Montreal’s Moderna Records celebrated its launch last month with the release of five musical works and the announcement of a sixth. From singles to full-length albums, the digital label plans to focus on “innovative beatless instrumental music.” We suspect that the concentration on the beatless may fall by the wayside, but for now it describes the current roster. Moderna’s catchphrase, “instrumental landscapes within sound geometry,” may not be easy to remember, but it lends itself well to a wide range of approaches, as shown by the label’s first group of signees. We are happy to welcome Moderna and wish them every success!
The first batch of releases were unveiled in a single swoop, but are reviewed here in catalog order. The leadoff batter is Mark Harris, whose last-reviewed work on our site was The Angry Child. There’s nothing angry about the new 11-minute track, “The Things That Have Been Broken,” as the piece makes a fine overture to Moderna’s body of work. Both expansive and immersive, the piece unfolds in undulations of current as it swims between the flags of ambient and drone. It’s thoughtful without being ponderous, gradually circling back to the shore at which it began.
Holkham‘s nine-minute “The Lake Down the Lane” already breaks the beatless mold ~ perhaps the label meant drumless. The beat is kept by kalimba and glockenspiel, laying down a lovely base for the viola, bass and loops. This debut makes one want to hear more, as the emotions run so high: sweet and cheery from one angle, wistful and melancholic from another. The contrast makes this track particularly effective, as the mind attempts to reconcile the two. Is one memory, and the other hope? Or is this the sound of a soul honed by tragedy, steeled in spirit, ready to go on? The tone of the viola grows steadily brighter, leading up to a very late breakdown in the seventh minute, after which the piano brings it home.
The loveliest of the label’s six releases to date is a tiny treasure, a four-and-a-half minute string trio track from Lorenzo Masotto. “Pierrot” offers remarkable dynamic contrast, given its small circle of performers. Multiple melodies are laid down in the first minute, and at 1:22 the trio bursts into a powerful main theme. Traveling from thick to thin, soaring to sedate, often in the course of a few seconds, the trio demonstrates great control while underlining the brilliance of the composition. As themes are revisited, the emotional heft increases, until their cumulative effect is that of a much longer composition. As it turns out, Masotto just released the full-length SETA; those who enjoy the current piece should seek that album out as well.
Continuing to farm the modern composition field is Kirill Chernegin‘s Piano Quartet No. 1, a four-movement suite that downloads as both a single work and as components. This may seem like a small touch, but it’s a gift to those who may prefer one movement over another or who want to experience the 22-minute work as an uninterrupted whole. The piano sets the stage, shy in the initial movement, while a string trio adds fiercely brooding flourishes. In the second, the ivories grow turbulent, and the strings struggle to match. It would be nearly impossible not to see a ravaged heart in the cover image; the music seems to score a life in turmoil. By the center of the second movement, the emotions are overt: any sadness has flipped to anger, and it seems a confrontation is imminent. But at the three-quarter mark, the strings relent, retreating until the beginning of the third, at which point something has changed: a hardening, a numbness. The pounding keys that end the movement imply a final explosion; in the subdued fourth, the lovers are left to pick up the pieces. This is a gorgeous, intimidating work, a coiled set whose compact nature lends it immediacy and power.
After such raw red emotion, the solo piano of Moderna’s split release comes across as a balm. Tambour’s “Attic” is a soothing selection, warmed by the creaking of the floor pedal. Its consonance stands in sharp contrast to the dissonance of Kirill Chernegin, as its romanticism is shorn of sharp edges. Julien Marchal’s “Moth” is faster and three times longer than “Attic,” but it continues Tambour’s journey into brightness, slowing down at the center to catch a breath before plunging forward. Again, a miked piano provides a live feel to the performance ~ at 6:32 and subsequent intervals, it sounds exactly like the rustling of a moth in light, beating the wings whenever it escapes, however briefly, from silence.
The label’s sixth and highest-profile release comes from Icelandic composer and cellist Veroníque Vaka, mixed by Alex Somers of Sigur Rós. The 5-track, 28-minute EP is reminiscent of Parachutes’ debut, as it seems to arrive out of nowhere and immediately casts a romantic spell. Erlendis is a soothing, string-drenched excursion, thick in mystery and melancholy. As the violin and the twin cellos cast their nets into a sonic sea, the piano, clarinet, french horn and bass flute keep them afloat. Boat hulls creak, waves crash, cod dart, and the entire suite sounds a lot like Iceland. Fans of Sigur Rós’ symphonic aspects will love this. No drums or guitars are included, which makes the EP seem like a pleasant extraction. Listening is like rolling on a calm green sea, bringing home the fish, looking forward to a warm shower and a night of celebration with a loved one. The occasional wordless vocal (“Gætni”) comes across less like a siren song and more like a lullaby, the peaceful end to a tumultuous day. We look forward to a full-length album. (Richard Allen)