Among the many things that John Cage is famous for is introducing the “prepared piano” to the world. By attaching objects such as nuts, bolts, and pieces of rubber to the piano strings, the instrument produces a combination of sounds unlike anything else. Ivar Grydeland has taken the idea to a whole new level with his prepared banjo.
I must admit that the thought of a prepared banjo at first sounded ridiculous. Especially in this case, where it is a major component of a European new music classical quartet. A listen to the eponymous Dans les arbres (Dancing Trees) CD set me straight however. Whatever Grydeland used to prepare his banjo is extremely effective in masking the traditional sound of the instrument. The drone it produces makes it sound more like an Indian tambura than anything else.
The other three members of Dans les arbres are: Xavier Charles (clarinet, harmonica), Christian Wallumrod (piano), and Ingar Zach (percussion, bass drum). The dark, nearly all black cover of their latest ECM disc comes pretty close to indicating what the music is like, minus one crucial element: Their sense of humor.
Honestly, what are you to say about a group of serious musicians who title one of the best tracks on their album “The Phlegm?” The combination of the clarinet’s deepest bass notes with the droning sruti box sets up a remarkable template for the most rhythmic track on the disc.
Another outstanding track is “L’Engourdissment” (“The Numbness”). Grydeland’s prepared banjo is used extensively on this cut, as is the drone of the sruti box and percussive instruments. The combinations may sound a little exotic, and definitely electronic. But every note on the album came from an acoustic source.
“La Froideur” (“The Coldness”) is eight minutes of portention, with a very serious drone underneath. The alternately quiet then clanging percussion made me visualize a slow-dancing Quasimodo - somewhere in the dark reaches of the cathedral.
Things brighten a bit on the finale, “La Retenue” (“Restraint”). It is as if the quartet had been showing how dark they could get before finally revealing themselves. Both the piano and clarinet are brought forward a great deal - in comparison to earlier tracks. The drones give off a distinctly Middle Eastern flavor.
Dans les arbres is an audacious piece of new music and one well worth exploring for the intrepid traveler.