This new release reveals more of the rich inventiveness and creative drive behind Thanos Chrysakis, this time in a collaboration with Philip Somervell. Over the last few years I’ve been fortunate to have reviewed a range of work on Chrysakis’ label Aural Terrains, work which broadly falls into electroacoustic composition or free improvisation, Knotted Alembic being an example of the latter.
Knotted Alembic easily reaches, and in many ways surpasses, the very high standards of previous releases. From the first few seconds you are drawn immediately into the viscerality of the sound, the sense of agency, the simple but effective combination of two players attending to contrasting tasks – one more static, the other more dynamic. The natural reverberation of the inside piano is exploited to the full. My only criticism is that the first piece doesn’t go on long enough, such was the interest in the clear articulations of the restricted range of sounds added to the energy of the playing.
Tracks 3 and 5 continue this investigation of the inside piano. Here I should mention the overall quality of the recording, a fine studio engineering job. Track 3 is a remarkable piece of music: we have the suspenseful quality of restraint, where very simple chords are allowed to sustain, revealing the inharmonicity of the struck strings, and where silence is given a structural role. Each event attempts to explore a different articulation, a different timbral nuance. You are obliged to listen attentively. Track 5 examines further the inharmonicity of the piano, its metallic resonances. I drew parallels here with the timbral and spectral explorations of some of the new microtonal music played on hand made metallophones. I felt that in this track, apparently created earlier than the others and obviously in different circumstances, the piano playing was more agitated and a wider range of sounds used than elsewhere in the album, though the work unfolds at just the right pace to appreciate the entry of the radio passages. This piece came over as less integrated into the album, despite the elegance of several very beautiful and straightforward ‘musical’ passages.
Track 2 consists of a low midrange pedal and foregrounded actions on vibes, chimes, drone and piano. The iterations of the tuned percussion, the use of the piano as tuned percussion, snaps on the inside piano – all of these helped the music to move formlessly in and out of different moods.
Two of the pieces, tracks 4 and 6, focus on the use of the sruti box as a strong background presence. The sruti is always a good choice of instrument if you want a versatile but unobtrusive background cushion on which to sit with your various gestures. In fact that’s why I think the instrument was designed. I’ve always understood and experienced the sruti box in the context of an accompaniment instrument for chanting mantras, or for singing simple Sanskrit praise songs, like the tanpura. It’s not surprising therefore that it never offends. In track 4 exploits the beating inherent in the drone’s texture, which contrasts well with the piano figures. Track 6 sets a range of musical resources against the drone: inside piano scrapes (bowed perhaps?) which are so physical that you feel the materiality of the instruments with more than your ears, alongside a synth bass, adding texture and density. There is never too much at one time, a temptation wisely avoided throughout this album. In fact we return to the simple and time-honoured beauty of a figure and ground presentation, true in fact to the sruti and other dronal instruments.
The last track is a short coda to the album, a sweet miniature with piano and synth, another figure on ground.
The music never collapses into the easy option of alluding to the filmic, so simple to do with a piano whereby the player simply wanders around in a floating space of meaningless random chords and lines, often contextualised as ‘ambient’ to cover up any lack of design or intention. The artists’ close attention to the morphologies and materiality of the various sounds is far too important to let that particular kind of reductionism spoil the work.
Finally, going back over the output of Aural Terrains, I’d offer the suggestion that, because of its careful use of restricted resources, the hints of restraint and its fine treatment of pace and dynamics, Knotted Alembic is Chrysakis’ best offering to date. - James Wyness - 02.01.2012