Ambient, Drone / Modern Love / February 17, 2022 – Reviewed by Jon Lindblom
I think about all this stuff. Like, were their instruments used for hunting? For attracting? For scaring away? I feel like that’s why there’s all these myths that the Mayans were aliens or that they were in communication with other planets because their tech was so advanced. And we’re talking about more than a thousand years ago. – Debit
Debit (Delia Beatriz) has recently emerged as one of the more interesting and versatile electronic musicians, whose work elegantly moves between (dark) ambient and experimental club music. So far mainly associated with the great Mexican label NAAFI – who put out her debut album Animus (2018) and great second EP System (2019) – her second album, entitled The Long Count, marks her debut at UK’s Modern Love. Given the latter’s already stellar line-up of associated artists – including Andy Stott, Demdike Stare, Lucy Railton, Rainer Veil and Flora Yin-Wong – as well as Debit’s interesting previous music, my expectations on this LP were certainly very high. And it definitely delivers.
The Long Count focuses on the ambient side of Debit’s work, as it is completely beatless. While I previously had found her club-oriented music more interesting, The Long Count is an extremely compelling piece – both because of how it sounds, as well as because of its strong conceptual side. More specifically, the sonic foundation of the album comes from research by Beatriz into Mayan instrumentation – such as various whistles, trumpets and flutes – whose sounds she also had access to through the sonic archive at the Mayan Studies Institute at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. Not much is known about Mayan instrumentation and composition, though – as no written notation of this music has survived, and the sounds archived at the institute are not extensive – which means that our knowledge of how it actually sounded remains limited. Beatriz’s approach was thus one of processing the sonic fragments from the archive through machine learning and then construct digital instruments that ‘recreated’ the sounds of Mayan instrumentation. She then used these digital instruments to compose the tracks on the album.
The result is a collection of drone-oriented pieces that sound incredible. About 15 or so years ago, drone was by far my favourite kind of music that I listened to about as much as I tend to listen to experimental club music today. Nowadays, I try to pick out only the drone-based albums that really stand out, and this is definitely one of them. In particular thanks to the odd pitches of the sounds. There is no way to find out how close this is to how Mayan instrumentation actually sounded, but what Beatriz has done is created speculative sonic pieces that sound impressively alien, uncanny and otherworldly. Definitely up there with some of the greatest Western dark ambient musicians, such as Biosphere and Thomas Köner, but with distinct decolonial underpinnings, in contrast with their geologically oriented takes on dark ambient.
On that note, I am wary of characterising Beatriz’s fusion of ancient sounds with modern technology in terms of primitive meets modern. This dichotomy is based on the classical understanding of modernity, as a distinctly Western phenomenon built upon the murdering and enslavement of the many non-Westerners (Africans, Amerindians, etc.) following the discovery of the New World. Yet in contrast with this narrow, racist and outdated take on modernity, I think that The Long Count better is understood from the perspective of the transmodernism that I recently have tried to outline mainly through the lenses of post- and decolonial theory. From this perspective, one would think of the Maya civilisation not as primitive in contrast with the modern West – but rather as a kind of modern society in itself, such as in the form of a Mayan modernity. This would be following the post-colonial theorist Susan Stanford Friedman, who opposes the classical image of a Western-centric modernity with a polycentric image of the modern that identifies numerous instances all over the planet, and throughout human history, that could be characterised as modern (i.e., times of widespread innovation and transformation). She thus coins the idea of ‘planetary modernisms’, to pinpoint the need to no longer associate the concept of the modern with the West, but instead extend it across the globe – both in present and recent times, but also far back into the deep time of human history.
And certainly, the Maya civilisation is known for its complex forms of architecture, art, trade, urban design, astronomy, mathematics, calendar (the name of the album is based on the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar) and writing system (the most sophisticated in pre-colonial America). Complexity is also central to Beatriz’s fascination with Mayan music – not just as a sort of nice listening experience, but rather as a complex medium of ‘interdisciplinary design’ that derived from their deep knowledge of their surrounding environment and that possibly was used for the purpose of interspecies communication. She has for instance mentioned the curious sonic phenomenon of the so-called Kukulkán pyramid among the Mayan ruins: if you stand in front of it and clap your hands, there is an echo that has the same sonographic qualities as the Quetzal bird, which can be found in the same area. This has led some to characterise the phenomenon as one of the first audio recordings – or, an ‘ancestral technology’, as Beatriz puts it.
Again, there is much about this that we will never know about for sure, but what is certain is that Betriz has created an amazing transcultural/transmodern album that provides a compelling perspective on Mayan music and history, while also sounding incredible thanks to the original combination of pre-colonial sounds sources with cutting-edge contemporary technology. It is certainly a fascinating approach to formal innovation that rejects the Western-centric model of linear development synonymous with the classical image of modernity, in favour of a networked and nonlinear perspective much more in tune with the transmodern. The result is one of the best albums of the year, for sure.