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J. Peter Schwalm – The Beauty of Disaster – RareNoise

The fascination and allure of catastrophe.

J. Peter Schwalm – The Beauty of Disaster [TrackList follows] – RareNoise RNR059, 60:20 [2/26/16] ****:

(J. Peter Schwalm – producer, guitar, piano, electronic devices, acoustic and digital sound modules, mixing decks, drums, synths; Neil Catchpole – viola (track 1); Eivind Aarset – guitar (track 2-4); Tim Harries – bass (tracks 2, 7-8); Martin France – drums (tracks 2, 8); Michael Wöllny – pump organ (track 5); Christine Schütze – grand piano (track 9))

Guitarist and keyboardist J. Peter Schwalm is probably best known for his partnership with Brian Eno, such as the 2001 album Drawn From Life. As a solo artist, Schwalm has reinterpreted the work of others: notable exemplifications being the 2013 commission, Kraftwerk Uncovered—A Future Past, for the Icebreaker orchestral ensemble; and the 2014 studio project, Wagner Transformed, which comprised reconfigurations of Richard Wagner’s “Tristan & Isolde,” “Parsifal” and other Wagner material.

For the hour-long instrumental CD, The Beauty of Disaster, Schwalm found inspiration from pictures of environmental devastation, specifically the 2010 BP oil spill which affected the southeast US. He clarifies, “I had been deeply impressed by satellite images of the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico while composing new pieces for this album. These surprising photos, which so reminded me of paintings, seemed to embody the very same deep duality between the dark melancholia they depicted and a continuous, meshed sense of hope, an embedded ray of light, as did the compositions I was working on.” Schwalm’s soundscapes mix ambient segments with nuanced atmospherics, alongside beat-driven passages and emotionally-charged moments, all signifying or suggesting the juxtapositions and connections of beauty and disaster. Throughout the ten tracks (which range from three minutes to over 9 minutes long), Schwalm balances aesthetic combinations of electronic sounds (electric guitar, synthesizer, various electronic devices) with elements of orchestral music (viola, grand piano, pump organ). The Beauty of Disaster is available as a CD digipak; as a double vinyl LP (2 sides, 180 grams) and multiple digital formats. This review refers to the CD version. Those interested in exploring this music can hear excerpts in an online video.

Although Schwalm wrote, composed, produced and performed on each piece, he also collaborated on selected cuts with Norwegian electric guitarist and sound-sculptor Eivind Aarset (credits include Andy Sheppard and David Sylvian) and bassist Tim Harries (of Spin Marvel), as well as jazz drummer Martin France (his résumé includes Lee Konitz, Maria Schneider and Steve Swallow), viola player Neil Catchpole (also Eno, as well as Mumford and Sons) and keyboardists Christine Schütze and Michael Wöllny.

Besides the environmental damage theme, Schwalm cites individual influences for particular tunes. The throbbing “Himmelfahrt,” for example, was stimulated by Miles Davis and film director Stanley Kubrick. Schwalm explains, “I am still inspired by Bitches Brew. The piece arose following similar principles: there is a rhythm, a theme, but rather than studio improvisations, a large number of live cuts which I injected into the piece.” “Himmelfahrt” (which features Aarset, France and Harries) commences with an ambient stretch reminiscent of music in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but gradually progresses as the percussion strengthens and the arrangement heightens, until it ascends to something rockier and aggressive. The penetrating “Zirkeltrilogie” and cinematically-placid “Endknall” were instigated by Schwalm’s admiration for composer György Ligeti, chiefly Ligeti’s utilization of tonal surfaces. Ligeti’s music was also important to the philosophical intensity of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The equilibrium between acoustic and electronic components yields interesting results. Catchpole’s viola matches Schwalm’s unnerving synth and electronic reverberations on opener “The Anxt Code,” which could easily be a soundtrack snippet from an unsettling psychological horror movie. Later, there is the lengthy manipulation of Wöllny’s pump organ and Schwalm’s increasingly static-flecked digital noises during “Stille, Blitz und Donner.” On “Angstphantasie” Schütze’s grand piano creates a moody feeling emphasized by her hesitant single notes, which steadily become precise and discordant, then graceful and sensitive, and finally return to an impression of uncertainty. The capacity and measurement of Schwalm’s accomplishment on The Beauty of Disaster lies in its coordinated and detailed application of compositional depth and deliberation. This is an album which always appears to be expressly tense; but when examined with close attention and listened to a few times, reveals layers of hope, compassion and an inquisitive nature.

TrackList: The Anxt Code; Himmelfahrt; The Beauty of Disaster; Numbers Become Stories; Stille, Blitz und Donner; Zirkeltrilogie; Wunschklangregister; The End and the Beginning; Angstphantasie; Endknall

—Doug Simpson

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