Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Review of Miho: Journey to the Mountain

The end of 2010 was a busy time of year, with four music projects going at once plus the ordinary insanity of the Christmas season.  In the middle of this, I received a CD in the mail from the Paul Winter Consort entitled Miho: Journey to the Mountain.  I am not sure what list I ended up on, however setting any unsettling wonder aside about the possible compromised nature of my privacy, I decided to listen to the CD several times and provide comments, as the card requested, despite my never having been solicited for such a thing before, so here goes:
The CD has a very natural presentation from the music itself, to the performances, to the photographs and artwork.  The Miho is a museum outside of Kyoto Japan, whose design was inspired by the traditional story of Shangri-la, from the winding river-like road, to the tunnel you pass through, to the subsequent emergence onto a landscape covered in blossoming cherry trees and the expansive wilderness.  The Miho was met with many restrictions in the construction, which required most of the museum to be built below ground, so as to not interrupt the natural ridge line of the mountains.  The liner notes provide a concise and interesting background of the museum's creation and of Paul Winter's experience about how the album came to be.  The pictures provide a glimpse into the experience of the Miho, with a very specific architecture designed to meld into the landscape and incredibly lush vistas.

The album was mostly recorded in the Miho which has an impressive acoustic space.  Many of the tracks are solos and the reverberations hang in the air like cloud.  The atmosphere serves to further outline the harmony, which add to the meditative quality of the album.

I am not familiar with Paul Winter, and have only heard a couple of Paul McCandless' recordings.  McCandless' name is inevitable for me since I studied oboe for many years and he is one of the few jazz oboists, or perhaps more accurately, successful jazz oboists.  I am however not generally a fan of the saxophone, perhaps turned off by the two-season stint I spent as a drum-major in high school trying to get saxophone players in line.  But despite my limited tolerance, I found myself really enjoying this album. Paul Winter has a smooth even tone, and employs gently jazzy nuances with more grace than I expected.

I have heard a few recordings of Paul McCandless before.  He has a unique but nice reliable sound on both the oboe and English horn.  It certainly differs from my experience and preference of a more rigid classical approach, but he seems to exhibit a gentle effort, it makes me very curious about his breathing and reed technique, and what I could learn from it.  His performances on the Heckelphone was the most interesting for me as I have not heard one in performance before.  It fit the mood of the album, which features many ethnic instruments, which though exotic, I would have to say the Heckelphone was the most unusual instrument on this album for me; many have heard a bansuri, koto, or the varied percussion several times as they, being the most region-specific colors of central Asia and the far east, transcend leitmotiv conventions to inevitably find their way into countless film soundtracks, the second a film references anything non-western.

The solo pieces have an improvised quality to them, though it is all glued together with the opening three-note motive, which Winter said was inspired by the triangular patterns of the Miho's architecture.  Overall for being an east-meets-west endeavor the album is quite tonal and accessible.  There is not much in the way of a harmonic challenge to the listener, which I think is appropriate.  But the music does not come across as particularly trite or simple.  Instead there is a naive, earnest quality to the music, that I tend to find a-typical in music of this sort, which tends to revisit tired cliches.

There are a wide range of Asian instruments and performers, and many pieces are self-consciously titled with names like "Saxophone," or "Bansuri & Saxophone," and possibly my favorite piece on the album "Yangjin (Words of Wish Fulfillment)" titled for the singer Yangjin Lamu, a Tibetan singer and the performer of the piece.

Many of the pieces contain a synth pad background which I find both appropriate and annoying.  It's a string/vocal/synth pad sound which helps establish harmony, but also hovers awash in the background.  It would have been more interesting to have a custom sample in the space as it kind of recreates the same atmospheric quality as the reverb, but with a bit more specificity.  The pad sound seems to harken back to earlier things I've heard from a certain kind of new-age approach to music.  I suspect that some of these musicians have been using that sound for a long time, and perhaps it is time to find a new sound.

Overall I am quite charmed with this album, with the exception of one selection: I am not sure exactly how I feel about Borodin's The Steppes of Central Asia, which seems to have been chosen for two reasons: the showcase of the English horn, and that it has "Asia" in the title.  McCandless performs it well, and the concept of taking an improvised solo of a classical phrase is interesting.  The washy background texture is appropriate, but a Russian's impression of Central Asia, specifically that particular time and school of harmonic thought, reinterpreted with a washy pad and jazz English horn, I'm not sure if it fits with the rest of what they have presented.  Although, simultaneously, I can't think of anything more American.  Lest I am called out as a hypocrite, I feel completely the opposite of the Bach sonata, which is performed on the Soprano Sax with piano and cello accompaniment (though I wonder how it would have sounded if Winter had incorporated some of the other exotic instruments in lieu of, or in addition to).  Perhaps there is always room for a Bach adagio to fit anywhere, or perhaps is just a better programming choice than Borodin.

The album also has samples of landscapes and animal sounds.  The two pieces, "The Elephant Dance" and the "Whale Raga" incorporate recordings of the animals purring, growling, spouting and singing, respectively.  Throughout the album there are interludes of crickets, birds, and wind.  It is a convention that could be overdone, but here it is not.  You get just enough to enjoy the moment as it bridges certain pieces together, and it really fits as part of the natural cohesion of the overall experience.

Throughout my busy workday, I found myself looking forward to repeated listenings of the album and the tranquility it provided.  It brings to mind the journey inspired by the story, and the final piece Morning Sun is just the sort of piece to bring it to a gentle close, like the meditative end of a yoga workout.  Miho: Journey to the Mountain is a cohesive meditation on folklore, nationality, nature, history, politics, architecture, and the way the often seemingly disparate ideas of our world can come together naturally in music.

Explore Miho: Journey to the Mountain on Paul Winter's website.