Sometimes we find the warmest tones in the “coldest” music. A prime example of this is side two of David Bowie’s Low album. In 1977, the four-song suite of “Warzawa,“ “Art Decade,“ “Weeping Wall,“ and “Subterraneans” seemed designed to put as much distance as possible between the artist and his fans. These songs would never be played on the radio, or in the clubs for that matter. For some, it seemed that the music was a deliberate slap in the face. It was only with time that we began to understand what Bowie was doing, and how strongly he was influenced by German bands such as Cluster and Neu.
Those who stayed with Low would discover the beauty of the melodies, and come to understand the depth of his artistic vision. This is the path Christiaan Virant has taken for his solo debut, Fistful of Buddha. The nine instrumental tracks that make up the disc combine for a very effective East-meets-West amalgamation. There is the tangible, or the “fistful,” and there is the intangible, or the “Buddha.” By combining them, Virant has produced a work of marvelous complexity.
The artist was born in Beijing, but has spent a significant amount of time in Europe. His compositions reflect the two cultures, but not in ways that are always obvious. There is a calm, “Zen” quality to the album, but outside of “Do Better,” I do not hear much of what one might consider “Chinese music.” It is the sound of the drone that predominates, a tone which is mostly associated with Indian classical music, yet has been used to great effect here.
The disc opens with “Title Sequence,” which gives one the mistaken impression that this is to be something of a “space-rock” excursion. “Title Sequence” had me thinking of the quieter moments of Pink Floyd classics such as Dark Side of the Moon or Wish You Were Here. To be honest, if the album had continued in that vein, I would not have complained. But there is much more to come, and “Title Sequence” is just one of nine very distinct pieces.
“River Pearl” is the second track, and the cello of Benjamin Pates is a significant element. With the inclusion of an instrument that is so closely associated with Western music, the song serves notice that Virant has a wide variety of arrows in his quiver. It was with the title track, followed by “Grey Zone” that I began to think of the collaborations between Bowie and Eno though. While I am not specifically comparing “Grey Zone” to “Warzawa,” the deep soundscapes and icy drones do share common ground.
Lest I sound like a one-trick pony, let me point out that there are a great deal of other recordings along these lines as well. Autechre’s debut Incunabula is one, as are Michael Hoenig’s Departure From the Northern Wasteland, and In A Garden of Eden by The Heavenly Music Corporation. In all of these (and many others), I find the music to be understated, yet deeply moving. One must listen closely to detect the nuances, which is probably a big reason that the ambient genre has never been widely embraced. When it comes to this form, there is very little middle ground. Based on the reactions I have seen, it is either a love it or hate it proposition.
The percussive flavors of “Do Better” add another dimension, and the song again highlights the cello of Pates. Although the disc is not presented as a nine-song “suite,” I tend to listen to instrumental albums that way. As such, “Do Better” would herald the third “act” at track seven. From there we float into the gorgeous “Cricket,” which is sort of an odd title for such an otherworldly piece. “Cricket” seems to exist in a dream.
“Cricket” is transcendent, but the disc concludes with “Yuan Yi,” a track that is difficult to describe, yet unforgettable. The song opens with a sound that is the most “open” of any, and seems to set the stage for a lengthy journey. It is the most inviting of the album, yet the tones quickly double back on themselves to restate the theme. As a hopeless krautrock fan, I could not help but to think of Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn” at this point. In the end, it is with an emphasis of the beauty of the melody with which Virant chose to close out his brilliant debut.
Philip Glass takes offense to his music being described as “minimal,” which is understandable, as no artist wants to be pigeon-holed. Yet there is a place for minimalism in our hyperactive world. The challenge is to keep the music interesting, without resorting to the usual bag of tricks. Prior to Fistful of Buddha, Virant was known for being the co-creator of the Buddha Box. This is a small gadget that plays sampled beats, and looks a lot like a ‘60s transistor radio. Evidently it was very popular in Europe.
The “tricks” I mentioned earlier certainly include beats, which Virant is obviously quite familiar with. He even uses them on a couple of tracks, including the previously mentioned “Fistful of Buddha.“ The key is that everything is presented in a subdued manner, which allows the listener to discover the various layers at their leisure. This is a quality I find immensely satisfying, as the approach offers multiple options for the listener to explore. Fistful of Buddha is an album that combines repetition with some surprising twists, and is a highly rewarding listening experience.
Eno’s Music for Airports was the first ambient album I ever heard, because it was the first to be marketed as such. One could say that the form has been around forever though. The argument could even be made that the ancient Gregorian Chants are ambient. Call it what you will, but I consider Fistful of Buddha to be the soundtrack of the ambient Millennial generation.