Alexander Turnquist: As the Twilight Crane Dreams in Color

Before I begin declaiming the many wonders of Alexander Turnquist's As the Twilight Crane Dreams in Color, I should state upfront that the composer recently contributed a remarkable piece to textura's premiere release, Kubla Khan, so some degree of bias might be seen to have influenced my appraisal of his latest work. It also bears mentioning, however, that the very reason why Turnquist was commissioned to appear on Kubla Khan in the first place is because I was so impressed by the artistry captured on his first two releases, Faint at the Loudest Hour (VHF) and Apneic (Kning Disk), that I hoped he might contribute something of equal measure to the textura release (he did). So if I declare As the Twilight Crane Dreams in Color to be one of the strongest releases of the year, it's because, full stop, it's because it is one of the strongest releases of the year and not because there's some further personal benefit that might accrue as a result of saying so.

What makes the new recording so special? In simplest terms, it's because the New York-based guitarist fulfils the promise evidenced by his previous releases and challenges himself to go beyond what he's done before. What recommends the album even more is that Turnquist shows himself to be not only a distinguished instrumentalist but most importantly a composer of distinction. Ambitious in structure, the album features three long-form tracks, the shortest ten minutes and the longest almost nineteen, but all fully justify their length. One of the most interesting aspects of the compositional design is that Turnquist often extends the guitar's dense clusters throughout the pieces so that they act as stabilizing anchors for the intermittent voicings of the tracks' themes.

In similar manner to the phases one experiences while sleeping, “The REM Cycle - Dream Phase”—despite its titular focus on one stage only—moves through multiple parts, making it more of a four-part suite than a single movement. Its meditative opening section is dominated by 12-string acoustic guitar strums spaced so generously that a given strum slowly fades into the silence following it. The introduction ends quickly, though, as Turnquist's spellbinding finger-picking spirals kick in at the two-minute mark. The piece's theme suddenly appears too, punctuating the guitar playing with a simple but beautiful four-note melody voiced by piano and string players Christopher Tignor on violin and Marlan Berry on cello. During this middle section, “The REM Cycle - Dream Phase” frankly dazzles as both the guitar playing and the theme's repetition intensify, before the music slows and a marvelous one-minute episode occurs where Turnquist spins a web of upper register patterns that are so rapidly executed they resemble snow flurries. A graceful final section returns the music to its peaceful origins, with Berry's bowing forming a pedal point for piano and vibraphone accents and for the glistening harmonics that stretch out in the background.

In contrast to the tempo contrasts that characterize the first piece, “Statues in the Dark - Shadows Collide” pursues its singular vision at a breakneck pace without interruption. Like race horses furiously competing, guitar patterns cycle hypnotically, challenging one another as they vie for position, while a simple three-note theme of stirring beauty emerges, with this time piano and glockenspiel repeating the mantra-like motif against a dizzying guitar torrent. Only in the closing minutes does the music decelerate and when it does so we're presented with a brief but gorgeous episode featuring Tignor playing a swooping rustic motif. “Dancing in Borealis - Ribbons of Vivacity” bolts from the gate with driving guitar patterns while the piano punctuates the mass with another simple but powerful melody. Never, it seems, have so few notes spoken with as much force as they do in the album's three compositions. Don't be surprised if you're spent when the recording ends, so engrossing and exhausting are the fullness of its sound and the relentlessness of its attack, respectively.

Though I've been listening to As the Twilight Crane Dreams in Color for a number of months now, I remain as mesmerized by it today as when I first heard it. It's quite an accomplishment, especially when one considers that it's, formally speaking, only Turnquist's second full-length recording (Apneic is considered an EP). Many commentators will cite James Blackshaw as a reference point for Turnquist but, though they're both 12-string masters, they're also very different artists, as becomes obvious when their recordings are heard side-by-side. Even so, it's interesting to note that the artists' 2009 recordings, Blackshaw's The Glass Bead Game and Turnquist's As the Twilight Crane Dreams in Color, are not only similarly ambitious but equally likely contenders for placement in textura's 2009 year-end list of top album releases.

September 2009