Daniel Schmidt: In My Arms, Many Flowers

To say that Recital has rescued Daniel Schmidt (b. 1942) from obscurity by releasing In My Arms, Many Flowers (in a vinyl edition of 325) would be overstating it; after all, the California-based composer's name is well-known in certain circles (he has connections with figures such as Lou Harrison and Pauline Oliveros) and he currently teaches instrument building at Mills College. Yet on the other hand, it's maybe not such an overstatement, given that, though the four pieces featured on the recording date from 1978-1982, the collection is actually the first published album by the American Gamelan composer (a cassette release featuring his music alongside pieces by Jody Diamond and Ingram Marshall was issued, though it's pretty much impossible to find).

How In My Arms, Many Flowers came about is a story in itself. Listening to a radio archives program featuring music from the ‘70s, Recital showrunner Sean McCann happened by chance on Schmidt's music and, struck by what he heard, contacted and then visited Schmidt at his home. After the composer showed McCann the workshop where his gamelan instruments are built, Schmidt entrusted his visitor with three boxes of original cassette masters, which McCann subsequently digitized upon returning home. The four settings on the Recital release, two studio tracks and two live performances, were culled from that bounty, but more releases could conceivably be drawn from the live concerts and studio recordings Schmidt shared with McCann.

“And the Darkest Hour is Just Before Dawn” (the piece that caught McCann's ear on the radio) opens the album on a becalmed note with twelve-plus minutes of metallic bell tones, the sonority immediately earmarking the material as gamelan, gliding alongside a gentle breeze of murmuring strings. As entrancing as the sounds themselves is the combination of contrasting tempi: there is, on the one hand, a slow undercurrent that lends the piece a meditative quality, yet there are also pulsing patterns that give it animation. Up next, the title track shows Schmidt hewing devotedly to the Eastern Gamelan tradition in featuring the bowed sounds of a rebab rather than the comparatively more familiar sound of a Western string instrument. Though the music often flows unhurriedly, in keeping with the meditative spirit of the form, there are moments when the pace pick up, as it does during “Ghosts” where an interlocking weave of brightly tinkling patterns exudes an aura of radiant joy. Peaceful and ponderous by comparison, “Faint Impressions” closes the album with a fragile elegy that in its own quiet way proves as mesmerizing as the more energized settings, and interestingly the occasional cough punctuating the music ends up being less a distraction and more a testament to the intimate character of the live presentation.

Though it isn't inaccurate to characterize Schmidt's music as a fusion of American Minimalism and traditional Eastern Gamelan music, doing so is a tad misleading, given that the emphasis is clearly on the latter; in that regard, it makes sense to describe him as an American Gamelan composer. The forty-four-minute release provides an effective if admittedly belated introduction to his work, though to McCann's credit, without his intervention the material might not have made its way into the wider world in the first place.

August 2016