ALBUM REVIEW: Balter/Saunier by Deerhoof and Ensemble Dal Niente

by Jill Kimball

baltersaunier

We live in a world where musical groups of every genre often craft signature sounds in order to make themselves more marketable. That’s all well and good for those who find one band’s sound and fall in love with it. But for those of us who prefer unpredictable music, it gets monotonous.

If you fall into the latter group, you probably appreciate the rare but always exciting cross-genre partnership—that glorious moment when two musical groups from different realms team up and produce something truly original. Sometimes it happens with Sufjan Stevens and yMusic. Other times, genres cross within the same family, as has happened with classical pianist Jeffrey Kahane and his more indie-inclined son, Gabriel.

This time around, the collaboration is a jointly-produced full album by the Chicago-based chamber collective Ensemble Dal Niente and the San Francisco avant-rock band Deerhoof. The two groups had an unlikely meeting in 2012 and found common musical ground immediately…so together they set to work on a recording project with Brazilian-American composer Marcos Balter. The result is an album that is by turns ambient and avant-garde, rocking and bebop-ing, lilting and crazed…in a good way.

deerhoof

Deerhoof.

The centerpiece of the album is Balter’s “MeltDown Upshot,” an incredible mashup of musical genres from across the globe. In other hands, this piece might sound overwhelming, but Deerhoof and Dal Niente are just chill enough to make it work.

The first two movements of “MeltDown Upshot” could be classified as ambient, but don’t mistake the word “ambient” for “boring.” The dreamy opening, “Credo,” spills seamlessly into “Parallel Spaces,” still floaty but with a tinge of sinister foreshadowing. “Ready,” with its frenetic Chick Corea-like jazziness, erratic meter and hazy lyrics (“I dream of sound in color / I dream of light in sounds”) is a sonic outlier in this piece and seems to represent the meltdown at its manic climax. A more organized mania comes in “True-False,” a fast-paced, string-plucking homage to Philip Glass-style repetition. The piece calms down again with “Home,” a delightfully indie take on João Gilberto’s Brazilian bossa nova. The last two movements take us back to the strange, dreamy vibes of the beginning. The sixth movement, “Cherubim,” is the clear highlight of the piece, somehow gathering all of Balter’s jazz, pop, rock and avant-garde influences together into three minutes of pure indie-rock bliss. With its driving percussion, earnest and unpolished vocals and wholly unique instrumentation, I have no doubt university radio hosts all over the country will be clamoring to get their hands on the single.

Ensemble Dal Niente.

Ensemble Dal Niente.

Balter’s other piece on the album, “Pois Que Nada Que Dure, Ou Que Durando,” is set to text by Ricardo Reis (one of the many pseudonyms of Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa). It’s a simultaneously gloomy and carefree ode to the transience of life, a proclamation that it’s worthless to focus on the uncertain future and much better to live in the moment. In this piece, we’re transported back to the creepy ambience that bookends “MeltDown Upshot” with despondent, ghostly vocals and minimal instrumentation.

The album closes with a 20-minute suite called “Deerhoof Chamber Variations” by the band’s drummer, Greg Saunier. It seems to pull together a few elements of Balter’s major piece—there are some repeated pizzicato sections and moments of sinister dissonance—while also referencing melodic themes from Deerhoof’s more well-known songs. It’s really fun to hear their music reworked with harp, brass and strings; it lends the music a whole different, albeit mellower and more ethereal than usual, edge.

It’s such a treat to hear two very different musical groups jam together and take rare sonic risks. Based on the quality and depth of the music heard on Balter/Saunier, I don’t think this will be the last we hear of the Deerhoof/Dal Niente collective.

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Bill Seaman and John Supko’s “s_traits”

by Maggie Molloy

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In a world where you are constantly being bombarded by new styles of computer music, it can be tricky to get your bearings. Electro, electronica, electroacoustic—the list goes on and on. At times the possibilities are so overwhelming that you just wish you had a computer program to sift through all the countless sounds and styles and bring you something truly innovative.

John Supko created a music program to do just that. Supko’s bearings_traits is a generative music engine which is capable of creating new music from an enormous database of audio source material. Supko designed the program in order to sift through over 110 hours of music and sounds which he and media artist Bill Seaman compiled over the past three years.

The duo’s database included field recordings, analog and digital noise, acoustic and electronic instruments, old cassettes from Supko’s juvenilia, recordings of Seaman and Supko playing the piano (both inside and out), and documentary soundtracks from the 60s and 70s. Supko’s newly developed software then selected audio samples of varying lengths from the database and combined them in different ways to create new aleatoric, multitrack compositions.

Seaman and Supko took 26 of these computer-generated “first drafts” and transformed them into an ambient, otherworldly album titled “s_traits.” One artist shaped all of the odd-numbered tracks and the other shaped all of the even-numbered tracks—but they’ll never tell who worked on which.

“On its own, bearings_traits came up with things that were totally charming and strange and wonderful, but sometimes a bit too mechanical or impassive,” Supko said. “Our approach was to keep the computer’s crazy inventiveness but to refine it in ways only a human (at least for the moment) can. So, for instance, if I heard something that had some emotional attraction for me, I would enhance the effect. If I heard a ghostly melody, I’d try to support it in the texture. If there was potential for a dramatic moment of attack or climax, I’d try to bring it out.”

Another more human element they added to the album was a text written by Seaman. The full text appears on the CD cover, and each track opens with Seaman reciting a few words from it. These text fragments were assigned randomly by bearings_traits, and function as both an introduction and a title for each of the pieces.

The fragmented texts perfectly echo the album’s ethereal and experimental tone, at times even helping to shape the listener’s perception of the distinctive musical textures. Despite the vast range of acoustic and electronic audio clips incorporated into this musical project, overall the album is very cohesive in its wistful and contemplative soundscapes.

“The computer did things we would probably never do, because it was able to search vast amounts of music very quickly, and put together many fragments in ways that would have taken us many months to try out ourselves,” Supko said. “The results are both unpredictable—since it’s impossible to know which fragments from the 110 hours of material the computer will select and spin into melodies, rhythms, and harmonic accompaniments—and yet oddly coherent.”

The result is a collection of whimsical sound waves and ethereal static which washes over the listener and immerses them in the depths of mesmerizing new acoustic and electronic timbres.

Still, the exploratory nature of the ambient melodies and ghostly static give these pieces a distinctly human quality. The skeletons of these works may have been crafted by a computer, but the melodic and harmonic polishes that bring these pieces to life could only have been created by humans.