Alexander Balanescu’s quartet has, along with artists like Clogs and Erik Friedlander, unveiled the allure of reinterpretation and (minimal) classical composition to me like no other artist has in years. Clogs’ Stick Music affirmed the singularity and importance of their compositional skills in both the classical and alternative rock genres, while Erik Friedlander’s Maldoror reminded us all of the unique, passionate work that comes to fruition when musicians approach source material that is close to them. Maria T possesses the strengths of both of those Brassland efforts; it is equal parts tribute, re-contextualization and breathtaking display of skill.
Balanescu sought a spiritual connection with his Romanian homeland and its past when he began work on Maria T. Not surprisingly, the album gets its title from one of the great Romanian folk singers, Maria Tanase (1913-1963), who collected and reworked traditional songs from different regions of the country. Recordings of Tanase’s work can be heard in some of the songs here and Balanescu attributes her aural presence to bridging the gap between past and present cultures: “I attempt repeatedly to reconnect myself to the cultural background of the country where I grew up…That is why, recently, I chose the songs of Maria Tanase, as the nucleus of inspiration for new musical material.” Given that Tanase herself reimagined various Romanian folk songs and that now Balanescu has done the same to her work, Maria T is sort of a pause in the ouroboros-like cycle of inspiration and reinterpretation. So yes, you can most definitely call this a classical concept album. These new songs created by Balanescu and his quartet sound wonderful in their own right but the listening experience becomes so much richer when you put them into the context that Balenescu has created.
One thing I should mention right now. Aside from the thirteen minute plus “Empty Space Dance”, the first song on Maria T is the longest, and probably the albums most beautiful. At over eleven minutes, “Spotdance” was the only song I heard on Maria T for weeks after receiving it only because each time after hearing it, I would continue thinking about it while the second (and almost equally beautiful) song played, resulting in me having to turn the stereo off due to inability to concentrate. “Spotdance” begins with light snare brushing and a looped, effect laden tin-y sting sample. A violin enters with a nice melody until quick bass strokes settle the song down and it journeys into a few minor peaks and valleys. At the six and a half minute mark the strings become upset and switch against each other in a sort of ignorant refusal to accept their prior homogeneity. The violins cascade and climb back up, soaring above the bass as if to escape the fray while below those low strings march on dumbly as if to keep things in check. A nervous cello soon joins and the violin disappears giving way to one of the most exquisite (classical) solos this year.
On “Turning Weels”, after an overly long beginning section, the strings lazily, happily, chase Tanase’s Romanian tongue in an energetic melody the likes of which you would find outside of a village café (who’ve recently run their taps dry). “Mountain Call” is just that, but ideas of annoying as fuck yodel are nowhere near what the far reaching calls that grace this track sound like. Like the way I eventually found Panicsville’s super frequencies to be some of the most adventurous music today, I’d never considered describing mountain calls as melancholic, but there you go. “Wine’s So Good” begins with scattered plucking and grounded bass pulls before a short section of sleuth-on-the-prowl percussion enters, giving way to the antiquity of Maria’s folk singing and almost-waltz strings. It sounds like an artifact of traditional Romanian music scarcely heard by those unacquainted with the culture; I always had to remind myself that Balanescu’s fingerprints are all over the compositions. Oh, and I hate to bring up album artwork, but that ghostly, feminine face on the cover is all too appropriate; the colorlessness and barely there facial features hint at the historicism that rises to the surface on this disc.
Vinyl is extremely, carefully considered before being added into my collection. Maria T hasn’t been released in that format (yet), but I’m getting old (twenty is old) and I’d like to spend a few warm evenings at home with my girlfriend, sipping wine and listening to more music like this on wax. This is the first time since Oceanic that an addition will be made; if you can gauge the stylistic distance between this album and that then you know the true extent of my admiration, and I’ll see you at the record store.
- Andrew Iliadis
/june 15th 2005/