Haythem Mahbouli ~ Catching Moments in Time

A Tunisian composer, living in Montreal, recording an album with the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, released on a Japanese label ~ this is the essence of multiculturalism.  Such fluidity is a welcome sign in a world that seems to be headed in the opposite direction.  Catching Moments in Time allows listeners to dream of larger things than borders and petty, earthly desires.  The music is comforting, challenging, but most of all, unifying, stating as much in tone as in note.

The album is a slight departure for Schole Records, known primarily (but not exclusively) for its piano-based releases.  Haythem Mahbouli intentionally eschews “piano-based post modern classical music,” although he embraces it often, exercising a study in contradictions.  By the end, the orchestra engulfs all.  The album is more a departure for Mahbouli, who began his musical career in metal, moving on to video game soundtracks and now this release.  Former friends may be surprised at these timbres.

The label describes the album as a “minimalistic theatrical composition,” and the outlines of such a production can be gleaned in the occasional voiceovers that provide the album with shape.  Robert Frost’s selections are well-known: I’d like to get away from earth awhile.  And then come back to it and begin over.  Others are less obvious, including the memorable Have you ever considered setting yourself on fire?, repeated late in the album (although jumbled into There’s no better time than now, a seemingly unintentional juxtaposition).  The operatic singer in the opening track conjures comparisons to Grace Davidson on Max Richter’s Sleep.  The titles speak of wider experiences: birth, growth, loss, and the passage of time.  This is an album for musing.

The first vocal surge operates as an overture.  No matter how intimate the album may get, the listener knows that big things are coming.  Mahbouli tumbles through ambience and yes, piano-based music, before surrendering to the larger flow intimated by his general theme.  In “Miles to go before I sleep,” the orchestra fills the sonic field, the piano re-entering the foreground to duet with Frost.  Flurries of ivory notes decorate “Transition,” contrasting the swift and slow.

Now the stage (literally) is set for two monster tracks, “Growth” and “Catching the Last Moment.”  At nine and ten minutes long, they capitalize on the intrigue of the earlier tracks.  The first is marked by a rising and disappearing stringed motif, which accumulates power as it progresses, à la Jóhannsson’s approach to Virðulegu forsetar.  The concluding track offers culmination and catharsis, the orchestra in full bloom, and we think, maybe there is no better time than the present, not for lighting ourselves on fire, but for re-engaging with the goodness of a sweet and fractured world.  (Richard Allen)


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