By Steve Provizer
This is virtuosity-driven chamber music with fluctuating levels of oxygen, shadows, and light.
Cory Smythe, Accelerate Every Voice (Pyroclastic Records)
I get pitches of all kinds from musicians and their publicists, trying to find ways to be noticed in a crowded, competitive market. The publicity material usually includes background on the performers and occasional insights into the genesis of the compositions. Once in a while I get notes that are so dense they read more like a thesis proposal than an album pitch. The promotion for Accelerate Every Voice, a new release by pianist and composer Cory Smythe falls in this category.
What was I to make of this: “Many muddled accelerations shape this: beginning with my longstanding but increasingly spellbound appreciation for Andrew Hill’s record Lift Every Voice and the James Weldon Johnson-derived lineage of optimistic songcraft it transforms; likewise, the fast-evolving sophistication of collegiate a cappella (a scene suggested by Hill’s vocable singing choir) on its mutating path from the Kipling-glossing ‘Whiffenpoof Song’ to iridescent cyborg pop… Another caustic harm upends the record on closer ‘Piano and Ocean Waves for Deep Relaxation’ — part ironic venture into new age and part imaginary realization of Annea Lockwood’s ‘Southern Exposure,’ which calls for a piano to disappear into advancing tides.”
Quite the setup for a critical listening session. But will any of this description illuminate the music? An example from my musical past could provide an answer: Back in the day, I often played my trumpet into a maze of wires connected to a synthesizer. Intense filtering and alterations made the sound emerging from the speakers such that you would be hard pressed to know that a trumpet was involved at all. In the mid-to-late 20th century, in music and in the fine arts, words became an essential trope. Art began to be conceived from the outside in—from technical explanation back to art—and I wondered how much this was in play in Accelerate Every Voice.
Symthe’s notes did alter the way I listened to the music. It was impossible to take the music in without trying to ferret out any connections with the prose descriptions I’d read. And I did hear the psycho-musical influence of Annea Lockwood’s electronic global-warming apocalypse on two tracks (the album photo of Cory Smythe, standing on an iceberg adrift in the ocean, confirmed this).
As for other references: Arts Fuse readers can acquaint themselves with Hill’s album Lift Every Voice. It’s worth hearing. Ditto, the Whiffenpoof song (many versions available) and James Weldon Johnson’s original “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” However, in the same way that the sound of my trumpet vanished in banks of oscillators and filters, so did any echo of Andrew Hill, Whiffenpoof, and James Weldon Johnson in Accelerate Every Voice. One could discern some connections. But, to anyone listening without having read Smythe’s words, I guarantee the resonances would be as distant as a clef sign on the moon. Does the music fail because of this? No, actually, it stands on its own.
A critical breakdown of the sounds on this album will call for an approach more cryptic and poetic than analytic because each track has few traditional musical toeholds. My descriptions will be terse but, I hope, communicate the sense of the music.
#1. “Northern Cities Vowel Shift.” Very flexible voices in a chorus toy with discernible jazz harmonies as Smythe on piano plays both inside the piano and on the keyboard. A fair amount of sound manipulation, especially audio played backward. There are sections with discernible changes in the time signatures. We hear simultaneous vocal improvisations, sometimes with choral overlays and with piano running continuously. Vocal improvisations range from controlled to clear: “wha” and other syllables are used as refrains, which are sometimes screamed.
#2. “Accelerate Every Voice.” Again, sound manipulation — a skipping sensation. A rich layering of textures. Robert Ashley and other doyens of the avant-garde evoked. Yes, Virginia, there is a tempo; at least for a while. To some degree, microtones battle diatonic notes for supremacy. Occasionally, they sue for peace and cooperate. There’s a light brush of sensuality in the female voice here; it speaks a nonidentifiable language, but via a syntax that sounds linguistically feasible. Liner notes are not much help: “Pass and be forgotten with the rest.” I can’t hear it. Occasionally voices stop and open up brief holes for the piano to come skipping through. Eventually the voices push toward the slightly operatic, which brings on a moody ending coda.
#3. “Marl Every Voice.” Reference to? Black Steel? Anthem video game? We hear the one clear reference to Lift Every Voice in the words: “We will not go back to…back to the…” The voices run through various emotional possibilities as they pick up that phrase. Some percussion comes in. A distinctly dramatic climate is created, a sense of a lurking presence — distant cries and wails brush by lightly while scratchy piano innards fade away.
#4. “Kinetic Whirlwind Sculpture 1.” Held notes in sharp, clashing harmony. Vocalizations goose up phonemes; sustained inner piano strings echo those phonemes. Voices resurface in a stentorian mode then branch outward, arriving at a sudden small climax.
#5. “Vehemently.” Faux bossa nova. Words are there but hard to discern. Some echo Brazilian Portuguese. One male voice proposes a quarter of a bass line while female voices emerge and then retreat for a male solo that merges into the large vocal ensemble, which makes use of multiphonics and dense layering. A beat-boxing voice keeps some of the time some of the time. Piano distortion leads to a quick ending.
#6. “Kinetic Whirlwind Sculpture 2.” More squarely in the “new classical” vein of vocal manipulation and extreme registers; an oscilloscope made audible. There’s a hive effect: voices beat against each other in a church-sized resonant space and yes, a male voice evokes sermon-esque tones. Large phasing effects. A kinetic sculpture, perhaps, but an ecclesiastical one.
#7. “Knot Every Voice.” Enter in slow steps. Distortions small and medium with a beat-box keeping no time. Microtonal piano. A wayward carillon.
#8. “Weatherproof Song.” Sprightly “buhm buhm buhm”s and other friendly ejaculations with a piano sounding warnings beneath. Scat singing spins in amidst syllabic explorations guided subtly by piano. Spinning a bit more madly around, trying to stay on the horsey. “Ave” tag ending.
#9. “Piano and Ocean Waves for Deep Relaxation.” The longest track by far, clearly references the Armageddon explored by Annea Lockwood. Yes, we hear waves, albeit caroming off various electronic surfaces. More haunted than calming. Some concrete sounds break up the wave patterns. A long, low confused din emerges and stretches out over a sporadic ghostly near-silence. Impending doom coming in on cat’s feet. Ending takes the form of strong, brittle silence.
The music on Accelerate Every Voice is densely layered — simultaneously music and cryptic puzzle. This is virtuosity-driven chamber music with fluctuating levels of oxygen, shadows, and light. The taut surface tension here may repel potential listeners, though others might find its sonic skin sufficiently permeable and will feel free to enter and explore. Words –mine or Smythe’s — will only take us so far. Yes, this territory may seem somewhat alien, but forays into terra incognita can sometimes result in surprisingly refreshing discoveries.
Steve Provizer writes on a range of subject, most often the arts. He is a musician and blogs about jazz here.