Does the world of electronic music need yet another vanity project intended to show off the dynamic possibilities of an unwieldy synthesiser and the prowess of its controller in keeping it tamed? Improvising pianist Matthew Bourne thinks so. And, to his credit, it's definitely worth a close listen.
Bourne is an in-demand pianist who has worked on the extreme edges of jazz, comfortable playing with the likes of modern improv émigrés Annette Peacock and John Zorn as well as sonic experimentalists like Amon Tobin. Alongside improvisation and composition, Bourne has crafted a sideline activity working within the vastly different discipline of electronic music.
The idea of an improv pianist slaving over a modified Moog synth, at least on paper, brings to mind some of those jarring fusion jazz or prog rock experiments of the 1970s, wherein instrumental dexterity and virtuosity were applied in equal measure to a synth as if it was just a piano with some funky controls. This was the synth used as a replacement for a traditional instrument, and played without any regard for the untapped sonic potential of the instrument. Mercifully, ‘moogmemory’ does not find Bourne aping the likes of Herbie Hancock or Chick Corea at all. While the tracks might have started life as improvisations, there's thankfully little of that wild flair, no display of chops or I-can-make-this-machine-make-better-noises-than-you showiness.
If anything, a lot of ‘moogmemory’ has more in common with Brian Eno’s mastery of the Yamaha DX7 – a digital synth that few beyond Eno could master – on albums like ‘The Shutov Assembly’. This is at times a broadly textural, deeply ambient affair punctured by intense, skipping intervals like ‘Sam’ or the pretty almost-pop of ‘Daniziel’. Only where Eno’s work back then tended toward the serene, Bourne’s album has occasional patches of dissonant white noise, as with the unsettling ‘On Rivock Edge’. Here the Moog, which is capable of pleasant R2-D2 bleeping and cutesy sounds like most analogue synths, is pushed into the realms of gravelly, gritty patterns, buzzing away with dark intensity and unsettling, cloying atmospheres; the soundtrack to a dystopian future wasteland populated only by malfunctioning machinery.
Bourne’s instrument of choice here is a Memory Moog, a polyphonic synth which dates from 1982, launched just as digital synthesis was becoming more prominent. His particular synth was essentially gutted and rebuilt from the inside out, making this a bit like an Overfinched Range Rover or maybe Trigger’s broom from ‘Only Fools And Horses’. In other words it is a Memory Moog and it also isn't a Memory Moog.
If you're not a synth fetishist like Bourne or the target audience for this record, none of that will mean a lot. Just be assured that it's a highly specialist and presumably very expensive process and one that's left Bourne with an instrument capable of producing electronic music like the long form grandiosity of ‘Horn & Vellum’ or the elegiac ‘I Loved Her Madly’; finely-wrought electronic music that's just about as stirring as it's ever likely to get. It might be a lot more po-faced than the insouciant antics of the recent Venetian Snares album (‘Traditional Synthesizer Music’) but it's certainly no less engaging.
Words: Mat Smith
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