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Greg Davis - Mutually Arising

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Artist: Greg Davis

Album: Mutually Arising

Label: Kranky

Review date: Jul. 21, 2009

These days, drone is a dirty word. What started as a term for a specific musical device became, in the hands of the likes of LaMonte Young and Giacinto Scelsi, a rigorously defined compositional form, one taken up by successive generations, in particular the horde of CD-R artists eager to jack into the form’s surface promise of immediate, ecstatic transcendence, often through intense volume and density alone. It’s this last fact that has raised the collective critical hackle, turning the term into critical shorthand for lazy experimentation and tedium.

Greg Davis, however, seems blissfully unaware of the drone’s demise and has turned in an exquisite example of the form. On the two 20-minute-plus tracks here, Davis puts on a hyper-focused display of two classic approaches. Using only synthesizers (a Korg Mono/Poly and a Crumar Stratus), effects pedals and computers, he lays out two extended pieces of immersive head music.

Over its 27 minutes, “Cosmic Mudra” starts with a nearly inaudible purr, gradually introduces complementary tones and finally manifests as an ecstatic roar of a chord. Davis aranges it all deftly, taking advantage of the sheer surface of the swelling cluster, teasing out all sorts of hallucinatory overtone detail. In contrast, ”Hall of Pure Bliss” is lighter, floating your brain like a buoy instead of splitting it with a laser beam. The bright, undulating chords give off a halo of harmonics that flickers in and out of visibility. The tense, heightened awareness achieved in the build-up on “Cosmic Mudra,” evaporates in the gravity-less drift of “Bliss.” The contrast makes for a perfectly balanced record, something much more careful, more considered and deeper than its monotone surface suggests.

Those who would focus on this monotone quality of Mutually Arising (and drone music in general), and deride it as boring or unimaginative, miss the point. Structure is not the goal; content is. Sensual timbral and (a)tonal combinations are what make the drone experience. Used as a compositional scheme, the drone unifies these combinations in a sustained and subtle exploration of sound and psycho-acoustic properties, an exploration that doubles as a metaphor (and in rare cases, as a vehicle for) for meditation.

And Davis, as a composer and performer keen to dissolve genre boundaries, knows very well where the drone’s boundaries go, as well as when and when not to cross them. He knows that expecting the drone to do more than it does is like expecting fish to walk – it’s against nature. The drone, as Davis makes explicit here, is very natural, as natural as thinking, walking and breathing. Odd, then, that so many would have so much against it.

By Matthew Wuethrich

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