Two recent Phil Kline releases

Around the World in a Daze
John the Revelator

This simultaneous release by Starkland and Cantaloupe showcases two contrasting sides to Phil Kline’s music. Other than the name, there’s not much on the surface connecting these two albums. Around the World in a Daze is a double-DVD package, commissioned specifically to exploit surround sound audio with lots of extras on the second disc, like a blockbuster movie release. John the Revelator, on CD, is more straightforward – a Mass for voices and string quartet, no less.

Daze is, according to Starkland’s publicity, the first work commissioned for a full-length surround sound recording. As a result, there is quite a lot of hyperbole in the accompanying materials – “a landmark work”, writes John Schaefer, comparing it to Das Wohltemperierte Klavier in its specific exploitation of new technologies. (Kline himself is more modest: “It is not Die Kunst der Surround”, he writes.)

I’m sceptical about the inherent value of this being the first surround sound commission – non site-specific spatial music has been around since at least Gruppen, surely? – but, since I don’t have access to surround sound facilities and my best option of listening to a DVD is through my laptop, I’m in no position to comment further on that side of things.

Sticking with the sleevenotes, it’s clear early on that Kline is very attracted to the cool possibilities that multi-track surround sound recording opens up for him. He’s especially pleased, for example, that at one point in ‘Pennies from Heaven’ the overlapping layers expands up to “hundreds of thousands” of bells. That attraction is fine, but there must be a temptation to fetishise that potential and abdicate one’s responsibilities as a composer. There were times in this 18-minute track, for example, when I thought I’d lost sight of Kline’s hand on the tiller. Somehow, though – and through the lightest of touches – he keeps the whole thing alive and on course.

Not every track is an elaborate soundscape of this sort. In fact, the music collected here ranges pretty widely into song forms (‘The Maryland Sample’), almost-field recordings (‘On the Waterfront’), to digital dissections of Wagner (‘Luv U 2 Death’). If you strip away all the portentous verbiage that comes with the music, a lot of what Kline is doing is pretty uncomplicated: identifying interesting possibilities within the format (similar processes running at different speeds in different channels, for example) and letting them speak for themselves. The range of results is a reflection of that exploratory, open-minded approach. To my surprise, I found the more ‘composerly’ tracks – ‘Grand Etude for the Elevation’, say – less distinctive and less interesting. When Kline keeps it simple (and his best-known work, like Unsilent Night, is super-simple) the results are very seductive.

John the Revelator is more of a piece than an album of individual tracks. Described as a Mass for six voices it intersperses seven movements from the Ordinary with nine ‘Propers’ to texts chosen by Kline (including the Old Testament, David Shapiro, early American spirituals and Samuel Beckett). The textual materials are thus pretty diverse, and are matched by the musical styles (medieval polyphony, Bruckner, Nyman, the Beach Boys) that are also stirred into the mix. One of the most immediately striking things when listening is how well Kline holds all this together. I think it comes about through a general strategy of keeping each movement short and singular and, more significantly as a point of style, consistent approaches to phrasing (regular), harmony (uncomplicated) and voicing (chunky). If this was a hip-hop album it would be ‘well-produced’: the sonic space is uncluttered but consistently filled across the whole range to keep the ear’s attention total and undivided.

The overall effect is therefore many things but not quite anything. It’s perfectly crafted, polished to a high sheen, and clever in its way. Some bits (like the stretched harmonies of ‘Dark was the night’) are very lovely. But overall it stays too long within a safe zone of its own making. And that sonic consistency becomes a real barrier to introducing drama or conflict. Sixteen parts is a lot for a single cycle without any of them asking what they were doing there, and I was desperate to find something that would bite back and surprise me.

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