Some collaborations are like a firework – instant, uncontrollable and short-lived. Others are like a hearthstone fire – calculated, nurtured and long-lasting. After meeting at Berlin Festival in 2014, Czech composer/artist Tomas Dvorak (aka Floex) and UK composer/pianist Tom Hodge (of Piano Interrupted) sat down to plan and build a fire. Over three years in the making, A Portrait of John Doe is a masterful meeting of artists, instruments and styles – and one of the year’s finest records so far.
The titular ‘John Doe’ of course could relate to many things – an everyman, a corpse, a desire for anonymity, even a legal instrument (last used in the UK by the lawyers of JK Rowling, interestingly). With this collaboration, Dvorak and Hodge seek to shine a spotlight on the everyman, focusing on traits and experiences that would resonate more broadly. In a world riven by the parochial and personal, the composers encourage us to respect the universal. Purposefully conveying neither a uniformly positive or negative vision, the nine-track set (plus a remix) steers through myriad moods as it passes genre after genre, flirting with but never embracing each.
“Wednesday (Is The New Friday)” starts with jazzy pizzicato strings, polyrhythmic percussion and, in time, simple piano chords. While ominous in tone, there’s an underlying playfulness to this track that’s exposed when all the layers disperse to reveal an airy, bouncing synth melody. Its finale, building with the full force of the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra, is a crescendo of chaotic delight. The sense of levity continues through “Machines Are Dancing” – an apt title, as kick pedals pound and skittish beats groove to an erratic-sounding synth line and stabbing strings, lost in their own rhythms. The parts coalesce in the back half; these machines aren’t isolated anymore – they’re dancing in unison.
The set’s second half is more sombre, even menacing. Evoking the tragic Greek myth, “I Dream Of Ikaria” starts with discordant piano and ominous clarinet, and culminates in an unsettling meeting off electronics and a doom-laden melody that unifies brass, wind and keys instruments. Its ambient coda suggests the consequence of aiming too high, and falling. The two-part “Prelude” evolves this nascent mood of misery as the record strays momently to the cinematic. Sorrowful piano and strings mesh well with female vocals, but are soon overwhelmed by the most industrial and spectacular moment in the set – a frantic, stabbing beat and synth pulse that propels the vocal skyway, mechanical to celestial. “Resurgence” offers space to recover, before the meandering “Requiem” closes the set with a bravura six minutes of avant-garde electronics, lumbering horns, off-kilter beats and a cacophonous conclusion.
A Portrait of John Doe is Dvorak’s and Hodge’s response to today’s ‘unceasing pursuit of efficiency, singularity and uniqueness’. They may be striving to evoke everyday moments for the masses, but they’ve created special moments for the privileged. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)