AEM076 Bing and Ruth

I once read an essay that conjectured that the moments we feel most fully alive and present in the world are the moments in which we get closest to the impossible. For example, what if you turned around right now and Bill Murray was in your bedroom, staring at you, eating an apple? You would probably remember that moment for the rest of your life, and it would certainly put a thrill into the rest of your day, if not your week or month. Think of all the conversations you would have about it (“I have no idea how he got in! And then he just climbed out the window, never said a word!” ), whereas if you turned around and found the pile of dirty clothes you left there yesterday, you wouldn’t even remember that moment ten minutes later. This idea has stuck with me since then (it’s not unlikely that I’ve mangled or misunderstood it in some way, but if so then it is now my idea) and it resonates with my experience of music as well as my experience of life. The music that always grips me in the most visceral and immediate way is the music that sounds impossible, that generates in me a feeling of joyful surprise. Sometimes it happens in straight-up pop music, if I hear a new three chord song that sounds so eternal and so unique I can’t believe it wasn’t already written decades ago, or an unconventional yet lovely chord progression or melody. More often it only lasts for a moment, a rhythmic hitch in the chorus of a song or one bar of sublime and strange harmony. These are the moments in pop songs I play back over and over again, but in other modes of composition, minus the familiar pop anchors, the feeling of being in wonderfully unfamiliar territory can last for far longer.

Bing and Ruth, the compositional outlet for Brooklyn-based pianist David Moore, manages to reach and sustain this feeling of the impossible impressively well. His lovely, winding pieces manage to achieve some of the same hypnotic and otherworldly qualities as electric and electronic music despite the fact that they are built almost entirely out of acoustic textures (my first, probably simplistic, reaction to hearing Bing and Ruth was to think “acoustic Stars of the Lid” ). The key to the otherworldliness in Moore’s work is the combination of disparate instruments to form singular, unified sounds that seem entirely alien to the instruments we think we know so well. For example, there is a wash of sound in B-side “go on.” which sounds to me like clarinet, cello and bowed cymbals, but part of the beauty and the fun of the music is that it’s very hard to tell just by listening what is making the strange sounds that you are hearing.

Moore is also unafraid of allowing his music to unfold naturally and gradually, which accounts for the longer track times and the sense of luxurious pacing. Exploring for three minutes the sound of two clarinets slipping in and out of tune with one another with an aching slowness (as on the very start of “go on.” ) is something that takes a bit of compositional bravery, but it more than pays off. As with much minimalism (this is, in fact, one of the points of Cage’s often mocked “4’33’’” , which causes the audience to listen not to silence but to the ambient and human sound in the concert hall), the simplicity and clarity of the ideas causes the audience to listen with an intense focus seldom given to music that dances and cavorts for attention. The sound of the accelerating and decelerating beats, generated by the two tones as they drift apart and then back together, is a fascinating and strange one, putting the focus not on the pitches of the two woodwinds but on the rhythms generated by their intonation differences (Beats are natural sound interference generated by two tones which are very close together but not quite in unison. They sound like a rhythmic swelling, almost like tremolo, the speed of which varies by how close the two tones are to one another). Around this locus, Moore gradually adds other instruments, culminating in the arrival of his piano, which plays a gentle, steady, three-chord pattern. Over this pattern there are fragments of lovely, melancholic piano melodies set against drones created by the intersection of bowed cymbals with bowed strings and analog synths with mellow clarinets, combining pitches and textures from different instruments into one sound that is unrecognizable and inimitable. The description may sound labored but the music is anything but. The effect is stunning, and it’s only enhanced by the moments when you hear a human voice or a cello emerge with a clarity that’s hauntingly brief. The way the song melts back into a single note at the very end (this time cello overtones and voice, I think) is a moment of delicate and perfect symmetry.

The A-side “Rails” drawn from the band’s forthcoming City Lake album, begins with some Reichian clapping, overlapping different claves like puzzle pieces and then matching them with a piano figure that neatly parallels their rhythms. Like the much sparser piano figure in “go on.” , this serves as an anchor for the rest of the song and a springboard for overlapping vocal, string and reed melodies, which sit just far enough back in the mix that you have to really focus to draw them out. They always seem to dance away from your ear, and just as soon as you catch on to one it disappears and you find yourself suddenly drawn to a different melody. Nothing ever seems to repeat, and the song has a lightness to it that would almost make it sound improvised if it weren’t so carefully woven together. It really ought to be said that the musicians who give life to Moore’s pieces are immensely skillful and subtle (for those keeping score, or trying to discern various instruments, the lineup is as follows: Becca Stevens, Voice; Jean Rohe, Voice; Jeremy Viner, Clarinet; Patrick Breiner, Clarinet; Greg Heffernan, Cello; Leigh Stuart, Cello; Jeff Ratner, Acoustic Bass; Chris Berry, Percussion; Myk Freedman, Lap Steel; and Mike Effenberger, Analog Synth). Everything is in its right place, and all the sounds blend effortlessly together. Without such tightly, expertly controlled performances, the pieces could never reach their deeply textured heights.

My favorite moment in “Rails,” one which gives the listener a thrilling weightless feeling, is right around 4:20, when the floor tom and bass that have been with us for minutes suddenly drop out and a thick, clustered chord, composed of nearly every instrument in the band, swells and swells as if to burst. It’s a fantastically tense moment, and when the bass and drum come back in it’s with the same subtle part, understated as everything else in Moore’s music, yet in context, buoying up that thick cloud of sound, it feels absolutely triumphant, like the biggest sound in the world.

Rails Rails.mp3

go on go on.mp3