Ethan Rose

Ethan Rose
Holocene Music

The concept of “musique concrete” was first developed in the late ‘40s by a French composer named Pierre Schaffer. It was a natural outgrowth of the new technology of tape recording. The tape recorder allowed composers such as Schaeffer, and other composers of a like mind, to construct music out of pre-recorded snippets- not necessarily from a single source- altered with a variety of effects- to create sound collages that were hither-to unimaginable (except in the mind of Charles Ives, perhaps).

The music created within musique concrete is not so much a composition, in the historic meaning of the term- notated, linear music, with natural contours of melody and rhythm- as it is a construction of musical (and other) sounds, set forth in a musical manner- somewhat random and non-linear in structure.

Possibly the best example of musique concrete in recent popular music is the montage created by John Lennon (with the help of producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick) for “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” on the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album of 1967. He subsequently took the idea a step further with “Revolution #9” found on “The Beatles,” otherwise known as the “The White Album” released in 1968.

With the advent of samplers and other pieces of computer software, it has become easier for modern composers to create such music- some of which tends to fall in the “ambient” musical category- attributable primarily to the atmospheric quality of the finished result. But not all ambient music is musique concrete, nor is all musique concrete necessarily ambient in nature. But the two forms have much in common.

Which brings us to Ethan Rose. Ethan Rose is a local musician whose compositions tend to bridge the gap between musique concrete and ambient music. When Rose’s name came up, friend of mine said “oh I like what he plays.” I replied that I thought that he didn’t so much “play” music, in the typical sense of the word, as to gather and prepare it, to rebuild into a completely different form. This caused no end of perplexion.

But that’s what Rose does. It is impossible to tell (and truly, unnecessary to know) how much of the music Ethan Rose actually plays (if any) on this album and how much of it that he merely treats. Whatever the case- this album is a true work of art and will be an influential recording for many artists who will follow him.

It is fairly well known that Rose became enchanted with the historic pipe organ at the Oaks Park skating rink- a true throwback to another, less complicated, musical era. Pipe organs were more or less the synthesizers of their day- reproducing any number of various instruments (though, in many cases, not very well), allowing a single individual to act as an entire symphony orchestra. That idea is not new. JS Back wrote incredible pieces for the pipe organ. In many of his compositions, the foot controlled bass pedal requires of the player that he dance a veritable jig in accompaniment.

The organ at the Oaks is a 1926 Wurlitzer, one of the better known contemporary organ manufacturers. It is a theatre pipe organ, not necessarily a liturgical organ that you might ordinarily find in a church. The current Oaks Park organ was installed in 1955. There have been several celebrated organists in Oaks Park’s history. Keith Fortune is one of the current organists. He provides the source material for Ethan Rose’s flights of fantasy.

And such flights they are! They are actually pieces of musique acousmatique- which I am not going to explain here. Look it up. The idea though is that it becomes difficult to tell of what source the created music is comprised. That is oftentimes the case here. So, what exactly Ethan plays here, if anything, besides effects pedals and a computer mouse, is difficult to ascertain. But the results are splendid, indeed.

These roller rink organists are a dying breed (as are roller rinks themselves). Many of the organists were long ago replaced by sound systems- blaring the current hits of the day. But if you want to know what good roller rink organ sounds like, watch this:

So what does Ethan Rose’s music sound like? Well first we should define what it doesn’t sound like. It does not sound like the old roller rinks (such as in the link). There is a possibility that Ethan has sampled one or more of these songs or others comparable, but that is impossible to say. Another interesting album might be Ethan (and organist Keith Fortune) releasing the original tracks from which these cuts were culled and reassembled. There is no way of identifying the originals in their new form.

No, Ethan Rose’s musical pieces are inscrutable, other worldly- composed of water, smoke and the ether. They drip and waft and hover. They go nowhere- though they go somewhere. But no place you’ve ever been before (except, possibly, in your dreams). Ineffably indistinct. Vaporous.

“On Wheels Rotating” works from simple percussive hammer hits, with shimmering drones- like something Sigur Ros might develop; then moves to a more melodic section, which proceeds more or less linearly- though nowhere in particular. Parts of this section sound like snippets of “Silent Night.” the third section reverts to a very pretty, misty conclusion.

Working from a humming pedal point, “Rising Waters” trickles and flows like rain into puddles on an Oregon winter’s day. Random clicks and clacks and swirls mingle with melodic foghorns in the musical haze. Hypnotic. Somewhat more muscular, though no less mesmerizing, “Grand Marcher,” satellites through expansive skies, like a comet in the endless sonic cosmos- the sound of air passing over gigantic bottles.

The chimey “The Floor Released” moves haltingly in no direction in particular- like a music box slowly losing its momentum. Ghostly gasps punctuate the windless breath of all time melting down to zero, to renew again in endless space. “Fortunate” is a cheeky pun- regarding the organist’s name: one would suppose. A hymnal pall is cast- as if the marriage of air and water were forming earth, or some other such grandiose cosmic event were transpiring.

Clattering and clanging, “Scenes from When” sounds as if it has a guitar playing single notes above the mechanical industrial whir of the treadmill bed of sound. Certain sections here (and elsewhere) sound as if they are unreeling backwards, from end to beginning, in some alternative musical universe.

The bell-like tones of “Mighty Mighty” call to mind Salvation Army Christmas ringers, with a haunting clarity- punctuated with subtle tympanic explosions in the distance. Vaguely melodic in a charmingly unfettered way- like a musical slinky tumbling down a flight of stairs. Finally, “Bottom” starts off sounding like a musical garbage can tipped over in an alley, before resolving into plaintive jingle bells above a snowy panorama of thematic wonderment.

This is certainly not music to play at your next rave. The textures here are dreamy, the tempos are dirge-like. But there is no doubt about the inexpressible compositional beauty that Ethan Rose has developed in the eight tracks found (with an accent on “found”) here. This is not like anything you have ever heard before. It is music to fall asleep by- perchance to dream. It is the music of heaven unfolding like a fluffy cotton jack-in-the-box. It is the sound of one hand clapping.



Blind Pilot

Earth Three Rounds and a Sound
Blind Pilot
Expunged Records

Here’s a new duo with a promising future, whom have sort of crept up on the local scene, by going about things a little differently than most musical acts do. For one, the band has organized and executed two (count them) West Coast bicycle tours (totally green, mind you- no motorized vehicles whatsoever were utilized in the process)- performing their music in out of the way locales from Bellingham to Mexico, promoting their EP (which has now grown into this full-length, eleven song album) and creating a buzz about the band that now stretches across the nation. Their first tour was abbreviated, because their equipment was stolen in San Francisco.

First KCRW, the influential So. Cal radio station started playing some of their stuff last summer- at about the time that their song “Go On, Say It” was picked as iTunes’ Single of the Week. That put them within listening distance of Aimee Mann, who christened them her “new favorite band.” Deservedly so. Then, more recently, the new album was selected as Starbucks’ “Pick of the Week.” Quite an achievement for coming out of nowhere.

Now the band is prepared to embark on their first national tour which will find them playing at South by Southwest in March and New York City’s famed Mercury Lounge in April. Not bad for a couple of “unknowns.”

Portland natives Israel Nebeker (vocals, guitar) and Ryan Dobrowski (drums), have been friends since college, and have obviously bonded musically: creating forlornly beautiful music with such bare-bones simplicity- that the sky would seem to be the limit for their musical futures. Nebeker’s songs evoke material performed by the Shins or Death Cab For Cutie. They are in that same contemplatively dejected category. But one can also hear Conor Oberst or Elliot Smith in Nebeker’s voice (though not as precious as the former, nor as depressed as the latter). Nebeker claims he was influenced by Neutral Milk Hotel and Joanna Newsom, which could very well be.

The foundation for the band’s sound lies in Dobrowski’s drums. He is to Blind Pilot what Scott Plouf was to the Spinanes- another Portland duo who met with success in the early ‘90s. Dobrowski plays with a solid, rock temperament, but he does not overshadow Nebeker’s plaintive guitar. Nebeker’s guitar sound is taken directly from Bob Dylan’s late ‘60s album “John Wesley Harding,” with a warm ambience that usually comes from gut strings- ala Spanish guitars, but could be something like a Martin Double-Ought; a smaller acoustic guitar with steel strings.

It is a convivial sound that melds distinctively with the drums- creating a wonderful bed for Nebeker‘s soft, smooth vocals. Some songs feature a bit more instrumentation- augmented by touches of a string section, banjo, vibes, keyboard or trumpet. But most of the power comes from the duo and Nebeker’s songs themselves.

The eleven songs presented here are immaculate in their conception and lovingly precise and pristine in their execution. The set begins with “Oviedo,” perhaps an ode to the city in Northern Spain. Nebeker’s lyrics are vague enough to obscure their full intent, but not their emotional depth: “Four times is once too much for luck/and that’s how many times the clock struck/ I wandered home saying your name.” Over soft, almost ukelele-like guitar work and crisp drumming, the song leisurely unfolds. Strings join in at about the midway point of the song, and then a plucky banjo joins to add atmosphere to an already atmospheric song. “You’ll be having my head as big as a birthday/Coz I left all my doubts on the airplane.”

Production-wise “The Story I Hear” sort of takes off where the last song, left off- although the lyrics are not so oblique, but only barely so. Likewise, “Paint or Pollen” more or less combines themes of the previous two songs, while staying within the same essential musical structure. Here, bell-like vibes flutter above the arrangement, while sonorous strings cry mournfully in the turns. The waltz “Poor Boy” utilizes major 7th chords the way Paul Simon used to in the heyday of Simon and Garfunkel (“Old Friends,” “America”).

One of the highlights of the set, “One Red Thread,” kicks off with forlorn guitar over bracing drums, before melting into the slow-moving middle section at the sound of the vibes; swinging back into the chugging train of the main verse. The aforementioned “Go On, Say It” dances on sorrowful strings and piquant vibes- a sad song about the lack of communication, when it is most needed in a relationship. A lovely song.

“I Buried A Bone,” a short sweet song, bears an instantly memorable melody, punctuated by Mexicali trumpets. The string section returns, with muted trumpets to augment “Things I Cannot Recall,” calling to mind some of Sufjan Stevens’ more orchestral work. Nebeker handles the introduction to “The Bitter End,” before Dobrowski joins in, set off by chiming vibes, bass guitar and a backing vocal choir on the chorus. Another very pretty song.

The title track is a laid-back number, accented by accordion and strings, surrounding a harsh, confessional lyric- “Now I see you to kingdom come/ you’re the one I want to see me/ For all the stupid shit I’ve done.” A fitting ending to a very satisfying first album.

The sky is the limit for Blind Pilot. With this album, they have done the groundwork necessary to further their careers. It is obvious that the plan is to widen the production scale, by adding sparse instrumentation. That is ostensibly being reflected by their local performances- with nine performers taking the stage to fill out these songs. But, even as a two-piece, this is a band with which to be reckoned. Israel Nebeker and Ryan Dobrowski have found their niche. And not a lot is required of them to succeed. They only need to keep coming up with wonderful songs, such as those found here; and to maintain their status as one of the best new bands in Portland- or anywhere else, for that matter.