Thursday, September 18, 2008

REVIEW: MICO NONET - The Marmalade Balloon

The Marmalade Balloon
Mico Nonet Records (2007)
13 tracks: 36:42
Grade: A

Mico Nonet is a self-described “ambient chamber” ensemble and their debut release is The Marmalade Balloon, a CD somewhat difficult to slot into a single genre. Essentially, it’s a classical music album featuring chamber music played on viola (Carrie Dennis), cello (Efe Baltacigil), French horn (Paul LaFollette) and oboe (Katherine Needleman). All of these four people play professionally for various orchestras from Berlin to Philadelphia to Baltimore to Richmond, by the way. However, labeling it “classical” doesn’t take into account that, layered amidst the elegant string and wind instruments, are Joshua Lee Kramer’s subtle yet evocative analogue synthesizer textures. You may not always be consciously aware of them (even with attentive headphone listening, Kramer’s washes, pads, and shadings are discrete and under the surface). Yet, however slight the electronics may be, they add a dimension to the music that would otherwise be missing. For many ambient fans, though, The Marmalade Balloon may hew too closely to “long hair” music. That’s a shame because this is a beautiful and deeply moving work, unique without being abstract, frequently suffused with tangible melancholy.

“Rüya” opens the album and here the electronic effects are more pronounced, with ponging-like noises bouncing lazily amidst the cello, French horn and viola, the latter three wending their way somewhat cheerily amidst the synthesizer effects. “Kaika” features oboe prominently at the outset, and the piece has a rural/pastoral feel, with the synth shading being textural in nature, comprised of an occasional analogue-sounding wash in the background. “Maloja Pass” morphs the recording to a more mournful or introspective mood. Cello, viola and oboe are buoyed by soft electronic effects, quiet drones and what sound like tape loops.

Most of the album’s tracks are short (between two and four minutes long, with the exception of the nearly six-minute “Darana.”); in fact, three are under two minutes, including the somber elegiac “The Woolgatherer” and the solemn “Notturno” with its deep bassy synths rumbling underneath viola. “Gloaming” opens in a dark haunting vein with subtly glistening synth tones and bass drone-like washes upon which viola and cello mournfully “sing.” “Paper Sailboat” flirts with a playful mood (but still tinted with shades of grey) as flighty oboe is juxtaposed with soft swirling synths and semi-abstract effects which jump out now and then amidst the oboe’s melody. The title track hews closely to more traditional chamber music, swaying ever so slightly and again shining with a palpable yet gentle pastoral glow, gradually increasing in volume and drama as more instruments come join in the mix.

While there are obvious similarities between Mico Nonet’s music and, for example, Tim Story’s The Perfect Flaw or perhaps Kevin Keller’s Santiago’s Dream, the prominence in both the latter cases of piano as the main instrument and the more overt use of electronics means the similarities are relatively superficial. The Marmalade Balloon is, more than anything else, rooted firmly in chamber music aesthetics yet Kramer infuses enough electronics and synthesizers to differentiate it from a straight-up classical recording (“Hammock” for a good example of this combination of the two elements). More than anything else, what wowed me about this CD from the first playing was not just the emotional power and weight of the melancholic somber music but also that it’s all exercised with such grace and subtlety. This must be credited to Joshua Lee Kramer who is the driving force of Mico Nonet and the producer of this startlingly beautiful recording, although of course the quality of the performances of the four classical musicians can’t be overstated either. The Marmalade Balloon was one of the finest albums released in 2007 and I hope that it won’t be the last we hear from these five talented people.

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