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Music For The Home

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Album Review

On this strength of this highly idiosyncratic and non-commercial album of treated keyboard pieces, it's hard to believe that Rob Ellis' most high-profile gig has been as producer, arranger, percussionist, and sometimes keyboardist for alt-rock heavyweight PJ Harvey. These incidental pieces for keyboards and electronics, recorded between 1994 and 1999, are personal and relatively esoteric studio explorations. Although Ellis is modest about his self-taught status as an "amateur" pianist, he more than makes up for it with his studio wizardry and compositional creativity. An admitted admirer of early 20th century classical composers such as Satie, Debussy, and Messiaen, all of whom wrote extensively for keyboards, Ellis is also influenced by more recent composers such as John Cage and Steve Reich. Many of the pieces on this CD exhibit a whimsy highly reminiscent of Satie, with titles such as "Music for the Home No. 2: Bedtime Story — Three Little Pigs," which is subdivided into "Hog the Impaler," "Pinky the Dreamer," and "Squealer the Con." The next piece, "Music for the Home No. 3" (subtitled "Unreasonable Behavior in the Nursery"), consists of footsteps intermingled with the sound of one, two, three, four, and five music boxes being wound, until the "nursery" is filled with the din of dueling music boxes. But there's much more to Ellis that funny song titles and cute music jokes. "Six Pieces for Fake Instruments" is an electronic equivalent of the prepared piano first introduced by John Cage, and it contains a variety of lovely textures and timbres associated with marimba, xylophone, vibraphone, celeste, chimes, cathedral organs, glockenspiel, and such. "Ellis" also utilizes a "hyper-piano" sound, i.e., inhumanly fast trills and runs on what sounds like a normal piano, which suggests an updated, electronic version of Conlon Nancarrow's pioneering work with manipulated player-piano rolls. Satie's whimsy and Cage's maverick experimentation may be obvious influences, but the overriding influence, as Ellis himself freely admits, is the iconoclastic work of 20th century French composer Messiaen, a deeply spiritual artist who charted his own musical course and was preoccupied throughout his life with the musical representation of beauty. Not surprisingly, then, Ellis' program also contains a generous measure of beauty and gravity; "American Dream for Three Pianos" is an elegant, pensive piece with a haunting use of descending scales. "Hang-Up No. 3" and "Cedez" (the latter with a second voice supplied by cello) are also serious, thoughtful pieces with strong appeal. Another series, "Symphonies of Wind-Up Instruments (Three Movements for Imaginary Music Boxes)" combines whimsy with dazzling effects (including more of the hyper-piano), and recapitulates the fascination that music boxes (generally known as "mechanical clocks") had for major 18th century composers such as Beethoven, Haydn, and Mozart, all of whom composed for them. Ellis also includes two longer, more modern electronic pieces on this CD, both of which owe a debt to "difficult" modern composers such as Xenakis and Ligeti; one piece, "Toward a Dust Spiral Section," was composed using a complex mathematical model, and the other, "Arctic Crossing," effectively captures the majesty and mystery of the arctic landscape through the use of shimmering drones, eerie whistling wails, and cavernous reverberations. At over eight minutes long, this idiosyncratic piece certainly stretches the boundaries of the CD's musical landscape, but it also contributes even further to the richness of what is already a very impressive and diverse program.

Music For The Home, Rob Ellis
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