The five pieces on Adam Stansbie’s Isthmus are presented in chronological order, tempting one to draw conclusions about the evolution of style. But when I succumbed to that temptation (in my mind) all I found was that these five pieces are different. And really, isn’t that all that’s necessary? That a composer gives you something that you’ve never had before, from that composer or from any other composer. I think so.
So down to specifics. The title piece, Isthmus, is in three sections. The first explores acoustic string sounds and electronic pitched tones, separately and in combination. There are some really amazing things going on in this piece–quick changes, sudden shifts from acoustic to electronic and back, figures that would be ordinary (but still pretty cool) on a violin but which are given to electronic pitches, figures that start off as acoustic but change, mid figure, to electronics. I’m tempted to say that it’s the aural equivalent of riding a rollercoaster, but it’s a much more varied experience than a simple ride. The thrill that comes from the unexpected is similar in both.
All this is true for the first and most of the second sections, anyway. (The piece can be experienced as being in two parts, with the pivot in the second section.) After a calm end to section two, section three continues with the soft and slow. And as it becomes richer, with added lines and increased volume, it presents a different thrill from that that the unexpected offers. But no less thrilling.
And that’s pretty thrilling, in itself, come to think of it.
The second piece, Early Morning, starts off slowly and softly, with some very creamy low frequencies. This is quite a spacious piece. Long lines, slow movement though with occasional quick gestures and brief frenetic passages. It makes for an interesting balance between thrills and calm, the calm never quite something you can simply relax into. Quite other. The exciting bits are so exciting that even though I have listened to this piece many times, I can never quite believe that the ending is quite as soft and placid as it always is.
Parenthesis is a puckish piece, full of zippy little sounds and sudden contrasts. Sounds whiz about. Suddenly stop. Just as suddenly start up again. A couple of the more startling cutoffs are followed by very soft but unmistakable echoes, just like used to happen (only not on purpose) on LPs at the ends or beginnings of tracks.
Up to about the halfway point, it’s just wild, a lot of different things all going by very quickly and a lot of them all at once, too. Then it quiets down–and slows down–and just as slowly builds back up again to a lot of activity but more subdued, more controlled. It’s like a quieter and calmer version of the first half. Which makes it, as a piece, a very strange piece indeed. And my personal favorite of the whole disc.
Point of Departure opens with a long, slow drone. Very quiet. Isolated chirps and squeeks. Night sounds. Becoming more frequent as the drone gets louder until everything is constant. This goes on for several minutes, getting gradually louder. Inevitably–I think so, anyway–one begins to expect a sudden change. What one gets is a gradual change. The drone becomes lighter–higher frequencies–and the various other sounds, the chirps and the squeeks, become some quacking sounds and some other indescribable sounds. All eventually becomes two drones, one high and one low. It’s pretty magical, really, how it all happens. And we’re not even to the halfway point.
The higher sounds begin moving around a bit, making a melody of sorts, as the lower drone gets softer and softer.
It is clear by now, that this is yet another piece that teaches you how to listen to it as you listen to it. I suppose that’s true to a certain extent for every piece, every set. Some just seem to do it more purposefully. In any event, subsequent listens to this are quite different experiences from the very first one.
Escapade. It’s an evocative title, and nothing that it evokes, for me anyway, has anything to do with what I hear in this magisterial piece. But I don’t suppose that Quiet Dignity or Calm Power make for very exciting titles. And this piece is certainly exciting, the excitement of a force of nature, a storm, an avalanche, a glacier. It is aloof and austere–and overwhelming.
This disc was a lot of fun for me. I’m a very selfish person, so I hope there will be many more.