Pillars & Tongues
Released Oct. 14, 2008
Recorded by Griffin Rodriguez
Chicago-based trio Pillars & Tongues don’t just play together: they talk to each other, critique each other, and advise each other—with their instruments, of course. Their frank, uninhibited musical conversations have been compiled onto a disc entitled Protection, released just last month on the Contraphonic imprint.
Though it’s their debut release, Evan Hydzzik (bass, vocals), Elizabeth Remis (violin, vocals), and Mark Trecka (percussion, organ, vocals) have been playing together for almost a decade. Before Pillars & tongues, a larger collective, Static Films, served as a learning experience and nexus for Hydzzik, Remis, and Trecka. When it became clear that there was distinct chemistry between the three young musicians, they formed Pillars & Tongues. That may be the most striking characteristic of Protection’s four tracks — the performances testify to the band members’ long-standing artistic relationship.
This summer, Pillars & Tongues embarked on an extensive tour, which is currently taking them through clubs and intimate venues throughout France. In September, Pillars & Tongues managed to squeeze in a performance at MIT to showcase the new songs we would later hear on Protection. During the live performance, Hydzzik stood with his back to the audience in a seemingly pretentious stance. However, taking the nature of the music into consideration, it’s clear that Hydzzik was merely facilitating conversation between his bass and the other two instruments flanking him.
Even Trecka’s warped and unconventional drum kit turned into the other musicians, instead of traditionally facing outwards. What’s on the record isn’t necessarily what we heard live in the MIT Coffeehouse. While the basic song structures exist, the trio uses these as a template upon which to improvise. The bass and violin, being the only two melodic instruments, would often play choice intervals as droning soundscapes. As these textures washed over the audience, Trecka juggled an array of percussion instruments and provided a solid backbeat.
The members of the trio trace their influences back to folk music, but their approach to improvisation and chord quality reflect a heavy Eastern sound. The emphasis on non-traditional beats may seem foreign to listeners accustomed to Western rhythm. Hydzzik also made use of slapping his fingers on the neck of his double bass to complement the driving rhythms. Trecka made the most of his instruments, evoking eerie, sustained sounds. At one point he slowly drew a violin bow across the edge of a cowbell to produce a high shriek. In turn, Remis bowed high-register harmonics on her violin. These delicate sounds brought the room to a very quiet and tense moment, resolved by Hydzzik’s recapitulation the main melody of the song.
The album’s four songs provide just under 50 minutes of music, with three tracks lasting 14 minutes each. “Dead Sings,” a multi-passage piece, finds Hydzzik singing about haunting images like spontaneous prose. The word choice, irregular rhyming, and broken sentence structure evoke a marriage of Beat and slam poetry styles. The title track is split up into two parts and features a beautiful vocal array provided by all the members of the group.
Friends of the band enhance the album with their contributions of mellophone, flute, clarinet and melodica. The spiritual mood of the album and lengthy songs may not make for a great pop release; this collection is for the curious listener. What makes this album worthwhile is the experience of listening to the finer details of the arrangements and picking out the exchanges between instruments and voices. It’s almost as easy as eavesdropping.