The jaw harp must surely be one of the most intimate of musical instruments. Few others require so much insertion of the sound-making object into the body. The reeds of the woodwind comes close, I guess, although only a relatively small proportion of the instrument actually goes into the mouth. With the jaw harp (and related instruments in the Carnatic, Sindic, Sicilian and other musical traditions), a goodly amount of the instrument is held in the mouth, and, indeed, depends upon the action of the jaw, throat and lungs for its sonic character. Odd, then, that the results of this near consumption are such seemingly-alien sounds, a generative stream of rubbery twangs resembling the eternal belching of a giant toad from deep in the rainforest.
Given the jaw harp’s rather esoteric outputs, the fact that it seems to have been largely ignored by the avant-music community is mystifying. Thus the oral mysticism practiced by Chik White, aka Nova Scotia’s Darcy Spidle, is a compelling outcrop in an otherwise bare tundra. In 2014’s Jaw Works & Behind a Dead Tree on the Shore that imaginary landscape featured as a tangible reality, with improvisations recorded in the open air, the rustles of breeze and crashing North Atlantic waves adding a charming, naturalistic contrast to the mysterious vibrations issuing forth from Spidle’s jaw-mounted apparatus. In Malform, released at the end of last year, things take an even stranger turn. The bucolic musings of Jaw Works… feel relatively straightforward compared to the complex chains of gargling, grunty vocalisations that Spidle creates here, deploying a technique that enables him to add guttural, chant-like utterances to the usual clacks and whangs. The strategy is both technically and sonically impressive, a kind of circular breathing worthy of Roland Rahsaan Kirk at his most idiosyncratic, and the resulting tracks are entrancing, compelling and terrifying in turn. Cuts like Self and ffffff have a bassy, abrasive grind, the jaw harp plucks echoing out in crashing reverberations, as if their apocalyptic vibrations had levelled a nearby town to desolate rubble. In Stink, Spidle’s instrument, augmented by various preparations and adjustments, shimmers and shakes as if hooked up to a nursery’s worth of children’s rattles, as a tapestry of decrepit groans casts a background of grey mumbles. This is not improvisation so much as possession, the distressed calls of ancestor spirits surging up from Spidle’s diaphragm in uncontrollable flux, his increasingly frenetic jaw harp strikes a hapless attempt to hold them at bay.
In Soft Shapes, a kind of equilibrium seems to have been reached. Spidle’s wheezing gasps circle around the plastic pops and clicks of his harp in a quizzical dance, a surreal duologue spouting forth like twin streams of organic data. This recording is even more intimate than the blathering squelch of Malform, with Spidle’s slurps and splutters rendered in queasy clarity. At times – in particular, towards the end, where the previously-resonant harp fades to a panoply of dulled plinks – it feels as if we’re inside the players’ mouth along with the harp, explorers shrunk to microscopic size to venture forth into the body’s soft cavities and interior realms. Indeed it’s this up-closeness that makes Spidle’s’ work as Chik White so singular – it’s a universe away from the studied distance of most drone or noise works, for example. Malform, Soft Shapes and Jaw Works & Behind a Dead Tree on the Shore create an intimacy that’s equaled only by vocal improvisers such as Phil Minton or Sharon Gal, in which the squishy, bodily machinery required to make sound is placed front and centre, often to discombobulating effect.
While Soft Shapes’ title track is its main attraction, the cassette also contains an enigmatic field recording on its flipside, in which jaw harp intensity is replaced by breezy huffs and scruffy bumps and scratches. What’s going on is anybody’s guess, and while most of it suggests an absent-minded recording of daily chores, a series of sibilant rustles in the foreground evokes something more substantial, a kind of mouthy chewing, as if we’re hearing warm-up exercise for jaw-harp maestros prior to insertion. A low-intensity coda to Soft Shapes’ hypnotic oscillations it may be, but considered as a melancholic long fade to its companion’s gurgling warp, it’s just about perfect.