Elisabeth Waldo
Rites Of The Pagan






Rites Of The Pagan is a multifaceted travelog describing the processions of various Pagan tribes and offering a journey back in time to multiple timeframes of past centuries as envisioned by composer, conductor and violinist Elisabeth Waldo who is still performing with her orchestra as of 2013. Released in 1960 on the GNP Crescendo label, Rites Of The Pagan bursts at the seams and draws its inspiration from enormously detailed research explorations and pinches of imaginativeness. Usually, it is done vice versa in the Exotica genre: use your imagination to the max and read two or three pages about the desired subject or mood – maybe even off the back of a cornflakes package – and you are done. Ms. Waldo does not succumb to such tactics, not at all. She wants to overwhelm the listener and really take him or her to different places. In order to do that, the scope must be large, and her orchestra epitomizes just that.


The high amount of 25 native and mostly percussive instruments made it onto the album, among them cryptic obsidian stones, creepy deer hooves (!), Andean bombo drums and large-grained wa-sho-sho rattles, to just name four devices. All these instruments assure that during the ten compositions and 31 minutes of runtime, boredom shall not occur. The musical archeologist has studied the Meso-American cultures and, since people back then did obviously not have the now universally used gamut scale of musical notes, also learned to partly decipher the music-related hieroglyphics used in ancient times. The offspring of these studies culminates in all of her albums and naturally in Rites Of The Pagan as well.


The wideness of the recording is beyond belief, the echo of the bone-crushing drums is intermingled with the reverberation of the mountainous ocarinas and plucked string instruments. On top of this, the album shuttles between placidity and plasticity, gleefulness and graveness. While similarly titled albums such as Dominic Frontiere’s Pagan Festival (1959), Stanley Wilson’s Pagan Love (1961) or Ìxtahuele’s Pagan Rites (2013) view their topic from an adventurous Hollywood angle aka rose-tinted Exotica glasses, Elisabeth Waldo’s endeavor is far more serious, as she does not use an instrument for the sake of it, but places the historically correct items in the aesthetically relevant arrangement. And still: even though all of her compositions are unique and inspired by the many Pagan procedures and processions, they are not transcribed from what little resources the respective societies, tribes or nations left behind.


Unlike Tsun-Yuen Lui’s Exotic Music Of Ancient China (1964) which takes the devotion towards the given subject another bold step further, Elisabeth Waldo pours creative freedom and many ideas into Rites Of The Pagan. One can listen to the music from two different angles: as a listener truly interested in the unraveling of Meso-American cultures and long-lost Paganisms, or as an Exotica fellow who sees the faithful-aquiescent assimilation of these customs as joyful, important columns in the otherwise designedly plastic faux-realms that flux through the genre all the time. With these things in mind, it is time to take part in ten of these rituals.


Almost universally hailed as entities of power, danger and recalcitrance against designed obstacles, The Serpent And The Eagle is the gateway to Elisabeth Waldo’s Pagan world hued in twilight. And more: according to the liner notes, they represent "the contrasting forces of good and evil" found in the most powerful God of Mexican history, Quetzalcoatl. This is hence neither an uplifting Exotica ditty, nor a silkened World music artifact. On the contrary, Ms. Waldo presents a cinematic entanglement. Exoticism is all over this composition though. Launching with heterodyned malevolently hissing snake-like shakers and an eagle-resembling bird whistle made of clay called silbato, the tremolo of the multitudinous textures, the muffled xylophone droplets and most importantly the wideness caused by the many reverberations and echoes make this crevasse-stricken arrangement an experience second to none, goosebumps included at higher volume levels. Elisabeth Waldo’s lead violin screeches and scrapes, almost mimicking flute-like shapes. Deep drums, emerald-tinted claves and actual alto flutes coalesce, the carefully accelerated midtempo feels much faster due to the eclectic drum patterns and the ever-changing surfaces.


Gyrating around profoundness and loftiness, The Serpent And The Eagle never feels threatening or almighty but wondrously independent and deliberately forsaken. The next stop is Within The Temple Of Macuilizochitl, the god of music and dance, and this piece is undoubtedly fully compatible with the specific needs of the Exotica crowd. The whole structure feels eminently ornate and soothing, from the prelude phase with the effulgent-aqueous zither-like harp coils whirling like magical veils in the background, over the intertwining of female vocal layers in the highest regions with the pristine ocarina airflows, to the surprisingly laid-back percussion fundament of temple bells, timpani and wind chimes, this composition is anything but mellow, definitely enchanting and finds the right balance between escapism and familiarity.


Chant To The Sun revs up the texture base and the excitement once again, swirling between peacefulness and tense anticipation. The sun ritual is held at the tops of an unspecific amount of Mayan temples, and the dimensions of these altitudes are mould into the music. Arcane flutes serve as the starting signals of the procedure, they warble in joyful and dissonant timbres, are accentuated by silbato bird whistles and hissing tambourines and merge with Elisabeth Waldo’s joyful lead fiddle. Even though the timpani are earthshaking and potentially pernicious, the middle section is perfectly Occidental and depicts a bucolic Folk atmosphere with the help of harmonious violins and polyphonous flute slivers. The magic of this piece unfolds all the better when the befuddlement declines; it is utterly strange to listen to a composition that is clearly constructed to resemble a faithful representation of Pagan music as truthfully as possible, only to then interweave perfectly catchy and comprehensible tone sequences before this backdrop which sound absolutely familiar to the Western audience. This is indeed Exotica.


The following Papaganga Lament then utterly neglects all traces of carefree insouciance, for it thematizes a mother’s loss of her child. Musical themes of mourning demand violins, and violins the listener shall receive. Right from the get-go, Ms. Waldo’s threnodic legato helixes mesh with a plucked string instrument called salterio, whereas the drum rolls, goblet drums and congas paint a sanguine dusk. Resemblant of stereotypical conceivabilities regarding the music of scattered gypsy groups, Papaganga Lament is dark and grave, feels earthen and heavy. The final piece of side A is dedicated to the Goddess Illamatecutli: Ritual Of The Human Sacrifice tells the story of a woman who is called to entertain priests and attendees with her ability to sing and dance. In the occurring passionate turmoil, her heart is torn out and offered to Illamatecutli. Whereas this is not exactly the best theme for afternoon gatherings, the arrangement succeeds nonetheless, for it is all about drums, chants and rhythm flutes. Claves, Yma Sumac-esque vocals, timpani and the friction of obsidian stones altogether create an unexpectedly bright panorama, given the menacing backstory. And still, this Space-Age interlude then ends with the gruesome twist, namely the horrified scream of the female victim. Shudder!


Dead children, killed mothers, oh my! It is time for poeticized transfigurations, and side B accounts for quasi-transcendental realms. Elisabeth Waldo visits Yma Sumac’s territories in Quechuan Love Song. Taking place in the Andes, this vignette is all about the seemingly pre-Columbian song. A gorgeous mélange of devoured violin aortas, the salterio stringed instrument, native bombo drums and Chinese gongs as well as beautifully airy flutes in tandem with Ms. Waldo’s galactic chants make this love song bright, carefree and majestic at the same time. Festival Of Texcatlipoca then moves into moonlit places. The nocturnal god comes in the disguise of a jaguar and is transformed into music via a so-called tiny whistle which the liner notes cite as "one of the oldest in the recording," dating back to 1100 AD. The mood is multifaceted, neither effervescent nor deterring, that is if you do not find the use of deer hooves as percussive devices more than a bit daunting. The said tiny whistle quivers and bubbles in a spacey way – and so do the vocals of the orchestra's lead temptress –, the pattern of the bongos and the elasticized wonkiness of the timpani hypnotize and make this a splendid artifact of ritualism.


Up next is Mountain Spirit Dance, the most symbolic of all Apache dances. The dancers mimic the mountain spirits which, so they hope, bring blessings in return. Feature-wise, the arrangement wins your humble reviewer over due to owl whistles and Apache violins, the latter of which sound excitingly quirky and truly primitive. Croaking guiros, carefully placed double bass backings as well as a sudden appearance of soothing flute melodies make the Mountain Spirit Dance a hybrid device trying to unite purity with melodies. A fleeting visit to India is made possible by Wa-Sho-Sho Lullaby, a particularly sizzling dreamscape drawing from seri-tin rattles, pak-papa clackers and the titular wa-sho-sho rattle filled with comparably large pebbles. The ensuing soil of the shakers is ameliorated with lachrymose sitar-like plucked strings, a violin and heliospheric vocals. The constant whitewashed frizzles are the signature element and ennoble the balmy atmosphere further.


The finale takes place in New Mexico: Penitente Procession is dedicated to the secret society of flagellants called Penitent Brothers which developed their own music- and art-related aesthetics around 1700 AD. Dreamy harpsichord-like zithers, snapping whips and rolling drums make up only 50% of the arrangement, with the other 50% hinting at the timeframe this society existed in, a time pretty close to our contemporary modernity in the given context. The flute melodies are hence open to scrutiny and rather familiar, especially so the histrionic climax with the unison of all used instruments in this composition. Rites Of The Pagan ends on a pompous yet languorous note.


Traversing the serpentine paths between proto-New Age, ethnic World music and Exotica, Rites Of The Pagan bursts at the seams when it comes to dedication, native instruments… and verity. It is this truthfulness that is hardly featured in Exotica releases that make all of Elisabeth Waldo’s albums stand out from the masses, that is if you are willed to count her music to the Exotica canon. No instrument is featured for its own sake or to enforce gimmickry, Ms. Waldo rather researches their historic occurrences and reasons of appearance and bakes the results of her pursuit into each composition. The album hence emanates an unusual aura of confirmation, verification and validation. However, since there is hardly an original note transcribed anywhere, I for one also count creativeness, inventiveness and imaginativeness to the roster of signature terms. And as we all know, it is this very triad that eventually allows composers, arrangers or bandleaders to carve out their vision of a great Exotica work. More than most other records, Rites Of The Pagan does not waste the listener’s time and takes him or her to truly alienating worlds, processions and even times.


From the first dichotomy of the surreptitious snake and the sylphlike eagle in The Serpent And The Eagle, over the eminently dead-serious topics of child loss and violation – or even killings – against women in Papaganga Lament and Ritual Of The Human Sacrifice, to the all of a sudden embracing benignancy of the Andean Quechuan Love Song or Mountain Spirit Dance, Elisabeth Waldo’s aural cinematic opus fathoms out the genre-breaking possibilities and escapes from any desperate prerogative of interpretation. Fiction meets reality, factoids twirl around would-be possibilities, and crepuscular concupiscences are exchanged for a lovestoned lucency. Rites Of The Pagan reciprocates between the manifold states, hides in the murky shadows and moves into luminescent brightness just moments later.


Notwithstanding the serious and life-long research of Elisabeth Waldo, I for one can assuredly state that this album is a work of entertainment. Modern Anglo-American artists have always been great at uniting truthful backstories with creative explanations – more likely exegeses, given the ancient material – and creating convincing works that are enthralling and bewitching, whether it is texts, music or movies. It is therefore quite easy for me to count Rites Of The Pagan to the Exotica canon where it has a special status thanks to its wealth (or abundance?) of pre-Columbian instruments and the dedicated devotion of the composer. Rites Of The Pagan has thankfully been re-issued on CD in 2006 and is also available as a download on Amazon MP3 or iTunes. 


Exotica Review 219: Elisabeth Waldo – Rites Of The Pagan (1960). Originally published on May 25, 2013 at AmbientExotica.com.