Now playing: Ishmael Ensemble — Songs For Knotty

Now playing: Ishmael Ensemble — Songs For Knotty

My January schedule has been almost entirely free of seminars; supposedly spent thesis planning, it was in reality spent flicking from internet radio station to internet radio station — but not in vain ...

Worldwide FM first brought the Bristolian six-piece Ishmael Ensemble and their upcoming album to my attention a few weeks ago, and Tom Ravenscroft gave the outstanding final track, Song For Knotty, a play on his 6 Music show last Friday. A day hasn't passed when I've not played it since.

It's not so much that the three tracks preceding Song For Knotty aren't good, so much as quite how good the track is in itself. To be sure, it's not a chirpy listen; it's jazz, but of the anti-Chip Wickham variety. Before even pressing play, you'll find a clue to why on Ishmael Ensemble's Bandcamp, which dedicates their album to the memory of a friend — one can only imagine the person to whom the title refers.

But unlike Solace, the other song on the album's B-side, and a well-executed but predictably slow, sombre number, Song For Knotty manages to evoke a visceral despair, somehow articulating the catastrophic clash of emotion that constitutes, paradoxically, the abject emptiness of loss.

Referring to mourners as having lost someone is something I've instinctively considered  a euphemism, an avoidance strategy, like when a loved one passes away. 'Sorry for your loss': the implication being that the deceased has merely gone missing. But the phrase can perhaps be redeemed through a reinterpretation: it's not the deceased that is lost, but the bereaved, unable to emotionally orient themselves in the world. You can help but wonder why we find the artistic rendering of such a grizzly experience attractive; I'm reminded of k-punk's recap of a book written by Slovenian theorist Alenka Zupančič, in which the very feeling of loss serves a purpose as an affirmation of one's own existence:

‘The subject,’ Zupancic diagnoses, ‘is “attached” and “subjected” to her pathology in a way that is not without ambiguity, for what the subject fears most of all is not the loss of this or that particular pleasure, but the loss of the very frame within which pleasure (or pain) can be experienced as such at all. The subject fears losing her pathology, the pathos which constitutes the kernel of her being and current existence, however miserable it might be. She fears finding herself in an entirely new landscape, a featureless territory in which her existence will no longer be confirmed by how she feels.’

While writing this I was also reminded of the painting at the top of the page, to which I used to dedicate disproportionate attention whenever I wandered to the Tate as an undergrad. It is by Mexican artist David Alfaro Sequiros, and is entitled Cosmos and Disaster. The computer screen doesn't quite do it justice; up close, you notice that scattered upon the canvas are wooden splinters, spiky copper mesh, and sand: it is a profoundly uncomfortable scene. Inspired by the Spanish Civil War, the sense of apocalyptic confusion it conjures seems a fitting companion to Ishmael Ensemble's own desperate composition. 

The haunting drone that underpins the entire nine minutes of Song For Knotty is reminiscent of a warning siren at half-speed; despite the delicate piano chords, defiant drums and bawling saxophone to follow, there's ultimately no escaping the helplessness that reverberates through a record of magnificent depth. It's a track dripping in emotion, one that manages to beautifully articulate the inarticulable.