Album Review: Federico Durand - Herbario
I feel like this maybe used to happen more, or at the very least, it happens so infrequently now that it both catches me off guard and irritates the absolute shit out of me a more than it needs to, but people, in an effort to make conversation with me, or something, will ask me “what I’m listening to.”
My father-in-law asked the question recently at a somewhat unnervingly1 large dinner in a restaurant—the vibe, overall, with roughly 10 people at a table in a noisy environment was overwhelming and chaotic, and while I awkwardly skimmed2 through the exhaustive, but underwhelming beer list, then settling on an underwhelming gin and tonic, he asked what I had been listening to lately.
When this has happened in the past, I have usually wanted to respond by asking the person to just read whatever recent reviews I have posted on the website, though the truth is, those are not always indicative of what I listen to in a larger sense. Just because I spent over a week immersed in the new Lucy Dacus album in order to write an overly verbose reflection on it, it doesn’t mean that is all I’m listening to, all of the time.
And in knowing that asking someone to just read the blog isn’t the best or most accurate response, in the past, I had been known to tell people that I only really listen to old John Coltrane records, East Coast hip-hop from the early to mid 1990s, and ambient droning.
There was a time when this was a more accurate response than it is now.
A somewhat obnoxious young person who was recently hired in my department at work asked me a variation on this question a few days ago, in an effort to be relatable3, I think. He said something to the effect of, “Have there been any new jams you have been listening to lately?”
Often, at work, I am in a bad mood, or not in a very conversational mood, and at the time he asked this question, I didn’t have it within me to give a thoughtful or articulate response. I sighed exasperatedly, as I am wont to do, and after trying to muster any enthusiasm at all to answer the question, I mentioned the new Taylor Swift single with Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner, “Renegade.”
After stumbling to come up with an answer for my father-in-law in the crowded restaurant, I said that I have been listening to a lot of girl pop. He didn’t know what that meant at first, and quickly looked it up on his phone.
“Taylor Swift? Really?,” he asked with a bit of a chuckle and a raised eyebrow, as I continued to rattle off other names like Olivia Rodrigo, or Carly Rae Jepsen, but yes I guess one of the takeaways from this, if there is something to take away, is that I just really like Taylor Swift at this point in my life.
I don’t think I’ve ever said writing about music, specifically the way I have opted to write about music, is easy. And if I have said that in the past, I was either lying, or wrong at the time—and if you read the things that I have written about music, especially things that I have written over the last two years, the trick is, of course, to make it all look like second nature, and like the flimsy conceits come together with little effort on my part.
But that is, like, rarely the case.
Earlier in the year, I found myself frequently listening to Vulture Prince, the new album from Pakistani performer Arooj Aftab—and was among the fortunate few to have been able to snag a copy of the album on vinyl once its second pressing was made available. Once my LP had arrived, I sent a photo of it to the friend who had, months earlier, recommended the album to me in the first place.
She asked if I was going to write a review of it, and I told her I had thought about it, but the idea of it was simply too intimidating because roughly 95% of the album is in Hindustani, and I had no clue where to begin with analyzing the album’s lyrics.
Slightly less intimidating, but still intimidating nevertheless and also sometimes painfully challenging, is writing about music without words—instrumental, experimental, or ambient music.
I don’t want to say I can’t call ambient works “music,” because it still is, but it is not the same as a bulk of the contemporary popular music I spend my days listening to and analyzing. It’s less structured, and the use of sound within the piece (I try to refrain from using the descriptor “songs”) becomes all the more important because, much like contemporary popular music, these pieces create a feeling—and it really has to, you know? But unlike contemporary popular music, this is, like, is all it is working with—that feeling. The atmosphere crafted and the feeling that descends on you and often lingers with you long after the piece has faded out into the ether.
I am uncertain, now, at what point within the last decade I was turned onto the works of Argentinian ambient performer Federico Durand, or how, exactly I discovered him—his name appears as a reference in some of the earliest music writing I was doing during the first year of Anhedonic Headphones, so it would have been sometime in 2012.
Perhaps erroneously, I would call Durand’s output relatively prolific—often releasing both solo efforts as well as collaborations with similarly minded artists in the same year. Following Alba, a collection of small, quiet, reflective pieces released last spring, Durand’s newest, Herbario, finds him working from within both a somewhat familiar sonic space, but also sees him expanding outward slightly in order to create something that is both grand and enrapturing, but also wistful and melancholic for reasons that are difficult, or impossible, to articulate.
Spanning a spry 40 minutes, and with the album’s seven pieces running between five or seven minutes a piece, Herbario is, according to the album’s back cover, is the “Spanish name given to a collection of dried plants and flowers preserved in an album.”
“The collector,” Durand continues, “usually writes with pencil the name of the herb, the place and date of collection, thoughts and the habitat where the plant was collected from.”
Nature, or the natural world, has often played a huge role in Durand’s compositions—with the living and breathing sounds of the still night air, or a breeze blowing through chimes—finding their way into various pieces in his canon, and the season, or time of year, as well as the time of day, also are often important to unlocking a Federico Durand album as a whole. On Durand’s Bandcamp page, Herbario is listed as “season: spring,” and he describes the mountains and wild gardens he lives near in Argentina as a source of “inexhaustible beauty.”
“Through them I feel the passage of time: an ancient, circular temporality that follows the course of of the seasons, dialogues with the dark stillness of the mountain and the moon calendar….Through a year of uncertainty…I composed this album in the same way a botanist would have proceeded: collecting and preserving simple, broken, and hypnotic melodies.”
With each of the album’s seven pieces named after Durand’s favorite flowers or trees, throughout this record—as a whole, a beautiful reflection on a kind of quiet and solitude, especially during a strange, often tumultuous time—Durand manages to, within the first few moments of a track, craft a very specific feeling, or sensation that he then sustains, and rarely uses the time to build them into something larger needed, and in practicing that kind of restraint and in the way each piece is suspended, creates fleeting, often thoughtful and gorgeous, pensive moments in time.
“Romero,” or “Rosemary,” in translation, is structured like many of the songs on Herbario, as well as myriad others in Durand’s body of work—it is built around a short, simple loop of only a few sounds, but within that simplicity, there is a delicate nature too beautiful to ignore, and a precision that is too admirable not to hear in the way the elements gently tumble back and forth within the confines Durand has created.
It fades in slowly and deliberately, but no time is wasted once it has arrived, in inserting the various parts that make up the whole—making something that is dizzying and swaying, and like Durand himself explains in his short reflection on the album’s genesis—it’s among the album’s most hypnotic in execution, which is not a “danger” of listening to ambient compositions, but it is something that I notice when listening: that it is all too easy to be completely entranced by what you are hearing, and become distracted from what it was you might have been working on, and just wanted something unobtrusive playing in the background.
And Durand as a composer and performer is one of the few that is good enough and innovative enough at what he does that his pieces walk the tight line between, say, something you can have on in the background while you try to do data entry in a noisy office setting4 and something that demands 100% of your attention.
“Romero” is not among the most wistful or melancholic feeling on Herbario, with Durand, instead, creating a loop that is partly playful, or somewhat whimsical in how it sounds—like a dusty, broken down music box slowly coming to life; but also feels like a dream—or like comfort from the space that exists between when you are awake, but drifting in and out of sleep.
There is a sense of melancholy that persists as the album’s first side continues, on “Nogal,” or, a “Walnut Tree.”
It too fades in, though less slowly than “Romero,” and by the time it arrives, is also much more fully developed as a loop, or sequence or pattern of sounds and sensations. “Nogal” is punctuated by static—another quintessential element to Durand’s work, and specifically his work with looping and manipulation. There is a gentle undercurrent of static, or tape hiss, that forms the bed that the rest of the piece rests upon—and it is mostly based around a warbled, distorted sound, like interference between radio frequencies while manually adjusting the dial and trying to beam something in from another world outside of this one; that is juxtaposed against the gentle, bittersweet, warm tones that twinkle, presumably from Durand’s ARP Odyssey synthesizer—one of the few traditional instruments listed in the liner notes, alongside gear like a sampler, looping pedal, cassette tapes, and a Sony cassette player.
And it’s that bittersweet feeling from “Nogal,” swaying in, and out, like a cool breeze during the golden hour, that makes a song like this as wistful, or melancholic as it is. It isn’t “somber”—no, far from it, and Durand’s material is rarely dark or ominous in tone. But there is a real, palpable feeling of longing that he sustains with relative ease, and that’s the kind of thing that lingers well after the piece has concluded.
You and your ‘Whooshing.’
Maybe a week or two before things escalated completely out of control with the pandemic in March of 2020, at the encouragement of my friend Andrea, I went to an introductory appointment with a naturopathic doctor she had nothing but positive things to say about, and had recommended to me as someone who might be able to help point me in a different direction, or at least directions I had previously not considered, with addressing my myriad issues—insomnia, debilitating depression, and an easily upset digestive system.
During my meeting, aside from being prescribed a number of different supplements, I was strongly encouraged to make a few dietary changes which, at first, seemed almost unfathomable, but once I implemented them, were maybe easier than I had originally anticipated—trying to eat less gluten as I was able, cutting excess sugar out of my diet, refraining from eating what I lovingly called “garbage cereal” for breakfast, et. al.
In the 16, or 17 months that followed, alongside ghosting my therapist of well over a decade in favor of a new one I meet with almost weekly over Zoom, I began researching other avenues that might provide me any sliver of relief from my woes, including acupuncture, and most recently, reiki.
During both my first reiki session, as well as my first appointment with an acupuncturist late in 2020, I experienced what I could only call a “whooshing” or a “rushing” sensation through my entire body. And in conversations with Andrea about this, I would tell her about this sensation and she would sigh, laugh a little, and then say, “You and your ‘Whooshing.’ What does that even mean?!?”
In the time between Herbario’s digital release in June, to when the green vinyl, shipped from Europe, arrived in my mailbox at the beginning of July, I had listened to the album passively on my headphones—mostly at work while I was trying to muffle the noise of those around me and focus on whatever administrative duties I had in front of me—and it wasn’t until the LP was spinning on my turntable that I really concentrated on the soundscape Durand had crafted, taking notes on each track as they spiraled and unraveled around me.
“Whooshing” was one of the words I wrote down to describe the track that opens Herbario’s second side, “Menta,” which translates to “mint.”
It makes sense that this piece is named after the mint plant—there is a cool feeling to it in what I would call the rippling pools of keyboard tones that swirl and reverberate around the loop, connected by a tape hiss, a creaking, skipping noise that sounds similar to when a record has reached the end of its side and the needle keeps spinning on “dead wax,” and a spectral humming undercurrent buried at the bottom of it all. And it is in the way it all kind of converges in big waves before separating, then coming together again, that creates the whooshing feeling, or rushing sensation, of something coursing through your body.
As the album’s second side continues, “Cedrón,” or “Lemon Beebrush,” is Herbario’s most pensive, or at least tense, piece, and is also the most cavernous sounding in the way Durand plays with the muffling of tones, bending of pitches, and a reverb that drenches everything with the loops he creates. The elements to the piece are warbled, or distended in sound, while an eerie, tumbling, and overblown piano keys oscillate slowly and deliberately, while very small, glistening threads of a backwards sound are pulled through. It isn’t so much dissonant, but it is the most jumbled, or chaotically arranged and organized composition—creating a feeling that isn’t so much somber or melancholic, but of an anxiety where there is little, if any, resolution to be found.
Herbario closes with “Laurel,” which the internet tells me is an evergreen tree or large shrub, and structurally, it’s one of the most fascinating in this collection. It’s among the lengthier pieces included, and Durand builds it up around very long, slow, sustained tones that fade in before pulls, distends them slightly, then overlaps them, allowing them to oscillate slightly as they disappear into the low rustle of static in the background.
And there’s something in the way the tones come and go, like the tide, that creates a feeling—it isn’t somber, or pensive, or melancholic like a bulk of the other pieces on Herbario, and it isn’t what I would call triumphant or even hopefully, but before it all recedes into the ether, bringing the album to a close, there is a feeling like you are on the cusp of something. Like something is going to happen—you hope it is good, but there’s an unknown to it as well, but in that feeling—the feeling of something, it’s an unknown that you are not afraid of.
Last year, when I wrote about Durand’s Alba, I wrote about how I often listened to ambient or instrumental music on my morning walks to work, in an attempt, especially during the times of uncertainty, to find some kind of solace, or comfort, amongst the chaos.
To my knowledge, ambient music was not a genre my friend Andrea had ever really explored, but she recently started slowly wading into it—specifically Grouper and Stars of The Lid, and in a short exchange we had, she said when listening to it through her headphones, it was an “ambient cocoon of sound.”
There is a beauty, of course, to all of it—even when there are minor flashes of dissonance within the swirling, hypnotic pieces that Durand has created across Herbario. It is a gorgeous album, based around a strong and suggestive narrative that he, as such a thoughtful performer, has tightly woven into these compositions. It’s a collection that places you, as best as it is able to, in the lush, natural environment that inspired Durand, creating a place that both serves as a way to seek some kind of solace, or quiet reflection, in a world that is still terribly chaotic, and envelopes you, the further you allow yourself to drift in, into a gentle, gorgeous cocoon of sound.
1- I don’t know about you—like, the you who is reading this footnote, but it is absolutely wild to be back out “in the world” right now, and to be in somewhat larger gatherings, eating meals in restaurants. It still just all seems entirely too soon.
2- The restaurant we went to had a beer menu that claimed to be so large you had to scan a QR code with your phone in order to scroll through all of it. It was literally 60% IPAs.
3- I wonder if there will ever be a time when I am not too depressed to make small talk, or to answer harmless/well intended questions like this.
4- There are portions of my day where I am in the “office” area of my workplace, and more often than not, it is very noisy and chaotic thanks to the loud voices that carry from some of my co-workers, and the big frantic energy that many of them have. So in an effort to try and muffle that, and keep myself calm, I spend a lot of time listening to ambient music while I sit at the computer, trying to order the next day’s shipments of produce.