Review of Sti.ll [12k2060]

A Closer Listen (.COM)

Most albums have one lead story; Sti.ll has two.  The first is that the album presents an acoustic ensemble reworking of an electronic classic.  The second is that it comes in an extensive hardcover edition, thanks to greyfade’s brand new FOLIO imprint.  The shift from lowercase to upper is an indication of its importance.  While the book contains digital downloads of both Sti.ll and its source material, Stil. (2002), the new album is also available on luscious orange vinyl.

Let’s talk about the second story first.  We’ve often lamented the dearth of liner notes in the digital era, which robs listeners not only of context, but of the very knowledge of the participants.  Physical formats are often objets d’art, pored over by listeners as they play the music, seeking insight into the meaning and construction of what they hear.  The FOLIO edition of Sti.ll is a fan’s dream come true.  Ironically, Joseph Branciforte was a fan of Taylor Deupree‘s Still. from the very start, and was overwhelmed when the composer invited him to rearrange one of his seminal works.  “Why?” the arranger asked.  “There’s not a single sound I would want to change on that album.”  The full story, covering all the hardest challenges, can be found in the book, along with keen observations from clarinetist Madison Greenstone.

At the heart of the discussion lie two questions: What is ambient music, especially this particular type of ambient music, and how can it be translated from electronic to acoustic?  One of Deupree’s fascinations is the practice of repetition with incremental changes.  These may seem microscopic, as in the interactions of looped snippets in the original “Snow-Sand,” or demonstrate measurable growth over time, as in the modern version of “Recur.”  Often one pattern remains constant while another is in flux, a process that can be controlled by computer down to the microsecond, but that grows unstable when live performers are introduced.  One of the beauties of the new rendition is that natural “imperfections” of humans playing the same notes multiple times imitate the original fluctuations.  The inspiration for Sti.ll came from Hiroshi Sugimoto’s collection Seascapes, of which Deupree writes, “While at first glance all of the photographs ‘look the same,’ it quickly becomes evident that they teem with movement and variation.  It is a work of both repetition and constant change.”  The same can be said of the music of both Stil. and Sti.ll.

As Philip Sherburne writes in his introduction, “there’s ample pleasure to be found in shuttling between the two recordings.”  Yet Sti.ll is also its own creature, not simply an acoustic mirror reflected across the decades.  While listening to “Snow/Sand” (now with backslash instead of hyphen), one first notices the repetition, and then the attention shifts to the parts of the composition that are not repeating: the micro rather than the macro.  The greater one’s attention span, the more one is rewarded.  In the fifth minute, what might otherwise have seemed a subtle shift becomes incredibly obvious; in the tenth, a new melodic line is introduced.  In the closing minute of the sixteen-minute piece, a whole host of shifts seem to occur at once.  The closest corollary is the dawn chorus: a keening of what seem like the same birds making the same cries, but that ends up being substantially different every quarter-hour.  “Recur” offers the best example of such development, recomposed for guitar, cello, double bass, flute, lap harp and percussion.  Branciforte admits that this was the album’s most challenging piece, the breakthrough arriving when the decision was made to allow for a looser sonic interpretation.

The static and beeps of “Temper” are fun to compare with those of the original version, in which the static sounds less like water and the beeps are more smudged.  Clarinet and shaker carry the weight of the composition, Greenstone demonstrating incredible breath control, as well as (in the words of Branciforte) “tiny nuances in technical process, color, viscosity, and flavor.”  Pitch bends imitate wobbling tapes, lending the piece the feel of a buried cassette.  Greenstone compares the process to the Ship of Theseus, wondering if the ship is the same ship, or if the album is the same album.  The answer may lie in the fact that Sti.ll is not meant to be a copy, but a translation.

By the “title track” (we put this in quotes as the title is that of the initial album: “Stil.”), the ear has grown accustomed to minute variations.  Scored for vibraphone and bass drum, the twenty-minute track is most notable for its imitation of wind chimes.  What seems on the surface to be the album’s simplest track turns out to be one of its most complex.  The idea of stillness is finally exposed, as it connotes not an outer stillness – life is never still – but an inner stillness that allows one to intuit motion.  Counter-intuitively, an album centered around the concept of stillness turns out to be a celebration of flow.  (Richard Allen)

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