(Canadian Rational/bigHelium, 2007)
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More than that, Penumbra is a culmination of a remarkably rewarding musical dialogue that has taken place between Gasparyan and Brook over the course of more than two decades, serving to some extent as the long-awaited sequel to their 1998 album Black Rock. Djivan Gasparyan is a true Armenian national hero for his mastery and global representation of the duduk – a reed instrument hand-carved from apricot wood and one of the most expressive in all of music. Michael Brook is the Canadian guitarist, producer and sonic innovator whose work has spanned iconic collaborations with Brian Eno, the creation of the “infinite guitar” (as used by U2’s the Edge) and Brook’s own composition and performances. These include the score for the Al Gore documentary An Inconvenient Truth and Sean Penn’s Into the Wild, the latter earning him a Golden Globe nomination.
Together Brook and Gasparyan forge a musical language that exists only within the combination of their singular talents. More than merely the result of calculated design, Penumbra is the product of a lively primordial soup.
“The best stuff happens slightly by accident,” says Brook, who traces his love of accident to his work with Eno in the ‘80s. “So what you want to do is create situations where lots of accidents can happen and you’re in position to take advantage of them.”
That’s true here on the hypnotic interpretation of Italian Baroque composer Tomaso Albinoni’s “Adagio in G Minor” as much as it is on the album’s energetic title song or the multi-continental hop of “Bonined,” with its surf-spy guitar licks, garage-rock organ and R&B horn bursts.
The process started simply enough, with Brook and co-arranger/co-producer/musician Richard Evans assembling musical sketches, drawing in many cases on Brook’s wide-reaching, all-embracing musical vision.
“For inspiration for this album I looked at Otis Redding, Mahler, Bollywood spy films, Gil Evans, surf,” he says, giving just a partial roster of elements involved. “Some of those are probably audible and some may not be, but served as a guide.”
The most promising results were sent to Gasparyan to develop melodic approaches on his instrument. Though limited to just a handful of notes, the duduk is, in his hands, capable of a remarkable range of emotions.
“The melodies I choose and Michael’s music become one piece,” Gasparyan, now 80, told Spinner.com’s Around the World. “Our tastes are becoming the same from shared experience.”
This music clearly results from that shared experience. The two have teamed together in a variety of settings, from traditional idioms, as reflected in an upcoming album produced by Brook, of Gasparyan in duet with his grandson (also named Djivan Gasparyan), to the highly inventive Penumbra.
“The new album is, to some degree, a continuation of the collaboration that Djivan and I started about 12 years ago with Black Rock,” says Brook. “Both of us felt that we’d like to do another album together and finally we were able to find time in our schedules when we could work together.”
“We fall into a very conversational way of working,” Brook says. “I’ll do something and Djivan responds to that, and then I’ll respond to that, and so on. Every time, whatever anyone contributes creates musical implications for other areas to be explored. It’s a very nice process to participate in. You can sort of plan, but there are great surprises.”
In the course of this, various extra touches were added as needed: certain of the tracks sport strings by Julie Rogers and brass by Lee Thornberg and Lon Price, others featuring drums by the mighty Quinn including the title song and “Delacroix.” Brett Simons contributes bass parts, and a second duduk on “Sand” is provided by Gasparyan Jr.. The legendary Van Dyke Parks plays accordion on the closing “Winter Day.”
Sometimes the magic revealed itself readily. Other times it took more to coax it out, as Brook reveals about the making of “Bonined.” “We were struggling with that,” he says. “I almost took it off the album, couldn’t seem to get life into it. Then I got this Bollywood action film compilation. That suggested I should go crazy bold with it and eventually it became one of my favorite tracks. A lot of our work is trying to unlock whatever the mystery of a particular piece of music is.”
Testimony to the coherence and vibrance of the music came in a special preview performance at UCLA’s Royce Hall, in which Brook and Gasparyan fronted an ensemble of Brett Simmons, Quinn, Jon Gilutin and a string quartet led by Julie Rogers – a display of the electrifying strengths of this unique combination of talents, pointing to new possibilities for future collaboration. The CD and download are available exclusively here at michaelbrookmusic.com