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CD Feature/ John Morton: "Solo Traveler"

img  Tobias

There are two extremely important details about this recording which prevent it from being a novelty gag and turn it into something very special. The first consists of the fact that John Morton does not just “play” music boxes, he builds them. Or to be more precise, he constructs entirely new instruments from them, which leave some of their original characteristics in place, while taking them into new directions and sound spaces. Morton does not simply want to use them for cheap source material – he is interested in their inherent musical qualities and “Solo Traveler” is testimony to that.

We all have our “Music Box Experience” from our childhood and even though they may easily appear to be antiquated anachronisms or plainly out-dated, they have held their own in technological times and amidst a world increasingly speeding up. In fact, they seem to be on a small-scale come-back, at least over here in Germany. This has to do with two things: Music boxes are circular in their construction and their artistic content and as long as the wheel keeps turning, it will play its segment, the snake head of its end biting the snake tail of its beginning in a rotating embrace of harmony. As everything around us moves in linear ways, this constitutes a welcome continuity and a notion of eternity. Secondly, the simple harmonics and reduced timbre of the music box are the most comforting sound imagineable. In your heart of heart, you know it is an illusion, but this sweet tinkling really makes you feel as though you’re not alone and that someone cares. Morton makes use of both qualities to great effect. In his scores, the music boxes take on various meanings and functions, but they are always “open”, never obstrusive and aggressive, but always gentle and flowing. On the opening “Teetines” (a collaboration with Miguel Frasconi on Mbiras and Toy Pianos) and on “Through the Wall” (which includes some piano wire manipulations), the original sound of the music boxes is still clearly intact and at the center of the action: Chains of charming chimes turn and turn in a bellistic heaven, forming the clouds on a blue sky into funny shapes and animals. The “Amazing Grace Variations” take the melody of that piece and bend its pitch and rhythm into unrecognisable, but never alien regions, returning to softer waters in regular intervals. On each of these compositions, the music boxes are reprocessed in the studio, subtely altering their tonal characteristics over the course of the work and adding a further dimension without sacrificing the warm nature of the sounds. The only exception is “Ta-wee”, which has a more electronic feel to it, with bubbling chromatics pouring in from all corners. 

Central to understanding this album, however, is its title track, a joint venture with the “Dare to Breathe” vocal ensemble, which goes beyond genres and styles in its free-form associative flow full of mesmerising harmonic conjunctions. Here, the music boxes are placed more in the background, but by magic accord, their contribution always seems perfectly adjusted to the singing. Which marks the second important detail of “Solo Traveler”: John Morton not only builds Music Boxes, he takes them out of the confined space of neverchanging cycles and plays them in a highly musical way.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Innova Recordings

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