Keith Berry: The Ear That Was Sold to a Fish

Housed within a small cardboard box filled with blue aromatic leaves, adorned by the composer's photographic work, and further complemented by nine short poems by Massimo Ricci (the source for the titles of the CD's nine pieces), Keith Berry's The Ear That Was Sold To A Fish (derived from the Sufi poet Hafiz, the title concerns “a boy who couldn't travel far so in his mind sells his ear to a fish and his eye to a bird”) is presented so arrestingly, one fears the music on the London composer's third recording might suffer by comparison. Such fears are immediately allayed by the nuanced caliber of its ghostly contents, though that won't surprise listeners familiar with past Berry recordings like The Golden Boat (Trente Oiseaux, 2003) and Buddha's Mile (Authorized Version, 2004). There's a natural temptation to group him with artists like Bernard Günter, Steve Roden (both also affiliated with Trente Oiseaux), and Morton Feldman but Berry 's work largely eschews microsound minimalism for development—understated and incremental, admittedly—and textural richness.

Working with Akira Rabelais' software programs Argeiphontes Lyre & Argeiphontes Recalcitrance, field elements, and a large array of textures, Berry 's album unfurls quietly, sometimes nearly below the threshold of audibility, with repeating sounds intensifying as each piece builds on the one before. After faint rumblings, droning washes, and insect chatter quietly inaugurate the album in “The Sun Rays of Another Pale Afternoon,” “Cars Keep Passing By,” for example, resurrects its material and then ever so subtly elaborates upon it with tonal glimmers that hint at an elusive melody. In the haunted “Can You Elevate Yourself,” phantom orchestral sounds loop in the background, almost smothered by crusty ripples of gouged vinyl, while “Knelt Over the Water” exudes the ritualistic aura of a Noh play. One becomes so attuned to the album's restrained presentation that when the pluck of an acoustic bass and a koto-like twang appear in “Fuscous Presages Don't Help” and “Knelt Over the Water” respectively, the moments almost startle. Though Berry himself likens his music to the experience of drifting down a river, a better analogue might be to the blossoming of a flower in slow-motion.

November 2005