CD Review: Phillip Bimstein: Larkin Gifford’s Harmonica (Starkland)

Larkin Gifford coverFor this CD Utah-based composer Phillip Bimstein has collected recordings of assorted characters from the western US – a croupier, a baseball ground beer seller, a harmonica player – and combined them with appropriate concrete sounds (slot machines, baseball commentary, croaking frogs) and poppy chamber music arrangements. Bimstein interweaves these elements with a light touch, bouncing his sounds around a tonal, rhythmically straightforward musical space.

The disc opens with a three-part suite, Casino, which is representative of much of the rest of the CD. Its combination of cute wind quintet riffs, sampled dice throws and old-timer yarns at first seems simplistic and a little gauche. But Bimstein is cannier than this first impression grants. His arrangements, combining spoken word, sampled sounds and live instruments, don’t divide up into those three layers as easily as you might think. The interview texts are cut up to generate rhythmic patterns that mirror the instrumental backing; the instruments imitate the sounds of the sampled material; and the samples comfortably drift between the two, here providing close semantic support to the text, here entering the abstract instrumental realm.

So what we get is a multi-sided, continuous world that moves between speech, recognisable aural signifiers and abstract music, out of which emerge the characters Bimstein wants to show us. In some pieces – the Bushy Wushy Rag, or the three movements of Larkin Gifford’s Harmonica – the musical material itself is composed of quotations, notational samples, that join in the cut-up fun and games. All these ‘found’ materials are generally presented as repeating phrases within simple structures (although the actual details of construction are nifty enough to reward close listening), edging Bimstein’s compositional voice, and certainly any sense of artistic critique, out of the picture. What’s left are good-natured places where good guys like Larkin Gifford simply are. And this, Bimstein seems to be saying, is all enough.

More info and ordering details are at Starkland’s website.

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