappointed.
Pluie is Time To Die’s final track and by way of a beautiful bookend, that Blade Runner-inspired rainfall and the distant chimes of the belltower we experienced in the album’s opening make a return. An eerie backdrop to the exquisitely sparse piano is provided by the ondes Martenot. It’s like an antique music box, with a feel as fragile as delicate porcelain.
Quite frankly, there is not a single weak moment on this album and it confirms Ott’s place in the pantheon of great current composers. Furthermore, it substantiates that as well as being an accomplished and imaginative writer, Ott is also a versatile and gifted musician. We have already covered her prowess on the ondes Martenot, but there’s so much more than that on show here. Take the elegiac, minimalist piano of the album’s second track, Brumes, for example. Or, as a demonstration of versatility as well as virtuosity, she takes the same instrument and makes it sound like it is battling against an electrical storm on Horizons Fauve. At the beginning of this particular track, her precise and studied playing summons the spirit of her great compatriot, Erik Satie. But it then fluctuates between spacious and paced to a veritable frenzy. At the heart of it, all is Ott, controlling all around her like a world champion matador. Then, on Landscape, she brings her operatic, soaring voice on top of the piano. When you hear her sing you will wonder why she doesn’t do it all the time. Chasing Harps is more experimental as Ott takes to the harp and creates a sound that is like shards of crystal.
Time To Die is an out-and-out tour de force, the highlight of which comes in the form of the stunning Miroirs. It’s probably the simplest track on this collection, built around a plaintive piano. But sometimes it’s the simplest things that stay with you longest. On Miroirs, each and every note arrows through your speakers and pierces you right in the heart. It’s a composition that carries a ton of sorrow with every strike of the keyboard.
Ott describes Time To Die as “a sensory journey between the living and the dead”. Literally, time to die. And as you listen, absolutely enrapt, you do get that sense. Throughout, the music exists in that surreal space between life and death; shimmering in the crepuscular half-light. So much of it is unearthly and shadowlike, other parts are tragic and delicate. But it always feels incredibly alive, as if it is infused with electrons dancing in the gloaming.
What depth of imagination is required to conceive of a body of work such as this? The boldness to imagine it and the skill to execute it. We should celebrate such daring, praise the risk-takers who embrace the avant-garde and seek to go even further. Because it is them, artists like Christine Ott, who bring vivid colour to our mundane lives.
There are moments on this album where I felt my heart would burst at the sheer magnificence of it. There are passages that quite literally took my breath away, like on the simple beauty of Miroirs or on Horizons Fauve when the piano deviates from calculated picked notes to rippling frenzy and back again. It all brings us back to Blade Runner, which is essentially a story of human triumph over technology, but only when the Replicant finds a very human emotion – compassion. This is undoubtedly a human album, prompting very human emotions.
Finally, I love the quote attributed to American videographer, Fredo Viola, who describes this album as “something beautiful, but unfathomable, just out of reach”. That seems like the perfect synopsis of this astonishing album.
Photo credit: Jean-Pierre Rosenkranz
All words by Gordon Rutherford. More writing by Gordon can be found in his archive.