Dal Niente / Deerhoof: Balter / Saunier
New Amsterdam Records

Collaborations often look better on paper than they sound in their eventual physical realization. In the typical case, enthusiastic intentions are reality-checked by conflicts of one kind or another and compromises are made, resulting in a whole significantly less than the sum of the parts. It pleases me to report, however, that this project involving Deerhoof and the Chicago-based Dal Niente doesn't disappoint as such ventures sometimes do; if anything, Balter / Saunier flatters both parties in presenting an inspired amalgamation of their individual strengths.

The album title alludes to the fact that the fifty-minute set includes work by Brazilian-born composer Marcos Balter and arrangements by Deerhoof drummer Greg Saunier of his band's songs. As far as the connection between Deerhoof and the large-scale outfit Ensemble Dal Niente is concerned, the two met in 2012 when they shared a bill at Chicago's Millennium Park and subsequently performed together when opportunity presented itself. Specifically, Balter / Saunier presents two long-form works, one each by Balter and Saunier, with a dream-like reverie, “Pois que nada que dure, ou que durando” (“For that nothing lasts, or that lasting”), by Balter sandwiched between them. Dal Niente plays on all three pieces; Deerhoof, comprised of vocalist Satomi Matsuzaki, guitarist Ed Rodríguez, bassist John Dieterich, and Saunier, appears on Balter's seven-part “meltDown Upshot” only.

A multi-hued, through-composed song-cycle that benefits splendidly from Deerhoof's presence, Balter's setting wends a winding path through luscious chamber orchestra terrain, balladic vocal passages, classical minimalism sequences, and harder-edged episodes. That the travelogue is so sonically rich is easily explained by the fact that sixteen musicians in total contribute to it; to their and Balter's credit, however, its arrangement never suffers from excess, and the horns, woodwinds, keyboards, and strings of the ensemble mesh comfortably with Deerhoof's band set-up. Melodically, it's a rich concoction, too, never more so than during the alluring fifth part, “Home,” and it's impossible not to think of Reich's Tehillim when the female vocal counterpoint (Matsuzaki joined by sopranos Amanda DeBoer Bartlett and Carrie Henneman Shaw) appears within “Parallel Spaces,” though that it does so is hardly objectionable.

Saunier's twenty-one-minute “Deerhoof Chamber Variations” caps the release with a wide-ranging travelogue of its own. Using the band's catalogue as source material, the drummer moves beyond rote transcriptions of the group's songs, choosing instead to shape them into a creation ambitious in scope and grand in conception. All members of the ensemble acquit themselves admirably, though cellist Chris Wild, harpist Ben Melsky, pianist Mabel Kwan, horn player Matthew Oliphant, saxophonist Ryan Muncy, violinist Janet Sung, and the sopranos merit special mention. Saunier's chamber orchestra treatment of the group's material proves to be as inspired as the project in its entirety; it's also rather surprising to discover how effectively Deerhoof's music translates into a post-minimalism style.

Perhaps one reason for my receptivity to Balter / Saunier is that I have no proprietary feelings about Deerhoof's music; though I'm familiar with the group's music, I'm not resistant to the idea of it being re-presented in some new and creative way as a purist might be. Certain rough edges in the band's sound might have been smoothed over as a result of the collaboration, but something adventurous and original also emerges.

May 2016