AMN Reviews: Lauren Redhead – The Octopus (2020; Pan y Rosas)

Lauren Redhead’s Twitter persona is pleasant enough – that of a busy UK academic who tries to find enough time in the day to exercise and cook. But her music is otherworldly and on the vanguard edges of electroacoustic composition and performance. Case in point, The Octopus is a 50-minute “digital opera” from the perspective of (naturally) an octopus.

The instrumentation includes spoken and sung vocals, piano, organ, flute, oboe, and violin. But the contributions of these voices and instruments are processed heavily by Redhead into a murky amalgam that simulates the octopus’s undersea environment. The piece tells a story, through poetry, of how sea creatures would experience climate change.

The flute, oboe, and violin establish basic underlying textures, which appear to be roughly improvised from Redhead’s charts. Extended techniques abound, with the instruments stretched to the limits of their expressiveness. The electronics can be both mildly percussive and shimmering with vocals in the distance and spoken poetry in the fore. And yet none of this experimentation is unduly harsh – jagged and prickly, but more curious than threatening in its weirdness.

Octopi are remarkable creatures – they are intelligent and have personalities. They also have a somewhat divergent genome when compared to most life on Earth, and can even edit their own RNA so that it creates proteins that help the octopi adapt to their environments. These latter characteristics have led some to wonder whether octopi are alien (they are not). Nonetheless, a rough analogy can be drawn to the music of Lauren Readhead. It has so many unusual aspects that one might conclude that it comes from beyond this world. But as far as I can tell from Twitter, she is quite human.

On a more serious note, Redhead is one of a handful of modern composers who are taking the work of electroacoustic pioneers in new and unconventional directions. All of her releases are worthwhile if not remarkable, this one especially.

Redhead asks that listeners who enjoy The Octopus consider donating to Catching Lives, an organization helping those who are housing disadvantaged in Canterbury and East Kent.