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Ka Baird - Respires Music Album Reviews

The New York musician’s trance-inducing studies for drums and voice, breath and heartbeat are laid bare as the sources of all expression.

If the voice is the original instrument, as the experimental singer and composer Joan La Barbara once posited, Ka Baird’s Respires retreats into breath itself. Here, in trance-inducing studies for drums and voice, breath and heartbeat are laid bare as the sources of all expression. The New York musician’s often wordless vocalizations are cushioned by audible lungfuls of air; ritualistic incantations come in a lattice of hissing and huffing. What is normally silent becomes as palpable as a heavy sigh on a winter’s day. Even Baird’s instrument of choice, the flute, is itself a kind of breath incarnate, the edges of its tone wispy and diffuse. It’s a reminder that sound is just stirred air, a disturbance of the invisible. If that sounds almost mystical, well, so does she: On Respires, her chanted mantras often sound like she is snatching phantoms out of the very ether.


“Pulse,” which opens the album, is exactly as promised: steady loops of hiccupping phonemes laid over a bright drone; it might be a diagram of the electrical current coursing through the central nervous system. Every now and then, an eruption of sibilance rushes forth, like steam from a subway grate, and the music takes on an even more otherworldly character. “Symanimagenic” deploys similar elements to even more dramatic ends: Nervous flute runs dart and dive above hand drums while Baird’s digitally processed voice channels bullfrogs, snakes, and jaguars, a one-woman rainforest chorus. “Azha” is made principally from interwoven flute loops that have been re-pitched and made strange, like bird calls of some undiscovered species.

The centerpiece of the album’s first half is “Teaching Lodge of the Arrows.” A gong strikes, setting the meditative scene for multiple instances of shape-shifting: Baird’s flute is a flock of butterflies, her voice a volley of obsidian-tipped projectiles. Stylistically, it is part free jazz and part operatic aria. She uses the tension between repetition and moments of rupture to tap into an ecstatic dimension, as though speaking in tongues. And then, some invisible peak having been reached, the whole thing plateaus into seven minutes of coruscating drone.

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The album’s second half is more percussive, but just as intense, layering animalistic chattering sounds and the occasional recognizable word (“Walking,” she intones in the eponymous song, as though willing herself into motion) over insistent hand drumming that draws a direct line between contemporary dance music—the beat of “The Orion Arm” sounds almost like early Chicago house—and the kinds of rhythms that humans have used to make contact with the divine since time immemorial.

On stage at Krakow’s Unsound festival earlier this month, the ritualistic aspect of Baird’s music was unmistakable. Spitting into the microphone, pouring rapid-fire flute riffs into her sampler, it seemed less like she was performing songs than channeling spirits. Pacing forward and back, crouching down, even at one point getting down on all fours, she seemed like a person possessed, answering to a private muse. That kind of energy isn’t easy to replicate on record, but Respires comes remarkably close. This is heady music with a physical presence: an intensely private communion with some unnameable, unknowable other, translated into a force you can feel in your bones.


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