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Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Marcelo dos Reis - Cascas (Cipsela, 2017) ****

By Lee Rice Epstein

For writing, there’s a maxim that events should be “surprising yet inevitable,” and that can, at times, be applied to music, as well. I’ve probably used this phrase in past reviews, yet here it is again, only this time I’m thinking of the whole release itself. Of course, at some point we would get a solo album from guitarist Marcelo dos Reis, and yet its sudden appearance this summer was the most delightful surprise. Cascas is dos Reis’s fifth album this year, marking the last release of an insanely prolific 2017. Recorded in June of this year, it’s a gorgeous performance. The recording is relaxed and intimate, while dos Reis’s playing remains bold and expansive.

If you follow me on Twitter, you may have seen me occasionally talk about my sons’ reactions to different music. It’s a way of sharing the experience of watching people with relatively unformed tastes and opinions react to, especially, free improvisation. They’ve been exposed to the sounds since birth but only recently reached ages where they can both express their sincere opinions about what we’re listening to. My 8-year-old son has grown into a real fan of guitar, sitting rapt at the stereo as Han-earl Park’s Sirene plays. And earlier this year, he was equally captivated by dos Reis’s STAUB Quartet. But even I was surprised by his immediate connection to “Sónica,” the opening track on Cascas. At the opening minute of sustained strumming, he shot across the room, wide-eyed, “What is this? It’s so cool!” And, it really is. Dos Reis has one of the most compelling approaches to guitar, and in this exposed solo setting, you can soak in the tone and technique.

“Sónica” leads into the opening of “Molusco,” where sustained notes contrast with delicately fingered motifs. On several of the tracks, dos Reis’s more experimental techniques are used to good effect, creating multiphonic soundscapes that give the whole album a nice emotional depth. “Crina” features dos Reis on bow, which creates a dissonant and surprisingly suspenseful melody. For “Bostik Azul” and “Minerva,” the plainly described instrumentation of “prepared and unprepared nylon string guitar” is explored through a fast-paced improvisation.

The finale is a pair of dedications, “Ceifa (to Alzira Francisca)” and “Corvo (to Manuel Francisco).” If my Google translation of Portuguese is correct, these titles translate to “Reaping” and “Crow,” apt descriptions of each track’s mood. Perhaps it’s the dedications, but these feel slightly more direct than the previous improvisations, conveying meaning across the sounds and spaces between them. Both end on a variation of ringing, notes echoing slightly as if the songs themselves remain still only partially finished. Even as it comes to a close, Cascas remains alive with possibility.

Cascas' Liner Notes

By Dan Sorrells

“Freedom is what you do with what has been done to you,” said Sartre, maybe. I have never been able to find the source. But it’s an intriguing way to think about the work of improvising musicians—always free to jettison the “rules,” but only free within the boundaries of the occasion: an artist, in a moment, in a place. Even playing alone, a musician brushes against “what has been done” to them. Freedom is often spoken of as an end in itself; really, it’s just a gateway. Freedom allows you to choose your means, but it cannot be the reason for making music.

Marcelo’s music brings all this to mind, because he has consistently approached it in a way that isn’t defined by opposition. His is not freedom from rules or tradition or genre. It’s freedom to make the musical choice the moment demands, unburdened. Here, it’s freedom to sit, alone with a guitar, and gather his ideas. A few he has tried before, reworking and refining them over time. Some existed as a thought, a concept now being realized. Others were born spontaneously in the moment his fingers set to the guitar strings. Each track explores a method, a motif, a mood. Each opens a space for something to happen, creates an interval in which something new enters the world.

A while back, Marcelo and I were talking about ma. An everyday word in Japanese, but also an aesthetic awareness of these spaces, these intervals. The idea that nothing is foundational to something. Ma is the gap we experience between things that allows them to exist, that outlines their contours and supplies their meaning. In solo music, you are responsible not only for the "things" but also the space that defines them. The music here is a personal undertaking, and solo performance is always an act of vulnerability. It is an invitation into a private space. The experience of the music is deeply singular for the musician and deeply singular for the listener, but in different ways. Another gap. But, as you listen to these songs, that small gap is all that lies between your heart and mind and Marcelo’s.

- Dan Sorrells, July 2017.