Composer and sound artist John Morton works from his Rockland County, NY, studio manually and electronically reconfiguring music boxes. This CD collects five of his pieces, for music boxes and additional instruments, singers and electronics. The thing with music boxes, most obvious on the closing Amazing Grace Variations, is that they’re mechanically pre-programmed to come out with certain melodies: the medium is the material. Even when you’ve pulled them apart and put them back together, some residue of their original purpose (with evocations of child-like innocence, perhaps) and musical content (certain pitch and rhythm sequences) drips through.
In four of the pieces on this CD, Morton takes such fragmentary glimpses of the familiar that his music boxes bring out, and explodes them through Max/msp to fields of feedback and white noise (passages of Amazing Grace recall Jimi Hendrix’s assault on the Stars and Stripes), bursts of hyperactivity, or great resonant drones.
The exception is the title track, which uses no electronic processing but is instead for an all-live ensemble of five voices and five music boxes and sets the poem ‘The Cathedral as Process’ by Cynthia Nadelman. In this the aspects of disintegration embodied in Morton’s mutilated instruments are carried through into the vocal parts through the use of very long-phrased, exposed solo lines that cause the voice to very slightly wobble and crack at the edges. Unfortunately music box material – a more-or-less continuous thrumming underneath the voices – feels neglected at the expense of the vocal music; it certainly functions as a secondary layer, and tends to drift out of view as it carries on its own way. One effect of this is that the piece as a whole can seem a little laboured as the voices work their slow way through the text without much interaction between them and the boxes to keep up the energy.
In the main, though, this is a fascinating CD. At its best – the birdsong-inspired Ta-wee, for example – Morton elaborates a rich dialogue between naive and sophisticated technology that moves into some surprising sonic territory.