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Music Review: Mystic Canyon

Bill Alves is what you might call an experimental composer. Some of what he experiments with falls into my area of interest: just intonation. But, as an experimenter, he writes some very beautiful, approachable stuff. This album, Mystic Canyon, consists of two of his compositions, written for solo violin and gamelan orchestra.

What is a gamelan orchestra, you might ask?

In simplest terms, it is an Indonesian pitched percussion ensemble. Unlike with American ensembles which tend to be built around sets of standardized instruments, gamelan ensembles consist of sets of instruments designed specifically to be played together. Every gamelan orchestra is unique. Thus, this music is written for a specific gamelan orchestra: the HMC American Gamelan. That means that unless you happen to live in southern California, probably the only way you’ll get to hear them is indirectly, through recordings like this one.

So, the music:

Susan Jensen and her violin complement the orchestra very well. The best word I have to describe the sonic experience is “warm.” It’s all very beautiful stuff, and well-recorded so that the richness of Susan’s tone and the various resonating percussion instruments generate some very intense and varied tone colors throughout the spectrum of human hearing. It’s rhythmically intense, too. Some sections of the movement drive forward relentlessly with strong beats; other sections are almost like puzzles with very well-executed polyrhythms. Some of the approach reminds me of American minimalism, while maintaining a fairly rapid phrasing pace, avoiding the stretching of time perception that the well-known extreme minimalism strives for.

I prefer to listen to this album intensely, with very minimum background noise, although it also works very well for passive listening, too. Like all music, it’s not for everyone, but for what it is, on it’s own terms, it’s extremely good quality.

You can listen to sound samples here, thanks to Bill and his website:

Mystic Canyon

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