Office Hours #7 – Calavera

- Posted April 17th, 2015 by

Representing a journey through art can be an incredibly daunting task due to the abstract nature of audience expectation. Movies are an obvious choice for the easiest way to show the viewer a journey, followed closely by books. Tolkein’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ is one of the most loved books containing this trope, with Frodo and Sam’s journey to Mordor along with the other paths of the Fellowship. Perhaps the most difficult medium for this subject is the visual arts, where painter Thomas Cole used multiple canvases to depict a journey in his ‘Voyage of Life’ series. Somewhere in the middle of these difficulty levels lies musical depictions of a journey. Because it is a time-based art form like film, the listener does not have control over the length of the journey if they wish to reach its intended end. Some are longer than others, and what one learns on these journeys is different depending on the listener.

Two different types of (J)ourney

‘So why all the fancy talk about journey through art?’ Great question, I am glad you asked! I told you that story to tell you this story about ‘Journeys,’ the new album from Australian chip artist Calavera. Released earlier this month via netlabel Pxl-Bot, Calavera’s album contains six tracks that are each little journeys with very descriptive titles. In his own words, the opening sentence of the album description nicely encapsulates the scope of this release:

Revolving around the central theme made clear in it’s title, ‘Journeys’ is based on the idea that each of us is following a different course in life, striving for different goals and end locations.

Since the concept of this album revolves around the journeys of both the music itself and the individual lives of the listener, it seems inappropriate for me to dissect and analyze each track. The journey you will embark on when listening to the album might be somehow spoiled by projecting my own interpretations of the music or giving a play-by-play account of the events. Rather, my review will be a list of six interesting musical techniques or tidbits that can be found on ‘Journeys’ as a whole, with a brief discussion of individual tracks and how they represent the topic.

Calavera - 'Journeys'

Knowing the theme of the album, one thing you might expect to hear is a variety of styles. All of the tracks are coherent and make logical sense together, but each retains its own sense of uniqueness. The first thing that I enjoy about the album are the changing textures in each track. Some are more dramatic than others, but in general each track sets up musical parameters in melody, accompaniment, or rhythm that eventually change. The texture change in ‘Simulation Theory’ is really well done; I enjoy the aural break from the steady arp and bassline texture.

The second musical feature in ‘Journeys’ is one of the toughest compositional challenges to master, and it concerns the use of repetition. Each track stays true to the theme of the album by literally going on a journey of its own through the use of repeated musical material. Although musical material does return, rarely if ever does it reappear in the exact same fashion as the original presentation. Changes in harmony, instrumentation, or accompaniment seems to signify that the repeated material has gone on a journey of its own. One of my two favorite tracks on the album does this in a spectacular fashion – pay close attention to the opening material of ‘Nice to Meet You, Fuji-sama’ and how it may (or may not) be transformed as the track progresses.

Something that I often bring up with my students is the idea of music evolving over time in a living, organic fashion. One way to achieve this feeling is to give plenty of space between notes so there is a sense that each occupies a single, unique place in time. This spacious rhythmic quality is used in many places on the album, but one of my favorites is the sense of openness in ‘Wandering the Sands.’ Given the track title, it is probably a safe bet that this spaciousness was intentional, but again I do not want to project my exact interpretations onto your hearing of this fine album!

The characteristics of a good melody are incredibly hard to define, and, to paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart: ‘I know it when I hear it.’ There are many strong melodies on ‘Journeys,’ each with a unique set of features that make it good and maddeningly difficult to briefly describe why they work. One of the strongest melodic snippets on the album is found in ‘Swing and a Miss.’ The combination of harsh wave channel tones with the breathing rhythmic quality in the beat and accompaniment perfectly prepare the listener for the meanest melody on the whole album.

Something that surprised me as I listened to the album in preparation for this review was the subtle use of counterpoint between the melodic voices. It takes a good deal of skill to compose interesting musical lines that are both equally independent and complimentary to each other. While these tracks are not nearly as complex as something like the music of JS Bach, there are little moments where the pulse channels and wave bass work together to create a beautifully complex texture. My other favorite track contains an excellent example of this technique – listen to the melodic line in ‘About Us,’ and then try to focus on what the second pulse channel is doing. It provides a great accompaniment that is also itself a really nice line. Now is a perfect spot to mention the brilliant album mastering provided by Stemage, as each voice exists in its own frequency realm and the balance is great not only on this track but throughout the album.

Finally, a fantastic mix of ambient and melodic styles can be heard on this album. My own listening and composing preferences skew towards melodic textures, but there is a great balance on this album between the idea of a musical theme versus an evolving texture. Fans of both styles will definitely find their own favorites among these six tracks, and for me the best ambient moments happen in the final track. This track contains the most direct repetition found on the album, almost (but not quite) leaning towards late 20th century American minimalism. Dynamic contrasts and tempo shifts help keep the texture interesting, and I could definitely stand to listen to several more minutes of the final track if they had been written.

The wonderful variety of textures and styles found on Calavera’s album ‘Journeys’ ensures that there will be something for listeners of all tastes to enjoy. Each track evolves in an organic fashion rather than a jarring collage of styles, yet there is enough repetition to hold the listeners attention. I really enjoy this album, and hope that my comments on these tracks have inspired you to take part in this listening journey!

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