Grant Cutler: Self Portrait

Crystal Mooncone: Listening Beam Five

Grant Cutler's third Innova album developed out an inspired modus operandi: he recorded a number of musicians improvising to delayed recordings of themselves and then armed with their performances shaped the album's settings into their final form. As a title, Self Portrait is therefore a bit of a misnomer: it is, of course, a portrait of Cutler but so too is it a self-portrait of each musician involved in the project. It's not the first time the Brooklynite has brought others aboard: on 2013's Schooldays Over, he collaborated with Chris Campbell, Innova's operations director and a composer in his own right, and Campbell returns on Self Portrait as co-producer and musician. Joining Cutler (piano, synthesizers) and Campbell (piano, organ) on the recording are Jef Sundquist (piano, organ), Michael Lewis (saxophone), Aby Wolf (vocals), Sara Pajunen (violin), Michelle Kinney (cello), and Jacqueline Ultan (cello).

However interesting such production details are, they wouldn't of course amount to much if the results weren't compelling; furthermore, deprived of such background details, the listener in all likelihood would have little sense that such an approach had been adopted and instead would experience the material as small group performances recorded live. Track titles such as “The Dream I Float Away,” “Falling Asleep In the Streets,” and “Paroxysm” imply that one of Cutler's goals is to render unconscious states into musical form, and certainly the entrancing slow-burn of the material is consistent with such a goal. Opening the album on a plangent note, “Georgia,” for example, plays like a dream state wrought into physical being, especially when huge waves of synth washes collide with swooping strings. As the recording advances, it increasingly begins to feel like an album designed for nocturnal listening where the only signs of life are street lights illuminating the deserted city.

Piano and strings are the most prominent of the instrumental elements, with organ and synthesizers used liberally to embellish the sound design. But even if a particular instrument is accentuated within an arrangement, each setting ultimately impresses as a total sound work where individual strands have been woven carefully together to achieve a particular, sometimes phantasmagoric (as in “Drowning”) effect. A melancholy undercurrent runs throughout Self Portrait, an indirect expression on Cutler's part of the sadness that attends experience as it slips from the present into the past, thereafter retrievable only through memory and imperfectly at that. Music is fundamentally about time, and Cutler's is no exception; in his case, however, time is even more integral to the project when it involves musicians responding in the present to themselves in the past, and ultimately seeing those responses turn into the past, too, when Cutler shapes them into new forms.

Reshaping of a different kind happens on Listening Beam Five, Crystal Mooncone's fifth album and follow-up to Escape Cone Listening Beam 4 and Escape Cone Listening Beam III, both issued on Deep Listening. Though it's not inaccurate to label the group's music electroacoustic, the term ends up being too limiting for a recording that collapses boundaries and erases genre distinctions so breezily. This is an outfit that embraces the lo-fi, analog-acoustic, and creakily old as fervently as the hi-fi, digital-electronic, and spanking brand new.

Though each member brings an impressive set of credentials to the joint venture—Stephen Rush teaches music at the University of Michigan and has performed with Roscoe Mitchell and Pauline Oliveros; also a music teacher (at the University of California), Chris Peck regularly collaborates with contemporary dance companies, as does Jon Moniaci—they also bring a refreshing degree of irreverence to the project, as indicated by the instrumentation used to generate the material. A quick scan of the inner sleeve reveals items such as whoopee whistle, digital insects, bike horns, noise chair, and alien rain listed alongside the more familiar accordion, piano, flute, and percussion.

As playful as their shared sensibility is, it isn't applied gratuitously: each sound source acts as a legitimate musical contributor to the piece in question, such that even though Peck's credited with foil-o-tron and Rush moan recorder on “Fossil Tears,” the track itself functions as a thoroughly non-whimsical exercise in brooding dronescaping. In this case, electric piano and accordion act as points of stability, thereby freeing evocative textures of various kinds to intermingle for almost nine minutes. When dazed flutes echo alongside accordion shimmer and Rhode sprinkles in “Homage,” it feels as if Crystal Mooncone has transplanted itself to the center of a humid tropical forest. “Imaginary Azimuths” pairs simple acoustic piano melodies with bike horns and Turkish bells in a way that suggests some imaginary meeting between Brian Eno and The Art Ensemble of Chicago.

The trio isn't afraid to venture into truly alien territory, as shown by the shuddering meditation “Leeward Side” (replete with chanting and needling micromoog textures) and industrial-drone exploration “Light Tunnel”; “Rocky's Landscape,” on the other hand, calms the nerves with nine, uncluttered minutes of drowsy musings, with Peck's flute playing a prime reason for its soothing effect. As diverse as the instrumentation is on the fifty-four-minute release, the recurring presence of flute, electric piano, and accordion ultimately does much to make its eight settings feel connected and the recording whole.

April 2017