The soundscapes of Things You Already Know, the experimental and eclectic new offering by composer Chris Campbell, are not easy to categorize. (Its cover provides more than a hint of that.)
More than fitting, as the album appears on Innova Recordings, which describes itself as “difficult to label.” Innova is the recording arm of the American Composers Forum, an organization that’s long promoted independent and cutting-edge artists from a wide range of musical genres. This is Campbell’s third work on Innova (where he doubles as operations manager) and where his first solo CD, Sound the All-Clear, was issued in 2010.
A hard-to-describe hybrid of post-minimalist classical, new-new age, and electro-acoustic, Things You Already Know also incorporates things you didn’t know could make such interesting music: propane tank drums, bowed psalteries, and singing bowls, matched with more traditional instruments like cello and piano, in a sonic shake-up that’s unexpectedly resonant. The musicians themselves are a diverse mix, with members of the Minnesota Orchestra and Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra playing alongside counterparts from the alternative Twin City rock bands, Zoo Animal and Aaron & The Sea.
Campbell’s inspiration came from what he calls absorption – “That metaphysical equals sign (=) where there’s no separation between self and other, inner and outer, general and particular,” he says in the liner notes. And there’s quite a bit of audile absorption to be experienced here, particularly in the two provocative tracks, “Lord Byron” and “Torso of a Bodhisattva.”
Be ready to land in uncharted musical territory, where it’s best to just take it all in. The tumultuous “Lord Byron” combines dissonance and displacement with a surprising sweep of neo-Romanticism (the Byron connection?), along with touches of psychedelia that reminded me of some chaotic notes from The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.”
“Torso of a Bodhisattva” creates a mystical mélange of ambient space, underpinned with a searching sense of longing. The two keyboard works that bookmark the album — “Form – Emptiness” and “Emptiness – Form” — as well as the title piece, serve as quiet oases in a journey that’s a lot about juxtaposition, far-flung elements coming together to forge an unlikely whole.
It may take more than one listen, but those who enjoy a little challenge in their music (and I do), should find Things You Already Know worth the effort.
(Cover art: Alec Soth)