Sounds Heard: Rebecca Brandt—Numbers & Shapes

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Numbers & Shapes
by Rebecca Brandt

While it’s difficult to deny that the instant gratification of being able to listen to something as soon as you learn about it can be very satisfying, it also comes with a downside. It’s a little bit too easy, somehow, and therefore feels inconsequential, threatening to make the music seem more disposable, at least to me. That’s one of the main reasons why I still prefer to listen to music on physical recordings, although I’m probably in the minority about this issue among people who spend a great deal of time online—hence most of the folks reading this. That said, every now and again something that I’ve only been able to sonically experience via digital dissemination captures my full attention. Such is the case with Numbers and Shapes, the 14-track debut album from Rebecca Brandt, a Brooklyn-based composer who is classically trained as a pianist and has also done scores for film and TV.

Though the album also exists as a limited-edition CD, it is primarily available via download and can also be streamed in its entirety on Bandcamp. Bandcamp is not a site I’ve spent much time surfing around as of yet, though that may change after listening through every track on Brandt’s Bandcamp page. It initially came to my attention via an email in which she described each of the tracks as being in “its own little world.” Her name was unfamiliar to me so I felt intrigued enough to visit her website whose navigation has a clever Java script that plays a different chord for every area. So I decided to check out her recording via the email’s Bandcamp link. I know that going through the mishigas of surfing around instead of just following that Bandcamp link in the first place might sound like a counterintuitive approach, but remember I’m the guy who worries about music retrieved too easily being disposable. So I tried to recreate some of the chase and eventual reward I’ve always associated with discovering interesting music.

And the reward is still the music. The opening track on the album, “Staying Silent,” begins in a seemingly New Age vein: soothing piano, wordless vocals. I started to have my doubts. Despite my aim to love all music and fight against personal bias, I still have something of a block when it comes to things like New Age music and smooth jazz. (You can never completely escape the aesthetic prisons that mold you in your formative years.) Thankfully, to sate my aesthetic shortcomings at least, Brandt’s music quickly moves past the New Age sound world as she piles on more and more layers of counterpoint, creating music that instead winds up sounding more akin to one of Phil Spector’s self-described “little symphonies for the kiddies,” albeit without the saccharine lyrics.

“Run” similarly begins in a deceptively simple way, at the onset sounding reminiscent of music that is clearly commercial in its design—literally, it sounds like music that you hear used in commercials (and a realm in which Ms. Brandt has worked). But soon the numerous layers of orchestration gain the upper hand as Glass-ian descending scales propel the music to a place where you are forced to pay attention to it and only it.

But the real surprise comes with the third track, “The Clock Breaks at Three.” Here, the multiple instrumental layers are peeled away and all that is left is piano and percussion. But the fascinating dysfunctional tonality of the piano’s harmonies dispel the need for other timbres. In fact, so disconcerting is the initial juxtaposition of an unrelated harmony in the final two beats of each measure’s six beat rhythmic cycle, I kept thinking the music was in five or seven until I started tapping along with it.

Brandt’s layering returns, however, in “Other Places” which at times calls to mind passages from Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians albeit with a cello riff that is very reminiscent of the ostinato for the opening “Knee Play” of Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, somehow reconciling two large-scale monuments of 1970s minimalism in only three minutes. “Blackbox,” similarly filled out with multiple orchestration layers as per the earlier tracks on the album, also includes some almost Richard Wright-like synth action of circa 1975 Pink Floyd.

“Jivko” opens with a very recorder-like flute solo, performed by Ashley Bozian-Murtha, hovering over a series of punctuated string trio chords reminiscent of the Beatles’ use of a string quartet in “Eleanor Rigby.” Soon, however, the flute is buried in layers of counterpoint with oboe, English horn, and soprano saxophone, but before it develops further it suddenly ends at barely two minutes in. I could have listened for at least another 20 minutes. The next track, “54,” actually is in quintuple time. It would not be out of place on one of Brian Eno’s ambient recordings, but don’t assume that means that it is consists exclusively of quietly flowing music; some pretty heavy percussive thwacks plus some bass guitar riffs assertively rendered by Benjamin Jacobs intrude on music that starts out deceptively serene.

On the other hand, “Aline’s Song,” in which Brandt’s piano is accompanied only by double bass and Marc Plotkin multitracked on several guitars (acoustic, electric, and bass), might perhaps be too serene for my own aforementioned aesthetic proclivities. Therefore it was my hope that the next track, with its intriguing title “The Twelve Tones,” would take me into somewhat gnarlier terrain. Not quite. The predominantly diatonic and harmonic language herein hardly references the total chromatic, at least to my ears, though in a brief email Q&A exchange with the composer during preparation for writing about her music she actually said it was her “take on the twelve-tone technique created by Arnold Schoenberg, and was written using a twelve tone matrix.” Of course, as composers from Rautavaara to Mikel Rouse have shown, twelve-tone rows can be pretty malleable and so I’m eager to see the matrix she used to generate this piece one day! But whether it’s tonal or dodecaphonic, I thought that the careful layering of the somewhat unusual combination of harp, flute, bassoon, string trio, and double bass was very exhilarating. Notably, this is the first time where there is no keyboard; the composer does not play on this track at all. She returns, however, on “Jewelry Box,” only here she exclusively plays celesta and glockenspiel. I’m a total sucker for both of these instruments, and they work nicely here in an ensemble of string quintet and winds, particularly when the strings are playing pizzicato. At about two minutes in, electric bass and drums enter, morphing the whole compositional edifice she has created into something more overtly pop-oriented. But these concessions to pop music sensibilities are completely eroded in “Phylum” which is scored exclusively for string quartet.

On “Rouge,” Brandt throws a sitar into the mix, performed by the NYC-based Hindustani classical sitarist Indro Roy-Chowdhury, but don’t assume that means that this is an example of Indofusion à la Shakti or George Harrison raga rock. Rather the sitar is just another timbral color for Brandt’s palette of sonorities. In fact, for me the highlight of the track is when everything—guitars and drums, as well as the sitar—drops out and all that remains are Brandt’s sustained Fender Rhodes chords. The most unadorned track in the entire collection, however, is “Kill The Messenger” which is an unaccompanied piano solo performed by Brandt. While the short composition (approximately two minutes) has a Glassworks-era Michael Riesman feel to it, it is somehow less tonally stable. The concluding track, “The Moment” begins as a solo piano waltz with unassuming um-pah-pahs which gradually builds to the largest ensemble assembled for the entire album—the blurb on the Bandcamp page describes it as a 32-piece orchestra but only 15 musicians were listed. It’s still an impressive-enough large ensemble which, through multi-tracking, sounds extremely full. Still, the overall effect sounds more prog-rock than symphonic. It’s mostly an acoustic ensemble, but once you throw in an electric guitar with feedback, that’s the sound that dominates. It also has the last word.

All in all, Numbers & Shapes offers an interesting range of sonic vignettes which navigate between quite a few genres. But the fact that none of these tracks seem beholden to any genre makes them ultimately a new music listening experience, one that I will hopefully encounter again as I wander the web. However, I still hope I can track down one of the copies of the limited-edition CD.

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