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Salvador Dali once quipped that if the Museo del Prado were on fire, he would save “the air contained in Velázquez’s Las Meninas.” By specifying its “air,” he was not referring to the painting per se, but perhaps the Greek word for it—aura—and its attendant connotations: “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction” in the words of critical theorist Walter Benjamin, that vibe which is to be checked in today’s parlance. Japanese-British vocalist Hatis Noit took inspiration from the former for her latest album Aura. Specifically, it’s the aura that’s been absent from concert venues in the time of COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing measures. The record is both an ode to that shared feeling of performance and a demonstration of the inability of technology to reproduce it.
Of course, in our third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve by now been inured to the “lockdown album” (as well as the music journalists pointing out their prevalence). But this deserves a closer listen. These eight songs contain haunting (and healing) environments of sound constructed solely from Noit’s shape-shifting voice, except for the field recording on “Inori,” taken a kilometer away from the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Her voice tugs at the edges of waves and the cries of seagulls, evoking memories of those displaced by the disaster over a decade ago. Aura, as Benjamin had it, could be felt in an awe-inspiring mountain range yet destroyed in the click of a shutter; in the same vein, as listeners, we get closer to but are still not quite able to feel the aura of the scarred lands from which Noit recorded these sounds.
It’s these contradictions that make the record an interesting listen. Recalling Alvin Lucier (though stopping only at one iteration and for a different purpose), she re-amplified her original recordings in a local church to “bring them closer to that moment of live performance.” In this way, she’s added another layer of site-specificity to her work—the resonant frequencies in that church embalm the album in that event of re-amplification. But it’s only a facsimile. Just as live albums fail to embody liveness, this gesture at preserving aura only draws attention to the fact that the medium of recorded sound is limited by its form. For Benjamin, those limitations were actually necessary for the politicization of art. But for Noit, the effect is more personal—the aura that is lost in the moment of recording yields space for the listener to project their own experiences and emotions onto her wordless sounds.