Zen Sounds 054: Penelope Trappes
Gothic vignettes drowned in tape hiss, harmonic distortion and loads of reverb
Penelope Trappes – »Heavenly Spheres«
(Nite Hive, 2023)
There’s not been a shortage of interesting new albums recently, but I’d been waiting for a special one to deeply enchant me – until I heard »Heavenly Spheres« on a rainy, stormy night here in rural Northern Germany.
These eight gothic vignettes consist of sparse piano chords, field recordings and a ghostly voice singing mostly unintelligible lyrics. They’re drowned in tape hiss, harmonic distortion and loads of reverb. They’re absolutely wonderful.
Penelope Trappes has been based in Brighton, UK, for some years, but originally hails from Australia. Growing up singing in a church choir and studying opera after school, she soon felt limited by the strict discipline in classical music. Discovering jazz vocalists like Billie Holiday and Nina Simone opened her up to more emotional aspects of singing.
Trappes has provided lead vocals to electro/synth pop project The Golden Filter for more than 15 years. They broke out in 2009 with their underground hit »Solid Gold« and – probably due to its heavy italo disco references – were lumped in with the blog-house craze, but survived that era’s sudden end. »By 2009, the pills were crap and the neon dreams and carefree days were over«, Fact Mag wrote in 2016. The Golden Filter exist until this very day.
A lot of The Golden Filter’s music has been written and produced by Trappes’ partner in the project, American musician Stephen Hindman. After moving to London in 2014, she started focusing on composing, recording and designing sounds herself. In the second half of the decade, she released a celebrated trilogy of solo albums that matched dark ambient soundscapes and field recordings with an electronic dreampop vibe. It became apparent she was searching for her sound, as opposed to the Golden Filter sound.
In an interview she gave to Bandcamp Daily around releasing her third solo record in 2021, she is quoted as saying that »one of the benefits of going above the age of 40 is that you really don’t give a shit about what people think anymore, and you just sort of go for it.« If »Heavenly Spheres« is any indication of where this process can lead, then I can’t wait for loads of other artists to get past 40 and start releasing some of the best music of their lives.
»Heavenly Spheres« is Trappes’ first album after the trilogy of »Penelope One«, »Penelope Two« and »Penelope Three«, each of which featured a blurry figure study on the cover; the new album cover shows an image of an old tree instead of the artist, and it makes sense – she is almost vanishing behind the vibe of the music. The material was composed during a two-week artist residency in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, where she stayed in a house that the composer Imogen Holst (1907–1984) once inhabited. Even the album title stems from a Japanese poetry book that she discovered in Imogen’s library.
Penelope Trappes writes in her Bandcamp liner notes:
»I was truly alone for the first time in 18 years – since the birth of my daughter – during the two weeks creating Heavenly Spheres. Learning to be fully present and solitary was initially quite difficult until I embraced the silence thoroughly immersing myself in the creative research and process. (…) I immersed myself in solitude and often deafening silence, and coexisted with an enormous amount of history and books. I grew to love this unfamiliar space as I recorded sound outside of my normal way of working, took long and sometimes psychedelic walks, channelled ghosts on tape, and ended up with about 35 pieces of music and sound art. This album is 8 of those pieces which I fell in love with.«
So the music on »Heavenly Spheres« was created using nothing more but Penelope’s voice, an upright piano and an old analog German reel-to-reel tape recorder. Such machines have been used as instruments since the late 1940’s; you can find examples on some of the more experimental recordings by The Beatles, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop – specifically the works of Delia Derbyshire –, Frank Zappa, Brian Eno and Robert Fripp.
To draw some comparisons, Trappes’ wordless vocals are slightly reminiscent of Elizabeth Fraser, but the album’s vibe also reminds me of Grouper’s »Ruins«, containing not much more than voice, piano and massive amounts of reverb. It’s definitely more analog-sounding than the last solo album of her trilogy, and like with Grouper’s music, words like ‘ethereal’ and ‘haunting’ almost automatically come up when you try to describe it. There are voices gargling and swirling around the mix – most of them are her own, but sometimes, like in the title track, it seems as if the tape accidentally recorded whispers and cries from the dark, little glimpses into other worlds, places where the concept of time has no meaning at all.
My favorite track is »A Seagull Learns To Sleep Alone«, where Trappes sings over a single, repeated piano arpeggio, but the album is best listened to from front to back – it’s 28 minutes long, which actually is a great length for such an album. I’ve been playing it on repeat every evening this week, looking out of my window at the softwood trees and the cobblestone street and the old farmhouses’ brick walls. The mood is eerie but not hopeless; Trappes excavates immense beauty from the dimly lit corners of her mind.
»Heavenly Spheres« is also the first release on the artist’s own Nite Hive tape label which she understands as a space for women and gender non-conforming artists; releases by Zen Sounds favorites like Patricia Wolf and Madeleine Cocolas already seem to be lined up. Trappes steadily carved out her own niche in the male-dominated electro-acoustic music scene, now she creates a space for other voices to be heard.
One more thing
Philip Sherburne, one of my favorite music journalists, recently launched his Substack newsletter Futurism Restated, and in one of the first issues, he recommended a live studio performance by Mabe Fratti with a full band. Fratti, a Guatemala-born, Mexico City-based cellist, singer and composer, low-key released one of the best albums of 2022, »Se Ve Desde Aquí«.
The bands’ breathtaking rendition of the album cut »No Se Ve Desde Acá« starts in post-rocky Tortoise terrain, then Mabe joins in pizzicato on cello, simultaneously singing like a husky Lisa Gerrard. Three minutes later, the quartet launches into a full-on noise-rock-meets-free-jazz crescendo. It’s absolutely mesmerizing to watch this band, especially drummer Gibrán Andrade, play this wildly experimental music – and seem to have a great time doing it.
© 2023 Stephan Kunze