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Preaching to the Choir: Phil Kline and Arvo Pärt

We take a brief break from pop culture matters to check on the state of the choral symphony with recent works by Phil Kline and Arvo Pärt

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by Alex V. Cook, Music Editor for outsideleft.com
originally published: March, 2009
one is compelled to run alongside and jump in the first open boxcar
by Alex V. Cook, Music Editor for outsideleft.com
originally published: March, 2009
one is compelled to run alongside and jump in the first open boxcar

Phil Kline
John the Revelator

Phil Kline creates a mass of multiple meanings with John the Revelator. The opening tracks of it sound all the world like well-wrought church hymns ("Northport") and parts of staggering weight and dimension, such as "Hear my Prayer."  The album progresses through various tempos of the  tony sort of Minimalism not unlike Philip Glass' 1986 pop classical amalgam Songs from Liquid Days.  "The man Who Knows Misery" chugs along like a well-stoked anxiety engine, while "Kyrie" and "Gloria" finds such sentiments caught floating mid air.  

John the Revelator is a twist on the Latin Ordinary, the static portions of the Mass that form the backbone of Catholic ritual, with Kline insetting readings of Samuel Becket ("Meditation: The Unnamable") and David Shapiro ("And the Snow fell") as the Propers, or portions that are interchanged throughout the year. The flawless, naked harmonies of men' vocal sextet Lionheart give the more icy portions of the text a barbershop quartet comfort, and traverse the acrobatics of "Alone" with dazzling ease.

This is an interesting move for a composer such as Kline, who made his name crafting outdoor boombox symphonies and high tech multimedia installations, to take us back to church, But ultimately, the church is a place of communion between the mundane and the sublime. Kline's music is undeniably arty, but it is equally easily experienced. The cyclone at the heart of his loose interpretation of the of the old blues song "Dark was the Night" is rigorous and complex listening, but the feeling of doing so is akin to entering a vast but impeccably designed building - you have no real idea what goes into creating a place like this, but you at once feel like it was designed with your presence in mind.   When the dark hum of the chorus gives way to an unmistakable train motif, implied by the train imagery of the blues, the systematic and metaphoric means of escape, one is compelled to run alongside and jump in the first open boxcar.

"Anthem" and "Offertorium" are showcases for the sonic dexterity of the string quartet Ethel, one of the burgeoning groups of new music ensembles taking identity tactics form indie rock instead of the academy. These pieces offer a gateway to the rest of the Mass; without it, one would have gotten lost in all the harmony. But then, is that not the point of the Mass? The catholic ritual is not designed for the inquisitive; it is built around the practical application of the spiritual, laying pipes to the Hearafter through which our souls may flow. John the Revelator abruptly concludes on the line "And through eternity, I'll sing on" as if the soul is sucked up through this theological plumbing, which is probably the best case scenario for encountering the spiritual in such accommodating environment. 

Listen at lala.com

Arvo Pärt
In Principio
(ECM New)

In Principio, the latest dispatch from the esteemed Estonian composer Arvo Pärt is, like much of his impossibly heavy music, a dam near bursting with the pressures of existence.  The choir is intertwined with the orchestra in creating a staggering colossus of sound, seemingly one tone at a time. Pärt's music is the sort that moves not unlike the shadows from clouds; imperceptible darkening of moods are realized in retrospect when the dimming light is suddenly gone. His slow orchestra swells are like swarms of mayflies only seen in contrast to the empty sky, only registered when they become too thick to handle.

The five-movement In Principio is a thing of amazing beauty, Grand Canyon beauty, the kind you can't really contain. Like with other Pärt compositions, one hears the tropes of classical music (here I mean the generic) stretched over the frame of the modern; melodic passages are slowly grown and trained over the intricate trellises erected over existential sadness, as if by doing so the shivering human spirit will be kept safe form the elements. The choir radiates from this as if they are thoughts escaping from that hushed suffering.

In Principio is the star of this collection, but the accompanying compositions on this disc add much some welcome texture.  La Sindone is lushly cinematic; the strings dip in and out of audibility like the tide receding, the passage of time is slowly tolled by bells and timpani thunder. In fact, of one is to cruelly describe Pärt's style, it would be "swells with bells." Cecilia, Vergine Romana opens with a slight ping, as if it signals the slow fog bearing in its misty depths the song of humanity. Da Pacem Dominie is five minutes of ascending bliss, possibly the loveliest moment on this most lovely record. It is also the closest to church music, finding those echo points around which your average hymn is arranged except here the reverberations pulse out into the cosmos. 

Mein Weg is positively spastic compared to the more staid pieces that precede it, weaving those bells of fate into the fluttering banner the Tallin Chamber Orchetra is flying.  Für Lennart In Memoriam which closes the album, is unfortunately the least engaging piece on this record; there is a marked "closing credits" air about it, or maybe its relatively sunny disposition seems thin against all the melancholy that came before it. It's a small matter, and in some ways, a way to re-enter the physical world after spending so much time in the spheres.

Listen at lala.com

Image of Arvo Pärt from here.

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Alex V. Cook
Music Editor

Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com

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