Pacific Coast Feather

Deliriously beautiful collage record arrives out of the blue. The record Tretetam (FEEDING TUBE RECORDS FTR523) is credited to Letha Rodman Melchior and was released in May 2020 by Feeding Tube in the USA – at any rate, they’ve created this vinyl edition. Originally it came out in 2009 as a CDR on the Finnish label Ikuisuus, when it had 12 tracks; we get eight of those cuts on this LP edition, and the running order has been revised too, but the original collage cover art remains intact. Under this Tretetam alias, I find Letha made two other releases for the Finns, Pawhuska in 2010 and a split cassette with Color Rabbit; there’s also a cassette Moon Mountain, released on Robert & Leopold in 2012. Under her own name, there are two records for Siltbreeze which look interesting, and FTR also released Mare Australe as an LP. Maybe I’m mentally compiling a shopping list to search for these obscurities, so enchanted am I with today’s spin.

Letha Rodman Melchior has since been gathered unto God and no longer walks this vale of tears, but for the American label the connection was made through Dan Melchior, her husband. Him I like – we heard him on Catbirds And Cardinals and The Backward Path, and his mannered / highly eccentric approach to song form sits well with me, to say nothing of the daring production values of those screwy discs. He too had a flair for collage art, which I assume was also one of Letha’s skills, if that’s her cover image. The collage technique could also be applied to describe the sound of this LP, if we’re keen to extend our metaphors, and our understanding is that these rich, dream-like episodes were assembled from a variety of source materials, including field recordings and found tapes, along with snatches of her own instrumental music. Prepare to enter an enchanted world full of exotic flavours and scents, music from eastern lands, foreign voices babbling, evocative sound effects evoking travel and sojourns in beautiful cities; at one level, a travelogue for a world and a race that never existed; at another level, an experimental radiophonic documentary which suggests multiple narratives. All the materials are refracted back at us through layers of slight distortion and angled crazy-house mirrors, so that nothing is quite what it appears.

However, I think the main crux of Letha Rodman Melchior’s technique is something quite mysterious, and it comes down to her ability to juxtapose and layer these multiple elements in a configuration that borders on the magical. You can talk about an instinctive grasp of musique concrète, you can imagine it as a painterly approach to working with tape, but this doesn’t quite nail the core of her natural genius. One record which comes close to bearing comparisons is the unusual Nelson Gastaldi album from 2012 (on Roaratorio), and while I hate to drop these obscure references, the work of that Argentinean outsider has the same strain of “magical realism” I find in today’s surreal sonic dream-scapes. While we’re making connections, we have been sent a few “sound collage” items over the years, and a couple which spring to mind are Flee Past Apes Elf, and the second LP by Hastings Of Malawi. In method, both of these might seem on the surface to overlap with Tretetam, especially with the use of found sounds which are made to appear doubly unusual through being played back so radically transplanted out of context. But Tretetam is more gentle, and concerned with making something beautiful. The Hastings Of Malawi record, much as I love it, has a violence at its core, and chiefly uses edits and layers for purposes of satire and criticism; at times, a very angry and radical critique is what emerges from the collision edits of his blade. Conversely, no violence at all in this record made by Letha Rodman Melchior, and instead we can enjoy these fleeting glimpses of a magical wonderland, too good to be true.

Two other mini-observations while I’m here (they may need unpacking); (a) the layering technique resembles (to me) multiple-exposure, a technique in cinema which is under-used; although avant-garde and underground film-makers did it quite a lot (e.g. Harry Smith), and if not by running the film through the camera twice, they got to the same place using the optical printer. In this record, there’s the same sense of “show-through”, overlapping light, of two or more events happening simultaneously. (b) I have been growing increasingly impatient with conventional phonography and field recording records when, to my mind, the creators don’t do enough to transform the source or sublimate the experience; we’re expected to enjoy the untreated sound of their favourite river (or whatever) for what it is. This record is of quite a different order; it’s primarily a work of imagination. (c) Bonus observation. I’m fairly sure Tretetam would have felt at home on the Staaltape label, in the company of other dreamers and recording geniuses who present a highly imaginative view of reality under the watchful eye of Rinus van Alebeek. Recommended; arrived here 1st April 2020.