Hypnotic Beauty from Maya Beiser and Michael Harrison
The shadow of Philip Glass towers over Michael Harrison and Maya Beiser’s collaboration Time Loops – out earlier this year from Cantaloupe -both in the unselfconscious beauty of the melodies and the hypnotically circling rhythms. Harrison, who plays piano, contributes most of the compositions. As the title implies, the central theme here is simple, looped phrases, whether from an elegant Bach invention, an Arvo Part diptych that finally shifts from a lullaby to more pensive tonalities, or the long three-part suite where cellist Beiser becomes an understatedly epic one-woman string section.
The more ornate loop music becomes, the simpler its motifs have to be in order to avoid dissonance, at least if that is the agenda as it is on Harrison’s opening triptych, Just Ancient Loops. Throughout the suite, Beiser gets to multitrack a rich array of timbres, textures and melodies: Indian classical music, blues, drones, Julia Wolfe-style staccato, cantabile nocturnal interludes and subtle shades of pizzicato all blend together into a seamless whole. There’s also a pretty straight-up indie rock tune, distant allusions to Pink Floyd’s Shine on You Crazy Diamond and less distant ones to Glass. Counterrythms rise to the point where Beiser’s parts swirl out of the mix, one by one, much in the manner of dub reggae. The overall effect is hypnotic and psychedelic to the extreme: Glass’ later string quartets come very much to mind.
The album’s title track artfully juxtaposes a warm, lyrical cello line with backward masking. Somehow Harrison gets the harmonies to work, and Beiser keeps perfect time with them. They follow that with the Bach, then the Part, then Harrison’s Raga Prelude, a nocturne that’s ultimately far more interesting than either of its predecessors as the duo carry it into rippling ballad territory, then work a stately baroque theme until Harrison’s piano brings in the clouds and Beiser backs away while the chill sets in. All things considered, it’s the most consistently gripping composition here.
The final track is Hijaz, which ought to be the best one here, but it’s not, and that’s because annoying things happen here and there. These days, south Indian takadimi drum language seems to be all the rage, at least in academic circles: sure enough, barely three minutes into Harrison’s subtly otherworldly piano arpeggios – defly employing the just intonation which he’s long championed – the diggity-doo begins and then won’t quit. Compounding the problem is that there’s a whole crowd, the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, doing the diggity-doo, at least when they’re not adding a quiet, sostenuto luminosity. The drum language actually has a purpose – in its original vernacular, it’s simply a way to count beats – but here it destroys the genuine hanuting quality of the rest of the work. Those with Protools should upload it and cut out the offending bits; a more oldschool option would be to copy the good parts to a cassette. Live at last year’s Bang on a Can Marathon, the effect was the same: it was like mixing beer and vermouth. A work so darkly majestic and memorable shouldn’t be marred by the vocalese tic-du-jour: it screams out for a new recording that does it justice.
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