Composer Craig Safan, who has a background in film music, here embarks on an ambitious project: to take listeners “back into the distant past, into the minds and visions of early man and his most instinctual evocations of experience and sprirituality”. Taking sounds from caves visited by the composer in France and Spain, plus samples from obscure instruments and selecting liberally from his own library of sonic effects, Safan created Rough Magic, 13 tracks composed in his Southern California studio. Any orchestral instruments are distorted to conceal their essence. Safan sees himself as painting with sound, and it is the more diffuse movements, such as “The Blind Cave of Eternal Night”, that this comes into its own.
The primal, deep rhythms of the fourth movement, “The Crack of Doom” are highly effective; the emptier gestures of the next section “A Spell of Much Power”, seem to belong more to film or even video game music. There is a hypnotic element to some of this music–the strange repetitions of “A Pair of Strange Beasts”, the seventh section for example–that implies shamanic trance (and with it, one must assume, shamanic journeying), something continued in the very next movement, “We Hunt for Death”, wherein tribal voices are introduced.
The sheer expansiveness of “Astonish and Transform”, the thirteenth section, with its percussive effects of what may or may not be struck bone, has an effect that is somewhat akin to a Birtwistle processional minus grinding dissonances. The final movement, like the disc entitled “Rough Magic”, finds Safan using his gamut of techniques to raise excitement. Technically, the disc is impeccable, found sounds dovetailing with electronics and recognizable instruments.
This musical reaction to paintings which may well be some 40,000 years old is impressive on many levels, for while one might readily identify filmic tropes here, the fact is that Safan has maintained the raw (rough) energy of ancient peoples and their spirituality/shamanism. Perhaps the World needs to be reminded of these roots of natural power.