Open Graves with Stuart Dempster
Prefecture Records, PREFECTURE004
The ominously lit photo on the cover of Flightpatterns – a recent release from Open Graves, a West Coast-based improvisation duo – depicts the uniquely overriding characteristic of the album: where it was recorded. Gas lamps and candles cast soft glows on a variety of percussion instruments resting inside an enormous abandoned water cistern in Port Towsend, Washington, the site where Open Graves’ Jesse Olsen and Paul Kikuchi teamed with renowned trombonist Stuart Dempster for this suspenseful and dark series of improvisations.
The album’s liner notes identify, “a wide range of traditional and invented instruments” and, “unusual acoustic environments”, as two of Open Graves’ strongest artistic pursuits. Yet, it seems the idea for using the cistern as a recording space may have come from their collaborator. Allaboutjazz.com’s Mark Corotto implies as much in his February 2011 review of Flightpatterns, noting that Dempster’s 1995 recording, Underground Overlays From The Cistern Chapel (New Albion), started a trend of site-specific improvisations, to which Flightpatterns may simply be the latest contributor. The sonic fingerprint the performance space lends the album’s four tracks is captivating and indelible, casting a translucence over the music as if we are looking at the sound through wax paper, or listening underwater. Again, Corotto speaks to this rather eloquently in his review, writing, “time must be slowed, giving a protracted feel to the performance. Dempster’s long drawn-out trombone notes act as a blanket…so lovely, that you might find yourself holding your breath.”
To me, the effect of the cistern’s reverberations on the music was twofold. The constant level of echo blurred the lines of musical phrases, much like how shadows projected on a distant cave wall distort an object’s original shape and identity. These resonant acoustic conditions produced music beautiful in a way I had never heard before. Everything sublimely bled together, softened out by the airspace inside the cistern. Olsen, Kikuchi and Dempster’s instruments melded together, moving as one amorphous musical body through time, shaded multifariously as the album went along by a constant variety of percussion sounds.
Unfortunately, I felt the obvious intransigence of the cistern’s acoustic undermined much of Flightpatterns’s wonder and beauty. Around three-quarters of the way through the disc my ears were plane tired of the ambience. At its worst, I was reminded of my first forays in electronic music where I sheepishly swathed all my musical layers with the same EQ or reverb, denying the individuality of my components to speak through this acoustic surface. I was pained as Flightpatterns wrapped up because I knew Olsen, Kikuchi and Dempster’s virtuosity and musical sensibility are absolutely admirable, but had been largely washed out by the unwavering sonic environment of the recording.
Despite this qualm, I highly recommend the disc to all lover’s of improvised music and supporters of unconventional music presentation. Olsen, Kikuchi and Dempster have hit on an interesting thread in the world of contemporary music with Flightpatterns, even if they just hit a double instead of a grand slam. I’m talking about site-specific performances and other musical-environmental integrations. Again, I’m drawn to the world of electronic music where Roger Reynolds, for example, tediously designs spatial elements into his electro-acoustic scores and has been involved in many site-specific performances including a November 2010 event at the National Gallery in Washington, DC. Michael Gordon’s smash multimedia orchestral work, Decaysia, and the recent series of New York Philharmonic concerts at the Park Avenue Armory also illustrate the grandeur certain kinds of physical space can lend a live performance of contemporary music.
Flightpatterns demonstrates the potential value of designing albums around special acoustic environments. Immediately, the album’s intrigue and surface appeal blossoms in light of of Open Graves’ imaginative use of the empty water cistern as a recording studio. Despite the evident danger of casting the music in a monochromatic reverb throughout the length of the disc, Flightpatterns is a bold exploration of physical and musical resonance. Alluring and chilling at once, the CD’s tracks will undoubtedly leave you with aural goosebumps as the blurred identities of Stuart Demptser’s trombone and Open Grave’s multi-instrumental accompaniment will press the boundaries of your music-listening imagination.