February 16, 2019
Australian Art Orchestra
Water Pushes Sand
Jazzhead Head 234
Perhaps these CDs could be re-titled Erik Griswold macro and Erik Griswold micro, for they present two approaches to the American-born, Brisbane-based composer’s musical concepts. Pared down to a single prepared piano played by the composer, Yokohama Flowers offers 15 brief meditations associated with the theatre projecting of hand-treated super 8 films created by Louise Curham. As opposite as a forest clearing is to an ornamented palace, Water Pushes Sand is Griswold’s newest exploration of the music and culture of Sichuan, China. The 11-track suite is interpreted by five members of the Australian Art Orchestra (AAO), including Griswold plus five local Sichuan Chinese instrument specialists.
Seemingly distinct enough to reflect the affiliated visuals, Yokohama Flowers’ 15 tracks, and range from slightly more than two minutes to a bit over 5½, yet without moving pictures they come across as intermezzos whose shape and resolution depends on how the narratives are overlaid with specific preparations. Depending on the keyboard-and-inner string techniques, the results can be playful or pressurized. For instance the title track consists of stops and reprises that could come from a marimba and a piano chording at the same time. The harpsichord-like plucks which animate “Falling Water” are not so much liquid as solidly divided into two contrasting melodies one high-pitched and the other low. And the aptly-titled “Circles” showcases spinning timbres which establish themselves singly, then encircle each successive tone. “Ball-peen Hammer” offers repetative strums on constrained and tightly-wound strings, with a welcome interlude of lighter plucks, while the low-pitched continuum on “Shinnkansen” that accompanies vibraharp-like echoes above it, sounds as if it wants to become the theme from Shaft, with the following “Chronophobia” expressing a similar motif with more overtones as pitches move northwards. “Domestic Bliss”, the longest track, is the most fully developed as well, with Griswold managing to project tonal layers that could be attributed alternately to a harpsichord, a vibraphone or a steel drum, with theme variations that end up becoming instances of syncopated swing.
Availing himself of the multiplicity of the many tonal colors from Occidental and Oriental instruments, the 11 compositions on Water Pushes Sand are more expressive and multi-hued than ones performed by a single keyboard. Framed by distinctive vocalized tracks, which to western ears resemble Chinese-language vocal baying, the remaining compositions develop notable east-west continuity with Asian instruments like suona and guzheng paired craftily with Western standbys like trumpet and double bass. The most outstanding instance of this musical miscegenation occurs on “Bandong Chant”, which strips a percussion-driven Mao-era work song of its political content – at least for non-Chinese speakers – and transforms it into a call-and-response groove piece with Griswold’s own syncopated piano chords squirming underneath an intense alto saxophone solo from Tim O’Dwyer that swiftly moves from mellow to multiphonic. Similarly “Falling Water” becomes a foot-tapping swing piece once the Asian string slides are replaced by heraldic tones from Peter Knight’s trumpet, thumping drum backbeats and electronic oscillations. Part of the appeal of this CD is the adroit use of so-called field records, preserved from Sichuan street scenes that are blended with real-time arrangements and improvisations. Creating distinctive introductions or backgrounds the boisterous clamor on a track such as “Forgotten Streets” works up from angled guzheng picking and glissandi and echoing bamboo flute peeps to introduce Westernized percussion smacks from Vanessa Tomlinson, and later near- bottleneck effects from the Chinese string players, leading to a narrative that seems to take inspiration equally from the Blues and Asian court music.
Overall, the Australians providing musical echoes of many forms from small Dixieland-Swing bands to more abstract post-modern improvisations, especially from Knight’s and O’Dwyer’s horns,, while the in sync local players create distinctive, looped timbres which to westerners define Chinese opera, plus the occasional captured street sound. Therefore this admixture moves through and enlivens each of the tracks with little fissure. Distinctively, the penultimate and climatic track, “Changing Faces” lives up to the promise of its title, the ensemble and the project itself. Supposedly a reimagining of Chinese opera, the mix of brassy trumpet sweeps and sliding flute and suona flutters plus positioned cymbal clacks creates a hybrid sound that is distinctive and true to both cultures.
On his own as a sound colorist with piano preparations, Griswold has created 15 melodies which divorced from visuals, are cohesive but almost interchangeable variations on a single theme. With the help of the AAO and Chinese musicians however, the 11 tracks on Water Pushes Sand create a dramatic ever-changing sound picture that calls for repeated listening.
Track Listing: Flowers: 1. Alone Time 2. Falling Water 3. Distraction 4. Shinnkansen 5. Chronophobia 6. Yokohama Flowers 7, Ball-peen Hammer 8. Color Wheel 9. Day Dream 10. Wind-up Gamelan 11. Domestic Bliss 12. Descend Deeper 13. Eternal Bliss 14. Circles 15. When We Were Strangers
Personnel: Flowers: Erik Griswold (prepared piano)
Track Listing: Water: 1. Joy at the Sunrise 2. Here Come the Waves 3. Rivers of Bicycles 4. Forgotten Streets 5. Bandong Chant 6. Clouds in White 7. Mapo Tofu 8. Remember Harry 9. Water Pushes Sand 10. Changing Faces 11. Joy at the Sunrise Reprise
Personnel: Water: Peter Knight (trumpet, laptop electronics); Tim O’Dwyer (alto, baritone saxophones); Shi Lei (bamboo flute); Erik Griswold (piano); Zhou Yu (suona, Chinese violin, bamboo flute); Zhou Tao Tao (guzheng); Sam Pankhurst (bass); Vanessa Tomlinson, Zhong Kai Zhi (percussion); Zheng Sheng Li (voice)