Kevin Ratterman (drums)
Every now and then something lands on my CD-cluttered desk and instantly stands out. Such was the case with Cosmography by Luke Cissell. Admittedly, before his disc arrived in the mail Cissell sent us a query to find out if we were interested in hearing his music—I always answer yes. As soon as I saw the digipack with its lovely otherworldly artwork by Melissa Haas Hinton overlaid with a neon-like font that screamed out titles such as “Sam Shepard,” “Misbegotten,” and “Percival” (which is actually a “cover” of themes from Richard Wagner’s Parsifal), I immediately put it on the top of my listening pile for the week.
So who is Luke Cissell? It sounds like the name of a character from either a Louis L’Amour or Flannery O’Connor novel, or perhaps the protagonist in something published in Astounding Stories magazine. Fittingly, the press release that accompanied the CD in the mail described the music as “bluegrass on a distant planet.” I knew I had to put it into the CD drive on my laptop and listen right then and there!
But at first my skepticism briefly got the better of me. The synth- and acoustic guitar-laden opening title track “Cosmography,” albeit with a tender fiddle melody floating on top, seemed to veer too dangerously close to a Weather Channel soundtrack for my own aesthetic comfort zones. (Maybe those “smooth” sounds are just too strong a reminder of my bad luck getting rained on during mornings with reportedly clear skies or losing my umbrella on rain-announced days that turn out to be sunny.) But, always attempting to eschew personal judgment in the hopes of a sonic epiphany, I kept listening and less than a minute in, a banjo riff suddenly entered as if someone had just hacked into the control room and reprogrammed the sound cues for the forecast.
Then things took a much more bona fide down home turn. “Sam Shepard” is a convincing breakdown with some curious harmonic twists and virtuosic fills on fiddle, mandolin, banjo, and steel guitar that seem to feed off of each other, Grand Ole Opry style, except that they were all overdubbed by Cissell in the studio. The synthesizers return in “Ghosts of Grayson County,” but now they’ve taken on a decidedly more foreboding tone, as mandolin and fiddle trade mournful solos. On “The Farther We Fall,” it suddenly sounds as if Ralf Hütter from Kraftwerk was invited to sit in with J. D. Crowe and The New South. For this, Cissell in fact was not alone, but was joined by Kevin Ratterman, former drummer for the indie rock band Wax Fang, who appears on seven of the album’s twelve tracks. Ratterman already made an appearance on the album’s first two tracks, but here his insistent beats are foregrounded, resulting in a kind of techno-disco-bluegrass. It might not be to everyone’s taste—probably not to folks steeped in the ever-shifting rhythmic uncertainties of most high modernist music—but the sheer audacity of its combination of influences has gotten me to hit replay several times already in the last 24 hours.
“Misgiven” is a dolorous, unaccompanied fiddle solo that barely lasts a minute. It leads directly into “Lonesome Dreamer,” which is characterized by constant changes in timbre and occasional percussion interjections that serve more to provide color than a driving rhythm. “Little Memphis” is an unlikely amalgam of Doc Watson and mid-’70s Tangerine Dream (to my ears at least). “Misbegotten” is another minute-long fiddle solo that is slightly more upbeat.
But at this point, the more I listened the more questions I had. Since the one-page press release didn’t offer a ton of information, I did some web surfing. (Cissell is the 2012 winner of the John Cage Memorial Random Composer Award!) I also traded a few emails with the composer to get a better grounding in where he’s coming from.
“I think there’s a sense of in-between-ness that’s been with me for a long time,” Cissell remarked in one of our exchanges. Though now based in New York City, he originally hails from Louisville, Kentucky, and grew up hearing Bill Monroe play on television. At the age of five, Cissell was playing fiddle and took lessons with a player who went on to become a Nashville session man. But that same teacher also suggested that Cissell should get classical training, so he enrolled in the preparatory department at the University of Louisville. Cissell describes his own music, which also includes two string quartets (you can hear the full range of his compositional output on his Soundcloud page), as an attempt at reconciling these “simultaneous musical upbringings.” There have certainly been precedents for infusing country-western/Bluegrass/roots music with a “new music” sensibility and vice versa. Aside from the “new music” inclinations of New Acoustic Music pioneers like Tony Trischka, Andy Statman, Béla Fleck, Mark O’Connor, Edgar Meyer, or—more recently—folks like Chris Thile or Abigail Washburn, a Southern twang has occasionally crept into the avant-garde; works by Ned Sublette, Laurie Spiegel, Paul Elwood, and Monroe Golden come to mind.
But to return to Cissell’s album, “Heaven Hill” begins with ethereal synthesizer harmonies, but then a driving reel played on the acoustic instruments is layered on top of it that wanders gleefully into bi-tonal terrain. It’s the kind of music that Charles Ives might have made if he had access to a recording studio. In the ambient, somewhat Brian Eno-esque “Faded,” a regular guitar ostinato provides a steady pulse over which acoustic and electronically produced sounds take center stage in turn. A stranger sound world resurfaces for “It Was All a Fantasy.”
There is once again a constant shift in timbres (this time including an acoustic piano), which at times calls to mind Frank Zappa. But eventually the scalar melodies that were previously shards lock together in a driving counterpoint reminiscent of Philip Glass. It turns out that Cissell was the violinist on Tara Hugo’s recording of Glass’s music released on Glass’s Orange Mountain Music label last year. Unlike the previous tracks that seem formed spontaneously in the studio, “It Was All a Fantasy” sounds like there was quite a bit of pre-performance planning. My suspicion was confirmed by Cissell, who explained it to me as follows:
For most of the tracks I started with a basic idea about a mood or a structure/form/tempo, and the tracking particulars were about finding organic solutions—a lot of the composing process happened at the microphone or in the thick of the tracking process. [But] “It Was All a Fantasy” started out as a written score.
The final track on the disc, “Percifal,” is something else entirely, though like “It Was All a Fantasy,” it was also scored in advance. But unlike the rest of the music on the album, which was all created by Cissell, “Percifal” is a sonic excursion derived from the music of Wagner’s final opera, another unlikely hybrid that sounds like it couldn’t possible work but it somehow does. Again, in Cissell’s own words:
There’s some irreverence (and some twang) in there, to be sure, but mostly a great deal of reverence. There was a period when I was listening to it a lot, and at some point I got the deranged idea to make my own recording of it.
There’s definitely an undeniable solemnity to it that carries through for nearly its entire five minutes. But then after more than two minutes of silence comes a hidden musical bonus, an introspective song—the only vocal on the entire album. At first I found it extremely disconcerting, especially, coming as it did, on the heels of Wagner. That said, it is lovely and I particularly like that he concludes the song without resolving the harmonic progression he set up during it. The more I thought about it, the ambiguity of that final secret track was perhaps the only way to end an album that was so filled with incongruities. Cissell carefully plotted how everything herein relates to everything else, conceiving of this project as an “album” overall and not just a collection of standalone tracks.
I was conscious of the overall feel and arc I wanted Cosmography to have throughout the process. For me there’s a bit of homesickness to it, a sense of displacement but also a sense of wonder and questioning. There’s a kind of “sigh” motif that runs throughout the album: you can hear it in the opening statement of the title track in the fiddle, it gets probably most fully developed in “Ghosts of Grayson County,” and you can continue to hear echoes of it in “The Farther We Fall” and throughout the remainder of the album.
There will be a lot more vocal music from Cissell in the near future. He’s currently working on an opera—an adaptation of Henry James’s novel The Ambassadors. If that sounds completely out of left field after reading about this bluegrass meets “new music” album, for him it’s just the next step in working out the dichotomies that have shaped his musical identity. According to him, “The Ambassadors was a natural choice for me to want to adapt into an opera; the text is rich with Jamesian themes of American-ness vs. European-ness and of feeling the pull between two very different and very powerful forces.”
I can’t wait to hear more.