In Tibetan Buddhism Chö means to cut — specifically, it’s a practice of cutting through such demons as clinging egos. In this unusual collaboration of Choying Drolma, a nun from Nepal, and guitarist Steve Tibbetts, the demons are cut with calming, hymn-like meditations.
Some, including the incantation “Ney Ogmin Choying Podrang,” are sung totally solo. Others, such as the pitch-benging “Shengshik Pema Jungney,” rely on Tibbetts’ brooding atmospherics and wisp-thin textures. Drolma’s crystal-pure voice acquires mystical, humbling power when blended with the voices of the Nagi Nunnery Foundation.
At times, hearing the group chant together is like being present at the creation of something fragile and miraculous.
From “The Beat”
Like a fiction writer who’s lost the taste for narrative, in his last CD, Big Map (ECM), Wisconsin guitarist Steve Tibbetts all but discarded the elements most of us would consider essential to music–melody, rhythm and recognizable development. Instead, he tied his abstract compositions to urban field recordings of crowd noises, fireworks displays, unusual acoustical conditions, etc., then erased those source recordings from the final mix to triple the obscurity factor. Since Tibbetts is a man enthralled by the sound of a single strummed chord vibrating in space, his love of the sheer physicality of music makes a perfect marriage with the disembodied songs of Tibetan nun Choying Drolma on Chö.
The centuries-old ditties which Tibbetts accompanies on sporadic guitar, synthesizer and percussion include chants for meditation, spontaneous songs of realization and teremas brought back from the Other World. That his response to this material is instrumental backing of incredibly subtlety if not sensitivity indicates he’s probably broken through a dimension of Drolma’s performances that eludes me, though the compositions are quite pretty if you approach them with enough patience. On “Kyema Mimin” he surprises by wrapping a multi-tracked chant in uncharacteristically forward cymbal taps and drums, but for much of the disc he lets long silences unwind behind Drolma’s resonant, quavering vocals before adding a single note or chord of his own or feeding back to her a processed sample of her own voice. Often, you can’t tell which is which, because the accompaniment favors the shadows behind Drolma.
On “Ngani Troma Part 1,” however, where the instrumentation is vivid, it doesn’t hurt to think of the sing-song vocal as a stand-in for percussion and concentrate on Tibbetts’s shimmering figures as the flesh playing against ancient bones. But overall the match between the collaborators strikes a perfect balance, most notably on “Kangyi Tengi” which veers toward a Marta Sebestyn take on Balkan, Celtic and Carnatic styles, and “Shengshik Pema Jungney,” where Tibbetts’s psycho-acoustic alchemy transports Tibetan material to a Gothic Christian space.
Though I’m fundamentally baffled by Cho, I’m also compelled to keep going back to it.