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Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Two from Nick Storring

By Nick Ostrum

As it turns out, I have grown accustomed to my Euro-American axis of listening. Then, more and more frequently, I stumble across releases from Another Timbre, Caduc, Victo, and, now, Never Anything and and Orange Milk Records that open my ears northward and challenge my prior complacency. Clearly, as far as experimental music is concerned, Canada (especially Victoriaville and Toronto) is one of those creative hot-spots that is just now rising out of the shadows of the traditional free music capitals in the US and Western Europe, very much in the way that the Lisbon scene has only acquired due notoriety thanks to the relentless documentary efforts of Clean Feed and Creative Sources. The Canadian scene may be less concentrated, but it is clearly vast, diverse, and deep.

Nick Storring – Qualms (Never Anything Records, 2019) ****

That brings us to Nick Storring. He has been active as a composer, musician, and music writer (currently as contributing editor for Musicworks Magazine) for over a decade. His last five years have been particularly fruitful in terms of commissions, awards, performances, and recordings. Originally composed for a dance performance by Yvonne Ng in 2016, Qualms consists of Storring, and only Storring, on the following: acoustic and electric cellos, electric bass, electric mandola, violin, acoustic steel string guitar, sarangi, strumstick, glockenspiel, Hohner Pianet T, Hohner D6 Clavinet, Yamaha CP60M stage piano, voice, kazoo, duck & goose calls, thumb pianos, toy balafon, various flutes, melodicas, harmonicas, tuning reeds, drums and percussion. Methodologically, much of Qualms reminds me of recent work by Michel Banabila, who has written compositions designed to be played and recorded in isolation, then snipped and reconstructed into a sonic collage. One major difference, however, is Storring’s singular role in the realization of all aspects of these pieces. In terms of structure, this album blends those same cut-and-paste techniques with the gradual crescendo-decrescendo-silence pulse that some of the Another Timbre-Creative Sources-Insub nexus have been exploring lately. That goes, at least, for the first track, “Qualms (Part I).” “Qualms (Part II)” deviates somewhat from the collaging and follows a more linear and cumulative course of tones and melodies laid atop tones and melodies. Compounded with the assortment of odd sounds and the alternatively carnival and Hitchcockian atmospherics, it is all the more curious for it.

This is difficult music to classify. At times, I want to call it a soundscape. That said, it is much too instrumental and, at times, melodic for that. At others, I hear progressive 80’s and 90’s tape music (and this is available on cassette). But again, this has a musicality and classical compositional underlining absent from that. At still others, I think simply new music, and maybe 21st-century new music that blurs the classical-cassette culture boundary. Either way, Storring has come up with something fascinating and, in its boundary crossing (and in an age characterized by boundary crossing), quite unique.

Speaking of boundary crossing…

Nick Storring - My Magic Dreams Have Lost Their Spell (Orange Milk, 2020) ****½

My Magic Dreams Have Lost Their Spell deploys similar sonic layering techniques and similarly wide instrumentation as Qualms but is nevertheless calmer and more emotive. One can hear mournful soul influences and the glistening almost Shuggie Otis-styled production blended with contemporary ambient and cinematic post-rock qualities. Romantic classical melodies exist alongside tinkling lullabies. Slow, space-aquatic rhythms a la Future Sounds of London lay next to 70’s fusion, string section drones, and harsher acoustic smears. Docile sections bleed into more driving movements.
From this description, one might get the impression that this is a simple exercise in juxtaposition. There is, however, much more going on here. The entire album is dedicated to Roberta Flack. To make clear this is not a simple tribute or cover album, each track is named after a lyric from a song performed by Roberta Flack. Each song is also a deep investigation and thoroughly modern recreation on almost the atomic (note-by-note) level. Melodies from the original songs flutter in and out of perception. They repeat, extend, transfer between instruments, fall in and out of tune, and subside into the new sonic tapestries provided by Storring.

At first listen with only a cursory glance at the liner notes, I was not sure how to approach this music. It seemed like some sort of deconstructed disco (which, I guess, some of it is) that, at times, bordered on the smooth. The Flack connection, however, contextualizes and roughens up some of that superficial smoothness. Or, maybe it just encouraged me to listen more deeply. Either way, that connection makes this album make sense. A lot of sense. My Magic Dreams is an album of dreamy music that evokes the soul-disco-funk continuum sans beats. (“What A Made-Up Mind Can Do” is the exception to this last point and, for a few minutes, falls more cleanly into a straight-forward funk structures than do the others. Think: Parliament without the raw atmospherics.) It tributes Flack without her words or vocals. And, maybe because of its distinctive embrace of pop aesthetics, it is curiously and refreshingly beautiful.

This album is available as an LP and digital download.

(NB: I am not sure what to make with this, but the final track on My Dreams is based around a synthesized theme that is very similar to the piano line that introduces the two tracks in Qualms. The pieces depart from each other from there. I do wonder, however, whether there is more Flack in Qualms or more Qualms in My Dreams than I initially recognized. Variations on and deviations from a theme.)