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John Morton - Outlier: New Music For Music Boxes

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Artist: John Morton

Album: Outlier: New Music For Music Boxes

Label: Innova

Review date: Jun. 18, 2002

Outlier: New Music For Music Boxes is exactly what it claims to be: an album played primarily by music boxes. John Morton alters music boxes, and processes their sounds and accompanies them with conventional instruments like guitars and pianos, but music boxes are nearly always in the spotlight, playing soothing sounds the way they typically do. Don't expect any straightforward melodies, though—Morton's compositions typically consist of several instruments playing in the same key, but rhythmically independent of each other.

As the album goes on, Morton plays with the music box sounds more and more, distorting them into piercing shards on Part I of "A Delicate Road," then chopping them into flute-like whistles on Part III of the same piece. But his approach is essentially the same: he's still piling layers of music-box chimes into a metrically free polyphony of pleasant, mostly major key plinks.

It's a neat trick, and the reason why it works stems directly from Morton's choice of instruments. I don't listen to much music that's this stereotypically pretty, but I can relate to music boxes and accept them as signifiers of calm because I often fell asleep to them as a kid. And since the music is rhythmically dense and complex, it feels newer on repeated listens than it would if it were based on straightforward rhythms. Morton has reinvented the soothing power of the music box for listeners like me, whose ears have been damaged by years of free jazz, modern composition and other types of strange and obscure music.

The one piece on Outlier that's not made from music boxes, though, is troublesome. "Slurry," scored for three clarinets, sits right in the middle of the album. It's well-executed, and Morton deserves praise for the flowing lyricism of his melodic lines and for his open-ended approach to rhythm. But the major-key, non-chord-based pitch content of the piece is very similar to that of the music-box pieces. I'm willing to accept that sort of unapologetic prettiness on a piece for music boxes, which connote prettiness anyway. But an ensemble of three clarinets doesn't have the same connotation, because the clarinet has been used for plenty of purposes besides soothing restless children. So the prettiness in this context suggests something different: namely, the contrived accessibility of many recent American composers and of film scorers like John Williams.

I don't doubt that fans of Williams and Michael Torke, for example, will enjoy "Slurry." But its presence on Outlier bothers and confuses me. The diatonic prettiness on the music-box pieces feels purposeful, since Morton seems to be commenting on or offering a variation on the way music boxes are typically used. He can't do the same thing with clarinets, though, so I'm forced to accept that the prettiness exists for its own sake. And Morton doesn't offer me much to wash it down with: there's no experimentation with timbre, no beat and no overt message, just a lot of lyrical, drifting major-key lines. I'm not attacking major-key music, but if a piece is pretty, the prettiness is rarely the only aspect of it I like, and on "Slurry," Morton gives me little else to focus on.

This, in turn, causes me to think of the music box pieces differently. Maybe Morton wasn't using major keys in those pieces to comment on the usual use of music boxes; maybe the real comment is, "Major keys are good," and the music boxes are simply the medium. Fine, but to my avant-damaged mind, prettiness-for-its-own-sake seems like an entirely different and less interesting proposition than the one I thought Morton was suggesting.

Maybe I should take the stick out of my ass and stop worrying about Morton's intent, but I can't. And maybe I should just program my CD player to skip "Slurry" when I listen to Outlier, but the damage is done: "Slurry" complicates my opinion of Morton's CD, which is, otherwise, a very pleasant listen.

By Charlie Wilmoth

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