Isnaj Dui: Unstable Equilibrium
Home Normal

Mountain Ocean Sun: Peace Conference
Home Normal

Under the Isnaj Dui guise, Katie English creates highly personalized sound paintings from a battery of acoustic instruments and electronic treatments, including concert and bass flutes, home-made instruments, and various effects and looping devices. What results is a special album indeed, one that may partake of established production methods but nevertheless ends up sounding like the work of a unique artist. That the flute is prominently featured in her pieces (English is a classically trained flautist) partially explains why her music exudes such a haunting character; another is the strong gamelan dimension that colours many of Unstable Equilibrium's ten pieces (she also formally studied Javanese gamelan).

“Towards Evening” begins the recording with an arresting juxtaposition of melancholic background tones and rapid tinkling sounds that patter like a micro-gamelan orchestra. She gives her flute-playing skills an impressive workout in “Signals Differ” where criss-crossing patterns of fluttering tones resound against a lulling, feathery backdrop. Even better is “Chill Turns To Cold,” a beautiful and austere neo-classical setting whose supplicating flute melodies lend the piece a devotional character; “Klangfarbenkreis” likewise entrances when its soothing, cloud-like formations billow alongside an undercurrent of deeper bass tones. If the flute-based settings are heavenly, “The Paper Fell Apart” by comparison is fully earth-bound in its focus on quasi-gamelan percussion patterns and Pipa-like string plucks. To English's credit, electronic manipulations are used in the service of the music in such a way that they become almost subliminal, with the focus instead kept on the music's natural character. Another feather in Home Normal's cap, Unstable Equilibrium impresses as an oft-beautiful exercise in sensuous tone-painting that, in seemingly effortless manner, not only distinguishes itself from the competition but establishes Isnaj Dui as a distinctive artistic voice.

On the other Home Normal release, Mountain Ocean Sun brings together four unique voices for a single, sixty-four-minute meditation that fully lives up to its Peace Conference title. Pooling their talents on the project are Daniel Littleton (IDA member and frequent Tara Jane Oneil collaborator) on harmonium and bells, Jean Cook on violin and shruti box, Hitoko Sakai on harmonium and shruti box, and Warren Defever (of His Name is Alive fame) on bells, voice, and gong. As the instrumentation no doubt implies, the four collectively sculpt a deep, immersive drone that exudes Eastern-styled overtones (it hardly surprises that the group's first performance took place at a 500-year-old Buddhist temple in Osaka, Japan).

Throughout the piece, hand bells jingle and wordless voices (reminiscent of Tuvan throat singing) intone alongside harmonium, Indian shruti box, and bowed violin tones. While a central drone does persist from start to finish without too much deviation in pitch, much else does undergo change: clattering percussion noises dominate in one section, while softly ululating violin sounds move to the forefront in another (at such moments, one is reminded of Tony Conrad's drone recordings, despite the fact that Mountain Ocean Sun's sound is rarely abrasive). Shifts in dynamics also occur, with some particularly unsettling moments occurring at the halfway mark when violent scraping noises emerge, before bowed strings gradually guide the piece to a wide-eyed and mesmerized finish. In short, Peace Conference isn't a frozen sculpture but rather a living and breathing organism that manages to accommodate both identity and metamorphosis during its protracted unfurl.

November 2009