Golden Retriever has proven that a basic combination of bass clarinet and modular synthesizer can take you more places than you might think.
Golden Retriever has proven across its first decade that a basic combination of bass clarinet and modular synthesizer can take you more places than you might think. Of course, anyone who’s ever heard a Keith Jarrett recording or experienced Robert Fripp work his magic with a strangely tuned guitar and an effects rig already knows that. On Rotations, Jonathan Sielaff (bass clarinet) and Matt Carlson (synths) deliver six compositions that range from the haunting to the nerve-wracking, though none of it is ever less than majestic in its execution or vision.
This time out, the pair has help from 10 musicians from the classical world, the Mousai Remix String Quartet, who add oboe, percussion, vibraphone and strings. The music remains largely minimalist, even spare, conjuring cinematic visions of dark, sleepless cities. There are other times when one imagines the material as the perfect companion through a long trudge in the snow on a winter’s day. The evocative nature of the material is, in some ways, its greatest strength and a chance for the listener to create an imagination-based bond with the players and composers.
“A Kind of Leaving,” with its plangent keyboard figures and tendency to leave plenty of space between the notes, is sometimes reminiscent of Chopin or even George Winston’s most breathtaking work. With electronics sprinkled across the sound spectrum, we’re never fully invited to believe that this is music that could have fully emerged from another time, and yet it seems to transport us to somewhere deep in the heart of the Old World, where contemplative, slow-moving music could elevate the soul as easily as stimulate the intellect. “Thread of Light,” meanwhile, serves as a sister piece, a pleasantly mournful stroll through the ensemble’s quieter (but not necessarily staid) tendencies.
That’s not to say that the group isn’t above a little Sturm und Drang, as found during the opening “Pelagic Tremor” or the avant-garde exploration “Thirty-Six Stratagems,” the latter a clanging, banging piece that harkens to something Frank Zappa might have conjured. It’s less jokey, though, than FZ was in his later years and that’s part of what saves the piece from devolving into a wash of noise. Meanwhile, “Tessellation” and the closing “Sunsight” nicely give us a sense of resolution and a reason to return for deeper listening.
With contemporary acts such as yMusic developing a new canon that marries the worlds of popular-music imagination with the storied traditions of the classical world, it’s fascinating to watch a project such as this reach fruition. The halcyon days of Glass and Reich may never be seen again, but at least there is new hope, a generation of bright minds dedicated to breaking new ground that excites in us the same tendencies as those past masters. It remains to be seen if Golden Retriever will revisit this (or a similar) strategy in the future, but whatever the duo should embark upon will likely be forward-thinking and a sturdy bridge toward a bright future. Rotations will enhance your understanding of how the simple can become radically complex.