Review of The Gorilla Variations [12k2013]

Textura (.ORG)

An unusual release in many respects (and not just because of odd title), The Gorilla Variations brought Virginia-based sound artists Stephen Vitiello and Molly Berg together to create the soundtrack for a project by Brazilian Éder Santos . Interestingly, though only a three-minute piece was needed from the duo for Boxing The Game, Santos’s video portrait of Idi Amin, a lonely gorilla housed in the Belo Horizonte Zoo, Vitiello and Berg recorded forty minutes of improvised material, the idea being that they would then send Santos a three-minute segment for the video. Not only did the pair create the requested piece (using an eclectic assortment of sound sources including Berg’s vocals, clarinet, and samples, and Vitiello’s guitar, bass, and electric piano, plus field recordings of chirping birds, dribbling water, et al. from the Richmond area), but they also produced four variations using the session’s material. The duo continued collaborating in the months that followed, with five more tracks ultimately joining the original five.

The ten limpid electro-acoustic settings inhabit a middle ground between song and soundscape with the mood generally meditative and the material serenading and even gamelan-inflected at times. Focal points shift from Berg’s soft vocal murmuring (“Geese”) or clarinet multi-tracking (“Dogs/Last Clarinet”) in one piece to Vitiello’s loops of guitar shadings and plucks (“Variation 5”) in another. The bleat of Berg’s clarinet gives the music a distinguishing character, and much the same could be said for the recurring glimmers of electric piano and bright chimes of Vitiello’s electric guitar. “Gorilla/Variation 1 (for Éder Santos)” offers a representative sampling of the material’s wide-ranging instrumental colour: bell tinklings, guitar slivers, Theremin-like whistles, electric piano, clarinet, field and sounds (outdoor noises, dog barking) all emerge during the meditative setting, whose near-static character and chord progression nods in the direction of Eno’s opening Music For Airports piece. “Kora” augments Berg’s wordless vocal musings and Vitiello’s guitar lattices with bird chirps while “Geese” exudes a jaunty and whimsical feel. If there’s a weakness to the album, it’s the absence of a dramatic arc with each piece a largely even-keeled and peaceful setting.

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