Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Beauty of Disaster by J. Peter Schwalm

There was a moment during my first listening of J. Peter Schwalm's The Beauty of Disaster when I leaned back in my chair and muttered to myself "Oh. My. God." I was moved by the the rich interplay of tension and release Schwalm had created in this recording.

I first became a fan of Schwalm's with 2001's Drawn from Life, co-produced with Brian Eno. (Some day I will listen to Drawn from Life alongside Stevie Wonder's Songs from the Key of Life because I believe the parallels must exist.) More recently, his 2014 album Wagner Transformed (again with Eno) experimented with the operatic composer's work in a modern framework.

To a certain degree, I hear Wagner Transformed's tonality within some of the tracks on The Beauty of Disaster. In contrast to the fullness of the tracks on Wagner, those on Disaster are relatively sparse, tending toward the ambient. Yet it's precisely that economy of the compositions that creates a richly evocative dialectic.

Schwalm has been quoted as saying that Disaster was influenced, in part, by his viewing of photographs of natural and man-made disasters. He wanted to balance the despair he saw with a sense of hope and recovery. There are other contrasting influences: the detached beauty of a natural disaster when viewed from an orbiting satellite, orchestral versus electronic instrumentation, sound versus silence, even slight timing offsets. They are all employed to great effect on Disaster. You can hear this for yourself in the album's teaser.

The album's 10 tracks are [translated with the help of Google Translate]:

  1. The Anxt Code 
  2. Himmelfahrt [Transl: Ascension]
  3. The Beauty of Disaster
  4. Numbers Become Stories
  5. Stille, Blitz und Donner [Transl: Silence, Thunder, and Lightning]
  6. Zirkeltrilogie [Transl: Circle Trilogy]
  7. Wunschklangregister [Transl: Desired Sound Registers]
  8. The End and the Beginning
  9. Angstphantasie [Transl: Fear Imagination]
  10. Endknall 

William Faulkner said good fiction was born from the human heart in conflict with itself. Clyfford Still said his paintings were life and death merging in fearful union. Schwalm has achieved a similar balanced tension of despair and hope with The Beauty of Disaster. This album will be on my favorites list this year for certain.

The Beauty of Disaster is available from Rare Noise Records.

Schwalm's music can be found on Bandcamp and Soundcloud.

I received no compensation of any kind for this review. I was given pre-release access to the album for online listening but this review is based on the CD I subsequently purchased.

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