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Matthew De Gennaro - Chuang Tzu Motherfucker

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Artist: Matthew De Gennaro

Album: Chuang Tzu Motherfucker

Label: Soft Abuse

Review date: Aug. 28, 2013

What’s beautiful? It depends on who is looking, the Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu wrote 2,400 years ago. He was a man of knowledge who argued that while the span of things to be known is limitless, what a human could know in a lifetime is distinctly limited. That’s heavy shit coming from a member of the learned class in a culture that especially prized knowledge — thus the motherfucker, I suppose. Matthew De Gennaro seems to have taken Chuang Tzu’s lesson to heart. His music responds to this age in which the access to knowledge seems limitless and overwhelming by zeroing in on the good stuff and ignoring the rest.

De Gennaro has been making records and gigging in ultra-low key fashion since the late 90s, sometimes on his own and other times in the company of New Zealander Alastair Galbraith or Chicago-based Scott Tuma, who appears on one track on Chuang Tzu Motherfucker. His taste in collaborators tells you a bit about his tastes, but not the whole story. Like them, he has a knack for making immaculately complete instrumentals that bedazzle despite their simplicity. Sometimes he uses non-standard tunings and drones to unlock music’s potential to open psychic and spiritual portals. Other times, he quietly settles into the momentary calm yielded by unhurried picking and strumming. His main instruments are fiddles, guitar and pump organ; he only sings once, to pay tribute to the late Australian singer/songwriter Pip Proud. Proud, like De Gennaro and his preferred compadres, played music that cleared out a singular space bypassed by many, but haunted those who were open to it. “Forty (for Pip Proud)” opens with a sweet bit of fingerpicking that feels like a thank you letter. Sure plucking yields to layers of one-chord strumming (much like Proud’s own playing), keening violin, sorrowful harmonica, and a voice that sounds like it is speaking to itself. De Gennaro doesn’t sound as wrecked as Proud did, and I suppose he should be thankful for that, but he does bottle a bit of Proud’s existential loneliness.

Still, it’s the sounds that speak the most. De Gennaro has spent a lot of time studying pre-Renaissance string music. Contemporary violin playing often operates like a sharp object, a cutting presence — De Gennaro uses the overtones that radiate from his bowed strings to move air, not cut through it, and to erase centuries. It’s a physical presence, but also an emotional one, and De Gennaro’s music is most powerful when he has a bow in his hand. On “Plumb Line” and “Butterfly Companion,” the radiant tones ring out with the brightness of first sunlight breaking over the trees. On “Tranquility Blues,” his fiddle lurks in the background, lending gravity and sympathy to some guitar strumming that is just as logy as it needs to be to articulate the sentiment at hand. It’s there for only a moment on “Hymno al Sol,” flitting like a ghost behind the stolid pump organ, but it likewise sharpens that most familiar of Andean melodies (you might remember how Simon and Garfunkel used it) into a hymn freighted with awareness for all the things that pass with the end of a day.

De Gennaro’s guitar playing doesn’t have as much force, but there’s still plenty to appreciate. He is not, like Jack Rose or Daniel Bachman, someone who uses the instrument to spin long and winding yarns. Instead, he sets a mood and leaves it at that. My favorite is “Shangaan Dance,” a lilting piece of appropriated Africanna spiked with the simultaneously alien and antique sounds of an early electronic instrument called a clavioline.

Homemade and highly personal, De Gennaro’s music might seem odd, old or incomplete to many. Others might love it for exactly those qualities. Either way, Chuang Tzu Motherfucker gives you a chance to look over his shoulder, see through his eyes, hear with his ears, and experience something that feels true and untethered to this time.

By Bill Meyer

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