The Beautiful Dark

Matthew Patton is half in love with uneaseful death. The Winnipeg composer and curator of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra New Music Festival’s recent CD/vinyl release from Constellation Records is an audial and musical journey into the art of darkness. Called The Infected Mass, it utilizes the form of a mediaeval Requiem Mass to combine field recordings with string instruments and voice, a combination that he characterizes as “brutal audio alternating with string sections.” When Patton talks about his album, he uses language that tips towards the dark side. The title sets a tone that is amplified by words like degradation, pathology and decay. “For me, it is almost as if the music has been buried for a few hundred years and has recently been discovered. The different impurities and how things become contaminated are very moving to me. I’m drawn to things that are stressed and broken and fragile in profound ways. I’ll actually write everything out and then I’ll go to work disfiguring it, trying to find out how to degrade it beautifully.”

Patton admits the subject of the album is highly personal (his brother was killed in a plane crash). But he insists the experience of making the music has had no cathartic effect. For him, the process that produced the album was an organic one in which “the piece will begin to tell you things and you have to listen and reciprocate.” When we listen to the seven sections of his Mass, we encounter sounds that make us aware of pervasive grief, a kind of sonic haunting. The opening section, “Before the Beginning,” is dominated by a viscerally intense rushing noise, as if King Lear had been lifted from his heath and transported to a dangerous, wind-battered aerie.

All images from insert booklet for The Infected Mass, 2017, from the project, “Those Who Walk Away.” Constellation Records. Artwork by Michael Dumontier and Neil Farber. Images courtesy Constellation Records.

The source is actually a jet turbine, but any single sound becomes infected by others: with ambient noise from the Elmwood Cemetery in Winnipeg, with walkie-talkie voices and footsteps digitally recorded in the Rothko Room at the Tate Modern in Britain, with the sound of blood moving through the body and with the sound of women humming. “It is one of my great obsessions,” Patton says. “Humming is a foundational element.” You also hear actual air-traffic recordings during which controllers and pilots talk about catastrophes in voices that have little or no inflection. Their lack of emotion is staggering.

The reason why the CD and the vinyl versions of The Infected Mass look as good as they do is because the images were provided by Michael Dumontier and Neil Farber, two members of Winnipeg’s Royal Art Lodge. Patton had been a long admirer of their work, and from the beginning of the project he wanted them involved in the album’s visual realization. Both artists are also audiophiles so they were particularly sensitive to the kind of images that would support the music and the album design, and not overtake it. For a year the three of them listened to music with the design of the record in mind. Farber says that by the time the album was finished, they all realized the paintings “were just the wrong mood” and that photography was a more likely medium to complement the score. Farber and Dumontier began assembling images. Dumontier says, “We were cutting out bits of images and laying them on Neil’s paintings and then shaking the cell phone while photographing them.” Farber adds, “I think blurry was the main idea.” The small airplane that becomes the main motif of the booklet design, appearing seven times over 12 pages in progressively out-of-focus variations, was a piece of collage that was lying about and hadn’t been used in a painting. “The way that Michael and I work is to simplify everything and the simplest version was the plane. Nothing felt right until we decided to put that single plane on a black background.”

Other images combine Farber’s paintings with blurred photographs taken from Popular Mechanics magazine and Time Life books. One shows two men, stand-ins for the air traffic controllers, who seem to be looking at instrument panels; in another, a dark figure beside the tail and fuselage of a crashed plane gestures towards a strip of blue water and a scrambled, red sky. Patton’s sound of blood moving in the body suddenly finds a corresponding colour in painted space. Like all the design elements of the project, the image is more powerful because of its minimalist reduction.

The other visuals for the design are official documents: a redacted FBI report from a witness who saw TWA Flight 800 go down in 1996, and the Injury Legend for United Airlines Flight 232 that crash-landed at Sioux City Airport in 1989. Through good luck and brilliant flying, 62 per cent of those passengers survived. These are real documents, which add another dimension to the design. “I was nervous about this project because of the weight of the music,” Dumontier says. “I feel we could have done a real disservice if we had chosen the wrong images, but I think it works.” Matthew Patton agrees. “I trusted them and they came up with a series of ghosts. It’s very dark but there is beauty in the darkness.” ❚

The Infected Mass is available digitally and on deluxe 180gram audiophile vinyl and CD, with original artwork by Neil Farber and Michael Dumontier. The running time is 49:06 minutes.