I’ve been waiting for this album to come out since the Bang on a Can Marathon back in June. That was when I heard Maya Beiser premiere Michael Harrison’s Just Ancient Loops. During the BOAC Marathon, I was volunteering at the merchandise table. Immediately after the final, resounding chord of Just Ancient Loops, crowds of people rushed over to see if Cantaloupe had an album with the piece on it for sale. Unfortunately, we had to turn everyone away with the promise that there would be a CD soon. The good news for all those disappointed Marathon-goers is that the wait is finally over.
Called Time Loops, Harrison’s new album contains his piece Just Ancient Loops as well as his pieces Raga Prelude I (Yaman) and Hijaz. In addition to works by Harrison, the album also includes two pieces that have greatly influenced the composer: Arvo Part’s Spiegel Im Spiegel and the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria. The title track of the album is Harrison’s reinterpretation of Ave Maria, which plays a recording of the Bach piano part in reverse while a cello accompanies, playing the retrograde of the Gounod cello melody.
The real draw to Harrison and Beiser’s new release is Just Ancient Loops. Following Harrison’s practice of using just intonation, the piece is a three-movement masterpiece composed of multi-layered cello tracks. In the piece, Harrison uses raga-inspired drones, minimalist rhythms and textures, and beautiful melodies to encompass us in a wonderful soundscape all inspired by ancient modes. The purity and beauty that is obtained from the cello in this piece is stunning. If I had one issue with Just Ancient Loops, it would be that Harrison explores too much of the beautiful timbre of the cello without delving into the grittier side of the instrument.
The first movement (Genesis) opens with a rhythmic pizzicato pattern played over a drone. This soon gives rise to a theme that is frequently found throughout the rest of the piece. The laid back and rhythmic first movement eventually leads into a slower moving, emotional second movement (Chorale) that is less rhythmic and more, as its name suggests, like a chorale. However, the third movement (Ascension) quickly breaks away and returns to a rhythmic, upbeat, and energetic-yet-laid-back feel reminiscent of the first movement. The finale continues to grow and evolve, eventually culminating in a final chord that exposes Harrison’s just intonation, sounding many of the partials emerging from the low drone that has served as a foundation for the entire three-movement piece. The ending of Just Ancient Loops sums it up perfectly as a whole: absolutely stunning.
The only thing that is missing from the CD release of Just Ancient Loops is Bill Morrison’s beautiful video he made to accompany the piece. Part of the experience of the premiere at the BOAC Marathon was watching Beiser perform the piece on stage as Morrison’s film was projected onto her and the screen behind her. The divorce of Harrison’s music and Morrison’s film is a loss of some of the magic that left such a profound and impression of the piece on myself and many of those in the audience.
Despite the original promise showed by Just Ancient Loops, Harrison’s other pieces fall flat in comparison. His Raga Prelude I (Yaman) is a pretty piece, but it feels like it lacks any depth and gives the feeling of improvising cello-piano lines that last for 8 minutes. Hijaz suffers from a very strong sense of disconnect. It feels like Harrison attempted to combine two independent ideas in a seemingly awkward way. He begins by developing one idea before dropping it for another, develops the second idea for a while and then returns to develop the first idea again. This independent development feels disjointed, and while the end result is great, the path the composer took to obtain it feels awkward.
The remaining pieces on the album are ones that have influenced Harrison as well as Harrison’s reinterpretation of Ave Maria. Harrison and Beiser’s performance of Spiegel Im Spiegel is beautifully haunting, and their interpretation of the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria is wonderful. Harrison’s Time Loops is also fun to listen to just for the sake of hearing how it compares to the Bach/Gounod version.
Aside from the minor let down of Raga Prelude I (Yaman) and Hijaz, the performances by Harrison and especially Beiser are fantastic. While Harrison is often providing the background accompaniment, Beiser shines brightly in the foreground. Through Harrison’s music, Beiser is able to exploit the diversity of the cello and show the listener what she and her instrument are truly capable of. With her performance on Time Loops, Beiser once against reaffirms herself as a major force in new music.
Some letdowns aside, this is a great album. Harrison’s music is masterfully written and Beiser provides a stellar performance for this fantastic release. Fans from the BOAC Marathon who rushed the merchandise table will be more than satisfied, and those who missed the premiere of Just Ancient Loops in June are in for a treat.
Preorder Time Loops on Bang on a Can’s website (release date October 30, 2012).