Joanna Brouk - Hearing Music - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Joanna Brouk - Hearing Music

by Jeff Penczak Rating:8 Release Date:2016-05-08

Convoluted 2xCD/2xLP compilation of tracks from the legendary new age electronic music pioneer’s three Hummingbird cassettes, originally released in 1981-83, along with several previously unreleased tracks from her own archives. (Confusingly, the title track from her debut cassette that seems to give this set its title, Healing Music, is not included. Or perhaps this compilation is misnamed or it’s just a bad pun?)

In any event, this warm and fuzzy collection of piano pieces begins with ‘Going Through the Veil: Becoming a Swan’ - side A from her 1983 Golden Swan cassette. It’s 15 minutes of minimalist piano music (Brouk studied under Terry Riley) that tinkles like rain on a tin roof, cascading over the listener like a warm summer shower. Fans of Windham Hill pianists like George Winston and Liz Story will be right at home.

‘The Space Between’ is the massive, 22-minute sidelong title track from her third release. This time, the mood is even more sombre, and the title perfectly describes the “waiting for the other shoe to fall” vibe that permeates the notes, or more specifically “the space between” the notes. Brouk hands the chair over to Bill Maraldo to create a silence that has never been louder, as Maraldo lets us fill in those spaces to mentally connect the notes he actually DOES play. Brouk, herself contributes ephemeral background synth swashes, making this an unlikely selection to grace a collection designed to highlight her contribution to the early ambient and New Age canon.

The unintelligible inverse chronological sequencing jumps back to her aforementioned debut cassette Healing Music for the multi-part suite ‘Maggi’s Flute’, inexplicably wrapped around the tracks from Side 1 of her next album, Sounds of The Sea. The music is beautiful, particularly the dancing flute of her titular collaborator Maggi Payne, but any hope of studying Brouk’s progression is lost. Admittedly, these cassettes were all released in 1981, so it could be tenuously argued that all the compositions are contemporary, but one must presumed Brouk originally released them in a preferred sequence, and this reissue carelessly jettisons any linear development that musicologists love to examine. On the plus side, fans will appreciate three previously unreleased parts of the ‘Mary’s Watch’ component of the ‘Maggi’s Flute’ suite, as well as the revelatory ‘Majesty Suite: Entrance of the Queen of Winter Dawn’, which shows Brouk’s skill at more traditionally 'classical' composition and a real feel for brass orchestration.

Whales and Jonathan Worcester’s Conch shells permeate the Sounds of the Sea tracks, extending an invitation (or ‘Invocation’, as one of the tracks is called) to come join our participants at play in some sunny, beachy clime, far away from the maddening cloud. Fans of Harold McNair’s contributions to Donovan’s oeuvre will be served well to focus on these (and the complete ‘Maggi’s Flute” suite) sections. To confuse newbies even more, the duelling flautists on Sounds of the Sea are Lindsey Lalon and Nina Ruymakere, which, when intermingled with Payne’s tracks, completely misleads listeners into forming any type of coherent reaction to whose playing what. The fact that Brouk doesn’t appear to be involved in these essentially solo flute recordings adds even more puzzlement to their inclusion.

Contrasting greatly with the traditionally linear flute music, most of Sounds of the Sea (including tracks like ‘Aurora’, ‘Diving Deeper, Remembering Love’, and ‘The Sailer and the Nymph’ suite on side two of the original cassette, not to mention the previously unreleased ‘The Creative’) highlight the drone component to Brouk’s music. Hypnotic 'hums' reminiscent of Riley are to the fore here, enveloping the listener in a warm hazy glow.

Likewise, the previously unreleased ‘Fire Breath’ exhibits interesting avant garde electronic tendencies, not too dissimilar to what Delia Derbyshire, Daphne Oram, and their compadres were doing at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. And ‘Going to Sleep’ needs no further comment, less you suffer from insomnia and prefer music to alcohol to wash away the worries of the day’s activities that weigh heavy on the mind. The wordless vocals of Russell Newhouse and an unidentified soprano (Brouk herself?) also add to the eerie aura with their fond recollection of Edda Dell’Orso’s angelic wimperings for Ennio Morricone or the spooky Masked Ball sequence from Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (courtesy the pen of Jocelyn Pook).

So while the music itself is faultless: emotional, serene, contemplative, and occasionally awe-inspiring, the sequencing and packaging leaves a lot to be desired. So just sit back and enjoy the tunes, even if you don’t know who is playing what or why a Joanna Brouk compilation seemingly has so little of Brouk’s actual playing.

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