John Morton - Solo Traveler [Innova, 2007]

Imagine: a Victorian tea parlor, delicate porcelain on white lace. A glimmering brass mechanism, in a beautifully wrought mahogany box, chimes delicately on the mantel. Next door, a protestant church choir rehearses for Sunday’s devotional. Then a tribe of West Africans come in and begin to throw down on Thumb Pianos, and you find yourself getting sleepy. The sounds begin to bend and swell, refracting in the summer afternoon, sunlight, as if your head were being held underwater. Or perhaps placed central in a Jello mold.

This unlikely, and disconcerting, scenario is a possible approximation of Solo Traveler, the second album of John Morton for deconstructed music boxes, as well as other ‘tined’ instruments, such as the mbira (heard on Track 1, Teetines, courtesy Miguel Frasconi). He began building music box devices at the behest of his sculptor wife Jacqueline Schatz, and proceeded to write compositions for his automata. Solo Traveler was the second release to his work with music boxes, the first being Outlier, also released on Innova.

Solo Traveler has 5 tracks, all based around the central component of his musical constructions, in which he dismantles existing music boxes and modifies them. He also utilizes electronic manipulation, such as MAX/MSP, a popular sonic mangler, in real-time. ‘Teetine’ opens the show and is seemingly unaffected, showcasing the interweaving tintinnabuli of the boxes, interspersed with mbira, which is an African thumb-piano, with a sound like rattling spokes. Or maybe metallic skeletons waltzing. ‘Solo Traveler, for Five Voices and Five Boxes,’ has more of a 20th century classical feel, with layered voices in glorious polyphony (provided by Dare To Breathe), reciting ‘The Cathedral as Process,’ Cynthia Nadelman; full of seemingly random natural imagery that is hauntingly beautiful.

And then things start to get weird.

‘Ta-Wee’, inspired by bird-song, is when the electronic processing begins to become noticeable, and the sounds begin to drip and blur, as the album takes a sudden lunge towards the experimental. It would not sound out of place on a Coil or Nurse with Wound album. ‘Through the Hole’ is relatively straight, as in not warped, letting the boxes and a piano wire contraption play it clean. And finally, the piece-de-resistance, ‘Amazing Grace Variations,’ clocking in at a monumental 16-and-a-half-minutes, and takes that old tune, that we all know and love, and skews it so bad as to be almost unrecognizable, but its beauty remains interestingly intact. Full of soaring, burning bell blasts, it would not sound out of place on a Merzbow or Masonna record. Seeing as how this journey started in a lily white drawing room, and stopped off at a Morton Feldman concert for a drink, this variety is invigorating and inspiring to observe.

The main success of this album is that Morton’s chosen subject matter, the Music Box, seems to have an inherent emotional content, a dusty nostalgia, and a rosy romance, and it gives a real mechanical heart to this exploration through almost every imaginable form of avant-garde music, which is known for its forehead swelling intellectualism, much of the time. It is a surreal listening experience; that can fill your head with many odd and beautiful images, if you allow it to sweep you away. On the downside, this is most assuredly ‘experimental’ or ‘art’ music, and you will not drive around singing along to this record, (unless you are weird). This is a deep listen, but peering into its sprockets and gears repeatedly reveals treasures anew, each time. And lastly, for those of us without the time or money to pillage through antique and junk stores, who might happen to miss a spinning ballerina, or a jewelry box that sat on our Mother’s dresser, its just nice to have these tinkling sounds around.

Most definitely recommended.

J. Simpson

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John Morton - Solo Traveler