Compilations / Mixes
The superb third album by British composer Greg Haines grew out of an experience he had working with a school orchestra in Britain. When his tenure with the students ended, the piece they had worked on and recorded (titled “Digression”) became the starting point for the neo-classical work that would develop into Digressions. It's not a purely orchestral work, however; electronics and programming are present, too, if subliminally in the case of the former and invisibly in the latter, and Haines includes contributions from Peter Broderick and Dustin O'Halloran, respected composers in their own right, on the album, too. No matter how Digressions came together, be assured of one thing: it's an incredibly accomplished collection of material that is as powerful in its intimate moments as in its grandiose. That his work has appeared on Philip Glass's own imprint, Point Music, says much about Haines's abilities.
His sensitivity to orchestral colour and microtonal nuance is already evident in the opening setting, “Ernetti,” which builds incrementally throughout its four-minute running time—a promising harbinger of what's to come. That overture sets the stage for the more ambitious conception worked out in “Caden Cotard,” (the name of William Seymour Hoffman's character in Synecdoche, New York) where mournful strings reach supplicatingly upwards within a warm field of piano-laden atmospheres. A spirit of quiet elation gradually emerges as the full instrumental forces are marshaled for an upward ascent that grows ever more intense until the summit is reached and the tension dissipates, the instruments collectively decompressing and growing quieter. Though a grand symphonic presence forms part of its fabric, “183 times” is distinguished more by a gorgeous solo violin part (courtesy of Iden, the principal violinist on the album) and the sparse piano chords that provide it with ongoing check-points. Hearing her melancholy, vibrato-laden violin float so serenely above the becalmed mass proves to be one of the recording's greatest pleasures.
Though Pärt might be invoked by some in speaking about Haines' work, to these ears it's John Adams who's a more appropriate reference. As occurs so often in the American composer's compositions, Haines' pieces unfold organically with each moment a natural outgrowth of the one before, and the material gracefully rises and falls in measured manner. The penultimate setting, “Azure,” reveals itself to be the most Adams-like piece of the album's five in opening, much like a signature Adams piece, with a quiet murmur of mallet instruments and piano clusters that slowly swells into a fuller yet still delicate mass containing woodwinds and strings. Eschewing baldly stated melodic motifs, the music's impact instead derives from a subtle accumulation of disparate micro-figures and phrases, with the instruments' individual utterances engaged in an ongoing conversation. Out of the mist, however, a sudden escalation in volume occurs at the nine-minute mark, leading to a dramatic climax that abruptly falls away three minutes later. Sequenced after the intense “Azure,” “Nuestro Pueblo” immediately proves satisfying in adopting a softer, piano-based focus during its opening minutes, though Haines does bring in a fuller orchestral sound to deepen its plaintive character over the course of its fifteen-minute duration.
There's a grandeur to Digressions that can't be concealed by the tasteful restraint Haines often brings to it. There's also some degree of sleight-of-hand that comes out a production methodology whereby Haines liberally moves, layers, and processes the source material. That is, the listener unaware of how the recording reached its final form would naturally assume the five compositions to be through-composed. Yes, names such as Arvo Pärt, John Adams, and Max Richter do come to mind as one listens to Digressions, but the fifty-six-minute recording shows Haines to be far more than a merely derivative figure. His wondrous recording stands up perfectly well on its own terms.