The (relative) recent surge in interest in the music of American composer and string player Eyvind Kang is no more than the man deserves. His phenomenal arrangements for SUNN O)))’s Monoliths & Dimensions (2009) helped elevate the robed doom-metal “cave-men”’s sound to new levels of expansiveness and atmosphere. It was therefore no surprise that SUNN guitarist Stephen O’Malley returned the favour by releasing Kang’s Aestuarium (recorded with wife Jessika Kenney) and now Visible Breath (solo, but also featuring Kenney, amongst others) on his Ideologic Organ imprint, both in 2011. Meanwhile, Ipecac will be issuing his latest release, The Narrow Garden, at the end of January. So a prolific few months for Mr Kang!
Of the two latest albums, Visible Breath, recorded most recently, is the most immediately arresting, despite being sparser and more experimental. On the opening title track, quiet horn and string drones emerge deliberately out of the speakers, drawn out and patient in the tradition of the just intonation of LaMonte Young or Pauline Oliveros. Jessika Kenney joins in on vocals, her high keen fooling me at first – I thought it was a trumpet such is her precision and control over her voice! “Visible Breath” evolves gently, building its atmospheres in patient layers; however, it is far from relaxing, as some of the deep drone by Oliveros or Eliane Radigue can be, with strains of unease and disquiet echoing through the mix. Midway through the pace drops off, as Kenney’s voice and occasional strident viola and violin lines swoop and pierce across the ether, with Kang the composer toying with silence as a means of building the tension. The piece gradually evolves and dissolves, never breaking the listless groove it inhabits, even as Cuong Vu engages in some brutal trumpet “solos” that lean towards free jazz. As the musicians gradually drop away, a silence falls over the session like a sheet laid over a corpse.
After a similarly unnerving short interlude, ‘Monadology’, which features fitful moans from Kenney and rumbling horn and piano motifs under sudden screes from Kang on viola and Timb Harris on violin, ‘Thick Tarragon’, recorded after the first two pieces, feels like a slight parting of the clouds, as Janel Leppin plucks away percussively at a modified cello and a pedal steel guitar slides to-and-fro like a graceful pendulum. The drones here are lighter, but no less mystical -especially as the percussive sounds make way for more drifting, mellow tones and excoriating vibrations of strings- and on Visible Breath you can’t help feeling that Eyvind Kang is living up to Stephen O’Malley’s description of his music as “spectral”.
The Narrow Garden is altogether sunnier than its cousin, and features a near-orchestra-sized group of musicians guided by Kang, who is only credited as conductor. Kang describes it as “a concept of love, of poetry, like a troubadour or ashugh, courtly love that goes in two directions – one the more ineffable, kind of delightful […] and the other direction is the implication of a kind of violence.” This dichotomy is not immediately perceptible, as ‘Forest Sama’i’ swoops forwards like a clear ray of sunshine, all loping hand percussion and elegant string and flute patterns. Atmospherically, the album crosses borders with confident ease, as Orient and Occident collide, a proper melting pot that throws up Middle Eastern rhythms alongside hints of the European psychedelic folk of Yatha Sidhra and The Incredible String Band. But later tracks return to the subtle malaise of Visible Breath, especially the title track and epic closer ‘Invisus Natalis’, with claustrophobic, atonal string drones and colliding textures. The effect is almost akin to a film score, with a subtle and involving progression that feels like a narrative, slowly escalating to its dramatic finale, with Kenney once again displaying her prodigious vocal dexterity. The Narrow Garden may not have Visible Breath’s stripped-down immediacy, but it remains a robust demonstration of Eyvind Kang’s epic ability to distill atmospheres and ambiance with the power of an alchemist. His vision pushes geographical, musical and conceptual boundaries in a way that grants his music endless mystique.
Everything that has made Eyvind Kang such a distinctive figure on the modern composition scene can be found in these two remarkably different albums. They can be fierce, quiet, unsettling, graceful and calming all in the space of a few bars. A remarkable talent unfolds in the grooves of these albums, one that’s exhilarating to engage with as a listener.
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