Nathan Speir: Part of a Kindly Plan
For his ninth album, Nathan Speir drew for inspiration from Thomas Hardy's early-1900s poem “On A Fine Morning,” which poses the question: “What is solace?” The North Carolina-based composer provides one possible answer in the form of Part of a Kindly Plan, a ten-song set whose pastoral contents offer no shortage of holistic benefits to the listener. Hardy's text encourages us to take comfort in believing that everything is part of some benign plan, even if a mysterious one, and to draw solace from the humble acceptance of one's place in the universe; Speir was so taken by such sentiments he used the poem as the basis for the titles of several tracks and the album itself. With the composer hewing to a style that's been described as “acoustic ambient new-age chamber music,” the primarily acoustic collection credits the multi-instrumentalist with acoustic piano, acoustic guitars, cello, wooden flute, harmonica, wind chimes, rain stick, singing bowls, and synthesizer, the latter primarily used to replicate a string-section.
In term of inspirations, Speir casts his net wide. Growing up, he discovered George Winston and through his father Patrick O'Hearn and Tangerine Dream; others cited as influences include Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheny, Steve Roach, Harold Budd, Erik Satie, and John Tavener, and as a result traces of modern classical, jazz, new age, minimalism, and Sacred Byzantine music regularly find their way into the compositions. As the opener “Hued Embowment” shows, his is an unapologetically pretty and sometimes serene music. Delicate piano patterns float freely alongside bowed cello and singing bowl accents, all three elements operating in tandem to create a mood of calm and induce contemplation. In a way, the piece acts as a microcosm of Speir's music in so comfortably merging ambient, classical, and Eastern forms into a single, six-minute statement. Elsewhere, a pronounced folk dimension emerges during the dramatic set-piece “As We Turn” when Speir couples synth strings and sampled tympani with acoustic steel-string guitar and piano.
Throughout Part of a Kindly Plan, song-length meditations are built around steel-string guitar and piano, with cello, synthesizer, and percussion generally used for additional colour. All ten pieces have enough in common, stylistically and sonically, to feel connected, yet details separate them, too. A Southwestern detour, for example, is undertaken when Speir adds a harmonica's wheeze to the otherwise piano-centered “Open Ranges,” while the intimacy level is heightened when he dusts his piano and nylon-string guitar playing on “Serenity In This House” with the gentle tinkle of wind chimes and the creak of a piano stool.
Whereas “Good Seasons” soothes the soul with acoustic guitar shadings lightly sprinkled with percussion and synthesizer, “Praxis” explores unusual territory in wedding nylon-string guitar with the meander of Native American wood flute playing and percussive sounds derived from a hand-struck cello fretboard. A coup de grace of sorts arrives at album's end in “Breathing on the Shore,” a sumptuous, nine-minute time-suspender whose becalmed drift of piano, synthetic strings, and singing bowls provides both a thoroughly satisfying resolution to the album and one final musical reply to Hardy's originating question.