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Eluvium - An Accidental Memory in the Case of Death

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Artist: Eluvium

Album: An Accidental Memory in the Case of Death

Label: Temporary Residence

Review date: May. 18, 2004

Eluvium’s An Accidental Memory in the Case of Death, the follow-up to last year’s electronically-driven Lambent Sounds, consists of nothing more than sole member Matthew Cooper playing acoustic piano for 27 minutes. Admirers of the ambient first album have reason to be skeptical; the minimalist piano pieces on Accidental Memory bear no apparent relation to Lambent Sounds’s surging waves of noise, and seem like the work of a completely different artist.

Then again, the move from Eno-inspired ambient works to solo piano composition may not be as dramatic as it first seems. After all, the godfather of ambient music, Erik Satie, wrote his most famous pieces for solo piano. Cooper’s debt to Satie is immense, and Accidental Memory might well be taken as a deliberate homage to the composer. But whereas Satie viewed his pieces as “furniture music” – music to be listened to as ambient noise rather than consciously attended to – Cooper’s pieces refuse to be relegated to the background. Although he generally adheres to the dreamy and detached aesthetic espoused by the likes of Eno and Satie, Cooper injects a sense of deep emotion and drama into his music, hinting at the passions stirring beneath its calm and impassive surface.

Like many of Satie’s pieces, the songs on Accidental Memory favor order and stability over dynamics and expression. Cooper plays with metronomic precision, giving each note equal value, and rarely changes volume or tempo. As a result, the pieces have an almost Baroque mechanical perfection to them, sounding more like perfectly designed machines than the emotional expressions of a human being. It’s precisely this mechanical quality, however, that makes Cooper’s music so moving; his pieces sound as though they are straining to maintain an ordered form amid impending abstraction.

“Perfect Neglect in a Field of Statues” begins with an almost banal Mozartian melodic motif accompanied by a classical repeating bass pattern. As the melody grows more insistent, though, the orderly left hand, faced with the inevitability of structure, insists upon it with mad intensity. “The Well-Meaning Professor” goes through a similar process, as a calm Debussy-like theme gives way to manic keyboard pounding. For the only time on the album, order and restraint crumble, and passion breaks through in the form of uneven rhythms and flubbed notes.

Precisely composed and performed music certainly doesn’t need to be unemotional or cold, but the contrast between restraint and artfulness and undisciplined abandon raises the question of how exactly the two approaches intersect. Much of the music on Accidental Memory suggests that the carefully considered beauty of a perfect melody may be no less “human” or emotive than impassioned improvisational wailing. Eluvium’s compositions keep romantic exuberance and excess at arm’s length, but sacrifice none of music’s potential for emotional expression.

By Michael Cramer

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