Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

I don’t really write music reviews. I feel it’s a lot easier to watch a movie, and examine all it does right and what it does wrong. How do you do that for music?

That said, when my friend and fellow composer Adam Scott Neal– whose website can be viewed through the link on his name- asked me about review his two latest albums of music, I agreed nonetheless, not only as a fan of his music myself- curious to see what he’d come up with- but also in an opportunity to expand my horizons as a critic.

I started with his album “Late Frost”, a collection of piano works that was completely new to me in terms of Adam’s music. The album begins with “Autumnal”, which feels as apt a musical depiction of Fall as anything I’ve heard. The sound is bright, the melodic material and musical ideas light and upbeat, but at the same time always feeling like there’s this ticking clock, like the beauty of the season won’t last. Up next is “Boulders”, which continues the progression towards a musical Winter with lower-register hits in between the driving motifs on top, followed by “Flurries”, with a melodic string of snowflakes falling that brought to mind the beautiful piano themes of Joe Hisaishi in his scores for the Anime master Hayao Miyazaki (“Spirited Away,” “Ponyo”), and was just as memorable as anything in those scores. “By the Fire” finds the musical protagonist relaxing by the fireplace as the snow falls outside, cozy and just enjoying the peace of a winter’s night inside.

“Snow Drifts” adds a level of musical suspense, with its’ repeated arpeggiations that bring to mind Philip Glass at his minimalistic best- the way Adam starts briskly and slows it down in this piece in the middle does nothing to stop the way one’s heart races against time as the snow falls, making it difficult to move. “A Cave” is arguably the most challenging piece of the album thus far- very sparse, with lower register figures spaced out throughout the work’s 5-plus minutes as the upper register works out some short, but dramatic motivic ideas. The use of space in this one is difficult to acclimate to at first given what came before it, but is effectively worked out by the piece’s close. “Late Frost” is a return to the more cinematic, traditional performance of the earlier pieces, taking the listener into the emotional mood evoked by the title, concluding with “Vernal”, which ends the album- and emotional journey it takes you on- on an upbeat and more classical note than what’s come before, which is very cinematic and modern feeling. Although I do have individual favorite pieces from the album (“Flurries,” “By the Fire,” and “A Cave” standing out the most), the only way to listen to this album properly is as a whole for the musical journey Adam takes you on, which is- to these humble ears- the essence of musical storytelling, an artistic concept I know that’s very near and dear to my heart as an artist.

By contrast, Adam’s album “Parallel Lives” is a shock to the system. Not necessarily to one familiar with Adam’s electronic work (which I am, having been featured on two shows of Atlanta composers with him), but the melodic beauty of “Late Frost” is nowhere to be found here. This isn’t a bad thing- although to a casual music fan it might be- as it permits Adam to take different risks, with different rewards. “Obedience School” starts the album out, with a nearly 10-minute soundscape of different forms of computer-generated sounds and sound design that runs the risk of piercing the ears; keep listening, though, because like any artist worth their weight, even the most unusual music can give way to an unusual beauty and design, as this piece does by the end.

“Straphanger” is a piece I’ve grown quite familiar with, having heard it as part of one of the aforementioned Atlanta Composers concerts. Utilizing sounds from Atlanta’s MARTA train line, Adam takes you on a dream-like trip as the titular passenger (straphanger is a word for those who ride the rails) allows their unconscious to run free during a ride, with the sounds of the train giving way to an unusual music in the tradition of Musique Concrete and just plain old experimentation, sometimes- for me- bringing to mind Kubrick’s bold use of Ligeti during the trippy finale of “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

The next piece, “Mare Serenitatis” takes its’ name from a “large, dark plain on the surface of the moon.” Unfortunately, the high-pitched set of frequencies that make up the piece are more unbearable than mysterious and beautiful. Created with multiple performance versions (of 2, 4, and 8 channels), the piece probably works better in a live setting, with more channels, than it did listening to it on my computer.

“For Tape” is a return to the formal boldness of “Obedience School,” with a series of sounds- each created through the manipulation of a reel of adhesive tape- providing an intricate and fascinating soundscape for the listener to pay attention to. Like with “Obedience School” and “Straphanger,” the musical drive appears to be more dream-like, less structured, yet obviously planned out in order to draw the listener in. I certainly had both ears open during the piece’s eight minutes.

After the intricate and minimal musical events during “For Tape,” the seemingly larger soundscape of “Parallel Lives” is a bit of a shock. This is probably my favorite piece on the album- it’s musically fascinating, with a conclusion that is as lush and elegant as the introduction was rough and- in the composer’s words- “hard-edged.” Originally a collaboration between Adam and video artist Kevin Dotson, I’ll let you take a look at the result below (via YouTube) to see what you think of the originally-intended work, which adds further depth with its’ visuals that act to enhance the already-compelling music.

The album closes with “Baffin Bay”, which offers further musical surprises with its’ lovely “wind chime”-like sounds at the beginning playing against the darker musical currents beneath. That combination of the light and dark continues throughout the piece’s involving and engrossing 9 minutes, as the work sucks you into its’ musical world, as brief musical ideas weave in and out of our focus.

I’d like to thank Adam again for inviting me to not only listen to his albums (which each had their own set of musical pleasures for me), but also write about them, and maybe get the word out on a fellow composer and friend. Congratulations on your creative success, and I look forward to hearing what you have in store for us in the future.

Other Artists/Resources to Check Out
Atlanta Composers Blog
Darren Nelsen
Robert Scott Thompson

Thanks for listening,

Brian Skutle
www.sonic-cinema.com
www.myspace.com/brianskutle
www.reverbnation.com/brianskutle

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