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Cathedral Improvisations

img  Tobias
Every true and dedicated fan of the genre will tell you that chamber music is exciting, breathtaking, sweaty and completely up-to-date. To anyone else, however, the prospect of spending an evening with four to five classical musicians in a cold church or a small concert space, listening to pieces composed at a time when people still believed the devil was as real as the pope, sounds anything but promising. Which is why it may take an outfit like Mico Nonet, an international Quintet around Pensylvania-based sound artist Joshua Lee Kramer, to convert the doubters.

Even though Kramer’s background in electronics and Indie Rock band “Matt Pond Pa” seems to speak against a position in a classical ensemble, his approach to performance qualifies him for the slot nonetheless: “Performing is one of life's great joys, playing music that you created with friends, hearing it together with an audience in a great sounding space - a connected experience.” This, in a nutshell, is the very essence of chamber music and the reason why he managed to convince some of the finest young orchestral musicians to partake in the project.

With its lineup of Carrie Dennis (principal viola of the Berlin Philharmonic), Efe Baltacigil (associate principal Cello of the Philadelphia Orchestra and a former colleague of Carrie’s), Hornist Paul Lafollette (principal horn of the Richmond Symphony) and Katherine Needleman (principal oboist of the Baltimore Symphony), Mico Nonet is a sort of underground electro-acoustic supergroup – but by no means the only purveyor of a style which is slowly growing towards the light and connecting with other scenes: “The ensemble embraces both the traditions of the analog ambient minimalist pioneers and those of chamber music”, Kramer explains, “There is a growing chamber hybrid movement that bridges classical, electronic and post-rock that Mico Nonet is also a part of, though we didn't realize its size when we started ‘The Marmalade Balloon’.”

“The Marmalade Baloon” is Mico Nonet’s debut recording and a work of soft outlines. On thirteen tracks, the band dreams their way through ephemeral melodies, billowing drone breaths and intangible raprochements and detachments. It is a record which seems to have passed before you really set your mind to listening, a sort of hazy harmonic fata morgana. Marked by a floating polyphony, the pieces are not developped through their themes, but their moods and timbres – before you could even catch a glimpse of a motive, it has already sailed past gracefully, disappearing behind a horizon of eternal peace.

While Mico Nonet’s debut is almost suffocatingly intimate, each band member is performing both within the group and completely on his or her own – you sometimes have the feeling as though each of them were playing with their eyes closed and from a position of barren isolation. It is a sensation naturally caused by the recording technique used for the sessions.

“Most people think upon listening to the ‘The Marmalade Balloon’ that it was composed, but it was actually fully improvised, and then chopped into pieces and edited to produce the final result.”, Joshua Kramer says, “11 of the 13 songs started with me improvising a long ambient solo synthesizer/electronic piece on a single stereo track about 7 to 10 minutes long. Then one by one, I had the orchestral members of the group come in to my studio and improvise on top of my electronics. I would edit after each member's session, so the next player could improvise over both my original electronic track, but also over the parts the previous orchestral member(s) had played - this way they had the open space to improvise over just the electronics, and also the chance to lay down some parts along with whatever was already edited. This gave me the ability to cut and paste multi-tracked individual parts in a layered process to create the songs.”

Clearly, then, Mico Nonet are not a classical ensemble in the strict sense of the word. Kramer, too, does not consider himself a composer in the classical tradition. Rather, he is fascinated by the thought of chamber music as an idea, which connects musicians which would otherwhise never have met, let alone played together. His own material is nothing but a first spark, ignited with the intention of provoking an unforeseeable response in instrumentalists unaccustomed to improvising in their dayjobs.

Even though the basic tracks sound completely electronic, they were actually manipulated snippets of previously prepared acoustic parts on several occasions: “In addition to modular and polyphonic analog synths, some of the electronic sounds on ‘The Marmalade Balloon’ are actually upright piano or Wurlitzer electric piano that I played and recorded and then reversed the recording and slowed it down to half speed, or otherwise manipulated - I do this with synth tracks often too - so the processing of sound is part of my compositional process also.”

It takes a little while to get into the groove of the album. At first, the tracks seem just a tad too mellow and calm to make an impact. Rhythm has all but been eliminated, everything is texture, with the strings laying down momentary chords, the oboe gently triumphing and Lafollet’s French Horn only occasionaly pushing the music with its golden colours. Because individual compositions can be as short as fifty seconds and since all pieces blend into each other, the first impression is that we’re dealing with one continous composition here, merely sliced into different parts for convenience’s sake.

This is an incorrect perception, though, as repeated listening reveals. When “The Marmalade Balloon” leans towards Ambient, it is an incredibly cleverly constructed version of the genre. When it leans towards something else, the ensemble climbs to great semi-compositional heights: The plaintive closer “Uyku”, the naturalist sturrings of “Kaika” or the pastoral fields of “Darana” take listeners to spaces which are as majestically universal as they are private.

To slightly offset the danger of the pieces being exclusively perceived as a coherent entity, two tracks off “The Marmalade Balloon” have also been released on a wonderful transparent 7inch Vinyl disc - at just three minutes per side, you will have to find a seat near your turntable to avoid the music being finished before you’ve been able to settle down.

The real reason for the Vinyl publication, however, was much more straightforward, as Kramer reveals after I tell him that I love the look, feel and sound of the single: “I'm glad you dig the 7"! Vinyl is the most important to me. I made it for cats like you (and me) who appreciate the wax.” Upon hearing the plucked bass notes of B-side “Hammock”, many are likely to agree.

As beautiful as Mico Nonet’s debut may be, Kramer has no intention of repeating the same formula forever. Already he is “completing Mico Nonet's second album with an expanded ensemble, an album of duets with individual group members, an ambient collaboration with another electronic musician”, as well as readying “a solo album of ambient guitar, electronics and minimalist drums.”

And he hasn’t stopped dreaming. What kind of work would he realise with unlimited ressources? “An expanded Mico Nonet, recorded in Dolby 5.1 surround sound in a giant cathedral improvised with an orchestra sized ensemble, synths being amplified throughout the space for the recording from hundreds of tiny old radio speakers, no two the same, spread out all over the floor”, Kramer quickly answers, “The release would be on HD-DVD or Blue-ray, high resolution 24 bit 96k surround sound audio, with connected ambient visuals, and live performance video. And also released on Vinyl, pressed on 180-gram wax, 45 rpm. No MP3s.” You have to give it to him: It’s hard to think of a music more exciting, breathtaking, sweaty and completely up-to-date than that.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Mico Nonet
Homepage: Mico Nonet at MySpace

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