Eyvind Kang - The Narrow Garden [Ipecac Recordings - 2012]“The Narrow Garden” is the latest work by the violinist and composer Eyvind Kang. It has seven tracks, all wonderfully cohesive and yet different; roughly speaking there are four songs and three instrumental tracks - two of which enter more textural territories.
The first track, “Forest Sama’i”, starts with forest sounds and percussion; before flutes introduce a theme that snakes between “western” and “eastern” scales - I appreciate that these are ridiculously simplistic terms, but my knowledge of music theory is ridiculously simple too - and thus the die is cast for the rest of the album, melodically. The track builds on the flutes with spiralling strings and hand percussion, accented by bassy thumps reminiscent of gypsy wedding bands; after two insistent percussion hits, the ensemble then lurch into a grander rhythm, suggesting a stately room dotted with figures, dancing in ornate, formal patterns.
“Pure Nothing” is the first of the song-form tracks, with a setting of “Farai Un Vers De Dreit Nien” by Guilhem IX - wonderfully elusive words. These are sung beautifully, if austerely, by some female voices; accompanied by a similar, but reined-in, ensemble sound to “Forest Sama’i”. About halfway through, after a few instrumental flourishes, there is a quite heart-stopping moment where the ensemble and voices suddenly shift to very unexpected harmonies; with the voices taking on a pleading tone. Its genuinely breath-taking. Perhaps awoken by this unashamed beauty, my ears realise how “friendly” the pieces have been, thus far. I could easily play “The Narrow Garden” to my mother without her batting an eyelid; it wouldn’t sway her from her Cliff Richard records, but she wouldn’t label it a “racket” - which was the fate of most of my youthful listening.
With “Usnea”, the third track, there’s a change of pace; gone are the earthy rhythms, and more introspective, soundy areas are explored. There’s an electroacoustic feel, with wind instruments engaging in eerie, breathy solo monologues, against shifting, processed, background waves of resonant string sounds. (Indeed, one notable feature of the album is the space and freedom given to wind solos.) Its never aggressive in tone, but there’s a discordance, laden with dread. “Mineralia”, the piece following, is an early music dirge; with a female voice intoning over a majestic march. Its rather dark and relentless - it almost drags itself along.
The title track returns to the textural explorations of “Usnea”, with droning strings and long notes - almost composed with a breath-like structure. These discordant harmonies produce buried creaks and squeaks in the ear. After a while, the notes start ascending upwards, reminding me of Penderecki (although I’m sure there’s a better precedent); with the pace increasing till they finally break, revealing the sound of distant storm clouds.
“Nobis Natalis” is the penultimate track, and the shortest - a mere minute and a bit. It features, again, a female voice, shadowed by strings and wind instruments. It has a somewhat religious tone, but its over before you know it. Not that this is a criticism - such crystalline conciseness is a skilled act. The shortest track leads into the last, and longest, track: “Invisus Natalls”. This starts with a lone oboe, before the now familiar sounds of strings and percussion join the fray - though they’re joined here by some “desert-blues” type guitar, accenting the percussive rhythms. In rough terms, the first half explores a similar vein of rhythm and melody to “Pure Nothing”, with female vocals and wandering oboe; but the second half slowly builds into an eruption of discordant strings and wailing psychedelic guitar - its the one point on “The Narrow Garden” where the album seems to escape its chosen stylistic straitjacket. From this point on, the track grows into its own demise; with Kang even introducing the sound of crackling flames into the mix, dooming the piece to its fiery end.
This is a fine album. To be frank, some of the passages wouldn’t be out of place in a fantasy film like Lord Of The Rings (yes, I’ve chosen the worst example) - they have the same jaunty “folkiness” you would expect from such a soundtrack. There’s the same melodic sensibility, the same attempt at a “magic” (and this isn’t a bad thing - I’ll debate the merits of the Edward Scissorhands soundtrack with anyone…); the difference being I can’t remember a note of sound from the Lord Of The Rings, whereas one listen of “The Narrow Garden” stayed rooted in my brain. Even when its exploring textures and sounds, it remains an incredibly melodic work; slipping in and out of “eastern” scales (again, please excuse my ignorance) and the sound-world of early music pieces. But if there’s one passage, one moment, that justifies Eyvind Kang’s creation, its that wondrous change in “Pure Nothing”. I challenge anyone not to be enthralled by those few seconds…Martin P