Gordon Grdina – “The Breathing of Statues” – Songlines

by | Oct 3, 2009 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews | 0 comments

Gordon Grdina – “The Breathing of Statues” – Songlines multichannel SACD SGL SA 1572-2, 55:12***1/2:

Gordon Grdina is a Vancouver based guitarist/oud player whose varied musical interests include mainstream jazz, 20th century classical and Arabic music. He showcases those disparate interests with the East Van Strings, a quartet which besides Grdona, is comprised of Jesse Zubot, violin, Edvind Kang (currently touring with Bill Frisell,), viola and Peggy Lee, cello.

The opening track, an appropriately tragic-sounding tone poem entitled, “Selma,” pays homage to contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Part. Grdina’s bittersweet guitar fills bend their way across a stark landscape of static chords imbued with loss and regret. The discordant opening line of “Holy Departure,” which brings to mind the Bartok string quartets or the music of Alban Berg, abruptly dispels this mood of sorrowful introspection. After the initial powerful unison statement, which communicates to the listener in no uncertain terms this isn’t going to be ‘your mother’s easy listening guitar-with-strings album,’ the piece morphs into a vigorous contrapuntal invention that gradually dissolves into a surreal group free improvisation. Just when it would seem the group has meandered down a dark alleyway into total chaos, the piece reassembles itself into a powerfully effective through composed coda.  Bravo! This is a fine example of a perfect balance between form and free play.

Not all the tracks are this successful – “The Silence Of Paintings” is a piece wherein the members of the ensemble squeak and scrape their way through five minutes of
free improvisation.  While I’m sure this is great fun for these capable improvisers, it provided a dead zone for this listener; pieces like this are interesting when performed in front of a live audience but in this reviewer’s opinion make for dull listening in the privacy of one’s own living room, especially upon repetition.  

The formula of alternating tight ensemble writing interspersed with periods of free improvisation continues on the spirited “Origin.” About ¼ through the piece a chromatic ostinato figure emerges in the guitar out of the fog of free improvisation and is gradually picked up by the rest of the ensemble, eventually navigating into an elegant recapitulation of the opening theme, once again leading the unsuspecting listener down into dark labyrinthine passageways of group improvisation over a reprise of the ostinato figure.

The self explanatory “Webern” follows a similar path as its predecessors, galloping out of the gate with a strong atonal tutti line before once again careening wildly into a group free for all. Just when this reviewer thought the waters were getting a little too choppy and was looking for a tonal life raft to cling to, Grdina instinctively offers up “Naveli Joon,” a decidedly tonal ballad which after an impressionistic exposition relaxes into a lilting 6/8 arpeggio driven structure that would seem to have more affinity with the works of Phillip Glass that that of Webern – a nice respite from the rigors of atonality.

The title track and centerpiece of the album takes the listener on an unexpected detour into the Maqam tradition of the middle east.  Clocking in at fourteen minutes, “The Breathing of Statutes” is a large-scale work that showcases Grdina’s deep affinity for Arabic music.  The piece begins with a slow improvisation for oud set against a cello drone and develops into a call and response between oud and strings, the string answers becoming progressively more complex each time they return. The result is a meditative spaciousness that perfumes the work with the subtle scent of night-blooming jasmine.  It is not until a mere 2:49 before the coda that a pulse begins to insinuate itself, first with the entrance of a 5/4 pizzicato cello figure, the group taking up the call to bring the piece to a dramatic climax. The album closes with “Wide Open,” another free piece that quite frankly tested this reviewer’s patience.

I find “The Breathing of Statues” to be an intriguing if uneven work that I would recommend only to those listeners with a penchant for adventurous listening. The juxtaposition of free improvisation, western 20th century compositional styles and Arabic and minimalist inspirations failed to coalesce into a coherent whole for this listener.  Grdina’s divergent interests might be better savored if served up on separate platters as opposed to the aural smorgasbord on display here. That being said, in a post-John Zorn universe where just about anything goes, he has certainly secured himself a place on the cutting edge of the contemporary improvised avantgarde music scene. I look forward to hearing more from this unique young artist.

This being a multichannel SACD, I will mention that the recording is crisp and straightforward without a shred of surround sound gimmickry. The group is right in front in stereo as it should be, with the rear speakers providing just the right amount of small chamber ambience. With no bass to speak of besides the cello, this is not a disc to challenge a subwoofer. While this is not a disc to impress your friends with, I found it to be an effectively immersive multichannel experience.

    •    Selma
    •    Holy departure
    •    Origin
    •    Santiago
    •    Webern
    •    Naveli Joon
    •    The Breathing of Statues
    •    Wide Open

– Brian Whistler

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