Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Keeril Makan

A friend's Facebook status was just set as "________ is anodyne", which I found rather inspiring, for I think that is what we ultimately seek, not some basic-zen/basic-physics equilibrium but anodyne, something soothing to the mind or feelings, and I am finding that in the music of of Keeril Makan. A New Yorker shout-out from Russell Platt brought this young composer's work to my attention, but its the way that Makan seems to pull sound forcibly out of his ensemble is what has kept it all morning. The brilliantly titled string quartet The Noise Between Thoughts on his Tzadik album In Sound is a prime example.

Written as a reaction to the invasion of Afghanistan in 2002, the piece finds a rough and sturdy balm to this cataclysm. It is not placid or escapist in the least; it instead reacts to war and a world going headlong into shit with muscle and care. The Kronos Quartet is about to saw through their instruments as Makan's music saws though the unthinkable. This would likely be a terrifying yet cleansing performance to witness.

On his website, in the list of compositions, many of the pieces include links to play them streaming form the site, and for this alone, Makan is a badass, but his music backs up the claim. The placid economics of Afterglow consists (mostly) of soft piano pulses that defiantly exists in a turbulent world, like flowers poking up through concrete. Husk, a spectral Crumb-ian trio deals in quavering dissonances between flute and oboe against blows and scrapes from a harp. It is similar to the riot that is The Noise Between Thoughts but on a more intimate, internalized scale. In keeping with the name Husk, perhaps these are the unvoiced afterthoughts of the ragged soldiers slicing through Thoughts, weary and used-up from battle.

His Static Rising for percussion and string quartet can be seen as a bridge between the two extremes. The strings are being quietly, almost surreptitiously scraped and coaxed into sound, as if it is was being done on the sly. In his program notes, Makan notes ventures into and out of the nebulous and fertile territory that exists between pitch and noise. The percussion at times is a patter commiserate with the strings, like how rain compliments melancholy, where as in other points the two have a more cartoonish, adversarial relationship, like in some of the small Harry Partch ensemble pieces, or even Tom & Jerry battles. The balance between clatter and quiet made me think of trying to quietly hide in a attic filled with relics, shuffling around and then suddenly knocking something over in the dark, the noise of which setting of a chain reaction crashes in the ensuing but quickly controlled panic.

In that sense to I find anodyne in Makan's music and music like his. Life is not all strife and all placidity, it is not tiptoes through with a dancer's grace. It is clumsily traversed, and we are constantly (or maybe I am) correcting the little messes we make of it, putting it back in order as we make more messes until we find some way to fake a static continuum, a baseline for existence, and that baseline hums like strings in the attic, screeches like bows pulling strings at their tonal limits and occasionally makes a loud surprising thud.

For music less psychically vigorous but no less interesting, check out his Reich-unraveled amplified sextet Bleed Through, and his music utilized in the soundtrack to the short film "What, No Spinach?"