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The Desert Fathers: Coptic Icons

The Desert Fathers (Jeff Kaiser and Gregory Taylor)

(Click for larger picture)

The Desert Fathers are:

Jeff Kaiser: Quartertone Trumpet, Laptop
Gregory Taylor: Laptop

1. Visions (Saint Anthony) 31:14
2. The White Monastery (Saint Shenouda) 26:02

Recorded direct-to-disc 4.27 and 4.28.07 at the Boise Experimental Music Festival
CD art, mix and mastering by Jeff Kaiser
© 2007, Gregory Taylor, BMI and Jeff Kaiser Music, ASCAP
For more information:
www.pfMENTUM.com • PFMCD050

The Desert fathers—a collection of ascetics, monks, and hermits—fled the persecutions and chaos of the Roman Empire in the third century AD and settled in the deserts of Egypt, seeking safety and solace in loose-knit refugee communities at the margins of civilization. When the persecutions stopped, they remained-drawn as individuals by the solitude, privation, and self-discipline borne of desert life.

Born the son of wealthy landowners, orphaned, and later disciple of a local ascetic, St. Anthony the Great is noteworthy as the first to actually pursue an isolated (anchoritic) life in the desert itself. His biographies describe in vivid detail the afflictions and visions of his isolation—torments from which he emerged enlightened, serene, and healthy. After this, he moved further into the wilderness even as his fame grew, founding his own monastery where he dedicated himself and his disciples to prayer and the discipline of manual labor.

Shenouda the Archimandrite first visited the White Monastery (so named for the color of limestone of its outer walls) located near the Upper Egyptian city of Souhag as a boy. He remained there as a result of a vision granted to the monastery’s abbot, and eventually served as its abbot during its heyday as a thriving ascetic community.

Anthony and Shenouda were both canonized after their deaths as saints in the Coptic Orthodox Church. As monks, they combined their own individualized practices with regimens attuned to their lives in a desert environment and introduced elements of shared communal practice (the sharing of meals and liturgical practice) into their communities that laid the foundations for what we now think of as Christian monasticism.

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Reviews

Computer Music Journal
MIT Press
Summer 2008, Vol. 32, No. 2, Pages 86-88
Reviewed by James Harley
Guelph, Ontario, Canada

The Desert Fathers is a duo comprising Jeff Kaiser and Gregory Taylor. Mr. Kaiser combines his computer with quartertone trumpet, adding a more direct element to the music-making. This release comes from a direct-to-disc session recorded at the 2007 Boise Experimental Music Festival. The music is divided into two segments: Visions (Saint Anthony) and The White Monastery (Saint Shenouda). The tracks are more clearly shaped, and do not run one into the other. Each is a substantial duration, in the range of half an hour, so represents a wide- ranging musical adventure. One presumes the music is primarily improvised. In comparison to Voiceband Jilt, this release is far less ambient. Interventions are more dramatic, new material is introduced not always as one layer of an ongoing texture but more often as a signifier of a new idea or section (even while there may be some continuities). The trumpet is subject to a variety of electronic manipulation, including delays, harmonization, pitch shifting, reverberation, and much else. There are times, listening to the recording, when it isn't possible to really discern whether there is a trumpet being played at the moment or whether the sonorities are making use of processed samples of the trumpet. I find this to be an interesting continuum to explore, and it helps sustain interest over the course of the tracks.

The quartertone capability of the trumpet is not overly apparent, given the generally avant-garde style Mr. Kaiser is playing here, enhanced by all manner of signal processing. Still, there are occasional moments when one hears more sustained, melodic playing, and the microtones are apparent. Certainly, his abilities as a player are highly accomplished.

One might expect that a disc entitled Coptic Icon be contemplative in character. In fact, this music is not meditative, at least in a "new age" sense. There are no program notes provided with the CD to enlighten us as to the meaning of the title (or the name of the duo, for that matter). Nonetheless, it is common knowledge that the original desert fathers were monks who lived hermetic lives in the desert during the early years of the Christian era, praying in isolation. It might be easy to overlook how difficult their lives would have been, just to survive, let alone to maintain the discipline required of their spiritual calling. The writings that survive are sometimes surprisingly fierce in tone. I hear some of that fierceness in this music, although I wouldn't characterize it as being aggressive. There is great concentration here, keeping in mind that these would have been live performances, and even though we can only listen to this as documentation of that experience, it succeeds admirably.

 

THE DESERT FATHERS [JEFF KAISER/GREGORY TAYLOR] - Coptic Icons (pfMentum 050; USA) The Desert Fathers are/is Gregory Taylor on laptop and Jeff Kaiser on quartetone trumpet & laptop. The Desert fathers were a tribe of monks and hermits that fled the persecutions and chaos of the Roman Empire and settled in the deserts of Egypt. It may seem odd that two present-day improvisers would be inspired by two members of this clan, St. Anthony and Shenouda, but there is a parallel here of those who seek solitude, privation and self-discipline. It takes a certain focus and self-determination to come up with music that is from a different pond or planet than most popular music forms. There is a great deal of constantly shifting textures and manipulated trumpet sounds that evolve throughout this fascinating work. It is as if we were dropped in an alien world and the only thing that made regular sense was occasional recognizable sounds of a trumpet. Whispered and strangled vocal samples are well utilized and add an air of mystery shimmering, kaleidoscopic electronic sounds. When you least expect it, Jeff inserts a few jazz licks and brings us back down to the planet earth. Most of the time we are floating in a haze of warm yet cosmic electronic soundscapes.

- BLG, DowntownMusicGallery.com

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