After entering ACL’s Top Ten Modern Composition releases for 2013 with his debut LP, Luke Howard returns to find high levels of excitement and expectation awaiting. Although the Melbourne-based composer’s follow-up does not disappoint, it also seems to attempt a tempering of such expectations by billing itself as music to accompany a limited-edition photo book, rather than music that stands augustly on its own. Of course, expectations are in the eye (or ear) of the beholder – many ACL readers would likely agree that scored composition often makes the finest standalone music anyway, as it unleashes the imagination while rewarding the most attentive.
Two & One soundtracks first and foremost Howard’s travels through Australia, Europe and North America; for the listener, it more tangibly relates to the fifty four photos in the accompanying book (the high quality of which I can vouch for). Barring a handful of dramatic exceptions, these pictures are as quiet and desolate as the music; specific shots are also labelled as having inspired each of the LP’s 10 tracks (only eight of which are presented digitally – a buyers’ bonus repeated from Sun, Cloud). As pleasing an addition as the photo book is, after repeated listens the music alone should offer a richer journey for listeners, as it will be one personal to each.
Retelling your travels may be a well-trodden concept for an album, but Two & One’s success lies in how well it conveys a sense of constant movement, achieved by presenting a variety of compositional styles and instrumental voices as well as by minimalist through-compositional development within most of the pieces. The second track quickly establishes these facets. Belying the battle-like connotations in its name, “Cibi” opens with a simple piano melody flourishing over a bed of pretty yet plaintive chords. The chord progression evolves and seems to open its arms to the melody’s return, yet is left wanting. Instead, an arpeggiated synth unexpectedly completes the embrace. We are somewhere else.
Howard has also moved onward in his style of composition, drawing closer to ambience and leaving behind the orchestral moments that decorated the delicate ivories in Sun, Cloud. This may disappoint some, and in truth Two & One is a less colourful record for the strings’ departure. Rather than producing idealised paintings of visited scenes garbed in their finest raiment, Howard has opted for more sombre depictions – tainted perhaps by personal experiences or mood. This is most evident in the reflective soliloquy of “Midnight Commute” and the languorous warmth of “Oculus”, whose sublimely sad piano is cradled in electronic swells, sentimental crackle and a delightfully off-meter kick. Other tracks inject new moods or voices beyond the piano: “Longplay” is entirely Eastern-tinged ivories with crystalline notes that seem to shatter on calm waters, while the aptly named “Island” is the only track to eschew the instrument entirely, its ambience sounding as removed from civilisation as it is removed from the tracks around it.
What this heightened sobriety creates is a captivating sense of intimacy, which makes Two & One again stand out among the year’s modern composition releases. Artefacts of human presence are strewn throughout, from calm breathing and the plod of piano keys and creak of stool, to undefinable background noises that unsettle (listen to “Oculus” through headphones while alone at home). Such details reduce us to mere stowaways on someone else’s journey – but the wayfarer suffers us with a quiet majesty. His true companion is that on which he records his experiences. Most settle for a journal, a sketchpad, a camera; in Howard’s case, we are fortunate indeed that he also had a piano to return home to. (Chris Redfearn)