When people ask me what kind of music I like best, I say that I like most kinds of music. This is true, but evasive. The more direct answer would be, "I'm really into borderline-ambient, minimal, neoclassical music with lots of piano and strings." My devotion to this music makes me wonder whether utility is the last word in taste. Rap complements driving my car, techno goes well with work, while some genres, like metal, just don't correlate to anything in my life. Seductive instrumental drones are dearest to me because they fit all my activities and moods. They most perfectly reflect how being in the world feels to me (minimal techno is a close second). I love their romance, grandeur, and mystery; and how they blend with natural ambient sounds, buffering, coloring, and orchestrating my surroundings.
The reasons why I like this music so much and write about it so relatively little are definitely related, although I'm not sure whether the former exerts influence on the latter, or vice-versa. Either way, I'm certain that all the music writing I've done in my life has made it harder to hear a pop song without my brain cranking into overdrive. How does it work? What is its lineage? Do I like it? Should I like it? Where should I pitch it? But the kind of music I'm discussing today has the opposite effect: a mental cooling. It isn't tailored to court modern criticism. It has little potential for buzz or hype. It strips away a lot of the socio-cultural fodder from which measured critical distinctions are made, laying bare the raw stuff-- harmony, melody, resonance, rhythm-- that draws us to music in the first place. You can write about it prettily, but you risk repeating yourself over and over, and if you're honest about what animates it, it doesn't make for good copy, because the value of a beatific drone is almost pre-verbal. It doesn't slip through the cracks, it lives in them.
Library Tapes: Sketches [Make Mine Music]
Library Tapes: Fragment EP [Kning Disk]
Forestflies: Forestflies [self-released]
I don't mean that all minimal/ambient/neo-classical music is created equal, though: It's hard to make the stuff actively offensive, but it's even harder to make it really good. When you're working with so little material, carefully balancing your thrusts is paramount. This is where David Wenngren, a Swedish minimalist in the vein of Philip Glass and Erik Satie, who records as Library Tapes excels. As a pianist, he works in glittering etudes: Handfuls of legato notes swirl like snowflakes. Perhaps a few deep gusts of strings blow through them, perhaps not. Either way, Wenngren makes the piano sound mythological, at once weighty and spectral.
I reviewed his 2007 album, Höstluft, but Wenngren is simply too prolific for us to keep up with him. Last November, he released Sketches, which evokes the barren sublimity of Höstluft, with strings augmenting the mirage-like piano. The new Fragment EP, which is in the process of slipping though the cracks right now, is the most exquisite Library Tapes album to date, with bold, uncompromising themes, and bursts of towering verticality that are usually absent from Wenngren's misty plains. The themes revise themselves as they go, augmenting the in-progress feeling that makes Wenngren's work so alluring (sketches, fragments-- he likes the meat that's closest to the bone). And last month, he released an album under the name Forestflies, which might be his most accessible foray. More Max Richter than Satie, it's a thicker braid of pianos, strings, guitars, and processed vocals that aims for a soft, diffused glow, rather than Library Tapes' submerged glint. In hindsight, it's probably good that I didn't review these records: There are only so many ways to sigh contentedly in print.
Danny Norbury: Dusk [Static Caravan]
I found out about Norbury, a Manchester-based musician and composer, because he played some remarkably expressive cello parts on Library Tapes' Fragment EP. I immediately sought out his 2007 EP, Dusk, to tide me over until his new album comes out this year. Norbury has a knack for teasing out the seam between staunch romantic classicism and postmodern reconsideration; between liquid beauty and coarse, foreboding discord. On tracks like "Speak, Memory", his bow pulls out long, honeyed notes, but piano plinks spray texture on each side, as if a piece of sandpaper were caught inside the instrument. The detuned, drifting piano line of "Hoarfrost" makes the latent sense of disarticulation that haunts the EP overt. In making chamber music for bright, modern spaces while longing for dim, torch-lit parlors, Norbury somewhat resembles Nico Muhly, albeit with a narrower palette, and tape-hissy humility instead of academy polish. (Muhly's music is a bit too sprightly to perfectly fit my theme today, but it's close, and his 2006 album, Speaks Volumes, which features an Antony Hagerty cameo, is well worth checking out.)
Mico Nonet: The Marmalade Balloon [self-released]
The press release for Mico Nonet's The Marmalade Balloon caught my eye with its mention of "an ambient minimalist layer of vintage analog synthesizers with cello, viola, oboe, and French horn," but unfortunately, this 2007 release got to me too late for a proper review. Listening to Mico Nonet is like listening to an orchestra warming up for half an hour (the music is improvised), and if that doesn't sound like a selling point to you, well, it probably isn't. But consider that this orchestra includes Carrie Dennis, the principal viola for the Berlin Philharmonic; Efe Baltacigil, the associate principal cello for the Philadelphia Philharmonic; French horn player Paul LaFollette, the principal horn for the Richmond Symphony; and Katherine Needleman, the principal oboe for the Baltimore Symphony. That's a lot of principality in one place. Rounding out this quartet of professional players is Joshua Lee Kramer of Matt Pond PA, who is responsible for the foundational synthesizers that guide the improvisation. Needless to say, the playing is assured, and the album's success is, again, a question of balance-- the instrumentation and the synthesizers lock together gracefully as ballroom dancers. The great thing about The Marmalade Balloon is how seamlessly it moves between background and foreground, lulling your attention to sleep and then shaking it awake, yet always pooling comfortably in the ear.
Michael Harrison: Revelation: For Harmonically Tuned Piano [Cantaloupe]
I was supposed to review this at the end of last year, but it never happened. Harrison is a protégé of pianist La Monte Young, whose experiments in just intonation were most famously realized in "The Well-Tuned Piano". Just intervals are tuned based on whole-number frequency ratios, and compared to the equal temperament tunings that are more common in Western music, they can sound strangely sinuous to our ears. They naturally incline us toward mystical thinking, conjuring Plato's music of the spheres with their uncompromising mathematical harmony, and Revelation sounds appropriately numinous. The series of "Tone Clouds" sound like an acolyte's love letters to his master, as, of course, does "Homage to La Monte". But the title of "Revealing the Commas" clues us in to what Harrison's really doing here: A "comma" is a microtonal interval between two similar notes, which Harrison's specially-tuned and modified piano contains gaggles of. By playing rapid two-handed clusters of them, he conjures uncanny sounds from his piano. In one moment, it might resemble a harp; in another, a Tibetan singing bowl. It often sounds like Michael Nyman and Morton Feldman jostling for position at the same keyboard. If all pianos are resonance machines, then Harrison's piano is their godhead, a great, roaring, singing, droning deity hurling an hour-long epiphany from above.