Malone then stitched those bits into an extended tape piece threaded together by a variety of deeply textured drones. She indulged in the whisper and roar of the legendary ARP 2500 modular synthesizer—and not just any ARP 2500, but the unit belonging to Éliane Radigue, the nonagenarian composer who recently made her own titanic organ debut. She added the glittery hum of the Boîte à Bourdons, a newfangled French counterpart to the hurdy-gurdy and the Indian Shruti box. And, finally, Malone used a panoply of other approaches to synthesis, including one that invokes the gloom of a slowly plucked blues guitar, to shape the unexpected strata that give Living Torch such depth.
As inscrutable as Malone’s approach may seem, the results sound effortless, taking an uncommon route into familiar terrain: In Living Torch’s two movements, I hear a score for trying to hold yourself together in spite of life’s daily hardships and an ultimate awareness of your own mortality. The first side of Living Torch works like a quest for steady breath, to find and hold the center when it would be simpler to spin out. All those sounds—moaning horns, murmuring Boîte à Bourdons, hovering electronics—move independently, so that one element seems to be inhaling just as another is exhaling. Both total comfort and complete anxiety seem just one step away. The specific intervals linger between Western expectations of a major and minor chord; listening is like tottering on a scale counterbalanced by despair and delight.
That scale tilts unequivocally toward darkness during Living Torch’s second half, a 15-minute descent into the abyss. Malone uses the synthesized sound of a single guitar string to provide a rhythm, but its hangdog tone—imagine an unamplified bass, plucked with endless resignation—conjures a countdown to death. The surrounding harmonies suddenly become brittle, once-smooth tones covered in a thousand creases; the electronic hum that once purred now howls, as if screaming down any notion of survival. The sense of breathing, so central to the piece, slows until it vanishes. The final moments are like watching time-lapse footage of some beautiful flower, all soft greens and pinks and grays, lose its petals and wither into nothing.
Living Torch is the first release on either Recollection GRM or Portraits GRM since the death of the twin labels’ founder, Peter Rehberg, the musician and auteur whose Editions Mego imprint helped shape the course of modern electronic music. In 2012, Rehberg launched Recollection to dig through GRM’s archives and excavate its overlooked gems. Nearly a decade later, he started Portraits to give new generations of acolytes—Jim O’Rourke, Florian Hecker, and Okkyung Lee among them—access to the studio’s enormous resources. After Rehberg died from a heart attack at home in Berlin in July 2021, his crucial work seemed at risk. But the great French label Shelter Press agreed to give both series a new home closer to GRM’s Parisian headquarters, some 200 miles west in Rennes. Living Torch is a fitting and crucial next step, as Malone fulfills and expands the promise of her self-made early works.