DVD Review: Phil Kline – Around the World in a Daze
One of this era’s most fearlessly relevant composers, Phil Kline’s oeuvre ranges from the iconic moving “boombox symphony” Unsilent Night (a response to Bush I’s gulf war) to the Zippo Songs suite inspired by the words and phrases American GI’s in Vietnam inscribed on their lighters. Sonically, Kline’s work tends to be gamelanesque, upper-register textures meticulously manipulated and processed into a rippling, reverberating pool of sound. This new two-DVD set – recorded in surround sound and best experienced on a good-quality home system or, ideally, in a club with encircling banks of speakers – is more diverse, a mix of compositions which run the gamut from challenging to confrontational to playfully fun. In addition to the first DVD with its individual videos, the second includes a considerably informative interview conducted by WNYC’s longtime New Sounds host John Schaefer as well as a bonus video, Meditation (Run As Fast As You Can), a lighthearted, characteristically pointillistic soundscape illustrating a brisk early Sunday morning jaunt from the base of the Brooklyn Bridge to the epicenter of New York’s financial district and then back again.
Here, Kline alternates between his usual collection of boomboxes, keyboards, loops and strings to comment acerbically on a range of issues both abstract and concrete, from confronting disaster to the death of New York via gentrification. The first track here, The Housatonic at Henry Street served as impetus for the entire project. Like his main influence Charles Ives, Kline places himself in the tradition of the American Transcendentalists, the stream here cast in the role of river of life for a whole movement. The piece is a swirl of bell-like overtones (boomboxes slightly out of phase with each other) plus ambient street noise – happily, Kline must have edited out the car alarms and the shriek of the buses moving along Monroe Street a block away!
Svarga Yatra – Sanskrit for Stairway to Heaven – has pioneering string quartet Ethel playing live against themselves on a boombox. It’s a pretty, circular processional with an edge of disquiet enhanced by all the overtones. A madrigal manipulated, The Maryland Sample begins with ambient samples and grows eerie with a chorus of what sounds like a hall full of harpshichords. The DVD’s centerpiece, Pennies from Heaven follows a downward trajectory rather than Kline’s typical crescendo. It’s a sarcastic commentary on the trickle-down theory of economics, illustrating the effect it has on the people at the receiving end. With overlays of carrilonesque melody and variations on a tinkly descending progression, it grows more echoey and chaotic – something that began completely innocuous has gone horribly wrong.
Of the other tracks, Grand Etude for the Elevation (earlier playfully titled the Grand Etude Symphonique) layers Todd Reynolds’ violin with trebly keyboards and insistent percussion, echoes of the Kronos Quartet’s recent work. Melodically, it’s the strongest composition here with haunting, Balkan-inflected tinges in places. The elegaic Prelude mixes an old recording of a piece from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, reprocessed with a field recording of foot traffic in the Zurich train station. The concluding cut on the first DVD, The Housatonic at Dzanga overlays samples from an oasis in the Central African Republic where hundreds of elephants and grey parrots congregate, resembling a tower of Babel far more than any sort of bucolic Discovery Channel soundtrack. There are also a couple of sillier works here including one “Dude, look what the DVD player just did with my cd!” number that actually succeeds in being a snide swipe at Wagner. New music fans will salivate over this; for more casual listeners, the hypnotic aspect of much of the material here creates a comfortably ambient late-evening soundtrack.