The Cloisters – S/T
Posted In: Aaron Martin, Aine O'Dwyer, Brendan Moore, Daniel Merrill, Hanna Tuulikki, Michael Tanner, Second Language, The Cloisters
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The Cloisters is the latest musical endeavour of Michael Tanner (ska Plinth). An ensemble, The Cloisters features Aine O’Dwyer (United Bible Studies) on harp, Daniel Merrill (Dead Rat Orchestra) on viola, Aaron Martin on cello, Hanna Tuulikki on church harmonium, and Tanner. This debut release finds the group creating sounds that expand on Tanner’s work as Plinth, yet refine the palette of that work to create a very striking debut.
The album opens with what sounds like a ferial cat sleeping, a door opening, footsteps leaving, and a quick swell of strings. Lately, I’ve been interested in that fine line between music that is emotive versus music that is evocative (i.e. music that is loaded with emotion versus music that creates a space for you to interpret and feel on your own). The Cloisters, from note one is an evocative album loaded with mystery, but within those mysteries is a sense of emotional weight. “Riverchrist”, this first song, drifts along before fading at about the 8-minute mark. Then, something altogether new emerges. Traces of the past are still there, but all is stripped away to just harmonium. This sets in place a pattern for the whole album: each composition contains within it smaller pieces of music. What’s interesting about this strategy is that as someone who is interested in the past, Tanner creates musical pasts within his own compositions here. And as new and different as these shifting tides may feel within the narrative, they always feel as though they are defined by their immediate past. At 11 minutes into the first track, something new is born as the dulcimer steps into drive the momentum of the music. What’s great is that each player is given a moment to take the lead in this opening piece. When the dulcimer appears, it brings a sense of urgency that further embeds the sense of mystery the record has already created. As the piece winds down, it evokes warm, uplifting hues. Despite only being the first composition, “Riverchrist” ends on a note of closure and feels like a contained whole.
Second piece “The Lock Keeper” is much shorter and blends harp, piano, and some gentle electronic flourishes to create a song that is striking and immediate. It continues with the warm tones that end the first composition, and even its brevity, offers one of the album’s most resonantly beautiful moments.
“Freohyll Nocturne – Hymn” blends bird sounds and some string work at the outset. As dulcimer enters, the whole world of the record is awash in mystery again. Tanner’s work often conjures visual symbols that seem to match the sounds; something about The Cloisters’ more mysterious moments feels like the equivalent of walking along a hallway of old paintings of well posed Victorian aristocrats from the 19th century, but hidden in their midst are memento moris (photos of the dead posed with the living), and you don’t know which is which. But as the next chapter of the composition takes hold, the bright colours are fighting their way through again. In the world of The Cloisters, light and dark are all over the place, but seldom blend or make contact. 2/3rds into the composition, an electronic crackle blends with some screeching strings to create something mournful and lingering. As the piece winds down, human voice enters the mix sounding ancient, ethereal, and disembodied. Martin’s quivering strings put the piece to rest.
Final piece “A Pelagic Recital” offers the album’s quaintest composition and seems to be a single contained chapter, unlike the other longer pieces on the record. Strings swell in the middle, adding even more brightness to the plucked harp sounds that dominate the piece. As the album ends, it feels like a definitive end – even the creak of someone getting off of a bench or a door opening can be heard. But something about the music is so warm and inviting that it begs for a return.
A bonus disc contains six extra songs that help to fill that hankering for more after the album finishes. Although not as cohesive as the album, each composition is engulfing and feels like a deserving and rewarding coda to the album.
The Cloisters is a potent record. Tanner says in the press release that he was attempting to “see if I could retain the style of music I’ve been making for 12 years now, but still try and get out of the box, so to speak.” How he does this is by minimizing the electronic elements and advancing the modern classical aspects of his work. It’s as if he removes the digital fog (a manifestation of decay?) that usually surrounds the more classical aspects of his work. The overall effect is that rather than viewing the past through the lens of the present, he immerses his sound in the past. The true feat though is that as he does so, he avoids the pitfalls of idealizing or demonizing the past. Also of note is that the record has an incredible use of texture and space – this new format allows each instrument/source sound to breathe – each player feels vital on this record. Overall, The Cloisters is a record that creeps up on you and makes vivid a time and place that no longer exist. Strongly recommended for lovers of all things fall.
- Brendan Moore (@essentialyes) for Fluid Radio