The question of how far an artist should be indulged often troubles me. I suppose the cause of that train of thought is the old chestnut of unlimited monkeys with unlimited typewriters eventually producing the collected work of Shakespeare through nothing more than statistical probability. Or perhaps it is that commercial viability should be the aim for all artists. After all, sponsorship worked out just fine for Mozart, Beethoven and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
As I listened, and was absorbed into, Anna Von Hausswolff’s album “Ceremony”, I got to thinking about indulgence. Was this album simply an indulgence, an artistic statement or merely a two fingered salute to the economic drivers for success? After all, the lead instrument for most of this album isn’t even Ms Von Hausswolff’s voice but a church organ and, by the subsonic rumbling exanimating from the speakers, a bloody big one at that and, whilst Ms Von Hausswolff can only be seen from behind on the inner gatefold, the organ makes it onto the front of the sleeve.
You would not expect frivolity of Anna Von Hausswolff. She takes her songs and throws them into a sea of torment in a way that bares comparison with Edith Piaf or Juliette Greco only Ms Von Hausswolff never even tries to pander to the cigarettes and champagne of cabaret. Instead, with “Deathbed” being a fine example, she injects her voice into the sonic shadows created by that church organ not to provide any sort of illumination to the underlying emotions but to provide something more akin to an operatic assault that feels like nothing less than a cry of anguish. In “Red Sun”, her voice once seems once more to fight that church organ, both sonically and metaphorically, for a place closer to God in the firmament of eternal peace.
By contrast, “Epitaph of Daniel” is lighter, almost playful, with a hint of sentimentality that makes for an easy segue into the melodic “Liturgy Of Light”. That escape from the litany of low frequency tyranny brings Ms Von Hausswolff closer to what we have come to expect of her and yet there is something more here that becomes clear as the album progresses. An artistic contrast perhaps or maybe an attempt to analyse the complexity of emotions that an end brings but the closing song, “Sun Rise”, is less a final statement than the dawn of a new day.
Anna Von Hausswolff is not and hopefully never will be what is commonly referred to as a commercial artist and “Ceremony” is, even more so than her previous work, not an album that you would listen to regularly. If you’ve ever heard Kathleen Ferrier’s reading of “Das Lied von der Erde” (still available as a CD on Decca it would seem) then you will understand what I mean. Like that album, “Ceremony” burns with the kind of bleak intensity that you have to prepare yourself for. Ratings are therefore meaningless for an album like this. On the right day, “Ceremony” will tear at your heart and on a bad day, you simply won’t be able to make your way through it.
The existential point behind all of these words is that no amount of monkeys and typewriters with all the time in the world could ever produce something like “Ceremony”. Beauty, and that beauty survives just as well in the shadows as in the light, has purpose and that purpose transcends any and all improbability and simultaneously justifies any indulgence.