The Quiet Ones (Part Two) – Benoît Pioulard

I suppose the first question I wanted to ask was why Seattle’s Thomas Meluch records under the name Benoît Pioulard.

“It appeared in a dream during a semester at university in which I was taking a few French classes – I woke up, wrote it down and found it a week later when I was putting together a CD of new recordings for my friend Jakub.” I take that as a perfectly suitable answer given the often dreamlike music he creates.

The music of Benoît Pioulard would have fit well with the early eighties minimalist post-punk scene. I can easily imagine him sharing a bill with The Young Marble Giants, Felt, Durutti Column or Eyeless in Gaza. But Thomas is very much a contemporary minimalist. And by “minimalist” I don’t mean in the musical vein of Steve Reich et al. I mean in terms of his relationship to material goods, to consumption and the means of creation. In terms of using what’s to hand in the production process as those early post-punk groups did. “We don’t need to make any more stuff” he tells me during an improvised photo shoot in a Seattle parking lot around the corner from Everyday Music and Elliot Bay Books (ground zero for those of us who still love hard copies of cultural artifacts). And he needs nothing more than Apple’s Garageband to create his music.

His is a wistful but sharp brand of introspective, atmospheric almost pop music. As he puts it: “I make textured & harmonic things primarily with guitar, tapes and voice.” The songs may seem low-fi at first but they’re superbly mastered and his soft, beautiful clear voice is frequently set back in the mix. They could almost be heard as collages, with solid, conventional song foundations overlaid with distortion, warbling analog tape, tastefully applied electronic atmospherics and snippets of field recordings. His lyrics are very personal, often reading like inner dialogues about disappointment, thwarted expectation, simple joys and wonder laced with references to the elements and the cosmos. Exemplary song title? How about The Sun is Going to Explode But Whatever It’s OK. And if you have difficulty making the words out they are, like in olden times, reproduced in the CD booklets at a readable scale. They are worth your time.

 

 

He also excels at long form soundscapes shot through with melancholy and adorned with gently abraded indefinable sonic detritus. Two years ago Thomas injured his wrist and put out a piece called Radial on Bandcamp. It sounds not unlike something from Eno’s first collection of Music For Films but with added length and a bit more grit to get lost in. The cover (see above) features his x-rays from the Snoqualmie Valley Hospital. “My wife and I were hiking up to Snow Lake on our sixth anniversary, I hopped off the trail to get a photo and on my way back up got a poor footing on a slick boulder – slipped and landed on my wrist, palm out. I knew immediately what happened.” The single piece is titled The Very Center of its Flame. It’s beautiful and painful simultaneously. And that is a hard thing to get right in music of any genre.

 

 

Also from 2016 is Thine, a three track digital EP (cover image above). The first takes its cue from late 70s Eno; Music For Airports meets Discreet Music. On the second there is even a hint of Ariel Kalma’s Osmose (now we’re getting obscure). But the three tracks, Ribbon, Loire and Minuet pay any debts with interest. Both of these releases are among the less than ten “digital only” releases I’ve ever bought.

Thomas is, not surprisingly, a fan of the Polaroid SX70 and he has a great eye. He creates beautiful images often featuring natural elements of the Pacific Northwest sometimes refracted through translucent or reflective found objects/materials. His photographs manage to capture the wet, sunlit flora of the region in a deeply felt way, like someone who’s long absorbed the landscape and can snatch moments of beauty out of the damp air. At the end of the day, that is the best most of us can hope for.

 

 

Benoît Pioulard plays the Red Gate on October 19th with Marcus Fischer and Hotel Neon.

He has a new CD out on Kranky called The Benoît Pioulard Listening Matter. Please check out his music here:

https://pioulard.bandcamp.com/

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The Quiet Ones (Part One) – Tord Gustavsen

The jazz piano trio format contains a universe of possibilities. It took me a long time to appreciate that after years of seeking what I thought was more adventuresome music. Perhaps it’s a function of maturity, akin to growing into a greater appreciation of classical chamber music after pushing hard for the avant garde. Or perhaps it was hearing some of my favourite “out there” players reining it in on quiet jazz standards and hearing them anew.

Norway’s Tord Gustavsen Trio released Changing Places on ECM in 2003 and at first listen I considered it too “candle lit dinner” for my tastes. Then I noticed the presence of drummer Jarle Vespestad who I’d last seen here with Norwegian improvising supergroup Supersilent. I gave it a closer listen and felt compelled to slow down and appreciate the delicacy and precision that propelled the unabashedly romantic set of carefully crafted tunes. Pure loveliness from start to finish! I’ve since picked up all of his subsequent recordings and saw him play a remarkable set with Simin Tander at the 2015 Jazz Fest (see my earlier post on this). That is when I came to fully appreciate Tord as a compelling live performer.

Tord has a new CD out on ECM titled The Other Side and it continues in the warm, melodic vein of its predecessors. However it does begin to explore around the edges a little more. There appear some welcome and unexpected left turns particularly on Duality. And Left Over Lullaby No. 4 possesses a kind of devastating beauty that relishes the presence of haunting shadows among the melodies. As well, there are arrangements of two pieces by J.S. Bach and two arrangements of traditional tunes. Overall the music feels a little looser, a little darker, and more insistent overall. Gone is any sense of preciousness surrounding the notes.

Live, this trio smoulders and ignites in perfect measure and they are a delight to watch. They are performing on September 29th at the Blue Shore Financial Centre for the Performing Arts, 2055 Purcell Way, North Vancouver. It should be a season standout and well worth the trip across the inlet!

Here is a recent clip of Tord in concert, solo, for the BBC:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FGNI5Az1P7A

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Sphaerae 2

My latest music video project. This was shot on, near or en route to Galiano, Pender, and Bowen islands. The music, by loscil, was originally composed for one of eight photographs from a series begun in 2005 and which were exhibited in 2009. Subsequently they provided the source material and thematic inspiration for three videos; Sphaerae, Sphaerae 1, and now Sphaerae 2.

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Tigran Hamasyan – An Ancient Observer

 

One positive outcome of the changes affecting the music industry has been the increasing turn to more intimate and deeply connected live performances. And so a sold out house for Tigran Hamasyan’s solo performance at the Vancouver Academy of Music in February was to be expected. The recently remodeled venue normally holds small recitals and though it was a cold, wintry day (for west coast standards) this promised to be a big gig for several reasons. The presenter, The Armenian Cultural Association of BC, brought him to town for a culturally connected audience eager to hear his music, inflected as it is with traditional Armenian folk melodies and a deep dedication to bringing ancient and modern Armenian music (Tigran Mansurian and Komitas come to mind) to wider audiences.

Also on hand would be many from the jazz community who recognize him as one of the great new voices in jazz, particularly fans of players who are renowned solo performers such as Keith Jarrett, Brad Meldhau etc. There would also be those in the prog rock world who might recognize the muscular trio work on much of Tigran’s Mockroot to be kin to some of the best of the “Rock in Opposition” style of modern classical chamber music-influenced rock typified by the likes of Univers Zero et al.

I was there for all those reasons. But it was an ECM release, Luys i Luso featuring fresh arrangements of Armenian liturgical music and performed with the Yerevan State Chamber Choir that really got my attention. It is very much part of the recent ECM vogue of showcasing deep, melancholic music from the edges of Europe that so many labels seem to have neglected. Then came Atmospheres, a double CD recording on ECM with Eivind Aarset, Arve Henriksen and Jan Bang that was supposed to be a rather ambient outing. But Tigran’s melodies kept leaping out at me so I embarked on a search for more. That lead me to his latest solo release Ancient Observer on Nonesuch. This album is essential listening for fans of solo piano/electronics regardless of tastes. A rich, subtly shifting tapestry.

Tigran also sings. And for some jazz piano fans that can be an issue. But his voice is no Jarrett-like audience divider. It’s a beautiful instrument perfectly suited to the material and is a joy to listen to whether foregrounded or woven into the whole. His application of electronic treatments is also perfectly judged. But the one thing that is so important is how effortlessly he fuses all these things into an emotional performance with impact that avoids sentimentality or excess. There were no moments where I could think of or care what influences I might be hearing in his music. He is absolutely unique.

Thanks to Arto Tavukciyan I was able to meet Tigran and do a portrait in the chill air near the south end of the Burrard Bridge where, nearby, under the bridge, were the trappings of the displaced and homeless. Tigran let me know he was recovering from surgery and that it was possibly going to affect his voice for the concert. He may have not sung as much as he’d liked to but his voice was very much heard.

 

 

Here is an excellent and generous helping of Tigran Hamasyan in a solo setting at the Montreal Jazz Festival. My advice would be to see him in any context at all. His music will stay with you long after the last note has rung off. That said, seek out his CDs on Nonesuch and ECM.

 

http://www.tigranhamasyan.com/

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Snow Globe

Sometimes you just point your camera out the window some mornings and there’s a delightful scene. Vancouver has had only a couple of snowfalls this winter but each has reminded us that snow can be a lovely thing, especially as it bounces light up into our homes in the darkest months.

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Heavy Snow

Rumours of the demise of the CD format continue to come up against the hard reality that not only is the format alive and well, there are labels still dedicated to investing in cover art. ECM comes to mind as one of the great independents still dedicated to the format but worldwide there are small independent labels like Japan’s White Paddy Mountain who also maintain a busy release schedule and take equally great care in the presentation of the music.

This is a new release from Chihei Hatakeyama called Heavy Snow and I’m delighted to have provided the cover art culled from a series of images from Vancouver’s somewhat rare severe winter of 2016. I have listened to Chihei’s enveloping soundscapes for nearly a decade and it was his music that helped soundtrack my unexpected hospital stay after an accident in 2010. That we should eventually come to work together is a real joy and I’ve just completed a video to go with this release.

https://chiheihatakeyama.bandcamp.com/album/heavy-snow

Here is a still from the video for the track Heavy Snow II:

And here is the full, fifteen minute video. Please take the time to watch it on a big screen and keep the volume low. Enjoy!

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Saxophilia

This latest CD cover project is for composer Colin MacDonald’s Saxophilia, a saxophone quartet dedicated to playing and commissioning new works for saxophone by Canadian composers. Recently, on a cold, grey afternoon at the venerable Ironworks Studio on Vancouver’s working waterfront, we convened to photograph Colin, the quartet and to get some images of Colin’s sax for the new CD. And here is the result. It also offered the perfect opportunity to use the ornate display face Restraint, designed by my good friends Marian Bantjes and Ross Mills. The very name of the group practically demands it! Look for a December release of this. Available on Redshift. More info to come…

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Es War Einmal – Once Upon a Time

We often go through life on unseen trajectories that begin with early life choices and end in happy, unexpected meetings in unexpected places much further down the road. Case in point: Hans-Joachim Roedelius (of Cluster, Harmonia fame) landed in the middle of Galiano Island in September of 2017 to perform an intimate house concert as part of his first visit to Vancouver during a rare North American tour. And everything about it was perfect, as though predestined by some cosmic guidebook. In the end it made perfect sense.

In the early 1980s I hosted a radio show that, along with CO-OP Radio’s Alien Soundtracks, was one of the few places on the west coast you could hear the music of German electronic music pioneers like Cluster, Harmonia, Michael Rother, Neu et al. These are some of the core groups that ended up influencing Brian Eno and David Bowie during his “Berlin Period” from ’77 to ’79. For example, Bowie’s Low would not be Low and Lodger would not be Lodger without the influence of Cluster, Harmonia and Neu via Eno’s production touch and general enthusing about their music. For most people, that is the most common entry point to Roedelius’ music. He even appears on Eno’s Before and After Science (the track By this River a clear reference to his time staying with Roedelius in Forst) and was clearly an influence on Music for Airports and Music for Films.

His most enduring collaboration was with the late Dieter Moebius with whom he formed Cluster at the turn of the 70s. Their music was a curious melding of contrasting and complimentary impulses that led to a string of recordings throughout the 70s where romantic, melodic keyboard melodies happily collided with low tech, rhythmic pulses and noise bursts. And in the late 70s Cluster recorded two transcendent albums with Eno: Cluster and Eno (1977) and After the Heat (1978). On the first LP, and with Can’s Holger Czukay on bass, they recorded Ho Renomo, one of the most perfect and entrancing slices of pastoral electronica you’re likely to hear.

In recent years, the revival and “cool status” elevation of so-called “Krautrock” (Ugh. Only the British would come up with that!) has resulted in a slew of media tributes to Roedelius because he’s the one man who remains carrying the flame for the kind of “music of life” philosophy that drove the scene from the outset. In other words, Roedelius has remained true to a creative, restless drive that has resulted in an incredibly large output of music both as a solo artist and generous collaborator and the press is finally giving him his due. This piece in The Guardian will give you the broad strokes: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2005/apr/08/popandrock

If there’s a place you’d like to start, I’d recommend his latest collaboration with Arnold Kaspar called Einfluss which is typical of his gentle, pulsing piano playing lightly dusted with subtle electronic treatments. Ironically, it’s released on the ultimate classical music label Deutsche Grammophon. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H-Cn0IHYMCA But also seek out his work with Tim Story. Inlandish, Lazy Arc or Lunz are all gorgeous. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=anhLkf5M__U

Really, there is a ton of “Roedeliusmusik” to listen to and it’s well worth seeking out. In recent years he even revived a variation of Cluster with Onnen Bock and Armin Metz releasing 5 CDs as Qluster. And in any event, the German label Bureau B has virtually all of his output available in superbly remastered and repackaged CD form. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rcSs8cIOZOQ

But back to Galiano Island. One of my favourite Cluster recordings remains Sowiesoso (1976) and it has been soundtracking my visits to the island for over a quarter century. It is quintessential Cluster: a scuffed, romantic, pulsing piece of music with much eccentric detail baked in. It is like the sound of trees breaking the early morning sunlight as they rush past your peripheral vision while driving down a country road. And that’s it! If Kraftwerk’s Autobahn served as the ultimate soundtrack for European highway driving, Sowiesoso could be said to do the same for those who choose prettier, more obscure, rural routes. Less predictable, slightly more grit, but no less entrancing.

Sowiesoso was recorded in a large, rambling, slightly decrepit historic house by the banks of the river Weser near Forst in rural Germany. It was where they lived, played and recorded…and had visitors such as Eno, who learned that making music was as much about gathering wood for the evening as it was about manipulating tape and mixing sounds. On my first trip to Germany as a child, and about the time Cluster released Zuckerzeit in 1974, I was on a summer boat ride down that very river. The cover image for the album was taken at the river’s edge by Martha Roedelius whom remains a clear and guiding presence on the current tour.

In September, 2017, Roedelius announced a date in Vancouver as part of the New Forms Festival. But on his Facebook page there was something else; a house concert on Galiano Island! That seemed scarcely believable. We’d been in touch about licensing music for a short doc on Vancouver artist Val Nelson but now we’d get to meet in person. I proposed poster designs for the concerts and made arrangements to assist tour manager Chandra Shukla with the Galiano show. Hosts Wolfgang Matthes and Nan Vernon were very generous to host this at their home and it was a joy to sit around chatting over meals and see the local community come out in full support, with many never having heard of Roedelius prior. Pure magic! In the end it proved to be the most memorable date of the tour. And it all seemed like an inevitable happy denouement to a long and curious journey. Roedelius commented that Galiano reminded him of Forst and I only wished there was more time for him to spend there, to relax, to live and maybe to find new collaborators.

For the Galiano concert poster I used an image I’d taken at Montague Harbour in the mid 1990s. It seemed fitting and as I see it next to the images above the threads are clear. The palette, mood and leafless branches. It’s reaching back through time. It may even have been taken after driving to the location while listening to Cluster. Es war einmal. And now, forward again…

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Ben Monder’s Power of Now

Ben Monder is a musician who reminds us how important it is to focus within, re-imagine time and bring discipline and lightness to what some would call the practice of playing an instrument. And despite the prevalence of technology in contemporary music making, the electric guitar still retains a preeminent position as the most common starting point for much great music we hear across many genres. With Ben it’s easy to see why this remains the case.

At his recent master class in Vancouver as part of the always great Vancouver Jazz Fest’s free workshops at Tom Lee Music, Ben offered an intimate look at his process. It was unvarnished, unpretentious and enlightening for both the technically minded and the merely curious. A quiet, patient, and occasionally very funny man (he could be the Zen Steven Wright of jazz guitarist comedians!) he played Jule Styne’s I Fall in Love Too Easily (also covered by the great Ralph Towner) and took us back to the origin of his most trusted instrument; an old Ibanez semi-hollow body that he bought decades ago because, as he tells it, it looked cool in a picture he’d seen! There seems to be a mutually rewarding loyalty between instrument and player and he was clear in allowing that this loyalty was key to developing what might be called “his sound”. If you come across an instrument that is not perfect, you can still make it yours.

I have always liked players who take the sound of the guitar as a starting point for creating other worlds, ones which might not instantly be recognized as being guitar-based. So as a result, the likes of Christian Fennesz, Terje Rypdal, Eivind Aarset, and, more recently, Chihei Hatakeyama have become some of my favourites. And because I have very little knowledge of traditional jazz guitar history I usually buy in when players start to go towards the “outside”, when the instrument is used to craft unfamiliar landscapes. So it wasn’t surprising to find that Ben had studied the music of various 20th Century new music composers, citing Olivier Messiaen’s influence at one point.

I had always known Ben as part of a trio or as a sideman in jazz settings. And I only recently found out that he was the guitarist on Blackstar, David Bowie’s final album (which I now feel compelled to revisit). I was waiting for a purely solo guitar recording. So while not technically a solo release, his recent recording on ECM, 2015’s Amorphae, is as close as you’ll come. It is spare and measured, yet occasionally reaches escape velocity. It pulls and pushes at time and expectation within several tracks including the old Rodgers and Hammerstein chestnut Oh, What a Beautiful Morning. But his handling of that one standard on the LP does not render it unrecognizable the way Derek Bailey would have (thinking of his Ballads LP on Tzadik). And yet it fits in well within the recording’s overall ethereality. It is an austere, beautiful set that delivers a cumulative, understated power. It slowly demands that you be present for it, rather than succumbing to a state of ambient bliss.

There are numerous videos available on YouTube of Ben playing everything from adventurous, extended and distortion/sustain-drenched solos to a lovely and fairly straight rendition of Wichita Lineman with his trio. Please take the time to search them out. And if you have the opportunity to catch one of his masterclasses you will likely emerge a better player and you’re guaranteed a smile!

Amorphae

http://www.benmonder.com/

 

 

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Dry Falls

DryFalls2016

One of my favourite spots in Washington is the Grand Coulee/Dry Falls area that lies roughly in the middle of the state, east of the Cascades. It can get blisteringly hot and the landscape is more desert than rainforest. The geological history of the area is fascinating and I’ve explored and photographed it extensively over the past few decades. I’m so familiar with the land that it’s become more interesting to watch people interacting with it than carry on doing endless variations of landscape shots from the same viewpoints. This was taken in the summer of 2016. I will be doing some more shooting there this summer.

BBC did a nice piece recently that provides some background on…the background! It’s not often the area gets much international attention and this piece is pretty good. All the photos are taken from easy access viewpoints and were likely taken in spring as there’s some greenery and water flow at The Palouse Falls location.
http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20170601-the-largest-waterfall-that-ever-existed

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